Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Triple O?

I missed Oprah last week when Dr. Laura Berman was on but I was alerted to it when someone asked me a question about the show. I'm very much aware of Dr. Berman. She has a background in social work, health education, sex therapy and psychiatry. She definitely does have knowledge and experience in sexual health, sex counselling and sexual pleasure.

I am little leary of some of the things Laura Berman does though because she's so very much in the media. She got famous through Oprah, who had her on the show many times several years ago, and she has been on countless TV shows, and in many magazines since then. The trouble with that is that talk shows and magazines are usually looking for the simple answers, the boiled down sound bites, the stuff that is easy to understand and easy to digest. Laura Berman is quite happy to provide that. I think it leads to a belief that sexuality is less complex than it really is. Whether she intends to or not, she does end up giving some over-simplified and stereotypical information. This was the case here.

The question I was asked was about Dr. Berman's explanation of the 3 different types of orgasm, and how exactly one can tell the difference between a G-spot and clitoral orgasm. I looked at Oprah's website and read the summary of the show to catch up. Again, I can see the truth in what she's saying but it so over-simplified that it becomes a problem.

The idea of three different types of female orgasm goes back to Sigmund Freud. He claimed there were only two though, because he didn't know about the G-spot. Later, when Grafenberg put forth the idea of the G-spot, we started hearing that there were three different types. Later still, we started hearing that a G-spot orgasm is accompanied by ejaculation.

There are two points that I think are very important for women to understand about this idea of three different orgasms. First, is that it is rooted in Freud's theories and when he came up with the idea, it was very thinly veiled misogyny. His idea was that woman can have an orgasm by clitoral stimulation alone, but this is a less mature, less valid type of orgasm than the vaginal orgasm - which can only be obtained through penetrative sex with a man. The second thing to understand is that this idea is not based on real scientific research but rather on surveys and on opinion. We don't actually know exactly what it is that causes a woman to have an orgasm. It's a complex set of factors including different types of physical and mental stimulation and emotion and environment. Women themselves have a very hard time being accurate about exactly what it was that made them have an orgasm - they might know the activity or the position but they usually cannot tell if they had an orgasm because the clitoris was being stimulated or because the G-spot was or because everything was. Separating it out like that is not really valid, and, I believe, not particularly helpful.

My concern with the idea of three different types of orgasm is that we are saying that one is better than the other. It sets women up to be unhappy with their sex lives and always wondering what they are missing out on, or if they are not good enough because they haven't experienced this or that type of orgasm.

My belief is that there are many different ways to have an orgasm and pretty much every one feels different, but there is no actual delineation of three distinct types. Bear in mind that this is my opinion. This is based on personal experience, years of talking to women about their experiences, and lots of research and study on sexuality.

The clitoris is an amazing organ. We used to believe that it consisted essentially only of the parts we can see externally. Medical study has shown that the clitoris actually has very deep nerve roots that extend from the glans all the way down either side of the labia, ending close to the perineum. It appears also that the clitoral tissue covers a much larger area than what we can see and extends down into the vaginal wall - this is new information that we don't have conclusive evidence of yet. So, based on that information, my belief is that the vast majority of physical sexual pleasure for women comes from either direct or indirect stimulation of the clitoral tissue. It may seem like an orgasm happened just from vaginal penetration but that action was creating stimulation of clitoral tissue. The same with the G-spot. I'm not at all saying that penetration and G-spot stimulation are not pleasurable on their own, I'm just proposing that the clitoris is often involved.

One last point I want to make on this - about ejaculation. It has come to the point now where the idea of female ejaculation has been accepted as a fact but the truth is that we still have no solid understanding of what this actually is. Again, my concern is that women are being told that if they have a G-spot orgasm, they will ejaculate and that this is the ultimate in sexual pleasure. It's just not true. Everyone is different. some women don't even enjoy G-spot stimulation. And ejaculation is not a common experience. Some women report that this has happened to them, and that's valid. But any of the theories on what female ejaculate actually is and where it comes from are exactly that, theories. I prefer a more open view of sexuality that says that there is no one thing to strive for, but rather to explore and enjoy what you find along the way. If you ejaculate, then that's what your body does, and that's wonderful. If you don't, then that's what your body does, and that's wonderful too.

