What The Goop Lab gets right (and wrong) about sex
Gwyneth Paltrow doesn’t know what a vagina is and neither do you. Then again you’re not the CEO and face of a £200 million wellness behemoth who just put out a £57 candle named ‘This Smells Like My Vagina’ and posed for a screening of her new Netflix ‘docu-series’ in front of red and pink roses in the shape of women’s genitals.
In the opening scene of The Goop Lab episode three, “The Pleasure Is Ours”, Paltrow is educated on the fact that what she thinks is a vagina, what those roses and the Twitter ads for the show depict, is actually a vulva. She is schooled on this subject by Betty Dodson, a 90 year-old sex educator with white hair, a gravelly voice and a no-baloney attitude, and it makes for great TV.
Gwyneth: It’s our favourite subject!
Betty: The vagina is the birth canal only. You want to talk about the vulva, which is the clitoris and the inner lips and all that good shit around it.
Gwyneth: (claps, looks off camera): The vagina is only the birth canal? Oh. I’m getting an anatomy lesson that I didn’t… I thought the vagina was the whole…
Betty: No, no, no.
There’s a chance this was staged to allow Dodson to explain the difference between the vagina and the vulva to women (and men) who don’t know, while holding one hand out like she’s grabbing a juicy pineapple. And in this episode at least, the Goop team largely sticks to the status quo on sex and women’s bodies. But the look on Dodson’s face throughout says otherwise and either way, it’s a reminder that despite the research citations and conversations that The Goop Lab gets right about orgasms, sexual health and anatomy, Gwyneth Paltrow is still not qualified to offer advice about vaginas.
Despite its star’s shaky grip on anatomy, this episode manages to cover some of the most damaging sexual myths and taboos that still persist today. Here are the real answers to the sexual questions that The Goop Lab grapples with – and the science behind them that the show misses out.
Who knows the difference between a vagina and a vulva?
The Goop Lab cites, via on-screen text, a 2016 survey of 1,000 women by gynaecological cancer charity The Eve Appeal which found that 44 per cent of the women were unable to identify their vagina in a medical illustration and 60 per cent could not label the vulva.
The charity, which was unaware their work had been referenced by Goop, did a similar survey the following year in which it spoke to 2,000 people and found that 50 per cent of men could not identify the vagina on the diagram; two thirds for the vulva. Still, it’s more important for women to be able to talk about their own bodies. “From their youth, boys can look down and see their reproductive anatomy. For women it’s different – it’s between their legs and in their pelvis,” says Athena Lamnisos, CEO of The Eve Appeal. “Knowing what’s ‘normal’ for you is critical so you can spot the signs and symptoms, find out when something isn’t normal for you and get medical advice.”
Is porn to blame for a boom in cosmetic labiaplasty surgeries?
Later in the episode Elise Loehnen, Goop’s chief content officer, refers to the “myth of pornography” and Carlin Ross, Betty Dodson’s right hand woman, talks about how women featured in porn “have a certain look, their genitals are surgically altered… they bleach everything pink so they look like a baby doll.”
Then the show immediately flashes up a stat from the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery that labiaplasty surgeries increased 45 per cent between 2015 and 2016, which is correct but out of date. ISAPS states that the 45 per cent jump was to 138,033 elective procedures with the highest number of surgeries (23,155) taking place in Brazil followed by 13,266 in the US and 4,879 in Italy.
While the trend has persisted, the increase isn’t quite the whole story. In 2017 the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery reported a 10.7 per cent decrease in labiaplasty surgeries versus 2016 with the comment: “It remains to be seen if this particular procedure is a passing trend or a permanent one.” In its latest report from 2018, it recorded 12,756 labiaplasties (up on 10,787 in 2017 and costing an average of $2,803 (£2,140)) suggesting that the demand for the practice is fluctuating but not growing at an alarming rate in the US. (Concerning though is the 3.8 per cent of surgeries performed on women 17 and under.) For comparison, there were 329,914 ‘breast augmentation’ surgeries in the US in 2018.
It’s difficult to draw a straight line between exposure to porn imagery and surgeries but both mainstream actors and pornographic actors have discussed undergoing a labiaplasty in interviews and there is indeed a procedure nicknamed ‘The Barbie.’ A 2011 study also showed that 90 per cent of physicians had a personal disposition towards smaller labia minora that was likely to influence their clinical decisions.
“I think some of what The Goop Lab is saying is relevant and in line with what I see in my practice,” says Sarah Calvert, a psychosexual and relationships therapist. “I’ve seen younger women presenting with genital dysmorphia. For some, this stems from comments from sexual partners. Porn often doesn’t show realistic arousal. However it’s important to remember that there are different types of pornography out there – it’s not all degrading to women.”
Are there two types of female orgasm?
According to Betty Dodson, the two types of orgasm are the “tension” orgasm, which is what most women will experience, and her “rock and roll” method. What’s presented here as factual by the show seems to actually be a way to discuss Dodson’s method and there are plenty of counter-theories. “Dr Jen Gunter [gynaecologist and pain medicine physician] argues that there is only one type of female orgasm since all orgasms originate in the clitoris,” says Hallie Lieberman, sex historian and author of Buzz: The Stimulating History of the Sex Toy. “Research in the Archives of Sexual Behaviour argued there were at least four types of orgasms, based on how intense the throbbing and spasms were and whether or not there was emotional intimacy.”
