Jun 242010

I can’t reply fully to this infuriating Scientific American article about masturbation until Primate Sexuality gets delivered to my library, so that I’ve got a reference work from, but for the moment let me just address the worst anti-feminist bit, discussion of which requires little more than my own appalled horror.

Dr Bering writes:

Well, Baker and Bellis are clever empiricists. They also apparently have stomachs of steel. One way that they tested their hypotheses was to ask over 30 brave heterosexual couples to provide them with some rather concrete samples of their sex lives: the vaginal “flowbacks” from their post-coital couplings, in which some portion of the male’s ejaculate is spontaneously rejected by the woman’s body. [emphasis mine]

I’m going to ignore, for the moment, that Baker and Bellis are best known among sex researchers for producing Rudyard Kiplings, o best beloved, and for being proven wrong. I’m going to ignore, again for the moment, that the results of this study do not really support the hypothesis in question. I’m going to move straight to the plain old RUDENESS of that paragraph.

Apparently collecting ejaculate requires no particular digestive toughness, but ejaculate in cervical mucus requires industrial strength gastric abilities.

Should we conclude that Dr. Bering himself has felt nauseated by the fluids of any female sex partners he may have had? Indeed, the blatant, unapologetic, flinching gynophobia made me wonder if he’s gay, which it turns out he is, but that doesn’t make it okay for him to discuss female fluids as physically disgusting.

In Scientific American.

It’s just fuckin’ rude, man. Your personal disinterest in cervical mucus doesn’t make it okay to describe it as gross in a science magazine. You owe women an apology, and, if you plan to write about sex science in the future, you need to get over your bullshit.

(EDIT: My reply to Dr Bering’s reply to this post. Also, the ode to cervical mucus this conversation inspired.)

Emily Nagoski

  58 Responses to “misogyny and cervical mucus in Scientific American”

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  1. It seems as though a scientist with this much prejudice towards half his subjects would find another topic to investigate – and Scientific American needs a new copy editor.

  2. Hear hear. It’s a total outrage. Where were the editors in all this?

  3. Possibly it’s not subject to the same editorial rigor as regular articles, because it’s a blog on the website?

  4. I should really pre-screen these links instead of just linking them to you :)

    • YOU DIDN’T READ IT FIRST?!?!? Dude, this shit has had me pissed off all morning. Did you read the bit about “mental representations”? I was sure that would annoy you.

      • Things fly by in my RSS feed; I figured you’re better suited to addressing this stuff than me, I had blog posts about a dude reading with his tongue to write :)

  5. Woah that IS rude! So what if he prefers penises, that’s no need to make it seems like the vagina is akin to a pig’s anus. There was a point in his life where he was squeezed out of one after all…

  6. Aren’t you possibly flying off the handle and seeing sexism where there may be none? The issue may not be the vagina, but the flowback. We probably have some instinctual issue (possibly also related to toilet training) with dribbles, drools, or the like. There’s a tradition of gross-out comments about male pre-cum and after-dribbles, after all, which argues against the perception of sexism here? [I have no position on these authors' claims and how right or wrong they may be in anything.]

    • The issue is not the vagina, it’s the cervical mucus (note title of post). So it definitely IS a fluids issue. But it’s women’s fluids, not men’s fluids, that he objects to.

      In the general run of things, whatever, people have their hangups; one of my best friends is a gay guy who is genuinely grossed out by female genitals.

      But he’s not writing about sex for Scientific American. The standards of sex positivity demand that Dr Bering get over his shit and be morally neutral to positive about all things healthy and sexual.

      I’ll do a post about sex positivity.

      • Agreed about the positivity, but I do think the dribbling is the issue.

        • Maybe I should write a poem to fluids, dribbling, oozing, leaking, smelly, sticky, stain-the-sheets sex juice. Help everyone appreciate their beauty and wonder.

      • You’ll be fighting biology, likely, but I’ll cheer you. Some of humankinds’ greatest things have come from going against biology. (Which requires us to go with biology to do it!)

  7. I have this awful feeling that we’re all falling into awfully predictable gender camps here, but I’ll say this anyway:

    Emily, it appears to me that your column is entirely about you and your reaction to something, not about the something. Not even a little.

