Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Non-critical critical thinking - the G-Spot

At least, in my opinion anyway.

First, you may have seen in the news that a study is due to be released that purports to show the G-Spot may not actually exist. The G-Spot has long been controversial since it was 'discovered'. Many women claim to have experienced it (just as many claim not to), researchers have claimed to show it exists and yet no physical characteristics have actually ever been shown to exist beyond scientific doubt - from what I can tell some of the claimed scientific evidence is questionable or debated and most of the other evidence is entirely subjective and anecdotal.

There is, as yet, no evidence for an actual physical part of the human body that is synonymous with the G-spot. Bear that in mind - there is no reliable scientific physical proof for the existence of a G-Spot. It is claimed to exist based almost entirely on anecdotal evidence. On subjective experience. There was a study performed by Italian scientists that claimed to show a thickening of the vaginal wall where the G-Spot is presumed to exist but the results were not conclusive, were based on presuming the G-Spot exists and were based on the subjective experience of the 20 participants in the study, which in itself is laughably small.

Of the 20 women in this study, only 9 claimed they could achieve a vaginal orgasm - and in these 9 the vaginal wall at the spot presumed to be the location of the G-Spot was, on average, thicker than the 11 women who said they could not achieve a vaginal orgasm. Once again, this is based almost entirely on subjective experience (the women deciding whether or not they can achieve a vaginal orgasm) and the presumption that the G-Spot actually exists and in the general area often ascribed to it. Other explanations for the thickening have been offered.

This study is pretty poor scientifically speaking, and yet it is really the best non-subjective evidence for the possible existence of the G-Spot that I could find. Note I am not saying here that there isn't a better study out there that gives physical evidence for the G-Spot, this is just the only one I could find during my brief research and it is often quoted as evidence for the G-Spot.

So, despite there being no significant evidence other than "Some women think they feel it" it is a widely held belief that the G-Spot exists. So, you can expect a study saying it probably doesn't to get some flak. It's also one of those areas that people are personally invested in - which might make it one of those areas where people who are otherwise critical thinkers abandon their critical thinking.

And I stumbled across what I think is one such case.

Early on, Jen at Blag Hag writes:

Well, I'll be damned. I was fairly certain from personal experience that G-spots do exist, but I can't argue with scientists, can I?
Personal anecdotes of a subjective experience aren't evidence - they're just the starting point at best, whether someone is fairly certain of them or not. From the start the conclusion is stated - I have experience of the G-Spot so it exists as far as I am concerned and I'm fairly certain of this. The implication is that therefore the study in question is wrong.

This is followed up with:
They must have carefully inspected all 1,800 of those British women (what a lucky grad student!), right?

First thing to note for me - from what I've read it seems most studies that claim to show the existence of the G-Spot are based on self reporting surveys as well- they don't carefully inspect the women involved either. If the failure to carefully inspect women in this study means it is bad science, that means most of the studies done to show the existence of the G-Spot that don't carefully inspect the women involved are also bad science (and Jen probably wouldn't disagree with this I'm sure). If this study can be discounted as evidence that the G-Spot doesn't exist for this reason, then those other studies can be discounted as evidence it does, for the same reason.

Second this study is one of the largest ever done on the existence of the G-Spot. That immediately makes it more interesting scientifically than many of the studies cited to show that the G-Spot does exist - certainly it doesn't make it right or conclusive though.
Next was the complaint that the survey was based on a questionnaire. The survey question was:
“Do you believe you have a so called G spot, a small area the size of a 20p coin on the front wall of your vagina that is sensitive to deep pressure?”

Jen's criticism of this methodology was:
...Alright boys and girls, it's time for a lesson on why this is "Bad Science."

Questionnaires are always a bit subjective and iffy - especially when asking someone about their anatomy.
OK - so there is a problem with the self reporting of subjective experience. We know. Clearly I have no problem with that, it's a cornerstone of criticisms of all things woo. However, since self-reporting of subjective experience is one of the primary methods used in studies that claim to show the G-Spot does exist, then if it is "Bad Science" to use it in this study it is "Bad Science" in all those other studies as well. You don't get to choose based on the results whether or not something is good methodology. If we can discount this study because it is based on a questionnaire then we can discount every study that shows the G-Spot does exist if it is based on self reporting as well. That would, incidentally, also include the assertion at the start of the Blag Hag blog post that began "I was fairly certain from personal experience..." That is self reporting of anatomy and therefore "a bit subjective and iffy".

