This is not going to be that essay.
I’m not going to write some flowery, romantic idealization of what sex “should” be. I’m not going to expound on, redundant paragraph after paragraph, describing two soulmates staring deeply into each others’ eyes and making passionate love for hours on end appreciating every inch of their—excuse me, I just gagged a little. And shuddered and cringed at the same time. I’m not going to dream up a fairy tale to make you feel better because you’re single and in quarantine (don’t worry, so am I), because reading something like that would make you feel better about waiting for whatever it is we all supposedly deserve.
But if you’re still with me, if you don’t mind getting into the nitty-gritty or the fact that I don’t own any rose-colored glasses (just a second pair of Ray-Bans I’ve finally learned to take good care of), if you want a discussion about sex that is pragmatic, but also intentionally thoughtful and sincere, this is a topic that has been on my mind a lot (did I mention being single during quarantine?), one I’ve spent time talking about with close friends, that has come up in the media I’ve been consuming; one I want to mull over a bit, take a closer look at, and pose some questions about. If you’re up for any or all of those things, you’re welcome to come along for the ride for the next few minutes of your life; shotgun’s all yours.
Let’s start with the word “deserve.” Sex can be an almost infinite number of different things to different people, in an almost infinite number of different ways. I’m not interested (today) in the ideal scenario. I’m not talking about some kind of end game or prize we hope to win by playing the game of “dating” or “life” or whatever else comes to mind.
Yes, a very large number of people are looking for sex that comes with love, and love that comes with sex, and I hope that those people who want it, including myself, find it. But, in this giant world we live in, great sex has existed outside of love, and great love has existed outside of sex.
What has been weighing on my mind is the sex part – with its multiplicity and room for interpretation, with so many people wanting different things from sex, what, if anything, can we say we deserve from it? What is it that we owe to each other, to our partners? What is the basic human decency that should accompany it? Is there a brass tacks, bare-bones list of things that should or even could apply in all scenarios?
Well, there are a couple of no brainers –
But this is just our starting point. Of course, these things are all connected – it goes without saying that ensuring consent, enthusiastic consent, is a form of respect. Safety — using protection, getting tested, being honest with your partner about concerns, and existing conditions is a form of respect. Respecting your partner as a human being — respect for their body and their feelings are equally important. Like I said, we’re laying a baseline now so we can elaborate and add to it later.
Now, if you’ve jumped ahead of this thought train, you might be asking, “Well Nicole, does this preoccupation with identifying what one might call a Bill of (Sex) Rights stem from a larger concern about what would constitute a transgression against them?”, to which I would reply, “You’ve hit the nail right on the head.”
It all started with an article recently published by Cosmopolitan magazine titled “The G-spot doesn’t exist”. In a move that could have come straight out of a perfectly scripted episode of The Bold Type, the media powerhouse issued an interactive and animated mea culpa that felt part exposé, part Google Doodle, for 38 years of sex advice that convinced readers to “believe a total lie about [their] own [bodies].”
While the piece presents information in a clear and concise way, casting a wide journalistic net for sources like neuroscientists, PhDs, authors, experts, and sex educators, along with first-person accounts and a survey conducted by the magazine, it is difficult to read. Faced with facts that serve not only to correct misinformation, but to illustrate the extent of the long-term damage created by that misinformation, it’s upsetting, and frankly a little heartbreaking, to see the enormous blow to people’s confidence, physical comfort, and emotional relationship with sex spelled out statistically (bolding below is my own):
“11% of women have avoided sex because they can’t find their G-spot.
44% of women have felt frustration, confusion, or anxiety while trying to locate their G-spot.
31% of women say their partner has gotten frustrated while searching for it.
82% of men believe every woman has the magic button.”
The results of this survey seem to spell out one thing – people, in many cases women, deserve more. These statistics sketch the outline of a problematic cycle of cause and effect, people seeking out information about sex in order to have pleasurable experiences, only to receive misguidance that leads to them avoid the very activity, become embarrassed by their own bodies, or have unenjoyable sex – but how did we get here?
In The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction, philosopher Michel Foucault states his hypothesis, “It may well be that we talk about sex more than anything else,” (a concept Cosmo certainly ran with) as a direct challenge to the idea of an inherited Victorian prudery, arguing that instead of a narrative of sex as something which is repressed, censored, or unspoken, “that, for two centuries now, the discourse on sex has been multiplied…if it has carried with it taboos and prohibitions, it has also, in a more fundamental way, ensured the solidification and implantation of an entire sexual mosaic.”
