By columnist Diana Pearson
At the end of October, online media exploded with the headlines “MALE BIRTH CONTROL INJECTIONS HALTED BECAUSE MEN ARE WIMPS” and “Male Birth Control Study Killed After Men Report Side Effects.”
These are perfect examples of how online media headlines can be reactionary, simplistic and blown out of proportion. A mere day or two after these headlines, high-profile media outlets like The Globe & Mail, The New York Times, and Vox, took great pains to explain this study to the general public. In a nutshell: men are not wimps. While male birth control injections showed a 96 percent pregnancy prevention rate, the World Health Organization (WHO) suggested discontinuing the study because of numerous adverse side effects, including mood disorders, increased libido, mood swings, and muscle pain. While the injections show promise for effective male birth control, the technology needs to be refined.
This scenario is all too common. Reactionary media outlets in search for click-bait obscure the complexity of scientific studies. It’s not that men are wimps. This reactionary approach is very misleading.
When news media falls victim to marketing impulses public knowledge is harmed. The general public relies on media to explain complicated issues. It’s really hard for any individual to wade through the daily inundation of online media coverage to sort out what is good, valuable, and what is real. It takes time, effort, critical literacy, and access to scientific journals to be able to fact check headlines. Not everyone has the access, time, nor skill to do this.
But of course, few issues are ever black and white. So, what happens when we go looking for the shades of grey, only to find that the studies themselves could be the problem? While it is necessary to critique media, the problem is bigger than this. In this expose I look at the ways online media and scientific method both promote confusion. The strategy employed by both is the technique of invalidating lived experiences. The example of “men are wimps” is a striking example, but I’m going to show that both media and science invalidate my lived experience, as a woman, all the time. I am going to show you how both my G-spot and my experience of PMS are being denied.
Finding the G-spot relies on Scanners, Surveys, and Sample Size, not Sex
“Scientifically proven” is considered to be the gold standard, equated with ultimate Truth. We are told that because scientific methods are objective, unbiased, and neutral, they are the most valuable way to uncover knowledge (“science says…”). While these methods have forwarded undeniable progress, the history of scientific medicine has also posed ethical concerns: who do these studies benefit, who do they exclude, for what benefit, and at what cost?
Take the G-spot for example. The G-spot refers to a sensitive area on the front (anterior) wall of a woman’s vagina. Some women find stimulation of this area highly pleasurable, others find it irritating, and some simply say “meh.” In 2014, sexology researcher Emmanuele Jannini termed this region the clitourethrovaginal (CUV) complex, a term that feels fitting as it recognizes women’s pleasure centres as complex systems, instead of as a button to push. This is a progressive, complex look at women’s pleasure response. Unfortunately, many researchers in this field fail to take the same, systems-based outlook, and the G-spot is a point of hostile contention amongst some gynaecology researchers; some insist it exists, some insist it does not.
Last spring, I came across a shocking headline that read “The G-Spot and ‘Vaginal Orgasm’ Are Myths, According To New Clinical Review”. I dug deeper. This online report suggested it’s time women stop searching for their G-spot, that it’s “old news”, and that “it’s time to put this sex myth to bed.” It turns out the study reviewed 60 years worth of research and concluded that though most women “believe” they have it, not many of them were able to locate it. Researchers fail to find a distinct anatomical structure; media reports tell women their search for pleasure is futile.
Another researcher, Dr. Adam Ostrzenski, wanted to prove its existence. Disclaimer: this is gross. In 2012 he published a report of having “discovered” the G-spot by dissecting a “distinct anatomical structure,” rope-like in texture and grapish blue in colour, from a cadavre’s vaginal wall. He was condemned by fellow researchers in his field because this dissection was considered unethical, uninformed medical practice and this anatomical structure could have been pathological (a tumour, a deformity, or variance in body structure). Despite this critique, he was featured on a popular talk show, The VIEW, and as it turns out, he runs a gyno-cosmetic surgery clinic where G-spot plasty (G-spot enhancement surgery) is one of the available and very profitable procedures. Conflict of interest? I think so.
Two researchers (Puppo & Puppo) published a paper in 2014, where they reported in upper-case letters that THE VAGINAL ORGASM DOES NOT EXIST; in fact, they report that a woman’s anterior vaginal wall (area of the G-spot) is so insensitive that women feel no pain during surgical procedures in this area. Further, with fervent language they demand people start calling the clitoris what it is–“The Female Penis”–and are also concerned that the myth of the G-spot is damaging to men; perhaps hetero men wouldn’t suffer from premature ejaculation if they didn’t have to spend so damn long poking around down there for something that doesn’t exist. One wonders how this kind of content gets passes through a peer-review.
