September 5th, 2008
For many years a woman with a wriggle in her walk has been seen, in Western cultures at least, as the epitome of sexiness. Think Mae West, Lauren Bacall or Marilyn Monroe. Women who sashayed rather than walked.
And perhaps unsurprisingly when we see a woman walking with a swing to her hips we ascribe all sorts of characteristics to her. That she’s confident, healthy, sassy, and sexy.
She may, of course, not be any of those things; we may just be projecting our desires onto her. Unless you believe a piece of research that’s hit the headlines today, where sexologists claim they can tell whether a woman can have vaginal orgasms – just by looking at her walk.
The study by a team of researchers in Belgium and Scotland was published in the most recent volume of the Journal of Sexual Medicine (paper entitled ‘A woman’s history of vaginal orgasm is discernible from her walk’).
The research involved 16 female psychology undergraduate students from a Belgian University. They had previously participated in a questionnaire study on sexual behaviour and agreed to a further experiment where a female researcher filmed them from a distance taking two walks for 100 meters down a street. The first time they walked they were instructed to think of pleasant things like ‘being on a vacation beach’, the second time they asked to think about being in the same location with someone they loved.
The researcher was blind to the participants’ sexual history and the participants were not told the purpose of the research. Two ‘appropriately trained professors of sexology’ then watched films of the women walking and, along with two female assistants, rated whether they thought the woman had vaginal orgasms or not.
The female participants were divided into two groups. Those who ‘always’ or ‘often’ reported having vaginal orgasms during sex, and those who ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ had them.
Results indicated the researchers had a better than average chance of guessing who had vaginal orgasms in sex on the basis of their walk (81.25% correct guesses).
The research team concluded that monitoring a woman’s walk along with physiological therapies could be included within sex therapy to help women who do not have vaginal orgasms.
I’ve read the paper, as well as the press coverage, and there are a fair number of limitations with this study I’m surprised weren’t picked up in the peer review process.
First of all, let’s talk definitions. The research team claimed the walk they expected to associate with a woman who had vaginal orgasms would comprise ‘fluidity, energy, sensuality, freedom, and the absence of both flaccid and locked muscles’.
How do you operationalise that definition? Me, I’d apply those terms to a walk that goes something like this…
I’m sure we could all pick out someone whose walk represented those factors if we wanted, but I don’t think we’d all pick the same walking styles.
The researcher in the study wasn’t truly blinded to the research as it appears to be based on their masters dissertation. So even if they didn’t know which females had rated themselves as having vaginal orgasms or not, the researcher would still know they were studying women in one of those groups.
The participants were also not completely blind to the study as they’d been recruited after a questionnaire study that asked about their sexual behaviour (presumably when their orgasm history was recorded although the paper does not make this clear). Filling in a sex survey then later being asked to be filmed wandering about in the road while thinking about someone you love on a beach, not to mention being asked to do this by your psychology professors who study sex, might give respondents a fair number of clues about the research. This may affect their gait and perhaps not represent the way they usually walked.
Participants in this study were a very small group of volunteer undergraduate psychology students who’d already taken part in a sex study. Meaning they are not representative of the wider population, nor are there enough of them to form any reliable conclusions.
The research is brought to you by a team that includes an academic whose previous research has claimed that penis-vagina intercourse is 400% ‘better’ than other forms of sex and heterosexual sex is superior. Which may represent more than a little conflict of interest in interpreting the data – although it’s not declared.
You would expect in an experiment of this kind to have some form of control, not least to set aside any criticism that there’s something about this particular study group that led to the results (rather than the experiment itself). Could we identify the same ‘sexy walk’ in straight or gay men, Trans men and women or lesbians? Could we ever have a study where we watched men walk around then inferred how their sexual behaviour or conduct might be? Is the walk age or country specific? Are we measuring Western values of what is ‘sexy’ in a walk rather than a universally recognised set of movements?
The measures of vaginal orgasm in the research appear to be particularly limited. They seem to come from participant’s self report and are based around a scale of ‘always’, ‘often’, ‘rarely’ or ‘never’. But these measures don’t make sense as my idea of ‘often’ might be every sixth time I have sex while yours might be every other time you have sex. Lumping ‘rarely’ and ‘never’ together also is unreliable since ‘rarely’ surely represents women who think they can have a vaginal orgasm, while never indicates the ones who think they don’t experience this?
The researchers did rate physiological aspects of the female participants’ walk, but these were made on the basis of watching videotapes of participants strolling in the street, no actual physical exams were made.
We know from other areas of research and popular culture that a ‘sexy walk’ can have similar characteristics but may vary between countries, genders and sexualities. A sexy walk is something we can perform. And if you’re being asked to walk around in the street while someone films you, you’ll no doubt perform your sexiest walk (or maybe your most self-conscious one). It doesn’t really tell you what women would walk like if they weren’t college students in a filmed experiment in the street.
The research makes no secret that penis-vagina intercourse is deemed ‘best’ for people. Women who don’t have vaginal orgasms are apparently more likely to have poor mental health and be sexually dissatisfied the study tells us. As a result the researchers seem reluctant to accept as valid any form of orgasm unless it’s a vaginal orgasm during heterosexual intercourse.
This perhaps explains their response to the false positive result they had for two of the women in the study who they incorrectly thought had vaginal orgasms. The paper states “it might be the women have the capacity for vaginal orgasm, but have not yet had sufficient experience or met a man of sufficient quality to induce vaginal orgasm”. (p.2122)
Yes, it really does say that.