    Let’s look at the rest of what Bering said on this topic, not just the part you reacted to:

    >>The flowback emerges 5-120 min after copulation as a relatively discrete event over a period of 1-2 min in the form of three to eight white globules. With practice, females can recognize the sensation of the beginning of flowback and can collect the material by squatting over a 250 ml glass beaker. [And here comes a useful tip, ladies…] Once the flowback is nearly ready to emerge, it can be hastened by, for example, coughing.

    As the authors predicted, the number of sperm in the girlfriends’ flowbacks increased significantly the longer it had been since the boyfriend’s last masturbation — even after the researchers controlled for the relative volume of seminal fluid emission as a function of time since last ejaculation (the longer it had been, the more ejaculate was present).<<

    Notice that in the entire discussion, the only 'fluids' mentioned don't include cervical mucosa at all, despite you having made it the fulcrum of your post, but only flowback semen.

    We humans seem built to generally treat copulation as very private, so studying semen or vaginal secretions can more easily be experienced as "just science" than the product of intercourse, doncha think? I think his whole discussion of "brave couples" indicates exactly that sensitivity, not some twisted — and I think imaginary — ick of misogyny.

    • Dude, what is UP with you lately?

      The other B&B studies Bering cites involved the collection of ejaculate. He doesn’t say anything about THAT being gross at all. The flowback study also involves the collection of ejaculate. What’s the difference? This ejaculate had been in a vagina. It doesn’t explicitly mention mucus, but what is flowback but ejaculate with cervical mucus, being expelled from the vagina? He’s apparently just fine with ejaculate per se because that causes him no pause at all, but ejaculate with mucus is disgusting. He didn’t describe men collecting their ejaculate as “brave,” so your argument for sensitivity doesn’t play, unless you mean to say that masturbation is viewed as LESS private than copulation, which I’m afraid is quite untrue.

      If a woman wrote about vaginal secretions in a neutral tone and then wrote about flowback in a grossed out tone, I would have precisely the same response.

      I think it is incumbent upon people who write about sex to have a sex positive approach. I’ll do a post on what I mean by sex positive, but it DEFINITELY involves, at minimum, being neutral or positive about all things healthy and sexual. Flowback is healthy and sexual.

      Really this seems like such a simple point. He doesn’t express grossed-outness at ejacuate, but he does at flowback. The double standard is unacceptable in professional sex writing. Why is that hard?

  8. Hmmmm. I’ve just read your response, carefully, twice through. Nothing in it makes me feel you actually READ my comment (because you don’t respond at all to my key point), only that it was the occasion for you to repeat your twitch at Bering’s article.

    I can’t comment on the quality of the research he cites, cuz I haven’t seen it, but the idea was brand-new for me that women might actually SORT sperm for health and effectiveness.

    If true, that’s just plain awesome.

    • I read it at least twice, making sure that it actually said what I thought it said, which it did. You said (a) he doesn’t mention mucus only flowback; and I addressed that in TWO ways: (1) flowback IS mucus and ejaculate and (2) he was fine with ejaculate on its own. and (b) ejaculate or mucus on its own is more like “science” and less like sex than flowback because flowback implies intercourse, and intercourse is very private; I addressed that by disagreeing – and I can provide evidence if it isn’t self-evident to you once you stop to think about it – that masturbation is more private intercourse.

      I reiterate my “what is up” question. I read your comment, I addressed both the points you made, and I made the further point that my response is not about the writer’s gender but about his bias.

      And the sperm thing probably isn’t true – B&B, as I noted and will discuss more fully later, are renowned for making extraordinary claims and then turning out to be wrong.

  9. SciAm has gone way downhill since it got bought and they changed editorial staff. I used to read every page and feel it was time well spent. Lately, I feel like I’ve wasted my time if I read more than half the articles.

  10. What pisses me off is referring to the fluid as mucous at all. We don’t say men’s fluids are mucous. The negative connotations are there already in choosing “mucous” instead of fluid. (Weschler’s Taking Charge of your Fertility does a better job with this issue than I am in this comment.)

