Friday Weird Science: the “reality” of the G Spot and the mainstream media

Today’s post is going up late due to some truly massive equipment fail in Sci’s lab. Sci very much wishes that equipment would have enough respect to at least wait until her second cup of coffee to explode and throw carcinogens all over the lab.
Anyway, in her inbox the other day, Sci got this from a friend of the blog: “The G-spot ‘doesn’t appear to exist’, say researchers“.
g-spot.png
(XKCD is always on top of this)
Apparently it’s generating a lot of controversy. So Sci, of course, had to get her hands on this paper. Which took a lot of doing. Thus, for the benefit of future generations, she provides the following citation:
ResearchBlogging.org Burri et al. “Genetic and Environmental Influences on self-reported G-Spots in
Women: A Twin Study” J Sex. Med, 2010 (it’s still yet to come out, but will be soon, one hopes).
There, people, was that so hard? At least you now know where to look!
So Sci has some issues with this study. Let’s get to it.


So the first question you might have is: why the heck was this a twin study? The answer is pretty simple. Basically, the idea is that, if something is anatomical phenomenon that develops normally (like, say, eye color or the G-spot), then it has a genetic basis. If it has a genetic basis, then those with the same genes (like identical twins) should have the same incidence of the anatomy. Identical twins should have the same eye color, and the same G-spot. However, fraternal twins, who do NOT have the same genes, have normal sibling heritability, and thus, if the G-spot is a straight up genetic linked trait, identical twins should always have the same incidence of the G-spot, and fraternal twins should have the same incidence about 50% of the time.
What these scientists set out to do was to determine if the G-spot had a high incidence of similarity among identical twins. The idea is that if it’s a normal anatomical feature, if you have it, your identical twin will have it, too. So they took 1,800 sets of twins (some identical, some not), and gave them a survey asking if they had a G-spot. This included the direct question “do you have a G-spot” as well as questions like “how often do you experience orgasm via penetrative vaginal intercourse” (which presumably would hit the G-spot).
And they couldn’t come up with a correlation. About half of the women questioned said they did indeed have a G-spot (they also reported more satisfaction with their sexual partners), but there was no direct correlation across twins. Sue had it, but her identical twin didn’t. The authors concluded that there was no genetic basis for a G-spot. If you extrapolate this, you come up with the headline “NO SUCH THING AS A G-SPOT”.
And here’s where Sci runs into problems.
Let’s start with the study itself.
Some problems Sci found:
1) The average age of the women questioned was 55. You might not think this is a problem, but some of them may have undergone menopause, and thus might changes in hormones which could drastically affect their ability to orgasm, G-spot or not. In addition, you also have to deal with social factors. Many younger women are far more in touch with their sexual needs than those raised a generation ago, and this could affect how many women in the study actually WORKED to find their G-spot.
2) They eliminated all homosexual and bisexual women from the study. I mostly just think this point is silly. They wanted to limit the results to “vaginal intercourse via penile stimulation”, but if the G-spot anatomically exists, who’s to say it can only be stimulated by a penis? Who’s to say the penis is even the most effective instrument for this?
3) The biggest Problem: THEY NEVER DEFINED THE G-SPOT.
This is where Sci gets a little annoyed. Many women probably know what they think the G-spot is supposed to be, but WHO exactly has the correct definition? I think this is a really important point, as I think many women have a very inflated and incorrect notion of what the G-spot might be and what it produces. Some information for the masses:
