Thursday, February 26, 2009


I'm spending my afternoon immersed in 'sex research'. I'm a member of the New View listserve which is a group of people who are interested in women's sexual health and are concerned about attempts to over-medicalize it. Through this wonderful listerve with all of these fabulous, and very knowledgeable people, I'm learning a lot about research on sex and sexuality and how it's conducted. Every few days, one of the members will send out a link to an article in a popular magazine, journal, or newspaper about some new sex research. At first glance, these articles seem like simple lifestyle news pieces - just quoting some new study that's come out. But I'm learning to take a much closer look at what these articles are really saying and the effect they might be having on us.

If we think that newspapers and magazines are really there to inform us, we are kidding ourselves. Most mainstream newspapers and magazines are there to sell ad space and they do that by getting readers. They get readers by finding content that will grab reader's attention. And believe it or not, a lot of sex researchers want the media's attention so they want to present their findings in a way that will appeal to the readers of the media. So guess what happens? A study that may have shown some interesting findings, that are complex and nuanced, and certainly cause for further research, gets boiled down to a 10 word headline and a 500 word article that's easy to digest. Why? Because the media don't think their readers want the whole, complex, nuanced story. They think they want something they can read on the toilet in 10 minutes and feel like they learned something valuable.

So a study that looked at 30 women and found that many of them reported greater sensitivity in a certain area in their vagina under certain circumstances becomes 'Sex Researchers Find the G-spot'. And in the case of this last one I read, a study which looked at physical and psychological arousal in both men and women, and resulted in rather complex results needing much study and interpretation, got boiled down to 'What Do Women Want?'. And even though the article was rather long, it focused mostly on what the researcher looks like and what she personally thinks, rather than what she actually found. So much more interesting to read than a bunch of data. The story concludes that we can never know what women want. Then why the study and why the article about it?

The problem here is that for most of us, mainstream media is the only regular access we have to sex research. Most of don't actively seek this stuff out. We don't read medical journals. The only time we see anything about sex research is when some study makes it into the papers. When we see it there, the study and the researcher, and usually the university s/he works for is cited. It makes the conclusions seem ever so scientific and authoritative. But those conclusions often don't appear in the actual study at all. They are simply headlines and sound bites put together by the person who sent out the press release, or by the person who wrote the story. You have to go and find the actual study to find out what it was really all about. A newspaper article might say that a given study showed that 40% of women can't have a vaginal orgasm (there have been several studies that have been reported as finding such a result). What the article doesn't say is that the study only surveyed 40 women. It doesn't tell you that those 40 women were just given a self-report survey to fill out. It doesn't tell you that the survey did not ask them detailed questions about what they considered the term 'vaginal orgasm' to mean. It doesn't tell you that the women were never given any kind of physical exam and never underwent any clinical testing to see if they were having orgasms. So really, what the study tell us is that 16 out of 40 women who took a survey we know nothing about said that they believed they didn't have vaginal orgasms. And yet women everywhere read that only 40% of women can have vaginal orgasms. Now we all start thinking that we have a problem just like these women and we need to do something about it. Inevitably, the story will include, or be followed up by, possible remedies for this problem that 40% of us are now deemed to have.

We have to be so very careful about what we accept as 'science' and 'fact'. Whenever I see these types of headlines in the news, I try my best to find the original study and find out what it was really all about. There are so many agendas going on in the field of sexual health research, especially when it relates to women and their behavior. We have to be very careful that what's presented to us in the media isn't simply a convoluted attempt to make us buy a drug, or a product, or a cosmetic procedure, or to try to make us act in a certain way. We are constantly being told that there is something wrong with us. And there is always someone waiting there with the cure.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Doctor Prescribes Warm Water for Orgasms

So last week I watched 'The Doctors' for the first time. If you're not familiar, this is a show that features several physicians (one of which was on the bachelor and, in my opinion, made the worst choice in bachelor history - but that's another story) talking about health related issues. It's produced by Dr. Phil McGraw and his son Jay - so that should give you a clue. I have heard many people in the last few months rave about 'The Doctors' and I got a message from Dorrie Lane, the maker of the Wondrous Vulva Puppet, that the puppet was going to be featured on last Monday's show. So I watched. But I was only able to catch the last half so either I missed the Vulva Puppet or I got the wrong day. What I did catch was very strange and very confusing.

The 30 minutes that I saw was a segment on 'The Most Shocking Health Care Trends'. One of them was the growing trend of taking children for beauty spa treatments. Clearly, years of selling sex toys for a living has upped the ante on what I consider shocking. Who really cares if someone takes their kid to the spa? It's their money to waste. What was weird to me was that this 'shocking' trend was obviously included so as to plug the spa for kids - which was featured very prominently. In fact, there were no less than 6 blatant ads for products or companies in this 30 minutes portion of the show. It's not an informational show, it's an infomercial.

I digress, the point here is that they did talk about something 'shocking' related to sex. Number one of the most shocking healthcare trends was the 'Orgasmatron'. This is a device that is surgically implanted into the back and sends electrical impulses into the sacral nerve, thereby creating the sensation of having an orgasm. 'The Doctors' talked about this for about 45 seconds - just long enough to make several lame jokes. They did not explain much at all about what the orgasmatron is, how it was developed and who it is best for. One of 'The Doctors' said that it is only for women who are able to have an orgasm. WTF? That made no sense. I think what he meant was that women who have severe nerve damage will not benefit from the device. But that's not what he said. His comment makes it sound like there are women who are just flat out not able to have an orgasm and this this orgasmatron that makes you have an orgasm will only work for women who already can have them. He also said it was a last resort option. At $23,000 a pop, I would guess so.

The second doctor (Travis, the bachelor) said that there are many options to try before doing something like this. Good point Travis! His solution. 'There are lots of stimulating creams available on the market'. Great idea Travis! Do you really think that if you have such trouble with sexual response that you're considering surgically implanting a device, a tingling lube is going to do the trick instead? These doctors clearly don't have the slightest clue what orgasm really is and how it works. Warming or tingling lubes don't make you have orgasms, they just make you feel all warm and tingly.

The third doctor's idea was the best. She suggested warm water. I can't, for the life of me, figure out what you're supposed to do with that water. My co-worker, Amber, thought perhaps she meant warm water shooting out of a handheld shower head directly onto the clitoris. In that case I can understand. That can definitely cause an orgasm.

I went and googled the 'Orgasmatron' and here's what I found out:
- it is, indeed, a device that was invented to help restore feeling for those with nerve damage and spinal cord injury
- the stimulation of sexual pleasure was a side effect found by many recipients and now the makers of the thing are looking at marketing it for that purpose
- the device does not allow to you have orgasms when you're having sex, rather, when it's turned on, it emits eletrcial impulses into the sacracal nerve and this can send a signal to the brain that's the same as the sensation of having an orgasm - this is not at all a device that will help you have an orgasm during sex, it does it all on it's own

I don't think there's anything wrong with what essentially amounts to an extremely expensive sex toy. Obviously, I'm all for sex toys. It's just that 'The Doctors' made it sound like something very different than what it actually is. And that's the problem with most of these shows. When they have to boil everything down to 45 second sound bites, the information is invariably ripe for misinterpretation.

If you think the Orgasmatron might be right for you, you'll need to google it like I did. It's not a toy we'll be carrying in the store.