Whatever you want to call it, this erogenous zone has been recognized for thousands of years (it wasn’t termed “G-spot” until the ’50s). I think these scenarios highlight our society’s continued deep cultural confusion about women’s bodies. It also highlights the way biases can sneak their way into what should be a neutral, objective, and rigorous method of study. It shows that ethics is not an inherent characteristic of the scientific method, and that women’s orgasm processes need to be viewed as complex and diverse.
PMS: Science Fact or Science Fiction?
Another example of the way women’s bodies are being misrepresented in scientific studies and simplified in the media is PMS. PMS, which stands for pre-menstrual syndrome, refers to a phase before menstruation starts. There are over 150 documented symptoms of PMS, including: anxiety, depression, bloating, aching, cramps, headache, fatigue, increased appetite, rage, exhaustion, mood swings, crying spells, and more. Some women do not experience negative symptoms, but most suffer somewhere on the spectrum, feeling disgruntled, hopeless, anxious, and melancholy until we finally start to bleed. It’s important to note that five to 10 percent of women suffer these symptoms to an extreme, and are diagnosed with PMDD (pre-menstrual dysphoric disorder).
Usually, these symptoms lighten up when Aunt Flo (menstruation) comes to town. So snide retorts of “are you on your period?” when a woman is assertive is not just sexist, but also inaccurate (that being said, menstruation comes with its own symptoms of cramping, bloating, cravings, and fatigue, which is enough to make any girl crabby).
But in 2012, the reductive headlines struck again: “PMS May Not Exist, New Study Finds” and “New Research suggests premenstrual syndrome is a myth.” This study, led by a team of Toronto researchers, collected mood reports from 100 women over a six-month phase, and is currently featured on the Canadian Institute for Health Research (CIHR) page (“PMS: Science Fact or Science Fiction?”). The results show that “mood changes are almost always linked to the menses phase alone or the menses and premenstrual phases combined, not the premenstruum alone.” Doesn’t this mean that behavioural changes do occur?
One of the researchers, Gillian Einstein, suggests that North American women are so trained to expect PMS that by the time they reach womanhood, they believe they have it; in other words, cultural ideas of PMS are little more than a placebo effect.
I scoured through the study in a rage. I hit a language barrier; the use of standard deviations, multivariate approaches, parameter estimates of affects, and periodicity analysis made it impossible for me to understand. What do I know? Not much, except that for me, these symptoms are not simply result of a “placebo effect.”
Einstein says that one of her goals is to debunk the myth that women are irrational and unstable. I get it. We’re sick of being dismissed. But one of their findings suggests that women stop looking to hormones as the cause of emotional disruption in order to look to the “real causes” of our negative moods, such as personal relationships, physical health, and social factors. Creating binaries (does/does not exist) is socially irresponsible and lends to the invalidation of women’s lived experiences, depending on which side of the bell curve they land. By stating boldly that PMS doesn’t exist is to give men (and women) ammunition to invalidate the voices of countless women who suffer real, severe, and sometimes life-altering mood symptoms approximately one week a month for their entire adult life.
Putting the pieces together
Yes, the “men are wimps” backlash was frustratingly oversimplified. But why is it that high-profile media outlets are so quick to defend men’s integrity and physical bodies, while women have been trivialized for decades over life-altering side effects of birth control, such as anxiety, depression, risk of liver damage, blood clot, and stroke, and decreased bone density, to name a select few? Controversial headlines about women are everywhere and as a result, both men and women continue to be confused about how our bodies work.
These instances of confusion about women’s bodies in scientific study and perpetuated by social media are a kind of sex inequality not so easily described as “men vs. women.” I see these studies as being methodologically inadequate; it is a paradox, because the very methods which have successfully forwarded scientific progress are the same methods that end up categorizing bodies into “normal” and “abnormal.”
What can be done? I conclude this article by forwarding two pieces of advice from prominent women’s health professionals. Dr. Beverly Whipple, author of The G-Spot: and other Discoveries about Human Sexuality (1982), says, “it behooves researchers to listen to women and then to validate their pleasurable sensual and sexual experiences in laboratory studies”. Starting from a place of ethics, education and awareness of diversity is essential. Finally, refining a systems-based approach in scientific research methods is necessary. I sign off with the words of VIU’s Women’s History Professor Cheryl Warsh: “Uncertainties, irregularities, mysteries, and unexpected consequences–the stories of women’s health, as indeed life itself, are complicated, messy, and even chaotic. Perhaps it is time to embrace the chaos instead of prescribing what the norms of a woman’s life should be.”
One of Diana’s passions is to encourage sex-positivity and open, shameless conversations about sex and sexuality through her column, “Dirtyin’ The Nav.” Her future path includes completing a Masters in Gender Studies and Social Justice, and teaching pleasure-based sex education. She is a non-fiction writer and a musician. As a copy editor, she revels in making The Nav look pretty.