The G-spot, first described by Ernst Granfenberg in 1950, is hypothesized (not proven yet) to be a group of sensitive nerves along the anterior (that’s the front) wall of the vagina. Other groups have hypothesized that they sensitivity of the area is due to the presence of residual prostate tissue in some women (the prostate in men surrounds the urethra, which in women is anterior to the vagina, hence the possible placement), and that stimulation of this area can lead, not only to orgasm, but also to female ejaculation.
So here’s the issue. Any woman who’s looked at a Cosmo has seen the headlines, and see the crap they have to say about what a G-spot is. Thus, unless you define what the G-spot is supposed to be, the results you’re going to get from a survey saying “do you have a G-spot” are going to be pretty variable. Many women may not have even looked for it. Some women may think it’s a magic button to orgasm, and figure if they don’t orgasm instantly, they don’t have one. This probably isn’t the case. It may be a highly sensitive area, but probably doesn’t just magically cause an orgasm.
Further, if some women are capable of orgasm and ejaculation from stimulation of the G-spot, they might never even get that far. Ejaculation in women is emission of a substance via the urethra during orgasm. Translation: it feels to many people, when you’re getting there, that you’re about to PEE. Most women would rather die than pee themselves during sex, and may not recognize the signs of something else happening, and thus may attempt to cease stimulation of the area. Not only that, highly sensitive areas, like the G-spot is purported to be, may register as ticklish rather than erotic, unless stimulated in a certain way.
So my problems with the study boil down to this: they may have asked the wrong set of questions. The main questions should not be “do you have orgasms resulting from only penile intercourse” and “do you have a g-spot”, but “do you have a sensitive spot on the anterior wall of the vagina which, when stimulated by whatever method, may bring you to orgasm”. The women may not know what the G-spot is and how to find it or stimulate it. I personally think you’d need a sizable clinical study studying the possible placement of the G-spot in women to determine what we’re dealing with, before you go about giving surveys as to genetic incidence. I hope there’s someone working on this.
And now, let’s move on to the media
So, what did this study say? Technically, it said that they couldn’t find a genetic link in a survey for the G-spot, so there might be some problems. These problems could include: there’s no such thing, they didn’t define it correctly, or even possibly, the G-spot is not what we think it is. The media looked at this and said “OMFG THERE’S NO G-SPOT!!!!!”
Basically, they took a study that wasn’t particularly informative, and made it less so. Might make for some good controversy and some interesting articles, but it doesn’t make for…the truth. Can we work on that whole “truth” thing? The reality is, a study that didn’t really directly assess the physical presence of a G-spot and the definition of a G-spot, determined there was no genetic basis for a G-spot, based on questioning a bunch of people who may or may not have been accurately informed as to what a G-spot was. The problem is, the media here was not after the truth of the existence of the G-spot. They were after the CONTROVERSY over the existence of the G-spot.
Sci’s only hope is that now someone will do a real physical study to take a look at whether it really does exist and what anatomy it arises from. You may be assured it will make for more trumpeting headlines.
Andrea Virginia Burri, MSc, Lynn Cherkas, PhD, and Timothy D. Spector, MD (2010). Genetic and Environmental Influences on self-reported G-Spots in
Women: A Twin Study Journal of Sexual Medicine