You heard it here first. If you’ve not had a vaginal orgasm but you do have a sexy walk then you can’t try and having a vaginal orgasm through the use of a dildo on your own, or with a naughty lady friend and a strap on. No, what you need to do is have lots more heterosexual sex until you find that man who has ‘sufficient quality’ to give you a vaginal orgasm. That’s not even heterosexual sex that might include oral sex, using sex toys or mutual masturbation. This study and others by the same authors make it clear the ‘best’ type of orgasm for them is a vaginal one arising from penile penetration.
Sexology isn’t supposed to be about increasing anxieties, setting up standards, or making people feel bad if their bodies don’t act in particular ways. Yet in this paper not only are sexual standards set up, we also see women and men blamed for women not having vaginal orgasms during intercourse.
The paper makes numerous references to ‘appropriately trained therapists’ – the two researchers who watched the videos of women walking and rated their gait. There is no explanation of what this means, or any details of the specific training provided. Which makes me wonder how useful the study is, since how are the rest of us supposed to identify the vaginal orgasm women by their walks if we’ve not also received this special training?
There are mentions of hands-on therapy and physiotherapy briefly within the paper, but no clear recommendations of what would be appropriate to deliver to patients. Strangely the authors do not appear aware of the wider body of work outlining different physical therapies (from massage to surrogacy) that might be incorporated within sex therapy. Many of these hands-on approaches are not currently used or are viewed with suspicions and we need a wider debate why that might be. This research could go some way to adding to this debate, but it fails to do so.
All of these criticisms leave me wondering why the journal accepted this paper. Surely the reviewers noticed the same problems I’ve highlighted above? I don’t know what’s more worrying – that reviewers didn’t spot these problems, or they did and the paper was published anyway. I wonder why the journal press released this study which is based on a very small-scale and unrepresentative sample, is riddled with methodological problems, and doesn’t really give us any actionable conclusions. It’s not to say the whole paper should be dismissed, it does raise some interesting questions about physiology and sexual functioning. But it isn’t at a level to be released as a study worthy of international media attention.
What does this study really tell us? It suggests that vagina-penis intercourse is superior, and vaginal orgasms are better for women’s sexual satisfaction and mental health. It encourages women to aim for these. It constructs an argument that women who do not have vaginal orgasms through penetrative sex have a problem, but then does little to address the needs of said women.
We’re told some appropriately trained sexologists can have a better than average guess at who women are who report vaginal orgasms on the basis of their walk, and that sex therapy should be expanded to include therapies that train people in breathing and movement. How, when, where or why such therapies could be provided – or by whom – is not explained.
Research like this implies anyone who suggests women and men may get pleasure from other forms of sexual behaviour is somehow denying the public their right to ultimate pleasure. And researchers promoting this message frequently set themselves up as misunderstood practitioners who are the only ones in the scientific world telling it like it really is, suggesting the rest of us are somehow conspiring to talk women out of vaginal pleasure.
If women enjoy vaginal penetration (and there’s evidence that straight, bi, lesbian and Trans women do) then that’s fine. If you have an orgasm you experience within your vagina during penetrative sex with a penis, good on you. But if you have orgasms that you feel in other parts of your body, or are more likely to climax through clitoral, anal or nipple stimulation (or the whole lot) then you are not having ‘inferior’ orgasms. If you get off on penetration by a dildo not a penis then that’s fine. And if you orgasm without penetration then you’re lucky too.
It becomes a problem when practitioners, academics and educators claim there are league tables of sexual enjoyment with orgasm solely through penis-vagina sex in prime position. This negates different sexualities; overlooks people’s choices and opportunities to explore pleasure; and ignores those who, for whatever reason, don’t get much from penis-vagina penetration. And it leaves those who don’t orgasm at all feeling completely inadequate.
Studies like this tap into our modern anxiety over sexual satisfaction and implies that if you’re already having orgasms but they’re not orgasms through penis/vagina sex then you ought to be trying a lot harder. It’s the kind of approach that fuels those endless women’s magazine features on ‘how to have your best ever orgasm’.
Within modern sex research, as well as studying key issues, competent practitioners are also reflexive and transparent. That means they declare their agendas somewhere within their work, and how it affects the lens in which they view their research design and data.
In this case it’s well documented the people involved are particularly keen to promote penis-vagina intercourse as superior and do not appreciate those who suggest other forms of sexual pleasure are equivalent. If I were a journalist, peer reviewer or journal editor I’d want to know why that was.
This brings us to the final problem with the study. Already it’s being treated as a bit of a joke in print and broadcast media. The fact that it combines discussions of sex and walking is enough to do this (in my view unfairly). Add to this the small sample and claims that seem to go beyond the data you can see why the press and the public are sniggering.
There are many excellent, ethical, thoughtful and critical pieces of sex research completed every month. It’s such a shame when small-scale studies like this with numerous methodological problems hit the headlines as it can reduce trust in sex research.
Reading the whole paper has made me develop a particular walk today. It’s a kind of stomping about one. Not sexy (unless you like angry women).
So to cheer me up, why not film yourself doing a sexy walk and send me a clip? I’ll post the best entries on this blog and then we’ll all try and guess what kinds of orgasms you have.Tweet