Retro Post: Skeptic Ink Article Critique and the History of The Debate It Led To

Retro Post Intro
This is a retro article. I originally wrote this in June of 2014. I re-read it recently and still feel strongly about what I've said here, and think it's worth a re-issue. 

Plus, this article actually sparked a pretty long blog-to-blog discussion, which I think is also worth going over and linking to here (which I will do below).

The history of the debate that this post led to
You see, after I let commented on the author's (Edward Clint's) original post that I had done some critiquing. He, to my surprise, graciously agreed to further debate.on this topic. He replied to my critique I'm re-posting on his own blog HERE. I replied back HERE

At that point he didn't respond back and about 4 months later, I emailed him seeing if he was still interested in the debate. We had a very cordial relationship, and I told him I hoped I hadn't been too harsh and offended him. He was very nice in his reply, and let me know he 
I am not offended by your style saying, "By internet standards, you're practically Ned Flanders." He went on with a bit of a gripe though. "However, you do appear to have taken a swipe at me in order to pick a fight on the topic you prefer while ignoring the fact that I was not speaking to that topic. I find that borders on disrespectful, not that I believe you intended any offense. You sense that we disagree on that topic, and I think you are straining to find a way to see that disagreement in what I have written, but it is not there. You had, and have, a much better option if you want to have that other discussion: you could have just asked what my position was and if we could discuss that. There's no reason that couldn't happen without us endlessly dissecting whether or not my essay about bad io9 reporting was sufficiently deferential to your sense of history and fact."   

So, I took a little issue to that and emailed him back a long-winded email describing how I thought maybe he wasn't actually reading my arguments because he is speaking on the topics I'm critiquing him on and that we do, in fact, disagree. He, as you might expect, took a bit of issue to that, then wrote me back the following after writing some nice small talk that we'd been engaging on:

Let me clarify some things for you. I am not ignoring or failing to understand what you have said. I am asserting the autonomy and rules of engagement as they apply to your actions. There are two arguments I am perfectly inclined to have and one that I will refuse you. I will call those A, B, and C
A) What is the factually correct definition, description, and nature of orgasm as it relates to stimulation of the clitoris and vagina?
 B) How defensible was my post on clitoral anatomy and bad science reporting?
 C) Whether or not my resolution of A caused my resolution of B. 
I am not wiling to engage with you on C. My reasons for this are that it strikes as not entirely appropriate (as I wrote before, it seems like picking a fight). You don't think that you are, and I take you at your word, so I will give you two other reasons why I will not engage with C. One, we will never get past the "B" component, ever. You are mistaken about your belief here. I am sure you believe your interpretation, but I have access to my own beliefs, intentions, and memories and you are not correct. I simply did not ever intend to say VIO is real and true and should be taken as the truth. I knew it was contentious territory when I wrote about it, and so I tried to stay out of that particular debate, deliberately, knowingly. I've read your arguments to the contrary and they will not succeed. But whatever your beliefs, know that we will never get past "B" and to "A". I will simply not allow a false point criticizing my writing to stand.I will counter every one of your points, and we can go around and around doing that if you wish, as I said I am fine with "B". Reason number two: "A" is a very big debate. It should stand alone, and not be muddied by blog politics about whether I was right in some tangentially related earlier writing or not. It deserves to have its own debate where one side, mine, is not instantly set to the defensive and put in a pit of assumed wrongness. It must begin on clean, neutral terms, or not at all, just like any formal debate.  
 These reasons are why I could not just take you up on your offer, you prefaced it with a C argument against me, forcing me to defend B and preventing me from ever getting to A, because I will not permit this water to be muddied, even if you believe that it already is. I do not, and I will not agree to that as a term.  
 So pick one, A or B, or none of the above. But whichever you pick, you must let the other one go, and if you choose A, then the exchange must be reset and not a direct continuation of the discussion up to now (though of course it can be justly called a consequence of it). Those are my terms. 
I wrote him back a quick email letting him know that if those were his boundaries, I'd be happy to debate A. So, that is the explanation for why we shifted focus, and at that point we started a new and separate debate. He started it HERE. Then I responded HERE . Ed responded back HERE. And I responded a 2nd time HERE

I really enjoyed the chance to debate. I think responding to him and thinking about all this from a different perspective helped clarify a lot of things for me and I'm grateful to that. I'll let you go through all these as you will and get what you get from this debate...it's only like a thousand million trillion hours of reading, so super easy spare time reading - yay!  