27 Responses

  1. FWIW, Greg Laden had a pretty piss-poor write-up on this. Thanks for clarifying a lot of information.

  2. And they did give a definition in the question, didn’t they? A “small area the size of a 20p coin on the front wall of your vagina that is sensitive to deep pressure”, according to the paper.

  3. And they did give a definition in the question, didn’t they? A “small area the size of a 20p coin on the front wall of your vagina that is sensitive to deep pressure”, according to the paper.

  4. I don’t think that definition is representative, Graham. “Deep pressure” isn’t necessarily necessary, and might be painful for some women. It is also extremely possible that women have no tested pressure along the wall of the vagina to determine sensitivity In addition, the area could very well smaller or larger than 20p, and (especially if it turns out to depend on prostate tissue presence) be present in some women and absent in others. Really, my point is that you need to determine what it is exactly, and inform other people of what it is exactly and have them look for it, before you go about asking it.
    My other problem is that the phrasing was “do you have a “supposed g-spot, a small area the size of a 20p coin on the front wall of your vagina that is sensitive to deep pressure”. I think the wording was biased, and I wonder how people would respond to a similar question such as “do you have a supposed clitoris, and small area of sensitive nerves below the mons pubis and anterior to the labia majora”.

  5. Sci, very interesting post, particularly after your last one (plus it has sex, you can never go wrong with that). I agree with pretty much all of your criticisms, including the “supposed” phrasing problem, but I doubt that even half of women would admit to having a mons pubis or a labia majora – best to avoid latin when dealing with the general public. Part of the problem here is that you have to rely on people undersanding what you mean, and actually telling you what they think, both of which can be dubious propositions, and the main reason I avioid working with people in my research at all. It sounds like a basic science approach is needed: you need to take a thousand women and very carefully map out vaginal sensitivity . . . sounds like the makings of an RO1 to me.

  6. This sentence: Basically, the idea is that, if something is anatomical phenomenon that develops normally (like, say, eye color or the G-spot), then it has a genetic basis. … which might want a bit of editing, could be somewhat misleading. Most people hear “genenic basis” and think “It is caused by genes and nothing else” and by implication assume that all variation (like if you have a g-spot or not) is caused by Teh Genes. But there are many phenotypic traits that vary for reasons that are not to be found in the alleles.
    So, I agree with all your points, but I would add that the assumption about the simplicity of the developmental process.
    The trait actually being measured, as you point out, is not a neurological or physical thing. The trait they are measuring is (and I only slightly oversimplify) “What is the answer to the question, “do you have a g-spot”
    At the surface level, this means do the researcher/survey instrument and the subject have a common linguistic convention. Beneath that is all that goes with the issue that you point out especially in objection 3 but also elsewhere.
    At the neurological level, there are several parallel and interactive neurological systems inside the brain, linking the brain to other parts of the body, and in the vicinity of any possible g-spot, that we expect to have developed in the same way other mammalian neurological systems develop. There is a LOT of information coming from the environment in these system. Just as we have physically definable, linked up bunches of neurons that form “brain organs” for the purpose of reading and writing that exist only becasue a brain develops in an environment in which reading and writing exist, any brain system is subject to environmental effects during development.
    The fact (and I think it is a fact) that “science” is unclear on the g-spot tells me that there is not a pre-existing model with data and evidence and critically evaluated peer reviewed litarture and 8 x 10 glossies with writing on them describing this particular phenomenon, how it works, and how it gets to be there. Thus, in the absence of knowledge of what a g-spot it, how it might or might not come to be, and so on, we cannot say anything about the role of experience (at several levels) or environment (including the body itself) in its formation, and thus, when it comes to evaluating data of this time….
    … we have no null model. The hypotheses can not even be formulated, let alone tested.
    This all relates very much to the discussion we’ve been having on my blog related to race, so a few days ago I posted this non-analytical pointer to the research:
    http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2010/01/science_there_is_no_g-spot_so.php
    Now I’ll go back and link to here!

  7. Excellent points, Greg. FiSH, I looked for mapping of vaginal sensitivity on Pubmed and couldn’t find anything. Perhaps my pubmed-fu is off, I can’t believe this hasn’t been studied.

  8. Sci, you can’t believe this hasn’t been studied? Exactly what NIH institute would fund that research?

  9. Sci, you can’t believe this hasn’t been studied? Exactly what NIH institute would fund that research?

  10. FiSH: What NIH institute WOULDN’T fund that research?! I mean, the sensitivity of the vaginal walls probably changes drastically in response to changes in various hormone levels. This is big stuff for endocrine, let alone the issues related to sexual health and quality of life following cancers. Aside from actual gynecological cancers, breast cancer treatments affect hormones in very major ways, and many chemotherapy treatments can have long term effects of sexual health. In other areas, neuropathy due to diabetes could cause impressive changes in sexual health. There are drastic changes related to childbirth and menopause. Any institute on aging should probably investigate the changes in sensitivity, and how they relate to early detection of things like cancer, as well as changes in the quality of life in the elderly. I can see a LOT of groups funding this stuff, actually, if it’s phrased right.
    Heck, pharma could conduct this study (though I doubt they would). Important for possible drug development in terms of drug to impact women’s sexual libido (which is a growing area of interest).
    Or they could do it in Europe. They like to do this stuff in Europe.🙂