To break it down, what Foucault meant by discourse is who in society gets to talk about sex officially from a position of authority – basically, who was the Cosmo of the 1800s? The church, the government, and medical/scientific professionals all had a stake in the game. This human preoccupation with sex, getting people to talk about it, in confession or therapy or doctor’s appointments, making sure they spilled every detail, led to a wide variety of discourses that attempted to define and control sex – labeling, codifying, legislating, diagnosing it in all its many facets, etc. etc. etc.
Women got the short end of the stick in many cases. We don’t have time for a deep dive into feminism here, but since we’re talking about misconceptions around women’s bodies, before there was a “G-spot”, there was hysteria, named after the Greek word for uterus. It basically meant that if you were considered too emotional or too sexual, men blamed it on your reproductive organs and said you were crazy.
Which brings us back to today, back to Cosmo, and to my proposed additions to our Bill of (Sex) Rights:
4. Authority over your own body
5. Knowledge of your own body
Cosmopolitan claimed “the trickiest part of [their] story” was achieving a balance between this idea of knowledge and authority in relationship to your own body. While they had identified that the majority of recent scientific data was inconclusive or supported evidence the G-spot did not exist, they also acknowledged this (bolding is my own):
“Despite the lack of scientific evidence, there are still lots of G-spot believers, many of them super-smart, well-meaning sex educators. […] Their point is: If a woman believes she’s found her G-spot, that should outweigh any lack of science. And specifically, if someone claims to have experienced G-spot pleasure, it seems ‘bizarre’ to shut her down, says Kristen Mark, Ph.D., a sex educator at the University of Kentucky. ‘That feels like going backward.’”
This might have been my favorite part of the article because it puts the power back into readers’ hands. No one else will ever know what it feels like to live inside your body. You are the only person qualified to have a discourse about your own body and what does and does not feel good to it. You are the ultimate authority on that subject, and there is no magazine, no book, no expert in any field who knows more about it than you do or has the right to tell you that what it feels or does not feel is wrong. Period.
And one of the reasons for this comes from, “Nicole Prause, Ph.D., a neuroscientist who studies orgasms and sexual arousal” who says, “I’ve never understood why [the G-spot] was interpreted as some new sexual organ. You can’t standardize a vagina—there is no consistency across women as to where exactly we experience pleasure.”
So we’re the experts on our own unique bodies. Great! However, unfortunately, when we’re born our bodies don’t come with a user manual, and learning what it feels like to live inside that body may take time. Figuring out what feels good and what doesn’t usually come with trial and error. However that happens, through self-exploration or with a partner, it is an extremely personal thing, and it can be nerve-wracking. There’s risk involved with trial and error. What if it’s terrible? What if I’m doing it wrong? What if I can’t figure it out? It makes sense why the idea of a magazine with all the answers would be so appealing.
Cosmopolitan tries to strike the balance I mentioned earlier with the thesis statement/question “Can’t we have our pleasure—and the truth too?” Because as “Prause [also] points out, ‘women deserve accurate information about their bodies.’”
Accurate information means backed by science, and when it comes to the G-spot there’s no scientific consensus. Throughout the entirety of the article it is described as, “a teensy half-inch ribbed nub”, a “highly erogenous mass of tissue”, “the thing”, “a ‘sensitive’ ‘small bean’”, “your most frustrating fake body part”, “an ‘area’”, “an 8.1- by 3.6-millimeter ‘rope-like’ piece of anatomy, a ‘blue’ and ‘grape-like’ sac”, “‘a thick patch of nerves,’ ‘the urethral sponge,’ ‘a gland,’ ‘a bunch of nerves’”, “it’s not a single thing”.
Now, try and draw it.
With a description as outlandish and disjointed as a one-eyed, one-horned, flying purple people eater, you might be asking how this mythological G-spot seemed to maintain its credibility over such a long span of time. And Cosmopolitan proposes a couple of reasons – the first being sex sells. They attribute an entire “economy” to the G-spot: “G-spot vibrators, G-spot condoms, G-spot lube, G-spot workshops, and, for the particularly daring and/or Goop-inspired, $1,800 G-spot shots meant to plump yours for extra pleasure.”
But it doesn’t end with injections. One “gynecologic surgeon Adam Ostrzenski, MD, Ph.D. […] went on to sell ‘G-spotplasty’ treatments to women”,“after his study of an 83-year-old woman’s cadaver”. This is where I start to get upset — because we’re not talking about the woman who claims to have found her G-spot and experienced pleasure from it anymore, because that’s not the woman who’s going to think she needs a G-spotplasty. It’s the woman who hasn’t found it, who has been convinced that something is wrong enough with her to warrant a surgical procedure on a body part scientists can’t even prove she has.
