Research by several Belgium sexologists that focuses on determining a woman’s experiences with vaginal orgasm from her walk gained media attention in the United States this year. Neither the research nor the fascination with women’s sexual pleasure and orgasm is new. The research itself was published in 2008 in the Journal of Sexual Medicine and authored by Aurelie Nicholas, Drs. Stuart Brody, Pascal de Sutter, and François de Carufel. A 6-page analysis of the original researcher was published under the title, “A Woman’s History of Vaginal Orgasm is Discernible from Her Walk.”
Researchers had a sample of 16 university psychology students who they identified as “female.” The women volunteered to participate in the research and completed a questionnaire. One question asked women how often they reported having vaginal orgasms as “always,” “often,” “rarely,” and “never.” A woman on the research team was assigned to work with the research subjects as each was asked to walk 100 m while being filmed. The women were first told to think pleasant thoughts “of being on a vacation beach” and then to walk the same distance again but this time “while thinking of being in the same locale but in the company of a man for whom she had thoughts of love.”
The videos were rated by professors of sexology who were trained in Functional-Sexological therapies (“incorporates retraining of muscle use, body movement, and breathing for intercourse-based treatment”) as well as two women research assistants. They judged the videos based on “global impression of the women’s free, fluid, energetic, sensual manner of walking (with an emphasis on energy flow through the rotation of the pelvis and the spine).” The trained sexologists were able to correctly conclude which women had experienced vaginal orgasm with only two “false positives.” They concluded that these findings support past findings and show that women with “vaginal orgasm have better psychological function than women without vaginal orgasm (even if they have clitoral orgasm).” Researchers rationalized the two false positives by suggesting that those two women might “have the capacity for vaginal orgasm, but have not yet had sufficient experience or met a man of sufficient quality to induce vaginal orgasm.”
It is very easy to critique this work as there are many areas and variables not discussed such as:
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- Sex and gender: “Woman” is used to define people whose sex assigned at birth is female and who identify as woman. Unfortunately, this confuses the two and does not recognize the difference between sex and gender, nor does it include trans or intersex people as it reinforces a gender and sex binary.
- Race and class: There is no discussion of race or class of the participants which leaves the reader to make assumptions based on the national origin of the participants who were students at a Belgium University.
- Sexual orientation: The work is heterosexist and is used to reinforce heterosexism within the field of sexology, to connect sexual pleasure for women solely with heterosexual sex. In turn it is extremely misogynistic. To claim that a woman needs penile-vaginal penetrative intercourse to experience a vaginal orgasm ignores a huge population of people who have vulvas and vaginas and do not or cannot have penile-vaginal intercourse. There are many other forms of vaginal penetration that may lead to vaginal orgasm.
- Sexual dysfunction: The study perpetuates a field of research on women’s sexual dysfunction attached to vaginal orgasm only. This focus ignores the pleasure some women may experience from clitoral stimulation as well as orgasm from other forms of tactile activity. Thus, it creates an emphasis/elevation of vaginal orgasm over all other forms of pleasure and orgasm.
- Physical ability: The research is “ableist” as it only examines women who are able to walk and be mobile in a particular way. There is no discussion of women who are mobile in different ways.
- Penis size: One of the conclusions regarding a woman’s lack of vaginal orgasm is connected to “the possible anatomical issue of whether her man has a penis of sufficient length to produce cervical buffeting, and the issue of whether the man maintains his erection…intercourse orgasm with men displaying indicators of greater genetic fitness (including physical attractiveness).” This places blame on a man and continues to reinforce the idea/myth that the size of a man’s penis is what determines his partner’s satisfaction.
Despite these flaws, it is an interesting article to read (leave a comment with a way to contact you if you’d like to read the original piece and do not have access). The physiological discussion of the autonomic nervous system, somatic nervous system, and parasympathetic nervous system regarding vaginal and clitoral orgasm is useful. In fact, the one time the authors mention different abilities is when discussing how “women with a completely severed spinal cord can have vaginal-cervical orgasms verifiable by functional magnetic resonance imaging, even in the absence of any clitoral connection to the brain.” The authors also focus on the vagus nerve, a cranial nerve that sends messages to the brain from the central nervous system about what the body is feeling. They focus on the vagus nerve because it is believed that stimulation of the vagus nerve is experienced by “penile buffeting of the cervix–but not produced by clitoral stimulation–appears involved in processes of better cardiovascular and psychological function.”
I also found the discussion of bioenergetics, a bodymind therapy (“psychotheraputic” is the term used in the article) interesting to apply to the field of sexology. Bioenergetics looks to tension in the body but also to how easily/freely we move (i.e. energy flow from the body) and my ideas of what sex and sexuality are very much connected to ideas of sharing energy in certain ways.
