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Where have all the g spots gone?

January 4th, 2010

Dr Petra

female anatomy

The papers are full of a new survey of female twins that’s about to be published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine. As part of a ‘debate issue’ on the g spot, this research by a team of UK scientists claims the g spot does not exist. Here’s a taster of some of the press coverage.

G spot ‘is just in the mind’ – The Express

Sexy g-spot a myth – New York Post
What an anti-climax – g spot is a myth – The Times

This research is brought to you by the team who also gave us studies (presumably carried out on the same cohort of twins) suggesting an infidelity gene; claiming (emotionally) intelligent women have more/better sex (covered here and here, that orgasm (and orgasmic problems) is genetically determined – plus a criticism that women shouldn’t orgasm too easily. As you’ll see within these links there are numerous problems around the conceptualisation and measurement of sexual response and orgasm within these research reports.

Backplot to the g spot

The G spot is not without controversy. Originally identified (in research) by Ernst Grafenberg the 1950s. It was remamed the g spot in his honour in the 1980s by Beverly Whipple and colleagues who revived discussions of the g spot in science and popular culture. Debates have raged since then over the importance and existence of the g spot, summarised neatly in this recent account from sex educator Betty Dodson.

The problem with much existing research on the g spot is it’s hampered by small sample sizes (for physiological research), self report in surveys, and anecdotal evidence for/against the existence of a g spot in qualitative research and popular culture. Participants are often white, middle class volunteers, and women who are bi or lesbian usually excluded from g spot studies. As have those who are not in a relationship or don’t engage in penetrative sex. Moreover inconsistent wording on interviews and questionnaires have often confused participants so it’s unclear what has been measured. Advances in research – particularly with ultrasound and thermal imaging – do offer more opportunities to study the g spot, although the political question remains about why are we so desperate to find the area and ‘prove’ its existence (or absence)?

Due in part to the 1980s revival of g spot research and also our changing commercialised and sexualised culture, the self help market was quick to pick up on the idea of a g spot. So you could go hear a sexpert tell you where yours was and how to find it, or read a book they’d written all about g spots. Or you could buy products with widgets and knobs and bendy bits to give your g spot attention. Or you could read one of the endless features in womens (and latterly) men’s glossy magazines praising the spot and telling you how to find it. Porn also shifted to include a hat tip to the g spot, although it wasn’t so easy to show. However, female ejaculation (the squirty friend of the g spot) was easy to demonstrate. Hence the popularity of this within porn currently. And most recently the cosmetic surgery industry has got in on the act offering g-shot parties where you can get a collagen injection into your vaginal wall to enhance the g spot (and make it easier for a partner to find).

The media have played no small role within this story, in particular women’s magazines keen to talk about sex but without being too raunchy. It’s no coincidence the g spot has had so much media coverage. As any journalist will tell you it’s much easier to get a g spot past your editor than mention the clitoris. Something that editors dislike and advertisers run scared of. It’s much easier to mention the g spot or show a picture of a g spot stimulating sex toy than it is to mention other genital names or frankly discuss what you actually need to do to stimulate a partner.

For some, the ability to discuss the g spot and have products available to explore it was a step forward within women’s sexual pleasure. Critics raised concerns over the focus on the g spot meant other areas of pleasure were neglected. The quest to find the spot (and the much promised g spot orgasm) created anxieties and insecurities on the part of couples. Disputes over whether women had g spots or could ejaculate meant women felt anxious. Either because they did feel they had a g spot orgasm (but science argued this was impossible), or because they didn’t have such an orgasm (but science told them they should).

In the past couple of years science has gone bananas for the g spot. In 2008 we were told the g spot definitely does exist, which the press went crazy for.

The current study

Is called ‘Genetic and environmental influences on self reporteg g spots in women: A twin study’ and will be published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine shortly (early view here). It focused on a self reported postal questionnaire sent to 4625 women. 1875 responded to specific questions about sex. Of these the researchers excluded 71 women. Those ‘who reported they were homo or bisexual were excluded from the study because of the common use of digital stimulation among theses women, which may bias the results. Also excluded were women who had never engaged in vaginal intercourse’. Respondents were aged 22-83 with a mean age of 55.

Women were asked a series of questions about their sexual practices and frequency of sexual activity, including the questions ‘overall how frequently do you experience orgasm during intercourse’ and ‘overall how frequently do you experience orgasm through masturbation’. The wording of these questions is problematic and is discussed further in the links to previous studies by this team near the start of this blog. It appears from reading the paper that the participants in this study are also those reported in the previous studies on emotional intelligence and orgasmic heritability.