I am also leary of Laura Berman because she has given California Exotics, one of the biggest sex toy manufacturers in the world (possibly the biggest), the right to use her name on a line of toys. While the toys are not the worst in the world, they are certainly not the best. Some of them, like the pelvic exercises and the clitoral pump are things that she endorsed in one of her books (before her toy line came out), so I can see the point behind those. But now the line also includes all kinds of generic sex toys that look the same as other, poor quality Cal Exotics toys, except that they have Laura Berman's name on them.

And here's my other concern about Dr. Laura Berman, she has given her name to a line of toys produced by California Exotic - one of the largest toy makers in the world and notorious for very cheap toys, often knock-offs of better quality toys. I know that I'm a toy snob, but I think that if you actually care about putting a product on the market that supports your belief of what toys should do, and supports your commitment to healthy sexuality, you should do it wholeheartedly and either go to a toy company that produces the best toys, or start your own manufacturing division. My suspicion is that she simply sold her name to Cal Exotics because they asked her to or vice versa.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Ding Dong the Today Sponge is Dead

Okay, this has nothing to do with sex advice but I just cannot let this one go without commenting on it. In my routine readings of sexual health news, I discovered that the company that now owns the 'Today' Sponge has filed for bankruptcy. Woohoo!!!! Why in the world, you might ask, would that make me happy? Well, I hate the Today sponge. I know hate is a strong word but that is how I feel. I truly hate it.

Some women, and even some sexual health care providers think the sponge is great because it's so easy to use and it's great for women who have partners who wouldn't agree to using condoms. And that would be true if it actually was a good alternative.

But here's what I hate about the sponge. First of all, it's nowhere near as effective as other methods. It's actual use effectiveness rate for birth control is somewhere between 84% and 68%, with the lower rate applying to women who have already had children. The actual use effectiveness rate for condoms is 85%, for the pill, it's 92%. So relying solely on the sponge for contraception, is not really a good idea.

The main thing I have against the sponge is the unbelievable amount of non-oxynol 9 it contains. Non-oxynol 9 is a the most commonly used spermicide. It definitely kills sperm but it all kinds of other things. N-9 is an industrial solvent. Should we really be putting a sperm soaked with industrial solvent into our vaginas? I don't think so. I used to be a big proponent of N-9 because I thought it offered women more control and more options for contraception, particularly if they were in situations where they couldn't say no to sex without a condom. But after several studies came out showing the N-9 actually INCREASES a woman's chance of contracting sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, I changed my mind. There was a lot of controversy about this to start with, with some studies showing a potential protective effect, but with more studies done, it became clear that women who use products that contain a large dose of N-9, and use them often, have a significantly increased risk of contracting STI's. This is because N-9 is so irritating, that it will cause abrasions in the vaginal tissues that allow bacteria and viruses to enter. The sponge contains the highest amount of N-9 of any spermicidal product on the market, 1000 mg - almost 10 times higher than any other product.

Now I know it can't be proved that the sponge causes STI's, but I do think the evidence should give us all cause for concern. When Allendale Pharmaceuticals bought the rights to the sponge and began re-introducing it to the North American market in 1999, I wrote to their marketing director and asked if they had any plans to include the information about the clinical studies and risks in their packaging. He, of course, said no. He told me that the packaging clearly states that the sponge does not prevent STI's and that is sufficient. I pointed out that there is a big difference between not preventing STI's and helping to cause them and that perhaps a company that is planning to market a product that contains the largest dose of N-9 on the market should clue women into the fact that large doses of N-9 have been shown to increase the risk of contracting STI's. He did not agree. What about women who have HIV+ partners? Shouldn't they know this? What about women who have lots of partners or work in the sex trade? Shouldn't they know this?