Reading the reactions to this research I felt that the field of sexology was being ridiculed again. When I came to this field I knew it was one that had a long history which included people laughing at our work, saying it is not important or needed, and isolating us in various ways. I think also of how work in sexual science remains in a particular place, one that reinforces the normalization of certain bodies and experiences while continuing to oppress and marginalize others. This was one reason I chose to come to this field and stay here as well; to change how we are discussed and how we do research so that it is more inclusive and useful.
When I shared this story with some folks online I did not envision that there would be very specific and thoughtful responses by readers. As I read the amazing responses by readers I asked some if I could quote them in this piece to include a communal response to this research. I find this extremely imperative to the sexology field as much of our work we only discuss among one another, rarely with folks who will be impacted by our findings. I’d also like to share that many of these responses are by folks who we rarely hear from: people of Color, working class, and immigrants.
Some response to my sharing of this research include:
i saw this study months ago. it thoroughly has it’s understanding of orgasms mixed up and written up incorrectly. this is showing if a woman has achieved orgasm at all, not this mythical special “type” of orgasm that only super-awesome-normal-sexual ladies can get. i really really REALLY hate this common misunderstanding about female-bodied orgasms because it still leaks it’s way into studies, and for whatever reason it gets questioned very little. vaginal orgasms and clitoral orgasms are not “different”. hell, they’re not even two “types” of orgasm. it’s one. one orgasm. your pc muscles contract and pulse rapidly, without your help. whether this is triggered through pounding your vagina, rubbing your clit, teasing your nipples or doing kegels (or doing all at once, heheh), it’s all the damn same. i’m tired of studies casually mentioning that i have some sort of “sexual dysfunction” because vaginal penetration isn’t leading me to orgasm. it’s normal. the vaginal canal has less nerve endings to be rubbed against. my g-spot swells and aids in getting an orgasm easily. but it doesn’t trigger one. i have no psychosexual issue. i’ve been fucking for years and fucking myself for years. i’ve been freely enjoying it for years. i can reach an orgasm in a minute or two if i’m horny. this “clitoral orgasm/vaginal orgasm” shit still seems to be run-off from freud’s crappy theory that the “mature” woman would achieve vaginal orgasm, and the clitoral one was for girls.
if this bullshit is true, then why aren’t there popular studies that consider orgasms some men achieve through anal penetration “prostate orgasms”, and the ones they get from jacking off “penile orgasms”? oh wait they don’t, they just consider it all one orgasm achieved through different means.
p.s., my hips swing when i walk too.
OMG… this makes me paranoid as all hell. I don’t want random people who randomly saw me walk to know about my sexual history… or orgasmic history or whatever. EEK!!! I’m never going to be able to move in public ever again. As if it wasn’t hard enough already.
/hides under blanket
Dear science, why can’t you focus on things that would actually improve this world?
I think these are extremely important responses to consider. These responses speak to the sexism in the research, problems with binaries, and challenges to psychoanalytical approaches to sexuality. There also exists a real discomfort with such data which in turn can result in a violation of privacy. I recall my first semester of graduate school studying human sexuality and walking into a room with my classmates (all women) to meet the professor. It was cold and all of us were wearing pants. When we came to the section on pregnancy our professor (who was a man) told us he knew none of us had children because of the ways our vulvas looked in our pants. Now, this was done to show us an example of vasocongestion, changes in the body post-pregnancy, and to connect to the themes of the class. Yet, it left many of us feeling violated and uncomfortable and interacting with the professor in a completely different way. Had I known then what I know today, I may have responded differently than sitting quietly and complaining with other students after class.
The comments by two other readers brings up another important topic: ways of knowing that are often not seen as valuable but are normalized for many communities of Color.
Yeah, my grandmother pulled me aside right after the first time I had sex to make sure I used a condom (That was the sum total of my sex ed from her, always use condoms & never use their condoms.) and all I could do was blink at her, because I hadn’t told a soul about it. Sometimes those old wives tales are true I guess.
this is really interesting in that my father and his country kin have used this method to gauge if girls were sexually active or not for a long, long time lol
i always went back and forth about it. now its making me laugh. hmmmmm….
so many things to think about….may come back to it…
Including and understanding how many communities all over the world think about and understand sexuality makes me question this, and other, research. Just because we have come up with something we as sexologists think is useful, what does it mean that these thoughts and approaches have been utilized for generations all over the world in communities that some view as “primitive” and “uncivilized?” I think it very clearly calls out the ethnocentrism that is present in many fields. I believe a more useful form of research would be understanding how communities all over the world may use this methodology and how that challenges us, the “appropriately trained sexologists,” to recognize that much of our training may be a form of knowledge production that has existed for years by people who we do not claim as members of our field.
How does this speak to the field of sexology as having existed in non-academic and medical spaces? Will we include such experiences and knowledge in future work? Or will we be scared and disappointed and attempt to shame and debunk such complementary forms of knowledge as is much of many of our histories?