...And Now the Original post from June 2014

Charlie sent this article to me (The Clitoris Revealed and How io9 Got It Wrong) from Skeptic Ink. The author (Edward Clint) was lambasting a recent i09 article on its terrible coverage of a 2009 study that used a sonogram to look at the full clitoral complex (there's a lot of erectile clitoral tissue below the skin). The study linked an area where part of the clitoral complex got cozy against the vagina during penetration to an area the 5 women in the study felt was a pleasurable one in the vagina. The researchers suggested this may be the "g-spot" (as in the "g-spot" may actually just be the area where the root of the clitoral complex butts up against the vagina during penetration and not be some piece of anatomy within the vagina). There is a suggestion that this "g-spot" is linked to the "vaginal orgasm" the 5 women in the study claim to have, but there is no specific causal connection asserted in the study's conclusion. 

Edward Clint rightly details how the io9 article covering the study is characteristically silly in the way media interpretations of scientific studies always seem to be, and I appreciated that he pointed that out. In fact, I loved that this article pointed out a lot of things about scientific reporting that annoy me (not telling the full story, over exaggeration, only picking out the parts that seem exciting), but then at the end of the article, there is a section called "The vaginal orgasm and the G-spot debate: We can all stop caring now," and that's where it all goes wrong. 

Frankly, I don't think that Clint (and he's not alone - honestly his tone and arguments are very much the status quo) has a good handle on some important aspects of this subject, Let me tackle the larger issue first.

An orgasm caused by stimulation of something inside the vagina (a Vaginally Induced Orgasm or VIO),  has never actually been recorded. I know it sounds crazy, but it's true. It doesn't exist in scientific record. (I explain that further HERE and HERE if you are interested).  Most people writing about g-spot/vaginal orgasms don't know or completely ignore this. They, quite wrongly, take for granted that VIO's exist, and I think it twists the entire picture of female sexual response into a confused mess that is not helpful to anyone. Take for instance Clint's discussion about the "vaginal vs. clitoral orgasm debate." 
In the first half of the 20th century, notions of vaginal vs. clitoral orgasm took hold (thank Freud, who coined the term vaginal orgasm), along with the ignorant and sexist notions that women incapable of the “vaginal” orgasm were “frigid” and that penis-vagina sex was the only source of orgasms that counted. This lead some feminists to adopt the opposite and politically-valenced position that the vagina was irrelevant to pleasure, and that the vaginal orgasm was a lie. Just in case you think I am overstating, feminist Anne Koedt wrote in 1970, It has also been known that women need no anesthesia inside the vagina during surgery, thus pointing to the fact that the vagina is in fact not a highly sensitive area. (This quote was repeated to me in a 2012 gender studies classroom by a professor, quite seriously) This is why it’s good to remember the opposite of wrong is not necessarily right and that it’s a bad idea to confuse facts with moral values: facts can change. 
He seems to play Anne Koedt as some crazy ideologue, but she is not. Koedt was part of a larger feminist campaign that emerged from the then recent Master's and Johnson physiology of orgasm research. M&J's research described how there was no evidence of VIOs and showed how stimulation of the clitoral glans caused female orgasm. That research is, to this day, still relevant and foundational. Let me be clear. Orgasms caused by stimulation of the clitoral glans have been described, documented, and there is a clear understanding of what is needed to get them and who is capable of having them. Orgasms from vaginal stimulation have not been documented or described and there is no clear understanding of what is needed to have them or who is capable of having them. 

Koedt's statement that the vagina has very little sensitivity to touch and that the vaginal orgasm is a lie is not just a willy-nilly opposing reaction to Freud. It is what the science says (this was true in 1970 and still today). Freud's theories, including the "vaginal orgasm" that he so kindly birthed into this world, are just some completely untested ideas a famous dude had that really, really caught on - that's all. To pose Freud's bullshit against Anne Koedt's article, an article that is backed up by good science, is just plain silly.

Even after the G-spot was "discovered" and brought into the public eye in 1982, there still has been no causal connection documented in a lab between something in the vag being stimulated and an orgasm. From the G-spot's 1982 "coming-out,", we did learn that there are prostate-like ducts surrounding the urethra that protrude out from the vaginal wall when excited (this is what I would define as the g-spot), and that when there is sufficient pressure and stimulation of that area, some women ejaculate (which is different from orgasm) through their urethra. That is the only type of sexual release caused by vaginal stimulation that has been documented, and yet strangely this article and almost all like it ignore this very real and concrete quality of the g-spot. Instead the focus is on its possible part in a type of orgasm, that frankly, may not even exist. 