If you were to split orgasms into two types, it would usually be vaginal and clitoral, but this has been debunked: “Masters and Johnson showed there was no physiological difference between clitoral and vaginal orgasms. Today many researchers argue the same thing: all orgasms occur because of clitoral stimulation, whether through the vaginal walls during sex or during manual stimulation.”
Dodson is “very well-regarded” in the US as a sex educator, according to Lieberman, and has coached over 7,000 women in her workshops since the 1970s. And Annie Philpott, founder of The Pleasure Project, refers to her as a “foremother” of the movement to de-stigmatise masturbation for women.
Can a vaginal barbell improve orgasms?
Potentially – in the right workshop. Betty Dodson’s $140 (£107) Barbell – on sale at Amazon US – is, aesthetically at least, the precise opposite to the (non controversial) pastel coloured vibrators and kegel beads Goop has curated for this episode in its new The Goop Lab Shop.
It’s a medical-looking pound of stainless steel that’s designed to help strengthen the pelvic floor muscle and provide vaginal stimulation as part of Dodson’s method to teach women how to orgasm. Even amongst the experts who are familiar with Dodson, we couldn’t find anyone who has tried it out, though Dodson does use it in her private practice with instructions on squeezing and lifting the pelvic floor muscle that are in line with medical advice. The Barbell has ten Amazon US ratings with an average of 4.1/5 stars and similar products can be found on Amazon UK for around £40.
“I’m sure Betty Dodson knows what she’s doing but sometimes this new enthusiasm about sexual wellness and women’s sex tech can commodify it a bit,” says Philpott. “And that’s exactly what Gwyneth Paltrow’s doing with the candles and everything. That’s what worries me. It doesn’t cost anything to have a wank so don’t put these pressures on it.”
Do orgasms reduce stress, enhance sleep and boost hormone levels?
Another text card in episode three links orgasms to other health benefits, including curbing appetite and heightening one’s sense of smell, citing only “research” with no figures or references to research papers. It is widely accepted that our levels of oxytocin go up when we have orgasms and this has variously been linked to improved sleep, a reduction in stress and even anxiety and depression.
The reference to smell may refer to a study in mice from 2003 relating to the hormone prolactin or a 2018 study in the Archives of Sexual Behaviour of 28 men and 42 women, which found that the women with the best sense of smell reported experiencing more orgasms during sex in a survey. The researchers noted the association but did not conclude that a better sense of smell lead to, or was caused by, any differences in sexual performance or orgasms.
It’s not mentioned by Goop but among the most convincing studies into the health benefits of orgasms, according to Annie Philpott, is research conducted over 10 years and published back in 1997 with 918 men aged 45 – 59 in Caerphilly, South Wales, which found that those with a “high orgasmic frequency” had a 50 per cent lower mortality risk than those with a “low orgasmic frequency.”
Is showing real orgasms on TV helpful for sex education?
The Goop Lab’s big move in this episode is to film Carlin Ross having an orgasm and show both her vulva close up and a gallery of anonymous female genitals. This stunt could help to counter the medical diagrams and porn images that teenagers see, says Lota Bantic, an education and wellbeing specialist at Brook Young People. “The medical diagrams don’t focus on the fact that they look different for everyone and there’s no pubic hair. There are conversations on social media about penis size but not how vulvas look.”
As for Carlin Ross’ comment that “we see penises all the time” on TV and online, that’s interesting but tricky to track. The BBFC’s 18 rating has no specific restrictions on female sexual nudity (versus the 15 rating where “strong detail” of nudity is brief or comic). In the absence of official data, Jezebel spoke to the pop culture catalogue sites Mr Skin and Mr Man last year and found a history of 39,431 film and TV scenes showing women’s breasts, 9,512 scenes showing a woman’s ‘bush’ and 3,288 showing penises. The ‘bush’ scenes include “partial visibility” and of these, only 346 show women’s labia. In this context, Goop is onto something.
Does this mean we should trust Goop?
The Goop Lab gets a lot right, but that’s easier to do when you’re not directly selling anything. The infamous jade eggs, the subject of a lawsuit over unsubstantiated claims which Goop settled for $145,000 (£110,000) in 2018, are still on sale. The controversial ‘vagina steaming’ was also not discussed in the episode and now only appears on the Goop timeline with a note to say it was mentioned only once in a piece on a Korean spa called Tikkun. The sexual health episode of The Goop Lab contains some useful conversations and research then. But Goop as a whole has a long way to go before it earns the respect of sexual health experts.
“I think the claims made by Gwyneth Paltrow and Goop are not evidence-based and potentially damaging to women,” says Cynthia Graham, professor of sexual and reproductive health at the University of Southampton. “I’m skeptical,” says Lota Bantic. “I don’t know if there’s an endgame in terms of selling products.”
“Goop’s mission to increase body knowledge is spot on,” says The Eve Appeal’s Athena Lamnisos. “It’s fantastic that Gwyneth and her team have got the message: just say it, don’t shame it. Products for specially cleaning your vagina aren’t necessary, add to the shame and aren’t generally recommended by gynaecologists. It’s just a vagina. Or a vulva.”
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