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Bering in Mind

Bering in Mind

A research psychologist's curious look at human behavior

Female Ejaculation: The Long Road to Non-Discovery

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I confess: this subject—the science of female ejaculation—is not an easy topic for me to write about. I could, in principle, feign complete gynaecological objectivity, affixing to my literary visage the stone-faced look of a caring urologist palpating your pudendum. But I suspect you know me better than that by now. Of course I do care. Yet for better or worse, the truth is that, should a drop of such mysterious fluid (and it really is mysterious, as we’re about to see) ever make contact with my skin, I may well writhe about on the floor as if Satan just spat at me.

Now, having said that, there’s certainly nothing to be ashamed of, ladies, if you are indeed an ejaculator. And in fact I find it unfortunate that female ejaculation would ever inspire distress, embarrassment or shame. I’m not like most men, after all, since I just happen to prefer semen over vaginal fluids. And, actually, at the risk of inciting a certain hair-trigger contingency of readers poised to pounce on me, female ejaculation, in spite of my own homosexual biases, which I’ll try to keep from saturating our discussion, is an enormously fascinating subject matter that has largely escaped serious scientific inquiry, particularly from an evolutionary perspective.

This is all the more puzzling given that female ejaculation, which is usually defined as the expulsion of a significant amount of fluid around the time of orgasm—estimates range from, on average, 3 to 50 ml (about 10 teaspoons)—is a topic that was first described by scholars around 2000 years ago. In an extraordinary review article last year in Sexual Medicine History, urologist Joanna Korda and her colleagues combed through the translated texts of the ancient Eastern and Western literatures and plucked out multiple references that would appear to distinguish between common vaginal lubrication during intercourse and the rarer external ejaculation of sexual fluids. The 4th century Taoist text, "Secret Instructions Concerning the Jade Chamber," for example, written for the enterprising man in the art of satisfying a woman in bed, suggested that he decipher the following "five signs" of feminine arousal accordingly:

(1) "reddened face" = "she wants to make love with you"

(2) "breasts hard and nose perspiring" = "she wants you to insert your penis"

(3) "throat dry and saliva blocked" = "she is very stimulated and excited"

(4) "slippery vagina" = "she wants to have her orgasm soon"

(5) "the genitals transmit fluid" = "she has already been satisfied"

I wouldn’t recommend you implement these secret instructions today; citing number two in your defence that, say, some woman with a sweaty nose wanted you to insert your penis into her isn’t likely to hold up in a court of law. But the fact that this ancient text distinguishes between "slippery vagina" and "the genitals transmit fluid," reason Korda and her coauthors, means that the latter can "clearly be interpreted as female ejaculation [at] orgasm." In ancient India, the Kamasutra, which dates to 200-400 A.D., speaks of "female semen" that "falls continually." And in the West, even Aristotle had something to say about female discharge during sexual intercourse, which, he pointed out, "far exceeds" the seminal emission of the man. He also noted—and it’s tempting to speculate about just how he came to this conclusion—that female ejaculation tends to be "found in those who are fair-skinned and of a feminine type generally, but not in those who are dark and of masculine appearance."

It wasn’t until the latter half of the 17th century, however, that the first truly scientific account of female ejaculation would be presented, this by a Dutch gynecologist named Reinjier De Graaf (pictured), precisely distinguishing between vaginal lubrication, which facilitates intercourse, and female ejaculation, which is tantamount to seminal emission. "This liquid was clearly not designed by Nature to moisten the urethra (as some people think)," wrote De Graaf, describing the "pituito-serous juice" sometimes excreted around the time of female orgasm. "The ducts [from which they arise] are so placed at the outlet of the urethra that the liquid does not touch it as it rushes out."

Fast-forward to 1952, past the historical hordes of women secretly ejaculating in mass confusion, and we arrive at the offices of German-born gynecologist Ernest Gräfenberg, who, while the contributions of De Graaf and others are often overlooked, is credited with "discovering" an erotic zone on the anterior wall of the vagina running along the course of the urethra. Ernest, in other words, is the one who first christened your "G-spot" with his article, "The Role of Urethra in Female Orgasm." In their review of his discovery, Korda and her colleagues report how Gräfenberg observed masturbating women expelling fluids from their urethra with orgasm "in gushes." Since this never occurred at the beginning of sexual stimulation, but rather only at the acme of orgasm, the physician concluded that its purpose was more for pleasure than for lubrication. "In the cases observed," wrote Gräfenberg:

...the fluid was examined and it had no urinary character. I am inclined to believe that ‘urine’ reported to be expelled during female orgasm is not urine, but only secretions of the intraurethral glands correlated with the erotogenic zone along the urethra in the anterior vaginal wall.

