A Wee Dispute
Kate Sloan on how a call for scientific conclusions about female ejaculation is drowning in a wave of pleasure.
YOU ARE LYING IN BED MASTURBATING, just like any other night. You’ve got a silicone dildo in one hand and a vibrator grasped firmly in the other. A towel has been carefully laid underneath you to catch any stray lube. A few minutes in, you suddenly get the urge to go faster. A lot faster. So fast that you think your arms might give out. But the pleasure rises. It triples. Everything intensifies and you reach an explosive orgasm. You lie there, taking a moment to gather yourself, before looking down. The towel is wet. No, it’s soaked—the stain is nine inches across. Scared that you have wet the bed, you smell the liquid and, to your surprise, it smells nothing like pee. So you sit there and you think: what is it?
It is a question that has vexed people the world over. It is also one that a sex blogger who goes by the name of Epiphora faced in 2008, when she discovered her body was capable of female ejaculation. “I didn’t begin the session knowing I was going to squirt,” she says. In fact, she had only ever seen it happen in pornography. “But when I felt the sensation stirring, I felt like I could do it. At that point I could have slowed down or eased off, but I made the conscious decision to try and squirt. And I did!” Ask Epiphora what comes out of her urethra when she ejaculates and she will tell you it’s definitely not urine—but many scientists don’t believe her, or any of the other women who experience this phenomenon. “What is it?” has turned into a full-on debate over women’s biological functions and their lived experiences—one that is rife with shame-based undertones and attempts to take the sexual nature of female ejaculation out of the discussion altogether.
FEMALE EJACULATION is not a new phenomenon. Aristotle spoke of it. The Kama Sutra mentions “female semen.” But it wasn’t scientifically documented until the seventeenth century, when Dutch doctor Reinier de Graaf studied the emission and the G-spot’s role in the process. During the twentieth century, researchers were split as to whether or not this distinct fluid really existed. Sex researchers Virginia Johnson and William Masters concluded that female ejaculation wasn’t real; they argued that the few ejaculation-like events they witnessed were simply urinary incontinence. Alfred Kinsey also argued that it was a myth, explaining it away as regular vaginal lubrication expelled by muscular contractions during orgasm.
But the ejaculate refused to be ignored; the mysterious liquid soon exited the world of science and entered mass media. Squirting started to show up in porn during the 1980s in titles such as Deep Inside Annie Sprinkle. It took its place in pop culture soon after. In a 2001 episode of Sex and the City, Samantha explores lesbianism for the first time. “Was that good or bad?” she asks after her girlfriend squirts in her face. Three years later, The L Word’s sexually inexperienced Dana squirts during sex—much to her mortification. “I’ve never been more humiliated or embarrassed or ashamed of anything in my entire life,” she says. When her sex-savvy friend Alice hears the details, she offers another perspective: “Dana, women strive for this! They read books about the G-spot. They go to workshops. Oh my God, you should be totally and utterly ecstatic!” Squirting was starting to gain mainstream acceptance.
IN DECEMBER 2014, a study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine analyzed the biochemical makeup of the substance produced by squirting. The participants emptied their bladders and were then sexually stimulated until they squirted. Ultrasounds showed the women’s bladders filling during the process. When the fluid and post-orgasm urine were chemically analyzed, urea, creatinine and uric acid—three substances found in pee—were identified in both samples. The concentrations varied widely from woman to woman. Despite the mixed results, the study concluded, “squirting is essentially the involuntary emission of urine during sexual activity.” For gynecologist and study co-author Dr. Samuel Salama, the mystery was solved. “You can read a lot of bullshit on the topic,” he says. “[Our study] is indisputable proof of the major participation [of the bladder].”
Those who say that female ejaculate is not pee often argue that it is chemically similar to prostatic fluid in men: the substance that, along with sperm, makes up semen. Some in this camp refer to the G-spot as the “female prostate” because they say it serves a similar function to the male gland and produces a similar liquid.
While Salama’s study was groundbreaking in its use of biochemical analysis and ultrasounds to analyze the squirting process, critics say it’s far from indisputable. One point of contention is that the study involved only seven women. Salama says that he would have preferred a larger sample size, but it was difficult to find people who met the criteria and agreed to the protocol. “Seven is great,” he says. “It is the largest study on this topic.”
But it isn’t the only study. In 1984, researchers from Dalhousie University in Halifax also looked at seven women and reported notable differences in the chemical composition of ejaculate versus urine. The authors concluded that more research was necessary, but argued that female ejaculation might well exist. A Slovakian study from 1988 measured the concentration of fructose—which also makes up a high percentage of male semen—in the expulsions of five female ejaculators and compared it with their urine. In all cases, the ejaculate contained significantly more fructose, signalling that it is indeed a distinct fluid. In fact, five studies have confirmed significant chemical differences between ejaculate and pee.
But Salama disagrees with this hypothesis. Asked if his findings have been corroborated, he points to a 2011 study that he says proves squirting is urination—by studying one woman.