Another issue I have is that Clint confuses two different " clit vs. vag debates." There is a debate about whether a vaginal orgasm exists at all. This is the debate I'd like to have and the debate that was in question with Anne Koedt and similar feminists of the time. Then there is the debate about whether VIOs are caused by something actually in the vaginal structure  vs. the idea that VIOs are caused by indirect stimulation of the deep clitoral roots through the walls of the vagina. Clint sort of lumps these two together as the clit vs. vag debate, but they are actually quite different. The first follows what is scientifically known and simply sees no evidence for a VIO. The second assumes that VIOs obviously exist and is simply asking whether the clitoral legs stimulated through vaginal penetration is the cause or the vag itself. 
The modern research tells us that everyone is right! Or, everyone is wrong, however you’d like to parse it, because all of the parts are important. And right on cue, both “sides” of the G-spot debate have claimed immediate victory with the anti side saying “See, it’s just clitoral!” and the pro side saying “see! it is real, and just where we said!”. The correct answer is, researchers aside, who cares? 
What if the orgasm some women experience during vaginal intercourse is caused by the internal clitoris? Does changing the mere label and invisible mechanism for the event from “vaginal” to “internal clitoral” change a thing about the event for anybody involved? Does it somehow change moral arguments about the political equality of women? I don’t think that it does. Isn’t it cool if it’s a fact that the G-spot that some women report actually is the spot where the clitoris contacts the anterior vaginal wall?
This is annoying to me because the very important debate about whether vaginal orgasms even exist, the debate he unfairly poo-pooed as just a feminist reaction to Freud's nonsense, is further being pushed into irrelevant obscurity because he's incorrectly lumping it with a debate about which undefined mechanism causes an undocumented, not understood, orgasm that may not even exist. "Is it the thing in the vag we can't find?" vag side says, "or the penis pushing against the wall of the vagina - which then pushes on the surrounding tissue - which then pushes on the clitoral leg that causes VIO?" clit side asks. Framed this way, Clint's right, who cares? It probably doesn't exist anyway. (and P.S. when it's said that the clit has more nerve endings than the entire penis, it is meant that the clitoral glans, the part on the outside, has that many nerves, not the whole clitoral structure. I can't find anything that says how nervy the inner clit legs are, but I think it's fair to say it's a hell of a lot less nervy than the glans. The inner legs engorge with blood when aroused, that seems to be their claim to fame - not intense nerviness). 

My other major problem with Clint's last 3 paragraphs is a little more complicated. You see, although I've already pointed out that a VIO is neither understood nor documented, and that wondering which part (the inner clit or the vag) causes these VIOs is kinda useless since we can't even describe the thing they supposedly cause, the idea of a VIO is still incredibly important to tons of women and their partners. Women and men hear it exists, and the details of what exactly may cause it are a matter of great interest. A quick scan through advice columns, magazine articles, books and the internet would easily show how interested people are in this. It shouldn't be taken lightly that women are in search of better information about these types of orgasms, and I was bothered by the flippant way Clint speaks about the level of actual interest non-research people might have in the specific details of how a VIO might be achieved. 

Frankly, I think Clint underestimates the amount of worry, confusion and frustration women (and men) carry about VIOs. Just think about it. These VIOs are over-abundantly depicted in porn, romance novels, and everywhere else sex is depicted. They result from the most common of sex acts - vaginal-penile intercourse. They are low maintenance (just get banged!), supposedly wildly amazing orgasms, yet only 20 to 30% of women say they can experience these elusive trophies of female sexuality. Why wouldn't people hang on every tidbit of information about them? People are not stupid, and they know that understanding these detailed mechanisms are the key to both learning and teaching how to achieve VIOs.(Does the inner clitoral leg really butt up against the vagina to cause these wildly elusive VIO's or is there another stand-alone piece of anatomy some women have that makes them unique and lucky vag-gasm princesses?!? Are all women's bodies capable of VIOs, or just some? What is the anatomy difference among the haves and have nots? Is it the sex position or the dude's junk size that makes it possible?). Just telling people that it's a vague area that can be reached through the vagina is not enough. People certainly want more. I think it's ridiculous, given how much of an importance our culture puts on VIOs to say, who cares? 

So, again, my larger issue with this article and the g-spot/vaginal orgasm debate in general is that the discussion begins from the assumption that there is something that causes these vaginal orgasms, but no one (even quite skeptical people) thinks to say, "hey, wait....what exactly is a VIO? Oh, there is no real definition? It's never actually been physically documented? Why is that? Hmmm, maybe it's kinda problematic to be looking for the cause of something that is not actually defined." 

Having straight-faced discussions about which possible anatomical configuration causes vaginally induced orgasms is as gross to me as discussing what causes women's intuition. Yeah, people talk about it as if it exists, and women will even tell you that they have it, but it is not defined. It may not even exist, and there is no way someone can identify the cause of something when no one knows what exactly that something is. This is pretty basic stuff, and critical people should be looking at and talking about this debate differently. In the future, I would love to see skeptics be as thorough and skeptical about female orgasm as they are with evolution, religion, and global warming.

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