In searching for more information on the joyous death of the sponge, I discovered that the company that bought the sponge from Allendale, Synova, had just begun a multi-million-dollar re-branding campaign to boost sales of the sponge, before they declared bankruptcy. They put out a 'hip' website and redesigned the package, to try to grab women's attention.

Here's an excerpt from a New York Times article from last summer:
Barry Schmader, executive vice president and creative director of Synova’s advertising agency, Dudnyk, of Horsham, Pa., said the new colors and graphics were chosen to create “high impact” and to help the Today Sponge compete on store shelves, especially with condoms. “We need to stand out on the contraceptive shelf space and compete for presence,” he said

The idea that they wanted the sponge to compete with condoms makes me want to vomit. When given the choice over using condoms or using a sponge, there is no choice. Condoms are much more effective and they provide excellent prevention against most STI's. The sponge has a poorer effectiveness rate and provides no protection, may even increase the risk, for STI's. The fact that they launched a marketing campaign to try to get women to buy sponges instead of condoms is unbelievable to me. If women want to use the sponge as a backup method to other contraceptives, that's fine, but they are no replacement for condoms. Women don't get enough information on how contraceptives really work and what the best options are in the first place. The last thing we need is more marketing designed to make up our minds for us!

So I celebrate the death of the Today Sponge. Clearly, several companies have felt that there was enough profit potential in it for them to invest ridiculous amounts of money in, so I'm sure it's only a matter of time before we see it again.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Look Mom, No Hands!

If you aren't a regular reader of Andrea Nemerson's weekly sex advice column, Alt.Sex, you probably should be. Andrea is one of the few 'sexperts' that I think really has it together. Her advice is funny, direct, and she knows what she's talking about. You can find her in the Vue in Edmonton and on her site at altsexcolumn.com. This weeks' column was even funnier than usual and pretty good. But Andrea is not a immersed in toys as those of us who play with them for a living, so her advice to this frustrated toy user could have been a little more complete. The letter was from a woman who loves G-spot play but hasn't been able to have an orgasm because the sensations she creates with her toy are too intense for her to continue to hold on to her toy! There are a few really good options to get her where she really wants to be and unfortunately, Andrea's suggestion of the Rabbit Pearl, is not one of them. The Rabbit just isn't the right shape, size, and motion for the kind of G-spot action she's looking for. She also suggested a Snugglepuss. Although I LOVE, (did I mention LOVE?) the Snugglepuss, I don't think it's a toy this letter-writer would get the most out of. The Snuggle is inserted and then is moved by rocking back and forth. This gal likes to move her G-spot toy in and out at a very rapid rate. I doubt the Snuggle would give her the intensity she's looking for, although it could open up a whole new world for her.

What I would suggest is getting either a Thumbelina, which would give the constant G-spot massage along with strong clitoral vibration, and perhaps get the job done a lot quicker, or getting a base for her G-spot toy so that she can use it hands-free. Andrea mentioned a thigh harness - not a bad idea but a thigh harness is only large enough to attach to the arm of a chair, not to strap to a bed - so it might be difficult to manage. I would suggest the new Dildo Anchor Pad from Sportsheets. This is a velcro pad with holes in it that will secure a toy with a flared based. The pad is made to be used with the Sportsheets Bondage BedSheets but will work on any flannel or jersey material. This overtop of a firm pillow could hold her toy in place. The best suggestion I have is a new product from a company called Love Bumper. They make firm pillows for sex positioning. We hope to bring Love Bumpers in soon, but for now, you can get them at their site. The Love Bumper 'Lil Pony' would be perfect. This is a firm pillow that you straddle and you can fit a vibrator into the pocket on top. I think it's a perfect choice for this situation. Hands-free, restriction-free toy use. And thankfully, Love Bumpers are washable.