    • I LOVE the word mucus! Like a cross between music and kiss- and cervical mucus is my favorite of all the bodily fluids because it’s INTELLIGENT. It changes with fertility. Men don’t quite deserve the word mucus. Semen’s good enough for them.

      • Are you seriously disregarding the association people have with nasal snot?

        Well, I’m glad you enjoy it. I’ll continue using fluid which is accurate and universally more pleasing.

        • I don’t know that i’m disregarding it so muchas I just don’t find snot aversive. Remember: me = thoroughly trained sex-positive sex educaor. Almost nothing makes me uncomfortable – my partner could have a bad cold and sneeze all over my boobs and i’d just find it funny.

      • Interesting that you call out a man for misogyny, then in your comments write, “Men don’t quite deserve the word mucus. Semen’s good enough for them.”
        Is it fine to practise misandry whilst at the same time railing against misogyny? Let (s)he who hath not sinned cast the first stone…

      • I guess you are just better than everyone else.

  11. There’s nothing wrong with saliva. If I have it in my own mouth, I don’t have any problem swallowing it. If I however would spit it out in a sterile cup, I’d be grossed out if I had to swallow it.

  12. Where did you see misogyny? I saw nothing but irony and humor in that comment. Pulling off such a study requires nothing less than stomachs of steel. Looking at a mixture of old mucus and semen?! C’mon, that’s gross.
    Btw, I’m a feminist philosopher, often easily put off by all sorts of sexist statements. This time, I think you are just plain wrong and lacking in common sense.

    • For one thing, the same authors did a study that required the collection and examination of semen alone, which caused Dr Bering no difficulties; it was the semen with mucus that troubled him. It’s the girl juice he finds gross, not the boy juice. That’s a more or less definitional standard for misogyny.

      And for another, it’s NOT gross – except insofar as people perceive it as gross; I won’t go on a whole thing about the biology of the disgust response and morality, but I’ll just say that what we find gross is more a reflection of our socialization than anything innate. There is nothing inherently gross about mucus and/or semen. Indeed, I find both of them, separate or in combination, quite beautiful.

      You’re welcome to think I’m wrong. I’m pretty sure your view is more common than mine and it never even occurred to Dr Bering that there are people who object to the characterization of women’s fluids as gross. But you’re not writing about sex in a national publication – or at least I hope not! – and so the standard for sex positivity is lower for you than it is for me or for him.

  13. Well, I’m a lesbian, and I think my and my lovers’ fluids are better than ice cream, but I agree with Jesse that to study the vaginal flowback of perfect strangers would require stomachs of steel.

    And, if you read his column, both this one and all the rest, you can see that they frequently contain funny little comments like this. His science writing does exactly what good science writing should do: bringing science research to the public and entertaining us with wit and scholarship.

  14. What about humor? Do you have anything against that? That was the context of the “gross” factor. Oh, well. I’m done with your blog.

    • Nothing at all against humor – see comment below about snot – just not at the expense of women.

      • so… if it is at the expense of men is ok??….

        i find that quite funny… you seem to find awful anything that is apparently against women but if it is towards men thats totally cool…

        do you know what a misandrist is?…

  15. Your comments are quite frankly ridiculous. One’s own juices (and one’s partner’s juices) are perfectly fine, but the congealed bodily fluids of strangers are not pleasant to think about, no matter whether they are male or female. Dr Bering is not expressing misogyny, but merely a normal human response to the idea of handling a stranger’s lumpy cold fluids. In any case, I cannot take you seriously if you insist on using filthy language – profanity is the last resort of the inarticulate.

    • Exactly. How can a “Sex Nerd” not understand something as simple as that…

  16. Please grow up Emily. You cannot imagin how pathetic you sound to a lay person. Best you drop the subject before you appear even more foolish than you possibly are.

    My wife told me to write this.

  17. Wow. It was just a joke. Chill out.

  18. Frankly, semen begins stinking horribly within half an hour. I’d go nowhere near two-day old semen. Even writing these words about old semen is making me sick.

    Emily says, “it’s NOT gross – except insofar as people perceive it as gross.”

    The same could be said about urine, feces, incest, and murder.