  11. Are they seriously trying to do anatomy by self-response questionnaire? If this works, think of the possibilities—“Do you have a parahippocampal gyrus? Y/N”

  12. hmm …. the idea of doing a new anatomy text based on survey is interesting. It could be very insightful, or it could be very funny.
    This is actually something anthropologists have done, in a way, because anatomical reference is one of the touch stones of language reference. For instance, in one Central African language, the word for arm, hand, and finger are: edi, edi-ke, and edi-ke-ke. The word for branch is ba, and leaf is ba-pi. Thus, it was discovered that “ke” and “pi” are really the same afix but transformed over time … and both mean “a think sticking out of or added on to a thing in progressive hierarchical sequence” (thus allowing a prediction of the word for “toe” or the word for “clitoris”)
    So in that society physical things are organized conceptually in a certain way, which is kind of rare. (I think most languages probably don’t call “finger” “hand appendage” and hand “Arm appendage” but I could be wrong.)
    I predict the internal morphology of Western human would look like a bunch of jars and bottles with varying amounts of fluid and other stuff in them, such as mixes of hormones, ideas, precious bodily fluids, and so on.

  13. another slight quibble about the use of a “twin study”.. My identical twin brother and I have some quite significant physical differences when you get down to body parts that are roundabout that size – like whole teeth missing in one but present in the other, noticeable ear cartilage differences. That’s probably non-genetic (due to physical effects during gestation? – dunno, I’m no expert) but is there any reason why the G-spot would be immune to that kind of variation between identical female twins?

  14. To follow phlanders observation, I was thinking while reading about this study that even if they found variation in G-spot sensitivity in identical twins, that would not rule out a genetic explanation. Variations in anatomy of identical twins can be caused by epigenetic effects. Weird the researchers didn’t bring that up, or did they? Such effects might happen in utero, during early infancy, maybe even during puberty.

  15. To follow phlanders observation, I was thinking while reading about this study that even if they found variation in G-spot sensitivity in identical twins, that would not rule out a genetic explanation. Variations in anatomy of identical twins can be caused by epigenetic effects. Weird the researchers didn’t bring that up, or did they? Such effects might happen in utero, during early infancy, maybe even during puberty.

  16. Very informative write-up, with some good points on what to look for in (or maybe how not to do) a study. Thanks for posting this.
    Greg @11: That is absolutely fascinating, and I hope sometime you can do a full blog post on it. (Apologies if you’ve already done so and I missed it.)
    Rt

  17. If some of the women described that they had a G-spot in the survey, doesn’t that kinda suggest that it exists? Even though that IS a bizzare way to do an anatomy study, particularly as sexual pleasure is something people can be shy about.
    Stupid media. How dare they try to take away our G-spot.

  18. Two points.
    1) People here (phlanders, Field Notes) may be confused by the fact that the whole argument rests on a *statistical* effect. In no case, you should conclude from genetic heritability that, having a tall twin makes you necessarily tall. It just increases your chance of it (compared to just having a tall brother, who has only 50% gene in common with you). The same goes for the G-spot study: they base their argument of the absence of such a statistical effect for twins. In fact, the very same method has been used to show that genes do play a role in female orgasm (though no one would claim that two twin sisters should have the exact same sexual life!): http://www.twin-research.ac.uk/Publicatons/2009/BurriA_JSM_Review_2009.pdf
    2) In response to MPL and others: In their paper, the author duly consider alternative hypotheses. In particular the fact that, being a questionnaire-based study, it could be that their null result was due to a call-it semantic effect, meaning that when women saying of “having found their G-spot” has no ground in their anatomy (but may do mean something meaningful to them, simply it’s a different meaning for each of them). That makes the popular discourse on G-spot a pure metaphor (they could as well say I’ve found my Nirvana, that wouldn’t be less true but wouldn’t make Nirvana a new organ). In that sense, the author debunk the popular vision of G-spot. Then they go on criticizing studies claiming having found an anatomical or physiological bases for G-spot to conclude that there is no anatomical evidence for something like G-spot, least of all the fact that millions of women claim to have found theirs. End of the (scientific) story…
    PS : A reprint of the paper is available here : http://www.twin-research.ac.uk/G%20spot_manuscript_Jan10.pdf

