The Female Penis, an Investigation
by Kathryn Doyle
The male sex anatomy, protruding and unabashed, has been relatively easy for anatomists to describe, dissect, label and move on. But the female anatomy — what the various parts are, where one starts and another stops, and what they do — has been harder to get at. Writers of hugely varying qualifications still proclaim there is a “key to achieving hands-free orgasm” or “proof that the G-spot does not exist” or “proof that the G-spot does exist and anyone who says it does not should be uninvited from your dinner party” in your Glamours and your Cosmopolitans and your Maries Claire.
Scientists are still investigating these questions, and a lot of other aspects of the human sexual experience. I know this because I am a freelance health journalist who covers many of these studies when they are published: I’ve written stories about the best way to measure one’s penis (flaccid and stretched); why it’s a bad idea to use petroleum jelly intravaginally (bacterial infections); and whether or not the HPV vaccine encourages riskier teen sex (nope). There’s no guarantee that every new contribution to sex research will move the field forward, and part of my job is to separate the good papers from the meh ones from the bad ones, most often for an oft-mispronounced wire service founded by a baron in 1851.
Last October, while working at a ranch house on Florida’s east coast, alternately checking emails, sitting by the pool, calling sources, and looking up periodically from the pool to check that the small dog hadn’t been snatched by an alligator from the nearby swamp, I received an extra assignment at the last the minute. I already had a full docket of assignments that week — eight seven-hundred-word news stories — but the assigning editor hoped I could squeeze it in because it needed to be “a bit tongue-in-cheek.”
In October of 2014, a pair of Italian researchers published a paper on the existence of the “female penis” in a special sex edition of the journal Clinical Anatomy. It’s not a top-tier journal, like the New England Journal of Medicine or the Journal of the American Medical Association, but it is peer-reviewed. The two authors had the same last name, which was odd but not unheard of — perhaps a Masters-of-Sex-style husband and wife team of sexologists who worked together investigating intimate matters of the boudoir. But the paper didn’t report the results of a study. No subjects had been recruited, no hypothesis was proffered, no statistical analysis had been performed. Instead, the paper was merely a long essay on how today’s sexologists are using the wrong terminology to talk about lady parts; it suggested, instead, a new terminology that re-centered the terms of the discussion around existing male nomenclature.
The researchers use a great deal of space to argue that most of the female sexual arousal area, instead of being referred to as the internal or external clitoris and attendant glands, as they are currently known, should be called the “female penis,” because the clitoris and the penis develop from the same undifferentiated cells in a blastocyst. The authors claim that what sexologists sometimes refer to as “clitoral bulbs” should in fact be called “vestibular bulbs,” and that the G-spot does not exist. Also, all women can only reach orgasm by clitoral stimulation manually or orally, but not during penis-in-vagina intercourse, and not via a “vaginal orgasm,” which again, definitively does not exist. Since vaginal orgasm does not exist, the duration of penile-vaginal intercourse is not important for a woman’s orgasm. Every woman is able to achieve a clitoral orgasm “if the clitoris is simply stimulated with a finger,” they write. To back their assertions, the authors relied on twelve diagrams, eleven of which came from their own previous publications and appeared to be hand-drawn — the twelfth came from Wikipedia. The diagrams were emphatically labelled with confrontational headings like “The G-Spot does not exist: is it a scientific fraud?” and “Vaginal orgasm does not exist.”
I emailed “Mr. and Mrs. Dr. Italian Name*” to set up an interview. The male doctor, who was the lead and corresponding author, responded that he did not speak enough English to have a phone conversation, but could answer a few questions in written form. I asked, among other questions, why the pair chose to tackle the subject now, if female sexual terminology has been neglected in the literature for a while, and if the G-spot and vaginal orgasm were both myths. But the only question I got a clear answer to was about the nature of the relationship between the pair. The answer was: “She’s my daughter.”