Jen then writes:
Simply asking people if they have a G-spot doesn't confirm it's existence or lack thereof.
Precisely. That means that her personal experience doesn't prove the existence of the G-Spot. Nor does the personal experience of any other woman. That means that all those studies done that claim to show the G-Spot does exist don't actually show the G-Spot exists - they just show that many women think it does. Anecdotes merely suggest that there may be something going on.

She continues:
I can't believe that this study would rely on opinion rather than medically examining females to see if it is there or not.

If it is good enough for people who claim their personal experience proves the G-Spot exists, why is it not good enough here? Could it be because the answer isn't the one she wanted to hear? Could it be because she believes the G-Spot exists, and wants to find reasons to ignore this study? In a reply to me on her blog Jen points out quite rightly that if the researchers were looking at the physical existence of the G-Spot then they should have been doing physical exams of the studies participants rather than asking them a question and I whole heartedly agree - this is a problem with the study. My point is that studies that claim to show the G-Spot exists don't do this either and everyone seems happy to accept them. Why?
The fact that they didn't see any correlation in identical twins just illustrates that personal opinion about the existence of a G-spot is not genetically determined. Their initial logic that genetically identical twins should have identical sexual responses is flawed.
I both agree and disagree with this. The first part is true, and is inadvertantly making my point for me as well. The G-Spot's claimed existence is, at least for now, clearly based on personal opinion not scientific evidence. People are personally invested in it. People believe it exists based on subjective personal experience or what they've been told by others.
The second part I disagree with - there is apparently some basis for supposing that sexual response is genetic. I also read the reports intention in questioning twins to be investigating whether the G-Spot is a physical part of the body - determined by genes - not whether or not pyschological sexual responses are the same. If it is a physical part of the body then with identical twins if one reported having a G-Spot, then so should the other (although this would depend on whether or not both twins had a sexual experience that would stimulate the G-Spot, if it exists, and could be a methodological flaw in the study). We'll have to wait for the full study to see what the researchers meant and I'll reiterate Jen's valid criticism that the researchers needed to do a physical exam if they were really looking at the physical existence of the G-Spot.
The study also mentions something that isn't new - sexual response has a large environmental component - it showed that of the 56% of the women who claimed to have a G-Spot most were young and sexually active. In commenting on this Jen, I think, misses a very key point.
She says:
That makes perfect sense. Finding the G-spot isn't easy.
Again, the assumption that it actually exists. And what is this assumption based on? Why, the environmental component that is the widely held public assumption that the G-Spot exists. The presumption that the G-Spot exists is based on the social assumption that the G-Spot exists - it's environmental and it's circular. Some women have an intense sexual experience and presume it is down to the G-Spot because they've been told that if they have an intense sexual experience of a certain kind it could be down to the G-Spot, and the proof that the G-Spot exists is that some women have an intense sexual experience of a certain kind that could be due to the existence of the G-Spot. Environment clearly plays a part in the assumption that the G-Spot exists.
Finding the G-spot isn't easy. It usually takes a patient partner, sex positions other than missionary, or specialized sex toys - all of which are more likely to be found in younger, sexually active people.
Now Jen appears to be making assumptions to fit results from the survey to her preconcieved belief that the G-Spot exists. Likely to be found doesn't mean they were. The existence of the G-Spot is a self-reported factor - and self reporting is "a bit subjective and iffy".
What's more likely: that these women are partaking in activities that make them more likely to find their G-spot, or that the majority of women are all delusional about a specific area that causes intense pleasure?
You could just as equally ask this. What's more likely: that these women are partaking in activities that make them more likely to experience the occassional intense orgasm and other effects that they have been told to associate with the G-Spot and so presume they have a G-Spot and self report this as such adding to the communal reinforcement of the idea that the G-Spot exists even though there is no real proof it does; or that there is a part of the female body that not all women have or can feel, that appears to be undetectable by any scientific or medical means currently available to us, and that can only be found by a few patient and careful lovers (where's the scientific evidence that they exist in the numbers needed for starters?) or diligent and dedicated wankers with specialised toys (and probably, by now, hairy palms or faulty vision)?
And who said that women who believe they have a G-Spot are delusional? That's in fact a strawman. Everybody has differing sensitivities to differing erogenous zones - that a lot of women may be more sensitive in the general area now referred to as and assumed to be the G-Spot does not actually prove the physical existence of the G-Spot. Remember what has been said about the self reporting of anatomy and the subjective nature of sexual responses. And do I really have to remind skeptics, scientists or critical thinkers that mass delusions, publicly concieved misconceptions, legends, popular beliefs in the nonexistent and a whole host of cognitive and psychological reasons for believing in stuff that isn't true do exist? Does the fact that a lot of people believe in gods mean that gods exist? If a majority of women believed Qi exists would that mean it did? We aren't really going to use the argument from popularity to claim the G-Spot exists, are we?
I don't know about you, but if I'm going to hallucinate a pleasure button, I'm going to put it somewhere I little easier to reach.
The problem is, Jen didn't hallucinate a pleasure button, she simply attributes a subjective sexual response to something she's been told to attribute it to even though there is as yet no proof that it exists other than that lots of people believe it does. It's an example of begging the question. It's the same reason that religious children grow up with the religion of their parents - they're told to believe that. Jen rightly highlighted that sexual response has a large environmental component and then seems to ignore this fact and seems to believe that her personal experience is entirely independent of her environment.

