There’s a piece titled How Cosmo Stole the Clitoris on the MoSex blog that involves my work. I’ve received so many emails recently regarding what happened, I figure it’s time to share my side of the story.
On February 17, 2012, I received an email from the Museum of Sex with the subject line, Fwd: QUESTION FROM COSMOPOLITAN MAGAZINE. I’m guessing Cosmo put the subject in all caps to insinuate how important they are, rather than imply yelling. The email was from Robert Conway, asking if Cosmo could use the images featured in my Internal Clitoris post on the MoSex site, for their upcoming May issue. I said, “Yes, so long as you credit Ms. M. at the Museum of Sex.” This was not a an unusual inquiry from my perspective; I receive the same request from doctors, researchers, women’s health facilities, writers, bloggers, and sexperts several times a week, to all of whom I reply the same, “Yes, so long as you credit Ms. M. at the Museum of Sex.”
More emails with more questions started pouring in from Cosmo the following week. They wanted to know where I obtained my research, images, and information. I shared with them the medical journal where the research had been published, along with the doctors who performed the research, Dr. Foldès and Dr. Buisson. Cosmo wrote again requesting the doctors’ contact information. I gave them that as well, including phone numbers, assuming someone there could speak French and would be able to converse with the doctors. Cosmo was also given my contact information so that if they had any further questions, they could speak to me directly. I never heard from anyone there again.
The end of April rolls around and I am excited to see what Cosmo included in their May issue, which had just hit stands. I stood in Walgreens browsing the table of contents, but there was no title that led me to any specific article regarding the internal clitoris. I began skimming through every page in the magazine. Finally I got to page 179 where I saw an image that was a recreation of my sketch. Have Stronger Easier Orgasms, by Jessica Knoll. As I read the article, it sounded all too familiar. There was no mention of Ms. M. nor the Museum of Sex.
They took my sketch and recreated it. They lifted some of my words verbatim, then additionally rearranged and rearticulated the rest of my words in what sounded like a valley girl talking (hello, fifth grade reading level). Finally, they threw in some quotes by author Debby Herbenick, PhD, along with a mention of her new book that had just hit the shelves. They failed to mention anything at all about Ms. M., the Museum of Sex, or even the doctors without whom, we wouldn’t have this knowledge in the first place.
Regardless of whether or not the rest of the world thinks it’s plagiarism, it is undoubtedly unethical and scummy. You would think a columnist at a magazine like Cosmopolitan, or any other periodical under the Hearst umbrella, would adhere to more appropriate and ethical standards. My friends in the publishing world were appalled when I showed them. A more positive-thinking friend in the literary world said, “Look at it this way, it means you’re writing about the right things, things that are relevant and important.” He even suggested I add the Cosmo article to my own writing portfolio behind my initial piece, which I found rather amusing.
Our head of digital over at the Museum, Julie Ruvolo, writer and digital anthropologist, decided to call them out on their misbehavior. She too had experienced someone taking her work from the digital world and publishing it as their own in print world. Her recommendation for Cosmo to simply cite their source was not unreasonable, and something print outlets should consider before they all become as antiquated as the cassette tape. Of course Julie is going to be harsh on a massive Goliath empire that doesn’t follow ethics in journalism; she is a passionate journalist herself. I know first hand the dangers Julie has faced and the risky situations in which she has placed herself, just to uncover and investigate her stories. It doesn’t feel very good when the dying print world, clawing at what bit of life it has left, steals work from the digital world and passes it off as their own. It is no surprise then, just last month Cosmo launched a brand of lingerie and accessories at J.C. Penny. The print world’s days are numbered.
One commenter wrote in response to Julie’s article, that the information contained in my internal clitoris piece was information that any OBGYN would know. But that isn’t necessarily true. When I took the new research and the illustrations of what an internal clitoris looks like when erect to my own gynecologist, he was fascinated and surprised, commenting, “You learn something new everyday.” He then shared it with the other gynecologist in his practice, a female, who was also surprised by the new findings. OBGYNs are concerned with cancer screenings and delivering healthy babies. Female pleasure and how our internal pleasure structure looks and works may be important, but it isn’t the top priority that makes them successful in their field. Unless they too read the August 2010 Journal of Sexual Medicine, which is an outrageously expensive subscription, they would not know this information.
Dr. Herbenick, who was quoted in Cosmo’s article, immediately wrote a response to Julie’s piece. She was defensive of Cosmo and Jessica Knoll, and why shouldn’t she be – they are pimping out her book nicely for her. Ms. Herbenick states that what I wrote about in my internal clitoris article is something “those of us who study sex and write about sex have known for years.” She says that nothing I wrote about was new or groundbreaking. I think what she really means is that most sexperts, doctors, and people “who study and write about sex” know that the majority of the clitoris is internal. I agree, that is not news to experts. However, where she totally gets it wrong is with regards to what is groundbreaking and new – the Buisson/Foldès research I reported – what the internal clitoris looks like when erect within a live human female during coitus. Before Dr. Buisson and Dr. Foldès research, first performed in 2009, we never had a sonographic 3-D image of an internal erect clitoris. Their research was finally published August 25, 2010. I took old information we had about cadavers and the internal clitoris and combined it with new information (sonographic imaging of a live erect clitoris) to write my article. If this wasn’t new information, then why have I received hundreds of emails to date, from doctors and researchers alike, with requests to use the images and information? I challenge her or anyone else to show me in print or on the internet (with exception to the Journal of Sexual Medicine), pre-November 30th, 2011, where I can read about, and additionally see, what an internal clitoris looks like when erect within a living woman and how its erection interacts with the surrounding female anatomical parts.