I only need one outside source for each story, since there’s not a lot of room in seven hundred words, but for this one I talked to six, including another sex researcher in Italy, a urologist at Yale, a private-practice urological surgeon in Australia, a surgeon who specializes in repairing female genital mutilation in France, a psychologist at Rutgers and a sexual health expert at the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction at Indiana University. They all told me pretty much the same thing.
Calling the “clitoral complex” the “female penis” isn’t technically wrong, but there’s little benefit in replacing one conceptual term with another, especially in order to introduce the word “penis.” The notion of a “vaginal orgasm” is another question entirely: The Italian authors believed this term should be thrown out in favor of “female orgasm,” because, according to their thesis, orgasm is only possible via the clitoris; in their argument, women only think they are having vaginal orgasms because they have been misled by the media. But this isn’t true. The psychology professor at Rutgers explained to me that stimulating the clitoris, vagina or cervix activates different areas of the sensory cortex in the brain. Women whose pudendal nerve — which carries sensation from the clitoris to the brain — has been cut can in some cases still experience orgasm from stimulation of the vagina or cervix, so the claim that women can only orgasm by clitoral stimulation is clearly wrong. (As for the “G-spot,” the experts agreed that we should probably phase that term out. “I don’t think very many scientists or urologists would argue that there is an actual G-spot,” the Yale urologist told me. “I don’t think it does any favors to women to refer to it as one spot, it’s probably a system of vascular structures that are all kind of interplaying.”)
In other words, the paper was bad and weird, and probably shouldn’t have been covered in the press at all, but I had to publish a story. Over a couple of sleepless nights I wrote it and sent it in. It was published on October 16th, and the Italian researcher must have been waiting for it to come out, because he contacted me the same day. He was mad, and he had my personal email so he could tell me about it several times a day. He copy/ pasted the whole story into an email and interpolated his commentary, with lots of ALL-CAPS and “???” and “THE G-SPOT DOES NOT EXIST…” type comments, which he wanted added to the story, post-haste. He said that he was going to sue the publication and me personally, and accused me of being a fake journalist — of being in the pocket of “big vagina” or part of a global conspiracy to silence his “research,” and of not caring about female sexual health. He said the media has been misleading women about how their bodies work and that I was a part of that now. The messages were constant, through weeks of new assignments. After the first three emails, I referred him to our legal department and stopped responding, but the messages — well, some contained no message at all, but the subject line “SHAME” — kept coming in.
His harassing emails continued through November, but by December he stopped bothering with me and focused on higher-ups at the company, so I didn’t see the correspondence any more. He found my Twitter account, but going back now, I can’t find his messages from a year ago, which is probably for the best. Nothing more came of the legal threats,to at least I didn’t hear any more about them. He got entangled in a similar situation with a Guardian journalist, also a woman, several months ago, and I sent her a note of solidarity, which felt kind of like closure.
But fighting with a man I’d never met and couldn’t talk to who was thousands of miles away, about being a woman, no less, played perfectly on my underlying fear that I might be “doing it wrong” in all areas of my life, socially, professionally, and sexually. Publicly defending an idea that turns out to be incorrect is one of my biggest personal fears — like that scene in Jaws 2 where Brody sees a shadow offshore and evacuates the beach, actually taking out a gun and shooting the ocean, but it turns out it was just a school of bluefish. Did I shoot at a shark that turned out to be a badly translated but basically harmless bluefish, even though I felt in my gut it was a shark, and several shark experts came and looked and agreed it was definitely a shark?
In the end, I’m 99.999999 percent sure, like an asymptote where the limit is “a hundred percent” sure, that I was right about this, about the guy, about his theories. But did I win? I know he’ll always be out there, just like “SHAME” is somewhere in my deeply archived emails; every woman has some version of that man and that email, dictating their experience with supreme confidence and even rage, somewhere in their life and in their inbox. As a journalist, I’m supposed to present a view from nowhere, but I can’t help that I am, biologically, in the pocket of “big vagina.” So sue me. Oh, you might? Great.
*I am omitting their names for obvious Google Alert reasons
Photo by Alias 0591