The Sweet Spot: The Science of the Vagina


Republican congressman Todd Akin recently made the statement that if a woman is "legitimately raped" she can't get pregnant. He was referring to an erroneous idea that the vagina has the magical ability to eject unsolicited sperm. Interestingly, this theory was not cooked up by the currently campaigning GOP.

See also:

Our interview with Naomi Wolf

The Sweet Spot: For the Love of the Vagina

Courtesy of Stannous Flouride

In the second century, Galen, an ancient Greek anatomist, believed that a woman could not get pregnant without having an orgasm. It was a marvelous theory that continued to prevail until the 18th century. Sadly, he was wrong. But wait just a darn minute, there might be a smidgeon of truth to it. Natalie Angier, of Woman: an Intimate Geography, quotes the scientific research of Baker and Bellis that, "if a woman climaxes anywhere from several seconds to 40 minutes after her partner, her chances of being impregnated are slightly higher than if she doesn't climax." This is, of course, a far cry from the assertion that orgasm is imperative to contraception but it does reveal that the vagina may be pretty powerful after all.

The vagina!

Throughout the ages it has been given many names: yoni, cootchie, poontang, snatch, minge, and my personal favorite, "face flower." A vagina by any other name would still smell as sweet. Smells differ of course, as do individual vaginas, no matter the name but what really, is the vagina all about?

Far more than a mere vessel for sperm, it is a complicated piece of biology with still untold wonders to be discovered in its folds. And according to Naomi Wolf in her book Vagina, it has a direct link to the brain, to our emotional and intellectual happiness. She bases her conclusions on a relatively recent body of neuro research that asserts when a woman, "feels empowered to think about pleasurable sex, anticipate it, focus on how to get it, and feels in control of and knowledgeable enough about her body to know she can probably reach orgasm during sex, her brain gets a boost of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is what I call the ultimate feminist neurotransmitter: It yields motivation and goal-orientedness, trust in one's own judgment and, most notably of all, in my mind, confidence."

She goes onto to say that it is a fair conclusion, "that the vagina is not just a sex organ at all, but a powerful mediator of female confidence, creativity, and the sense of the connections between things." Many, and I mean many, have criticized Wolf's conclusions for what they see as faulty scientific reasoning. I love me some facts but I am not going to add to that criticism because I support Wolf's motivations. Considering that there is such a dearth of writing on these topics, any and all exploration is a good thing. Wolf's personalizing of the issue got quite a few people barking, but it was her use of the phrase "Goddess array" to describe the range of possible experiences of sexual expressions, that really got people's sneer going.

Normally, mention the word "goddess" in my presence and I'll run shrieking to Martunis to get a good dose of some piano drag. But when I asked Wolf why she used that phrase she said, "There is just not a way to speak of these things. We don't have language for all of the complexities of our sexual experience, the shades and colors and sensations. I wanted to begin to creatively and linguistically explore new possibilities." And you know what? She's got a point. We have the words orgasm (multiple or otherwise), clitoris, labia, the G-spot. All of which are, frankly, terribly limited. We don't even have a term for the kind of orgasm that comes from vibration as opposed to ahem, manipulation. They are vastly different, for those not in the know.

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Courtesy of Whore! magazine

Wolf is not just attempting to create a more involved conversation about the vagina, she is also defying a millennia of female sex shaming. She says, "The vagina, in particular, has been controlled, abused, targeted, derided, and shamed all over the world." Do you scoff? Among prettier names for a vagina like "honey pot" there are also these: "piss hole, axe wound, cavernous gash." Of the far more numerous names for the penis, none convey the kind of violent insult inherent in those terms. The penis is proud, the vagina is dark. The penis does, the vagina is done to. Or so much of the mythology goes.

To a world weary and radically savvy San Francisco audience, the frank discussion of vaginas may not seem particularly transgressive. Oh how spoiled we are. Yet, many a female walking these streets has never really explored what her vagina is all about -- how it works, what it's possibilities are or even what it really looks like -- up close. I took a gander at mine right before I lost my virginity. I wanted to really know what I was working with. So, like those consciousness-raising groups of old, I hoisted my legs up in the air and positioned a mirror. I will admit, I was a little horrified by what I saw. Hair and folds and various different versions of pink. But the beauty of a vagina need not be like a finely wrought nose. It is attractive because of it's purpose. Because it is a part of us. Because it is an essential fact of our humanness.

Angier points out in her book that we are not reptiles. We cannot replicate ourselves. We need each other for that. She also points out that far from the vagina being a mutation or secondary, it is most likely the first state. Penises and testicles require hormonal and genetic intervention to exist. Without that intervention, voila vagina! Both Wolf and Angier are supporters of happy sexiness, for all concerned. But in the interest of that happiness it has become imperative that we increase and indeed, celebrate our greater knowing of that charming part known to some as the "va-jay-jay."

The Sweet Spot is a blog column by Ginger Murray who is also the editor of Whore! magazine. Check back next week for more.

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stanflouride1 1 Like

I recall reading that as recently as the mid 19th century it was believed that women could only conceive if they had an orgasm and that it was the repression of the Victorian era that brought the concept of shame connected to all things pleasurable.Of course women didn't stop having orgasms (this was, after all when the vibrator was invented) but it did create a barrier between the sexes in regard to the man's partnership and participation in their shared pleasure, their shared orgasm.Having come of age in the 60s, at the time when women were asserting orgasmic equality, I can only thank the stars (or maybe moons in this case) to be born in my time.  

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