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Mapping the way to G-spot utopia

July 21, 2008|Regina Nuzzo | Special to The Times

When in 1950 Dr. Ernst Grafenberg described finding a surprisingly sensitive spot inside the vagina near the urethra, he made the process seem so foolproof. A medical article detailed his effortless demonstrations of the existence of this "distinct erotogenic zone" -- and the not-unexpected consequences of stimulating such a zone -- in his own patients. Anyone with a vagina could surely do the same for herself.

Well, perhaps it was that easy for him. But outside his examining room, nothing about Gräfenberg’s has proven so simple.

In the 1980s, after nabbing a catchy new name and a starring role in a bestselling book, the G spot achieved notoriety in American sex culture. For some women, its discovery and stimulation led to mind-blowing orgasms. But for others, exploring the promised land around the urethra led only to a sense of bewilderment -- sometimes enlivened by an irritating urge to urinate.

Some researchers doubted there was anything to stimulate in the first place. A scientific article in 2001 denounced the G spot as a "modern gynecologic myth."

This might seem a bit baffling. How can 21st century researchers argue about whether a palpable part of the body in fact exists?

For one thing, there's no standard definition of the G spot. Experts advise women to explore the region about one to two inches along the front vaginal wall (the side closest to the belly, not the spine). Yet scientists disagree about what they're searching for -- a separate gland, the deep-down part of the clitoris, or something else entirely?

Meanwhile, recent research points to another stumble on the road to G-spot utopia: Whatever a G spot is, not every woman may have one.


Tissue at issue

In 2002, a team of Italian researchers making a detailed study of the pelvic regions of 14 women found surprising differences in anatomy. Only 12 of the women possessed erectile tissue -- the nerve-infused sensitive stuff that makes up clitorises and penises -- along the front inner wall of the vagina, where the G spot is said to exist.

And only nine women had Skene glands, made of tissue that would have become the prostate gland had the female embryo turned out to be a male. (Think of male nipples. It's the same idea.)

What's more, these glands and erectile tissue were awash in the same active enzymes in the penis that respond to drugs such as Viagra. The structures were likely candidates for the mechanism of the G spot, and the evidence, published in the journal Urology, hinted that only some women had them. (How many women, however, is still unclear; the study was too small to make estimates.)

But there was a big problem, says Emmanuele Jannini, professor of experimental medicine at University of L'Aquila in Italy, who led the investigation. The study had to rely on autopsy results from women whose bodies had been donated to science. There was no way to know whether the special tissue and glands made any difference sexually.

So Jannini decided to examine the pelvises of living women using ultrasound imaging. His study, published in March in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, looked at 20 women, about half of whom said they experienced "vaginal orgasms" through the stimulation of the front wall of the vagina alone.

This vaginal-orgasm group tended to have slightly thicker tissue than did the clitoral-orgasm group, the team found -- about a 2-millimeter difference along the upper wall between the vagina and the urethra. Although ultrasound images can't show exactly what's in there, it's the same place that Skene glands and erectile tissue from the inner bulb of the clitoris are likely to be.

Plenty of nerves suffuse this area, says Barry Komisaruk, psychology professor at Rutgers University, who was not involved in the study. The vagina and clitoris each have different kinds of nerves, and because the male prostate is richly innervated, it's possible that the Skene glands have their own kind as well.

But without further study, it's impossible to understand how the nerve networks in women with thicker tissues might be different, Komisaruk says. Nor does science know whether stimulating this spot leads to the bigger, deeper orgasms of G-spot legend. But, he says, the area's different nerves lead to different parts of the brain, each producing their own sensations. "So stimulating a combination of nerves might be synergistic, leading to a unique sensation and to more complex orgasms." His preliminary work shows that different regions of the brain perk up when women stimulate their front vaginal wall, say, as opposed to their clitoris or cervix.

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