Big Think Interview With Beverly Whipple
Question: How is the study of female sexuality changing?
Beverly Whipple: It’s really interesting in terms of how or why are women being included now in research about sexuality, where they weren’t in the past. And I see three reasons. One is the FDA banned the testing of women of childbearing ages in drugs. So from 1977 until 1993, no new drugs that were developed were tested in women. So they tested them in men and the findings were extrapolated to women. And I think that we got into this mindset of, well, if men react this way, women must react the same way. And it’s not true. With the drugs, we know that women react differently, we know that these drugs may interact with female hormones, with their menstrual cycle, with other medications women may be taking, so we know that that’s not true. You can’t take drugs that were tested in men and extrapolate their findings to women. What also happened in terms of research on sexual responses is that men were much easier to study, because of their anatomy, and also, most of the researchers were men and they were interested in men. So therefore, most of the research that was conducted in terms of human sexual responses was conducted in men and findings were extrapolated to women. We found out that that doesn’t work because women are different from men.
Question: How do women and men differ when it comes to sex?
Beverly Whipple: Women can differ from men in many ways, but one is that women have a variety of sexual responses. Men may also, but men get into this linear model of only one way to respond and that’s what they get used to and they also equate orgasm with ejaculation, which is not so, they’re too different phenomenon. But when I talk to couples about sensuality and sexuality, I show two different ways that people respond in terms of their sexual experiences. And one is goal directed. And here I use the analogy of a staircase where each step leads to the next step, touch, kiss, caress, vagina/penis contact, top step of the big O or orgasm. And these are people who are goal directed. There are also people who are pleasure directed and here I use the analogy of a circle, where any activity on the perimeter of the circle can be an ending in itself and I leave question marks for people to add what they like. But when you like at these models, this is pleasure directed, this is goal directed, and then you look at the stereotypes we have of men and women, most men are goal directed. They’re looking for the end point or the goal of orgasm. And most women are pleasure directed, they’re, many people are very comfortable holding hands, cuddling, there’s many ways that they have sensual and sexual pleasure. So then you have to look at a relationship and see if the people, one person in a relationship is goal directed, one person is pleasure directed, and are they aware of this? Do they communicate this to their partner? So I think that we know that most men are linear and goal directed and most women are more circular.
Topic: Re-discovering the G-Spot
Beverly Whipple: We re-discovered a sensitive area that you feel through the anterior or front top vaginal wall. And doctors John Perry and I named this area after Dr. Ernst Grafenberg, we named it the Grafenberg spot, and that got shortened to the G spot. But Dr. Grafenberg wrote about sensitivity in women, various forms of sensitivity. One of them he wrote about was this sensitivity that you feel through the anterior or the top wall of the vagina. I was teaching women how to do Kegel exercises for a condition called urinary stress incontinence. That’s when a woman jumps, coughs, or sneezes, and dribbles a little urine. And I was teaching this with biofeedback. And what we found was that some women who came to have the stress incontinence treated had very strong pelvic muscles, where women who have stress incontinence, urinary stress incontinence, have weak muscles. And these women with the strong muscles said, “Oh, I only lose some fluid from my urethra, (the tube you urinate through during sexual stimulation) and this seems to be an area in my vagina that when it’s stimulated, it kind of produces this expulsion of fluid.” And so we looked at these women, we identified that this is what Grafenberg had, or others had called female ejaculation. We analyzed the fluid and found it was statistically and significantly different from urine, and it’s about 3 to 5 cc’s, it looks like water-downed, fat-free milk. So we identified the phenomenon of female ejaculation and how the fluid that’s expelled from the urethra is different urine. We then had nurse practitioners or physicians do examinations of 400 women looking for areas of sensitivity in the vagina. And if a woman was lying on her back and fingers were put into the vagina with like a come-here motion, just look at different areas of the vagina like a click, and most women had sensitivity between 11 and 1:00 o’clock, which is the area that we have named the Grafenberg spot. And this area began to swell as it was stimulated.
So we did more research and this is what we found and this is why we named this after Dr. Grafenberg because in 1950, he wrote an article about this female, or this expulsion of fluid and the sensitivity of this area that you feel through the front or top or anterior wall of the vagina.
Question: What are tips for women who have trouble achieving orgasm?
Beverly Whipple: First of all, I try to help women who say they have problems having an orgasmic response. I try to help these women to realize that there’s a wide range of orgasmic responses in women and they have to find out what it is they like and what it is brings them pleasure. And Gina and I, in our book, Safe Encounters, with Glen Ogden, developed something called an extra genital matrix, in which we list 15 types of touch in 36 parts of the body and we give this to people to help map their body using a scale of 1 to 10. What feels good to you? Do you like to have your partner suck on your toes or stroke the back of your neck? And it helps people to become aware of what it is they like. So you have to first become aware of what brings you sensual and sexual pleasure. And then you have to acknowledge this to yourself and say, “Yes, you know, that’s what I do enjoy.” And then the hardest part for most people is to communicate what they find pleasurable, what they like, to their partner. And we can put women, or men really, into a pattern of there’s only one way to respond sensually and sexually. We have many sexual responses and that’s what I try to help women to see, find out what they like, what brings them pleasure, what brings them satisfaction, and then to be able to communicate that to a partner if they choose to have sexual experiences with a partner.
Topic: “Thinking off”
Beverly Whipple: What we have found out is that there are women who can have orgasm from imagery alone, or what my colleague calls “thinking off.” Gina Ogden, who’s a sex therapist, did her doctoral dissertation on easily orgasmic women. And from her sample of women, 64% of the women who are easily orgasmic, stated that they could have orgasm from imagery alone, no touching the body, no looking at anything, just from thinking. And so we had these women come into my human physiology laboratory and we tested their responses from imagery alone and from genital self-stimulation. And we did that in a counter-balanced way so that one would not influence the other. And their orgasmic responses were exactly the same in terms of increases in blood pressure, increases in heart rate, increases in the diameter of the pupil, and their pain and tactile thresholds. There was no significant difference. And so we documented that women do indeed have orgasm from imagery or thinking. And then we have studied some of these same women in the FMRI unit, to look at the areas of the brain that are activated during the orgasm. So yes, women can certainly have pleasurable, sexual responses without the woman, or anyone else, touching her body.
Recorded on October 16, 2009
A conversation with the sexuality researcher famous for popularizing the G-Spot.
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