Dr. Herbenick chose to dissect one sentence from my entire article, regarding the number of nerves in the glans of the clitoris compared to the number of nerves in the glans of the penis. She deemed my information “wrong” then justified why it’s wrong, based on the fact that other scientists and doctors she knows and respects believe something different. But as anyone with a lick of common sense is well aware, and as many intelligent respectable doctors and scientists will admit, there are disagreements within the medical community all the time. Her reasoning for what she believes is right, is no less logical for my reasoning for what I believe is right. The truth is, we don’t know the precise number of nerve endings in the glans of the clitoris compared to the glans of the penis because we just simply haven’t done enough research for definitive proof. We only have guesstimates. Take into consideration nerve count variation of those that are circumcised and those that are not; there’s no way the number of nerve endings are the same on every human being within each sex. Want additional proof of disagreements and riffs in the medical world? Apparently, doctors can’t even agree on whether or not the G-spot is real and exists. Some have written entire books on it, while others have done studies and research to disprove it. And don’t even get me started on the ignorance of some doctors when it comes to the food we eat.
In her response Dr. Herbenick says, “I find it offensive that Ms. Ruvolo has accused me of being “in on” whatever she thinks happened.” But Julie did not blatantly accuse Debby of anything; she merely posed questions pondering why on earth a doctor would be involved with a magazine that had done something so unethical. What’s that saying my mother taught me again? Lie down with dogs, wake up with fleas. It’s unfortunate Debby got caught up in all of this with no malice intent or even the knowledge of what was happening. I am grateful to learn from her response, that is in fact the case. Hopefully for her sake, she at least gets a few extra books sold out of the ordeal.
One would think if a publication like Cosmopolitan did have the journalistic ethics, clout, and desire for a great story, they would have actually gone to Dr. Buisson and Dr. Foldès to interview them even further. Perhaps there’s been more research by now, perhaps some of it even unpublished. Perhaps the doctors have more insight and information to share. Perhaps the least Cosmo could have done in their article, would have been to give credit to the doctors who gave the world this research without any proper funding.
But instead they took the lazy way out. Apparently, all it takes to be a big wig columnist at Cosmo is the ability to troll the internet for someone else’s work, rather than real investigative research. Besides, all that investigative research would take time away from making-up frivolous sex advice like pinching the skin of his balls and slapping his shaft. OUCH! Who comes up with this stuff? Lesbians? No really, google, “Cosmo’s 44 Most Ridiculous Sex Tips” if you need a good laugh. Here’s another one that’s pretty awful: 7 Sex Tips from Cosmo That Will Put You In The Hospital.
It’s no wonder that in a recent article in the New York Times, How Cosmo Conquered the World, the author Edith Zimmerman admits most of her gal pals aren’t fond of the magazine. She writes:
Cosmo is an easy magazine to hate. When I asked my female friends — including many single women in their late 20s, like me — what they thought of it, most of them were unkind. “Cosmo is complete trash,” one explained. “Mindless,” another said. “I would not be caught reading it outside of an airplane,” said a third. “It assumes and expects the worst of women,” said another. I never had a particularly positive opinion of it, either, and my ambivalence was reinforced by headlines like this one, from a recent edition of Cosmo South Korea: “Oops! My V Zone Is Strange!”
The sad truth is, the poor columnists at Cosmo obviously aren’t having the great mind-blowing sex their headlines sell, if they’re giving sex tips like slapping a guy’s penis and biting the skin of his scrotum. Women who are sexually intuitive, aware, and experienced know better than to waste time reading such a nonsense-filled publication. But all unethical journalism aside, the saddest aspect of Cosmo is the fact they are selling negative notions and ideas about being a woman to young teenage girls, gullible and impressionable enough to believe them. More often than not, their headlines are on how to please and excite him rather than how to please and excite herself. They typically feature models who are extremely thin, instead of celebrating all shapes and sizes of women, again putting ideas of what constitutes a beautiful female into the minds of young girls. They make money selling the same patriarchal values that sold in 1965; not cool and not responsible.
I’m a highly sexually intelligent, sexually evolved, sexually aware woman – and I’m proud of it. I will continue my work helping women unravel and evolve in their own sexualities, and Cosmo will continue giving lame dated advice that no fierce New York City woman (the REAL COSMOPOLITAN WOMAN) would find relevant. Cosmo has a long way to go before they understand the holy grail of great sex. They won’t learn it at Cosmic, watching men in white pants flamingo dance. That can only be understood, when delving into the depths of empathy, self-awareness, and human connection.