DURING AN EJACULATION WORKSHOP at Toronto sex shop Come As You Are in 2011, thirty-one attendees watched as a woman stood at the front of the class, took off her clothes and masturbated until she ejaculated. The fluid got on the shoes of a person in the front row.
Shannon Bell, a political science professor at York University in Toronto, was that instructor. Bell is a female ejaculation trailblazer of sorts: she appeared in one of the first on-screen portrayals of squirting in 1992 and she regularly gives workshops on the topic. “Ejaculation is a biological function of the female body, and like its male counterpart, it is a body’s right,” she writes in her 2010 book Fast Feminism.
Unlike researchers, who have pegged the prevalence of female ejaculation on a range from 10 to 69 percent, Bell argues that all women can learn how to do it. Further, she says that doing so is a powerful political act in this world that shames female sexuality. She has even disowned the term “G-spot,” since the initial refers to the male doctor, Ernst Gräfenberg, who is often credited with discovering the area. Plus, Bell says, it isn’t a spot at all, but rather the entire top wall of the vagina. It swells upon arousal—like a penis—and she says that in the case of squirters, it ejaculates like one too.
When asked about the peeing-versus-ejaculation debate, Bell says the whole question is a way of downplaying women’s sexuality. “I don’t know what the political import is to prove that it’s urine. It seems weird to me,” she says. “If you compare it to studies on male ejaculate, there’s almost an investment in women’s ejaculate not being as sexual a fluid as men’s.”
And she is not the only one highlighting this discrepancy. Epiphora is another ejaculator who says that the debate hinges on systemic sexism. “Male pleasure is seen as standard, common and sensical, [while] female pleasure is seen as amorphous and mysterious,” she says. “Female ejaculation is also similar enough to something that men do that I think it feels threatening.”
The phenomenon of predominantly male scientists speaking on behalf of women’s lived experiences is what prompted Epiphora to start the Twitter hashtag #NotPee, where she encourages people to share their experiences of ejaculation. One contributor tweeted, “Is this seriously still a debate in 2015? Yet another way for men to shame women’s sexuality.” Another wrote, “I squirt, and it’s definitely #notpee. I’ve been told my piss and my squirt taste quite different, actually.”
Trivializing and silencing women’s sexual responses is not new. The vibrator was invented as a medical device in the 1800s when female sexual desire was seen as a medical problem. It was diagnosed as “hysteria” then. In 1905, Sigmund Freud wrote that sexually well-adjusted women will give up clitoral orgasms for vaginal ones as they mature; his conclusion was based on scant evidence but made some women feel inadequate for decades to come. Today, people argue that the latest findings on female ejaculation achieve a similar effect, whether it is intended or not. WHO FUCKING CARES what the chemical makeup of the ejaculate is? Epiphora writes in her blog. Are we trying to “prove” it’s pee so we can keep shaming people for doing it?
Perhaps the question about what the liquid is made of is missing the point entirely. Toronto-based sex educator Tara McKee says, “I have always said that fluid during sex is something sex-related ... From a science perspective, yes, we want to know where it comes from and why. But from a sexual-enjoyment perspective, maybe it doesn’t matter.” In her G-spot workshops, McKee explains that both male and female ejaculate contain traces of urine—and this often surprises those who hear it. “It’s like saying, ‘I want to have sex and not notice anyone’s sweat,’ or ‘I don’t want anyone to pass gas while I’m having sex with them,’” she says. Urine’s no dirtier than any other sexual fluid, McKee argues. So even if ejaculate is pee, that should not discourage women from seeking pleasure that way.
DOES IT REALLY MATTER whether ejaculate is pee or something else entirely? It can when scientists treat squirting as a problem to be solved instead of simply a by-product of sex. The 2014 French study arguing that ejaculate is urine hypothesizes that “abundant squirting during sexual activity may represent a real problem to some [women].” This was said in the face of a 2013 self-reported survey of 320 women in which almost 80 percent described their ejaculations as an enrichment of their sex lives.
This pathologization of women’s sexual responses can lead to extreme reactions. Spanish sexuality activist Diana J. Torres says that she has encountered women in her ejaculation workshops who had their G-spots surgically removed to treat their so-called coital incontinence. “[These are] super young women who went to the gynecologist because they were scared of their own ejaculation,” Torres says. Since they did not have the proper words to describe what was happening to them during sex, they would tell their doctors that they were peeing. They then went in for surgery—a decision that can have unintended side effects. In Female Ejaculation and the G-Spot, Deborah Sundahl says that in addition to stopping the women from squirting, removing the female prostate can also permanently reduce sensitivity, making sex less pleasurable.
Though recent scientific findings probably won’t be the last on this topic, women who ejaculate say the methodology of these studies needs to change. Epiphora calls for a blend of the science and personal experience in order to document women explaining what makes them ejaculate and let them do this in a way that comes naturally to them, rather than imposing specific techniques and criteria on them in a lab setting.
Ejaculate might be urine. Or it might not. It could be pee for some women and not others. The data doesn’t offer definitive proof. But as proud ejaculators like Bell, McKee and Epiphora say, it shouldn’t matter either way. Squirting is normal. Squirting is healthy. And squirting is fun. Just like sex is supposed to be.