Finally, one of the lead researchers on the study has been quoted as saying that she was anxious to remove feelings of 'inadequacy or underachievement' in women who didn't have (couldn't find/ don't believe they have should be added to this in my opinion) a G-Spot. Jen comments of this:
Yep, it's always great to go into research with an agenda and preconceived result in mind!

I think this is a little unfair, we don't know that this was the attitude the researcher went into the study with, but it could certainly be her reason for making it public. Furthermore, I think it ignores the fact that despite the evidence, or more correctly in spite of the evidence, Jen continues to believe the G-Spot does exist and her starting point with this study was that it must be wrong and that is how she looked at it - any study of the G-Spot begins with preconcieved notions.

I think the study in question is flawed, but no more so than most of the positive studies into the existence of the G-Spot that people seem happy to accept - so I'm forced to ask why this is the case. Do people look at the positive studies of the G-Spot as closely, and if not, why not? Why does subjective experience not count here when asserting the G-Spot probably does not exist, but does in asserting the G-Spot does exist? Why is critical thinking applied stringently to this study but not others?

If we discount this study for the reasons Jen gives we have to discount almost all, if not all, of the studies done that claim to show the G-Spot does exist. What does that leave us with? Merely the belief that the G-Spot exists based on subjective experience and the fact that 60 years ago someone said it did. Who, or rather what, came first?

I think some of the responses to this study just further highlight that, as I've said before, sometimes critical thinkers aren't when it is something they are personally invested in.


  1. In more news it turns out the 1982 work by Whipple and Perry that really started the G-Spot boom and popularised the phrase was based on, you guessed it, interviews! You know, "subjective and iffy" interviews.

    This article illustrates quite well what the problems are in taling about the G-Spot - peopleare now personally invested in its existence despite the lack of good evidence.

  2. I think you're right to go back and look at the origin of the idea. There is no anatomical indication for it, and only certain experiences which may be subjectively associated with the concept.

    I always heard that there was supposedly a palpable "slightly rough area" up in there, but I could never find it (not surprisingly).

    Pity, if it did exist, it would be the most plausible argument yet for Intelligent Design!

  3. Dr Novella has a good post about this over on Neurologica as well.

    My stance, because I didn't really state that in the OP, is that there may or may not be a G-Spot, there is no conclusive evidence either way but what evidence there is suggests to me that this is more likely to be subjective and psychological than physiological. Some women may be much more sensitive in certain areas of the vaginal wall but that doesn't mean that there is an actual part of the human body that we can refer to as the G-Spot.