To identify the presence of a g spot participants were asked “Do you believe you have a so called G spot, a small areas the size of a 20p coin on the front wall of your vagina that is sensitive to deep pressure?”. This reads like a leading question with the inclusion of ‘so called’ and I’m not sure how useful/clear all participants would have found it.

Analysis revealed that women reporting orgasms through intercourse did not necessarily report the presence of a g spot, and those who reported having a g spot noted they were likely to orgasm through other forms of stimulation such as kissing or breast stimulation.

The researchers conclude “the g spot is rather a perception created by non physiological factors that can cause a heightened sexual sensation”.

Although the paper is interesting, and the researchers are at pains to stress they want to reduce women’s anxieties about pressure to find an elusive g spot, it really doesn’t fully explain the presence or absence of a g spot. Aside from being limited by self report and problematic wording of questions, the study really seems to capture the diverse ways women enjoy pleasure rather than the requirement of a g spot to have orgasms. It’s also concerning within the introduction of the paper the researchers repeat the message they’ve written in related studies – “knowledge of the anatomy, biology, physiology, and pathophisiology of female sexual function is limited. Female orgasm, in particular, is a complex phenomenon that is far from being understood”. This indicates a worrying lack of awareness of the wider evidence base on female sexual functioning that is not limited in scope, but does take issue with the stereotype of women’s orgasm being both complex and mysterious.

Previous studies claiming the g spot absolutely existed (linked to above) were limited by small scale samples that weren’t really large enough to draw conclusions from. Although the current study draws on a larger participant group it’s based on self report and isn’t really any more reliable in showing the g spot doesn’t exist. Critics may question why the research team have produced so many papers based on the same cohort? A cynic might call allege it’s a case of ‘salami slicing’.

In short recent studies claiming the presence or absence of the g spot are all limited and none of them appear robust enough to accept a claim either way. Although interestingly all have been funded in part (or wholly) by grants from Pfizer, so one might wish to question what that company’s interest is in the g spot.

The media response to the latest (no) g spot research
As you may expect the media’s response to the current study has been (as with all previous g spot studies) uncritical, unquestioning, and not based on reading the original paper. There’s little or no reference to other studies by this particular team, nor compared with existing research claiming g spot existed. Indeed it’s as though the media’s had a complete memory wipe and haven’t noticed that two years ago they were emphatically telling us that the g spot existed. Still, this study is harder to report for journalists. When they were working on the g spot does exist study it allowed for loads of features plugging sex toys, quoting ‘sexperts’, and giving loads of top tips about the g spot and how to find/enjoy it. Not possible if you’re now reporting the g spot doesn’t exist.

So the take home message is?

It’s pretty simple. Women are diverse. Some of us really enjoy vaginal stimulation by finger, penis, sex toy (or other item). Some women prefer clitoral, anal, breast or other stimulation.

Research that tells us we should focus exclusively on one spot or ignore it completely does little to reassure us or enhance our sex lives.

During the many conversations I’ve had with journalists today on this topic, one asked me ‘should we ignore the g spot?’ which is a good question. The current study suggests we should. The trouble is the g spot is deeply embedded in popular culture and the sex product industry and it’s unlikely to just disappear because one study says they don’t think it exists. Perhaps a better way forward is to think critically about the g spot. Be aware there’s plenty of folk who make money out of your worries of whether you do or don’t have one. Go exploring, but don’t feel under pressure.

You can expect this story to run over the coming weeks – and be spun into some fairly tedious and polarised debates – during which women’s voices and experiences will most likely be ignored.

The question for science is why are we still having this debate? Why can’t we accept genital diversity and explore through rigorous and novel methods what that might mean for women – rather than these tired old does the g spot exist? Yes it does! No it doesn’t! debates.

I’ll leave you with the excellent Daily Mash, who, as ever, provide a great spin on this story – Men who care about the g spot are a myth.

Update 06.01.10 – Tom Geoghegan over at BBC News Magazine’s written a great spin off piece Err on a g spot about the G spot debate looking at the history of the topic, talking to key advisors/researchers, and including practical advice for women and their partners.

Update 12.01.10 – Katy Kelleher’s produced an excellent overview of the research and media coverage in The Mystery of the G Spot: untangling the headlines.

Edit: A reader emailed and asked me if I based the title on this blog on Paula Cole’s song Where have all the cowboy’s gone? The answer is no. I based it on Peter, Paul and Mary’s Where have all the flowers gone? (Hippie parents). Either way you can easily insert ‘where have all the g spots gone’ to each song and sing along. Meanwhile, Dr Aust suggests The Kinks song Where have all the good times gone? works even better when the term ‘g spot’ is inserted into the lyrics.

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