    You might object, “but these other things cause harm.”

    Sure, but the concepts of “harmful” and “gross” are different. For example, eating high calorie foods may be harmful to some, but it is not necessarily gross.

    The label “misogynist” is a grave one. Don’t throw it around based on nothing. You owe J. Bering an apology.

  19. This kind of ivory tower nitpicking gives a bad name to feminists who are concerned with actual women’s issues, like international education, equal pay, and domestic abuse. This half-baked blend of pseudo-sociology and angry self-righteousness disguised as academic work isn’t helping anyone, least of all women. My mother marched and worked to fight real injustices – some of which are still ongoing – and you’ve hijacked the name of her movement and stuck it on your petty “gotcha” brand of stifling, censoring, knee-jerk political correctness. Shame on you.

  20. OMG thanks Jesse!

    Emily, we are doin it rong! There are more important things for us to be spending our time on, as Jesse has so clearly mansplained to us! We don’t have the right to good sex, we need to get working on Actual! Women’s! Issues!

  21. I love how people have written out rational, logical responses, have pointed out that this post is completely sensationalistic, and yet you (Emily) have yet to actually show any understanding of what people have been telling you (as your exchange with Bill Noble shows) and you’ve expressed no remorse at “flying off the handle.”

    Also, if you find it “funny” for your sex partner to sneeze mucus all over your breasts, great! Most of us don’t feel the same way. It is not unnatural to have an aversion to bodily fluids. If anything it probably makes you safer from infections nowadays. Also, this has nothing to do with being sex positive.

    As your writing shows, you are not a woman, you are a girl, Emily, one which has some funny ideas about sexism.

  22. It’s awesome to see the dialogue from before and after Bering’s pathetic counter-article. If he successfully proved anything, it’s that he really does need to get over his bullshit.

  23. The label “misogynist” is a grave one.

    Two things: first, there is a difference between saying that words or actions express misogyny and calling a person a misogynist. One is labeling a person, the other is characterizing an action. The original post here does not employ the word “misogynist” at all.

    Second: no, it is not a grave label. That sort of statement is denialism in action. We live in a deeply misogynistic society and we all have misogynistic tendencies to fight (or embrace, in too many cases). We as a society are at this point with racism as well: it’s treated as worse to be called a racist than it is to express racism. It’s not “grave”–it’s very common and needs more daylight.

    This talk of how it’s a grave charge to call out misogyny or racism implies that there are consequences to be paid. Well, just look at the comments on Bering’s 2500-word response to this post and you’ll find society is squarely in his corner. Misogyny carries few negative consequences, alas.

  24. emily!! this was awesome.

    and to all the mansplainers commenting around here: get over your collective selves. pointing out misogyny is not misandrist, just like pointing out racial discrimination isn’t racist. (haha I can’t wait to read the replies to that one…)

  25. Behring owes “all women an apology” because of an offhand remark he made about flowback? Get real!

    I suppose by the same token Dan Savage owes all other gay men an apology for santorum.

    And the “standards of sex-positivity” require that everybody love everybody else’s body fluids in their entirety at all times? That’s just wrong on the very face of it. The “standards of sex positivity” require you don’t transform your disgust into a moral standard that you impose on other people or use to stigmatize them. Big difference. For example, I will always go to bat for anal sex against haters who consider it “unnatural” or “anti-woman”, even though if you were to ask me, I’d say, yeah, I have squicks about it doing it personally.

    Generally like you’re blog, but you call this one very wrong.

  26. BTW, I just wanted to add that I don’t thing Bering has behaved at all well in all of this either. In general, I think you’re *both* reading each other in a very ungenerous way. I have said as much on Bering’s post, though being a “big blog”, chances are, he may not see it.