The second reason is barriers to additional research – “In 2015, Prause tried to get a trial going at UCLA that would study orgasms in women who were, you know, actually alive. The board heard her out but wanted a promise that her test subjects ‘wouldn’t climax’ because they didn’t like the optics of women orgasming in their labs. (As you’ve already guessed, the study wasn’t approved.)”
Now it may seem obvious that studying orgasms without any orgasms to study would be nearly impossible, but there’s a long history of conflict or concern with how sex is studied, even when demand for information surrounding it is high. I highly recommend the 2004 film Kinsey with Liam Neeson for anyone who is interested in how groundbreaking studies in sex were achieved but also subject to national controversy.
The last reason proposed by Cosmopolitan that the G-spot has remained present in our modern discourses on sex for so long is its convenience for men, saying they “might love the idea of the G-spot best of all”:
“A G-spot orgasm requires penetration, which just so happens to be the way most guys prefer to get off. ‘If you’ve got a penis, it would be super convenient if the way the person with a vagina has pleasure is for you to put your penis in their vagina,’ says Emily Nagoski, Ph.D., author of Come as You Are, a book that explores the science of female sexuality. Related: 80 percent of the men in Cosmo’s survey said they believe every woman has a G-spot; nearly 60 percent called it the ‘best way’ for a female partner to achieve pleasure. (‘Once you rally enough experience like myself, you can find it on every girl,’ one supremely confident guy told us.)”
Before we unpack this puppy, and trust me, I know it’s loaded, we’re going to add one last item, probably the most important one, to our list:
It’s my very strong belief that the sex you deserve is sex you enjoy. I think this right is the culmination of all the other ones put together. I think you deserve to enjoy how it feels when you and a partner enthusiastically consent to each other. I think you deserve to enjoy how it feels to be safe and respected in a way that leaves you comfortable enough to focus on enjoying the things you know feel good to your own body, because you’re the expert on it. And if through some trial and error, something happens that you don’t enjoy, you deserve for both you and your partner to understand that you have the last word when it comes to determining what doesn’t feel good to you. And vice versa.
Because a partner who believes what’s convenient to their own pleasure over yours, who chooses a discourse that makes them the authority over what should and should not make you feel good, does not respect you, your body, or your feelings. And instead of referring to a person like that as “supremely confident” (I’m assuming Cosmo did so sarcastically) I think the words selfish, ignorant, egotistical, full of him/her/themself, and overcompensating are a better fit.
We’ve got more stats here – they’re painful, but they’re important:
“22 percent of guys say that finding a woman’s G-spot is the number one goal of sex, which helps explain the 31 percent of women who say they’re dealing with exasperated partners. Prause worries about that. She says: ‘You’ll hear guys say things like, ‘My last girlfriend wasn’t this much work,’ or ‘You take a long time to orgasm,’ or ‘This worked for the last person I slept with.’ That makes women question if they’re normal. And that, we hate.’”
Another quote from Nagoski sums it up perfectly (bolding is my own), “G-spot research, [created] this pressure for women to be orgasmic from vaginal stimulation even though most women’s bodies just aren’t wired that way. And if you really think about why vaginal stimulation matters so much, it’s because it puts the focus on male pleasure.”
How cruel is it, because that’s exactly what it is, to convince someone something is wrong with their body because it isn’t doing something it was never meant to do. Because to convince someone of that, means convincing them not to trust their instincts, their own physical sensations, that they’re not enough or something is missing, when in reality the only thing “wrong” is that they’re being told something that is entirely made up, or as Cosmo confessed, “a total lie about [their] own [body].
I have a few additional concerns with the article, including a few questions it did not answer—
Why now? Why 2020? There was no recent groundbreaking piece of evidence, no scientific breakthrough referenced. The most recent study listed was in 2017, and another that found no evidence of a G-spot was as old as 2006. So if this information has been available, why was Cosmo sitting on it for so long? Why not speak up sooner?
I’m also interested in how the survey was conducted. How many participants there were, how the questions were worded, how the other responses we didn’t see in the article were worded, and what information Cosmo provided to the participants after the study. The results aren’t exactly shocking, but I am curious to know what alternative responses offered besides superlatives like “number one goal” and “best way”.
In my own sympathetic way (even though he most likely doesn’t deserve it) I want to know that “supremely confident” guy wasn’t Borat-ed into sharing his highly unflattering views without being exposed to any of the research/information that was sitting there waiting to prove him wrong. My knee-jerk reaction is to ask, “Did they give ‘supremely confident’ guy an informative pamphlet or something afterward?”, but then I remember the pamphlets sent to me in hand-addressed envelopes from Jehovah’s Witnesses in my neighborhood and remember how they sometimes do a better job of solidifying existing beliefs rather than changing them. Maybe a copy of Mary Roach’s Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex would have been a better fit.