  19. Disclamer: I am not a perv (mostly) who is obsessed with the g-spot. I have actually read and watched more that is relevant to men and male sexuality, than that which is specific to women. It is just that I have an interest in human sexuality across the board – especially the psychology of human sexuality.
    In response to MPL and others: In their paper, the author duly consider alternative hypotheses. In particular the fact that, being a questionnaire-based study, it could be that their null result was due to a call-it semantic effect, meaning that when women saying of “having found their G-spot” has no ground in their anatomy (but may do mean something meaningful to them, simply it’s a different meaning for each of them).
    The problem with that, is that there is a rather large body of writing, instructional writing and instructional video that identify a specific place just inside the vagina as the g-spot. I have a particular interest in human sexuality and as such have read a great many books and watched several instructional videos, many of which are either entirely focused on or touch on the g-spot. Every one of them consistently point out where it is, the common issues that many women have regarding the g-spot and how (as a woman) to learn to ejaculate.
    They are generally clear that not all women will be able to ejaculate and of those who are able, many find it very uncomfortable. Most also refer to the g-spot as the female prostate, because it is placed in similar conjunction with the bladder as the male prostate and stimulation of it produces very similar results.
    I think the biggest with the concept of the g-spot is the stupid assumption that many people make, that every body reacts the same to stimulation of various parts – this is most certainly not the case – it is not even the case the sexual stimulation of a penis will inevitably lead to ejaculation. Our bodies are different, the way our minds react to stimuli are different.
    Another problem is the assumption that female ejaculation has something to do with urination – it does not. The fluid that is expelled is not urine, any more than semen is urine. Excepting people who have suffered some trauma to their reproductive organs (including pregnancy and recent childbirthing) or who have some slight defect, there are mechanisms that make it virtually impossible for women or men to expel urine during sexual intercourse or masturbation anyhow. Extreme and sustained arousal clamps off the bladder from the urethra.
    And of course there are the issues that Sci talks about in her post. Many women are extremely unfamiliar with what exactly is being discussed. As much of the study going into exploring the g-spot utilizes questionnaires, there is a lot of confusion – especially if the area that in the context of sexual instruction as the g-spot is not pointed out or defined. For the record, the g-spot is the spongy portion just inside and at the top of the vagina. It is part of what sheathes the urethra and is in fairly close proximity to where the clitoris extends inside and above the urethra.
    I find it both amusing and sad that there is even a controversy about this. There is no question that many women can either ejaculate naturally or learn to ejaculate. There is no question that what is expelled is urine – it bears considerably more similarity to male ejaculate than it does to urine. There is no question that women who learn to ejaculate do so while learning to stimulate the same part of their vagina.
    Whatever else it may be called and however it actually functions to cause ejaculations, there is a g-spot. Even if it turns out that stimulating that spot is merely a way to in turn stimulate something else, that is the spot that is stimulated to produce ejaculation. I mean it’s not like we are talking anecdote for proof – I have watched five different videos that specifically explore the g-spot and how to effectively stimulate it, with a partner or alone – hetero or homo. All of them show in great detail how it works – the one by Nina Hartley even has a demonstration with a translucent latex vagina.

  20. Good write-up! But it’s Gräfenberg, not “Granfenberg”.

  21. DuWayne: the thing is, we ARE talking anecdotes there. I mean, instructional videos on it there may be, but there are also lots of videos on how to communicate with the dead. I do not doubt for a minute that women can ejaculate, as I have seen the literature on the subject and the chemical composition data, but until I see a comprehensive sensory stimulation paper showing extra sensitivity on the anterior wall of the vagina in women, I don’t want to say that we DEFINITELY have one. I personally believe there is a G-spot, but I want a full characterization before I say for sure.

