Last year I wrote a post criticizing web media coverage of recent research on clitoral morphology, The clitoris revealed, and how io9 got it wrong. Recently, Trisha Borowicz replied to that post on her own blog and commented on mine to alert me.
Trisha Borowicz co-directed the 2014 documentary detailing the cultural (mis)understanding of female orgasm, Science, Sex and the Ladies, and has been expanding on the subjects covered in the movie at her blog for over 5 years. The SSL blog focuses on taking a critical look at the depiction, discussion and study of female orgasm in our society. When not blogging or filming with her troupe, AnC Movies, Trisha works in Indiana as a molecular biologist.
I welcome sincere criticism, especially from people who have some expertise or experience in the topics so I offered to reply, so here it is. In order to have proper sense of context, I invite you to read her critical post here: Rocks and Glass Houses – Skeptic Ink Article Ain’t So Skeptical. Per our agreement, Trisha is invited to reply to this writing on her own blog and if she does I will add a link here.
Dan Dennett distilled Anatol Rapoport’s list of rules for congenial argument into 4 rules in his book Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, and I will try to take their advice here. These are the rules:
1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.
I would summarize Trisha’s post in 3 main points which may be expressed thusly:
1. There is no scientifically documented vaginal orgasm with regard to Masters & Johnson’s 1966 definition of orgasm.
2. I misrepresented the primary issue re: female orgasm by assuming there is such a thing as a vaginally-induced orgasm, and therefore erroneously present the stock “clit vs. vag” debate as the appropriate framing of the issue. Clitoral orgasm is the only scientifically documented sort, and any other is poorly defined and not in any case documented. Therefore, the appropriate framing of the problem is that women and society in general have been mislead to believe there are other-than-clitoral orgasms as a fact.
3. I was dismissive and flippant about the importance of this debate because it misinforms women and leads to ill effects on their sexual and perhaps emotional heath. The mass-media, books, and pornography commonly depict vaginally-induced orgasms leading to needless insecurity and anxiety when experiences fall short of such hyperbolic fantasy.
Points of agreement
There is quite a lot of common ground, which is clear if you’ve read her post and mine. We agree that there is a long history of apathy, disregard, and politically-charged misinformation which continues to this day. Media reporting such as the io9 article I covered are generally quite ill-made, rife with omissions, inaccuracies, and salacious spin. We agree that miseducation on the facts has negative consequences for the mental and sexual health of women, and that these are therefore important issues to talk about and to educate about.
Trailer for Science, Sex, and the Ladies, by AnC movies.
Without further foreplay…
I will address the second point first as the first is part of that. In my earlier writing I did not make any claims about the nature of or mechanics of orgasm. The “clit vs vag” debate I discussed was mostly a recap of the arguments of others in the literature on the topic of morphology and physiology of female anatomy. I believe in this sense I am in agreement with Trisha insofar as that is the “standard framing”, which I was reporting. More specifically, I was lamenting the inability of researchers to approach the topic with adequate objectivity, regardless of their position on the subject. I mentioned Anne Koedt to explain part of the reason why that objectivity is missing. That paragraph is one that probably irks Trisha the most. I wrote,
…the ignorant and sexist notions that women incapable of the “vaginal” orgasm were “frigid” and that penis-vagina sex was the only source of orgasms that counted… lead some feminists to adopt the opposite and politically-valenced position that the vagina was irrelevant to pleasure, and that the vaginal orgasm was a lie. …This is why it’s good to remember the opposite of wrong is not necessarily right and that it’s a bad idea to confuse facts with moral values: facts can change.
Here I was not meaning to say much of anything about vaginal or vaginally-induced orgasm, but rather that I find both extreme positions, that penetrative vaginal intercourse is all that matters to orgasm, or that it is irrelevant to orgasm, are not correct. The truth is somewhere between, but I did not attempt to nail down where, nor did I or do I, mean to pin down the precise meaning or mechanics of whatever it is that women are describing as their own “vaginal orgasm” (Throughout this writing when I use the expression “vaginal orgasm” or similar, I refer to the experience that women self-report as such; orgasm occurring during penetrative intercourse).
I think that reacting to ugly sexism did make people like Koedt more extreme in their opinions than they might have been, and this can be true even if hers are closer to true than opposing views. Generally speaking, it is well documented that pitched political antagonism causes those on each side to become more radical and more defensive in their views. And this rarely helps progress of the knowledge enterprise. Most often, it is a great hinderance. Heavy-handed ideology has no legitimate role in research.
The third point results, I think, from misinterpretation and disagreement of editorial focus. I was not meaning to say the facts do not matter or that misinformation about how bodies work does not harm women and men. Of course it does. I meant to relate that political agendas and bickering about proper terminology does not change anything about how we experience our bodies, and can itself be harmful if people become beholden to any ideology to the exclusion of facts or prevention of better understanding. Any staunch ideology inevitably leads to these ends.
Apart from that, I think Trisha felt it was inappropriate for me not to “set the record straight” on female orgasm, having introduced it as a subtopic. I disagree. My post was not really about orgasm at all, but about the low quality of science reporting among the blogs as it pertained to anatomy, not orgasmic function. I mentioned that only in service of larger points. As a writer I am entitled to choose my own focus and topic, and am not required to take up the educational activism that another might prefer. I am not required to recount the history and detailed politics of something just because I refer to it in a post that is not about it.
A few other small points
I may seem a little flippant because this blog is meant to be engaging, and not a vent for formal academic discourse. So some parts intentionally have some bite, to keep them from being too dull.
He seems to play Anne Koedt as some crazy ideologue, but she is not.
I did no such thing. In fact, quite the contrary. My experience writing this blog has taught me that people need points that sound far-fetched to them to be substantiated with a citation. I quoted Koedt to do that. If I thought that she was a crazy, isolated nut, citing her would not substantiate my point. I was depending on Koedt being a respected figure. I do believe she is mistaken on many points, but that is not an insult.
Rocks and Glass Houses – Skeptic Ink Article Ain’t So Skeptical
This is the title of Trisha’s post. It strikes me as uncharitable as well as untrue. I can forgive it in the understanding that her business, and often mine, often involves ugly interactions: angry and perhaps emotionally maladjusted dissenters; walls of apathy and dismissal; personal attacks in response to academic arguments. As I said a few paragraphs ago, conflict naturally makes us, even the best of us, more defensive than we might otherwise be. But since this is a formal reply, I wanted to remark on it anyway.
I thank Trisha for taking the time to respond and for helping create what I hope is a constructive dialog that, in turn, spurs more discussion. Keep an eye on this blog space for updates, and feel free to let me know your thoughts in the comments.