The article ends with another apology and a promise not to publish more “G-spot sex positions or ‘how to find it’ guides” “unless sex researchers make a surprisingly major breakthrough”.
I’m more interested to know what Cosmo is doing to course-correct than I am in the kind of writing they have decided to discontinue. Will they be funding or donating to researchers like Prause who would like to make major breakthroughs but are burdened with red tape? What kind of research, what kind of writing do they think it will take to lower the percentage of women experiencing the frustration, confusion, and anxiety described in the results of their survey? I’d love to hear how they are committed to making it happen.
I don’t mean to place all the burden on Cosmopolitan at this point. They’ve published an important and thought-provoking article, and I’m interested in participating in and continuing the conversation they’ve begun. I have some ideas of my own on what is already promoting, and can continue to promote the items on my list (remember all the media I’ve been consuming) which I’ll include again here in its entirety:
4. Authority over your own body
5. Knowledge of your own body
I enjoy comedies like Awkwafina is Nora From Queens that embrace women knowing what they like and celebrating the specificity and uniqueness that comes with it. There is an entire episode dedicated to Nora sacrificing her masturbation plans (which involve some marijuana, dim lighting, a self-care routine, Febreze, sex toys that resemble a trident and a magic wand the size of a small child, and a DVD of Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights) to spend time with her grandmother. The humor comes from the exaggeration within the routine, but the underlying message is one of a confident woman unashamed to enjoy a body she is familiar with.
Netflix’s Sex Education illustrates an alternative to the damage that long-term misinformation can wreck, portraying instead the positive changes that can take place when teens, who may be at a very crucial point in discovering their own bodies, are provided with accurate and reliable information about them. Insecurity and anxiety are dispelled, connections are made, respect is fostered. Young people become more comfortable with being themselves.
While all the sexual material in Pete Davidson’s stand up special Alive From New York may not be revolutionary, he does have some extremely poignant moments where he serves as a much-needed counterpoint to “supremely confident” guy. From emotional to physical respect he addresses examples where he’s deserved more, outlining how the ways Ariana Grande referred to him as a “distraction” and spoke about his genitals to the press may not have received the same backlash as similar comments would have if they had been spoken by a male in regards to a female.
He talks about wanting a partner to tell him what they enjoy and what they don’t, even if he uses extremely crass language to express it. He talks about parts of his own sexual experiences that were not enjoyable and even painful, cracking a joke that partners may not have been able to tell because “the enjoyment and the pain face are pretty much the same”, but here too, I think he deserves more.
Respect for a partner’s body should include being attentive to it, paying attention to the signals that communicate whether or not they may be enjoying something. And if a face isn’t enough to communicate discomfort, there should be plenty of other signals to be picked up on—wincing, breathing, noises, etc. All these non-verbals should create a conversation between two people so that consent, safety, respect, and enjoyment can continue to be confirmed via a feedback loop.
Dan Savage’s Hump Fest is an amateur porn film festival I’ve attended for the past four years with my closest friends, an event that is self-described as “a cornucopia of body types, shapes, ages, colors, sexualities, genders, kinks, and fetishes—all united by a shared spirit of sex-positivity”. It has opened my eyes to what I tried to open this discussion with – the idea that sex is a multitude of things to different people. It was top of mind as I first considered what might be included in a brass tacks of human decency in regards to sex, because the beauty of Hump is that its main purpose isn’t to turn you, the viewer, on, but to expose you to the variety of different ways that other people get turned on. Some may make you giggle. Some may shock you. Some may make you uncomfortable. But that is also the beauty of attending with friends and being able to react naturally, but respectfully, to what you are viewing.
I want to end with one final quote from Cosmo (bolding is my own) —
“‘What would truly be revolutionary for women’s sex lives is to engage with what research has found all along: the best predictors of sexual satisfaction are intimacy and connection,’ adds Debby Herbenick, Ph.D., a professor at Indiana University School of Public Health and a research fellow at the Kinsey Institute.”
Because, undoubtedly, the best part of Hump Fest is witnessing the intimacy and connection of a real-life feedback loop — a positive one, and it really has nothing to do with naked bodies, or genitalia, or porn; it’s in a smile, a spontaneous laugh, the way two people look at each other. You’ll see it in the split second it takes place, recognizing it for what it is, for just how real it is. Maybe that’s something that can’t be written into a “How To” guide. Maybe it’s just something you have to see or experience for yourself. But I think we all deserve it, just the same.