It wasn’t until 1982, in fact, that female ejaculate was first chemically analyzed. If it’s not urine, and it’s not semen, then what, exactly, is it? After all, according to an interview study (pdf) published by Amy Gilliland of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, most female ejaculators report "copious" amounts of fluid being released around the time of orgasm, enough to "soak the bed" or "spray the wall" or have their partner scream in terror and misunderstanding. So it’s rather odd that we still don’t have a name for this substance that 40 percent of women report having produced liberally at least once in their lives. (I’m just stating the obvious, no need to name it after me.)

Nearly all studies have shown a chemical dissimilarity between urine and female ejaculate—in fact, there are commonalities with male seminal fluid. You might recall from a previous article that only a small portion of semen contains sperm cells, the rest is a batter of psychotropic concoctions. Yet for many women, urine isn’t entirely absent from the emission, either. Most female ejaculators, left to their own devices and without access to scientific information, describe their own explorations of the mysterious material. Some describe it as thick and viscous, or salty, others as watery and odorless. "No research has been done in this area for over 20 years," laments Gilliland, "and we still do not have an answer satisfying to most sexologists as to what female ejaculate fluid is or where it is manufactured."

Part of the trouble in investigating the phenomenon under properly controlled scientific conditions, however, is the fact that it doesn’t particularly lend itself to laboratory investigations. Many women report needing to be intensely aroused, as well as very relaxed, to ejaculate at orgasm. So, although the clearest picture of what’s happening down there would come from rigorous methodological studies, the trouble is that subjecting self-reported female ejaculators to a barrage of invasive electromyographic laboratory techniques designed to stimulate their clitoris and evoke ejaculation kind of kills the mood.

This is something that a team of Egyptian researchers learned the hard way recently. After attaching multiple electrodes to the genitals of 38 healthy young women, as well as using vaginal and uterine balloons to measure pressure, and then stimulating the women to orgasm using electrovibration, they didn’t find a drop of ejaculate, only vaginal lubrication. They could only surmise that foreplay might have done the trick. By contrast, a team of Czechs did manage to evoke "female urethral expulsions" in 10 women under laboratory conditions back in 1988, but these women, unlike those in the more recent Egyptian study, had a self-reported history of frequent ejaculation.

In many ways, then, our best understanding to date of female ejaculation comes from the reports of female ejaculators themselves, many who, sadly, are just as clueless as their partners who believe they’re making love to an inconveniently incontinent woman. But we do know from the chemical assays at least this: although it may have traces of urea, female ejaculate is not urine. Many of the women interviewed by Gilliland recounted that, after several humiliating episodes at this unexpected outburst of fluid, they’d since taken to voiding their bladders before having sex, yet still they ejaculated prodigiously. In fact, six of the thirteen women in the study had never even heard of female ejaculation prior to reading the study description; they just assumed they were "abnormal" and that they’d been urinating.

For most ejaculators, it doesn’t happen every time an orgasm occurs, only infrequently. But this is in stark contrast to Masters and Johnson’s dubious 1966 assertion that female ejaculation is only an urban legend. Although some women were fortunate enough to find partners that enjoyed their ejaculations—partners would be right to assume, after all, that they’re triumphant lovers if they can actually bring a woman to ejaculate—most had, at least at first, felt deep shame at the thought of "peeing" on a misunderstanding partner. In some cases, this translated to self-imposed celibacy and, not surprisingly, strained relationships.

Education, of course, is key. One participant in Gilliland’s study described the transformation in her husband after he understood her ejaculation was a sign of her extraordinary sexual arousal—her reaching this stage showed how much she desired him, rather than reflecting something negative:

Before he’d say, "I don’t want pee on me," or "Can’t you go to the bathroom before sex?" Now he feels it’s attractive and he’ll say, "Squirt me!"

The good news is that women, eventually, seem to conceptualize their ejaculations in increasingly positive and empowering ways over the course of their lives. I’m very sympathetic to Gilliland’s position when she concludes that, "Overall, it is the effect of ignorance about female ejaculation that should arouse us to action, not just scientific curiosity." I don’t think that was an intentional pun on her part, by the way, but you do see how difficult it is to avoid them sometimes.

Yet still, and please don’t call me callous, I’m left enormously curious about the science. Why do only some women ejaculate and not others? What, if any, was its role in human evolution? And why—just look at you now—is it is such a giggle-inducing, fetishistic topic? Science has a long, wet, slippery challenge ahead indeed.

And should you have the urge to email me a "special" link after reading this--really, no thank you.

About The Author: Want more Bering in Mind? Follow Jesse on Twitter @JesseBering, visit www.jessebering.com, or friend Jesse on Facebook. Jesse is the author of newly released book, The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny and the Meaning of Life (W. W. Norton).

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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