  22. DuWayne: the thing is, we ARE talking anecdotes there. I mean, instructional videos on it there may be, but there are also lots of videos on how to communicate with the dead. I do not doubt for a minute that women can ejaculate, as I have seen the literature on the subject and the chemical composition data, but until I see a comprehensive sensory stimulation paper showing extra sensitivity on the anterior wall of the vagina in women, I don’t want to say that we DEFINITELY have one. I personally believe there is a G-spot, but I want a full characterization before I say for sure.

  23. I don’t know that I really need to see such a paper to buy it. Yes, there are many instructionals for talking to the dead – that is not at all what we are talking about here though. First of all, the instructions given for g-spot stimulation and female ejaculation are remarkably consistent. While there is a little bit a variation in recommended toys and exactly how to get started (there is an even split on starting exploration on one’s own, versus starting with a partner), they are all talking about the same spot – with diagrams or other tools. The toys recommended as aids are very similar and most instructions admit that the specific toy is much a matter a personal choice. Second, following said directions is very likely to either produce ejaculations or produce sensations a particular individual finds very uncomfortable – sometimes both, and on occasion neither. In other words, following the instructions given in a g-spot video or video that completely or mostly ignores the term g-spot and bills as a female ejactulation video, will very likely cause a women to ejaculate. A video about talking to the dead will not teach one to talk to the dead. The difference in evidence of success or failure, is that it is pretty obvious when you have managed to ejaculate…
    Like I said in my previous comment, it could be that stimulating that particular spot merely stimulates something else. It is in fairly reasonable proximity to the inner bit of the clitoris – and between it and the clitoris is the urethra, which could explain the feeling of needing to pee. On the other hand, the feelings upon stimulation seem very analogous to those induced by prostate stimulation. It really doesn’t matter much. The bottom line is that stimulating that particular spot, in a particular way, generally causes female ejaculation. And that is not something that one can easily mistake for something else – it is an extremely intense experience.
    I am not particularly bent on calling it the g-spot. I am not even one for calling it the female prostate. Calling it the g-spot is merely a way to describe a particular area inside the vagina that a lot of people are familiar with in the context of sex instruction. Honestly, when discussing it, it is mostly described by it’s characteristics rather than it’s supposed name. But I have no more concern about discussing that area, how to stimulate it for a particular desired result, than I do discussing the male prostate in the same way. I don’t need to see a comprehensive sensory stimulation paper, to know what happens when the prostate is stimulated. While it would be nice to have a better understanding of all the mechanisms at work in both cases, said understanding is not necessary to achieve the desired results.
    Ultimately, the biggest concern that I have and something I think it far more important than this debate, is helping people understand that our bodies are all different. That people react to the same stimulation differently and that there is nothing wrong with that. I think it is important to make it clear that for a lot of people, x happens when you stimulate y. That for some people, x is extremely uncomfortable, for others extremely pleasurable and for still others, it does little to nothing – and that there is nothing wrong with any of those responses. That having one of those responses, instead of another doesn’t make you a freak or bizarre.
    I think that the way people feel about their bodies and what does what, is far more important than proving and understanding what does what. At risk of sounding trite, that is a much bigger problem than proving whether or not there is a g-spot – though such definitive proof might speak to that. Only I am not sure exactly what it would say. All I know is that there are a lot of people who feel very uncomfortable with their bodies because of what they perceive should be happening that aren’t, or isn’t happening that they think should. So when asked about the g-spot and/or female ejaculation, I respond much as I have here – with an especial focus on understanding that our bodies are all different…

  24. This is like saying a recent study proved the foreskin is a myth because all the twins they chose were circumcised! And this, despite anecdotal evidence to the contrary. Ask any woman who can squirt if she has a G-spot. The answer is “Hell yeah!” But then again, I am sure the same scientists would debunk squirting as a myth, too! And by the way, shouldn’t the study have been performed in a society that is more open about sexuality and sexual pleasure? The British are notoriously sexually repressed.

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