The G Spot, Science & the Need for Brakes
Is the G-Spot a Space Race? Scientist Dr. Debby Herbenick urges caution.
Posted Apr 30, 2012
Last week in the Journal of Sexual Medicine (a journal I generally like reading and in which I frequently publish my research), a study was released with the title “G Spot Anatomy: A New Discovery”. The study purports to have identified the G-Spot as an anatomic entity. Even the journal’s press release carries the title, “Study Confirms Anatomic Existence of the Elusive G-Spot.”
But has this widely criticized study (there's this, too)—based on the dissection of a single 83 year old woman’s cadaver - “discovered” or “confirmed” the existence of the G-Spot? Or has it simply demonstrated that in a world of 24 hour news cycles, ad revenue based on pageviews, and editorial pressure to publish “new” scientific findings the moment they are released, that science could use some significant brakes?
As a research scientist who studies women’s sexuality, my answer to the first question – whether this new study has discovered the G-Spot - is “Not that I can tell.” It may be that, with time, we will understand this anatomic structure as a body part that, when stimulated through the vagina, produces pleasurable sensations or even orgasm among some women. If so, we may one day call it “the G-Spot.” But it may also be that such a structure is never identified in another living (or dead) woman. Or that, even if it is identified in other women, it may not be linked to sexual pleasure or orgasm and thus is not likely to be related to the G-Spot at all.
This is the benefit of careful science: with time, experience, and replication of research studies, we can learn more about the world around us and within in. With replication and a large enough sample size, we learn to trust our findings. With a single study and one dead 83 year old woman whose sexual response we know nothing about (and without histological work on the identified anatomical structure), we are left in the dark.
This is particularly true for something as nebulous a construct as the G-Spot. Even the researchers who first described the G-Spot three decades ago have not claimed it to be an anatomic entity in the same way that an elbow or clitoris is. That this new study’s author is a medical doctor who performs and offers training on controversial elective genital procedures (some related to the G-Spot) but who lists no conflicts of interest related to this study only complicates the matter further.
So why the rush to claim – after the examination of a single cadaver – the discovery of the G-Spot? In the past few years, a large number of articles have taken up positions “for” and “against” the existence of the G-Spot. These studies have often been limited by small sample sizes or criticized methodologies. The G-Spot has become akin to a “he said, she said” debate - exhausting on both sides and, I think, almost embarrassing to the field of sex research.
Do scientists truly need to re-hash this debate every few months? We can’t possibly have enough (or high quality enough) scientific data to back up these extreme assertions with such frequency. Can we? As I wrote in my newest book Sex Made Easy: Your Awkward Questions Answered for Better, Smarter, Amazing Sex, the feverish back-and-forth on the G-Spot has become a bit too much. Included in the several pages of Sex Made Easy that I devoted to explaining the controversies (as well as what I believe to be true) about the G-Spot, I wrote:
“One day, scientists say “Eureka, we’ve found it!” and the next, another team of scientists says “Not so fast – we’ve just proven it doesn’t exist!” and the cycle continues. Of course, this is both the blessing and the curse of science. Most important discoveries are not instant “Eureka!” moments. In science, it often takes a number of studies – and often significant disagreement and then fine-tuning of subsequent studies – to produce greater knowledge.”
It seems to me that these frequent publications of "it exists"/"it doesn't exist" are a reflection of a larger issue with which science as a whole (and not just the science of sex) has been grappling – that is, balancing the benefits and challenges of disseminating scientific knowledge in a timely manner.
Science is notoriously slow. However, the dissemination of information is increasingly fast. And popular media (and its bright lights, to which scientists are not immune) is notoriously hungry for information that is new and exciting. The only way to keep the machine going is for scientists to publish and disseminate their work quickly. Unfortunately, this is a recipe for the creation and dissemination of bad science.
Here is part of the problem: scientists may avoid submitting their research to journals that take a long time to review submissions, submitting instead to journals known for a quick turn-around for review and online publication. This can mean the difference of seeing one’s research in print in two months versus two years. There are pros and cons to this approach. For medical discoveries, the time lag to publication can literally mean the difference between life and death for patients who might benefit from new treatment discoveries. As a scientist who publishes her research, but who also writes columns and trade books, I value sharing scientific information about sex with the world—and sooner rather than later. But I also value accuracy and taking time to provide information that is likely to be informative and, hopefully, helpful. In this instance, an article somehow made it through the peer review process with an erroneous section about how there's a G-Spot gene! (There is no such thing—the author completely misunderstood the paper, which wasn't about G-Spots or vaginas or sex at all—and no peer reviewer or editor caught it). There also didn't seem to be anyone on the peer review side (and this surprises me) who essentially said, "This is interesting but the language about discovery is simply too premature or certain and should be toned down to be more cautious/tentative, especially given that this was anatomical work on one woman whose history little is unknown and tissue on which no histological work was performed to help us understand the tissue.").
Science is struggling between trigger finger reflexes and taking its time.
Which brings us back to the G-Spot. The recent flurry of extremely positioned G-Spot studies causes me to wonder about the motivations behind trying to answer this particular riddle with such urgency. It’s become the sexual science version of the space race, with scientists around the world racing to get to the G-Spot first and stick their flag in it to stake claim over this very personal—and not just scientific—space. I appreciate research, in its many forms, but I also appreciate when it builds to something we can say we "know" or are "beginning to know".
To which I say again that perhaps what we need are more brakes in science.
Debby Herbenick, PhD, MPH is an Associate Research Scientist and Co-Director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University and the sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction. She is also the author of six books about sex and love; her newest is Sex Made Easy: Your Awkward Questions Answered for Better, Smarter, Amazing Sex. Follow her on Twitter @mysexprofessor