  27. Emily-

    I think your observation was fair, but your accusation of misogyny was not. At least not initially. I think his bias was obvious, and as a sex researcher you would be particularly sensitive to it. You had every right to be irritated, but I think until Jesse’s embarrassing follow-up rant/polemic on the ‘science’ of how annoying feminists are, you case lacked evidence. Unfortunately, in trying to defend himself he dug himself in much deeper than he did with a simple’ steel stomach’ joke. The thing is, a lot of people feel that way, gay or not, and it would have struck very few people as odd. You are right that it indicates bias, but he does not claim to be a robot, or a two dimensional, asexual version of Spock, merely a very good writer with a particular sexual and scientific bent. If I wrote his column I might reveal a few limitations as well. His follow up column where he lambastes you and feminists in general was, however, disappointing and embarrassing, to say the least. He should have waited 24 hours before he pressed ‘send’ on that one…if he didn’t owe women an apology before, he does now…I am just disappointed in a columnist I have always enjoyed. I hope I can forget I ever read that crap, and keep enjoying his writing.

  28. Have you read the reply?;


    you have just had your arse handed to you. You have also attracted a lot of unwanted attention( possibly from sexists). Also, you have become a figurehead for everything that is wrong with feminist culture. I would go on and say how I agree with the ideals and politics of feminism but hate the humourless, sour culture of feminism but the article does it much better and much more elegantly.

    Vaginal mucus is horrible,Cum is horrible, Piss is horrible, Shit is horrible, Menstruation blood is horrible, but your half baked musings are a fucking disgrace.

  29. tarikhyattkhan-

    I don’t find you all that hilarious either.

  30. you have just had your arse handed to you.

    How so? Bering has embarrassed himself. He concludes from the IAT data that “feminist” has a negative connotation because feminists have duly earned it. By his reasoning about the IAT, test-takers associate black faces with “lazy” because Black people are truly lazy. This is not just bad thinking–it’s painful and embarrassing to behold.

  31. Emily,

    I was moved by the fact that you stood up for women. Your friend Bering apparently doesn’t like being “that guy”, but no matter how hard he tries to explain his sensitive nature the bottom line is he is apparently disgusted by something that is natural and life giving.

    I’ve read people saying shit is awful after 2 days and piss is disgusting when it’s passed it’s prime but the fluids that the women expressed with a gentle cough were fresh at the time. Additionally the women who expressed the flowback fluid didn’t ask anyone to sniff it a couple of days later for goodness sakes! The scientists with their ” steel stomachs” were the ones who designed the experiment. I’d like to believe that professionals who are engaging in scientific study aren’t throwing hissy fits because they have to touch something unpleasant to them. If they are, then I hope they find more suitable work.

    Bering says he felt sorry for women who were asked to smell armpits. Has this guy ever heard of pheromones? Some women don’t mind smelling males. He confides that he doesn’t think the penis is pretty enough. He also worries about people having to talk about “menstruation”.

    Is this guy serious? He’s upset with you for calling him on his mincing ways.

    Emily I say you deserve all the “lackluster” attention you might get from this situation and I applaud your feminism!

    Oh yeah, if IAT”s show people dislike feminists that certainly isn’t your fault. People ( read men) are rabid about women speaking up for themselves. Feminism even though we all think we know what it is doesn’t even have a proper definition. I’d prefer to use my “level 1″ mind to consider what you are saying than rely on my “level 2″ mind and agree with everyone else that bodily fluids are icky.

    Thanks for your site. And um, from one feminist to another- You Go Girl!

    • Good to see real feminists aren’t above calling stereotyping a gay man as ‘mincing’. Also he isnt worried about people talking about menstruation he was arguing that girls should be taught more about it.
      This whole episode has been pathetic but despite Bering’s embarassing response it really takes a leap of logic to suggest he’s defaming women in his original piece.

  32. SKM writes, “This talk of how it’s a grave charge to call out misogyny or racism implies that there are consequences to be paid. Well, just look at the comments on Bering’s 2500-word response to this post and you’ll find society is squarely in his corner. Misogyny carries few negative consequences, alas.”

    Of course there are indeed consequences to the charge of misogyny!

    If the mud sticks, a columnist can be fired from his job.

    In this case, though, the mud has not stuck, since the accusation was ridiculous on the face of it. The idea that it’s misogyny to be repelled by two-day old semen is absurd.

    The casual way in which you and Emily hurl the label of misogyny at individuals reveals lack of integrity, lack of fairness, and perhaps a malicious nature–not to mention lack of common sense.

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