Ginger first created “a small but noticeable puddle” with her orgasm when she was 19, while masturbating alone using her hand. A few years before, in the late 1990s, she’d used her family’s computer to search AOL about squirting after she heard a rumor that one of her high school classmates “soaked a boyfriend’s arm while he was fingering her.” The literature Ginger found online back then convinced her the fluid wasn’t pee, so when she experienced the phenomenon herself, she was comfortable with it.
“I had a pretty reasonable understanding that it was natural for some women,” she told me. Her comfort may have been helped along by the fact that “it was the best orgasm [she’d] ever had.” She’s been orgasmically releasing liquid without anxiety or shame in the 15 years since.
For a generation weaned on internet porn, inundated by sex advice, and adept at online search engines, “squirting” entered the mainstream years ago. But part of what makes it so visible are the petty controversies surrounding it. The public conversation is preoccupied with determining whether or not it’s “real,” meaning whether or not the resulting fluid is pee, and if the G spot (often used as an outdated term for the female prostate, the organ that yields ejaculate) even exists. Some disagreements are legitimate, stemming from lack of adequate research and disputes about methodology, but much is driven by sexist ideology instead of sincere curiosity. Consequently, plenty of ejaculating cis women remain confused and ashamed about their bodies’ responses, even holding back on orgasm altogether because they’re embarrassed by the outcome.
It wasn’t always this way. A variety of texts ranging from ancient to merely old indicate that societies in both the East and West were much more comfortable and familiar with the myriad ways women get wet. According to the earliest Taoist and Greek writings, “copious emissions,” “liquid discharge,” and “seminal fluid” were an expected and solicited aspect of women’s sexual functioning. These documents sometimes even bullet point the order in which different types of wetness occur.
But bodily secretions aren’t always easily distinguished, or marked in perfect time with corresponding phases of intimacy. Women’s physical responses have been ignored, denied, and mandated by a tremendous amount of (mostly male) scientists’ energy over the years, even as women’s bodies regularly flout attempts at control. And no case study illustrates the dubious authority of modern sexual mores more vividly than female ejaculation.
Defining female ejaculation is the first step in understanding it, but unfortunately, that’s no easy task. Researcher and educator Beverly Whipple, co-author of The G Spot, has made validating women’s sexual responses her life’s work, and is one of the world’s foremost experts on the female prostate and its excretions. She maintains that female ejaculation is different from “squirting” (also known as “gushing”), though pop culture and most lay people regard the terms as interchangeable. Both substances come out of the urethra, as does plain old urine, but female ejaculation produces a modest amount of milky fluid with a chemical makeup “significantly different” from pee, while squirting—according to several much-hyped studies—yields more profuse amounts of clear or nearly clear diluted urine with less PSA (prostate-specific antigens) than pure ejaculate. In other words, the three fluids are chemically distinct.
Squirting is what’s usually showcased in porn because it’s so eruptive and dramatic, and therefore it’s what most people visualize when they hear “female ejaculation.” I asked Whipple if she knew of any porn featuring actual female ejaculation as opposed to gushing, and she said no. I did a little bit of digging—for science!—and found that even porn claiming to specifically showcase “Skene’s gland,” i.e. female prostate, orgasms, captures especially opaque/white discharge pushed out at the vagina’s lower rim, not fluid coming from the urethra. (Who would have suspected porn would ever fail to deliver what it promises?)
Whipple first learned of female ejaculation when she was teaching women to do Kegel exercises to control what the subjects thought was urinary incontinence. The biofeedback she and her colleagues received showed that some participants had very strong pelvic muscles, which suggests the ability to control one’s pee. Those women subsequently explained that the only time they had trouble holding back (what they assumed to be) urine was during sex.
Though female ejaculation and squirting are usually assumed to be evidence of orgasm, and an especially powerful orgasm at that, women reported to Whipple and her colleagues that it also occurs before or without orgasm. One study suggested it happens more commonly without orgasm than with, and noted some women ejaculate with prostate stimulation alone and no attendant arousal.
That squirting need not be related to sexual pleasure is old news to me; I taught myself to do it when I was 21, to make more money. It was 2004 and I was working as a so-called “adult model” on webcam at the height of squirt-mania. Porn star Cytherea was drenching sets and co-stars with her legendary output, and dozens of potential customers were typing to me each night: “can u squirt?” I knew I’d miss out on their money if I wasn’t able to accommodate their appetite for novelty and tangible sexual response, so I bought Deborah Sundahl’s Female Ejaculation & The G-spot and spent an afternoon seeing what I could do.
It took several hours and a lot of concentrated effort—namely rubbing the roof of my vagina well past the point of comfort—but by the time I was done, I’d soaked my sheets with a liquid that resembled clean sea water in odor and appearance. From that point forward, almost every night of work ended in a pile of sodden towels and two loads of laundry.
Naturally, to write comprehensively about female ejaculation I had to reach out to the woman whose work had bolstered my cam earnings so considerably. Though not a scientist, Sundahl is an expert on women’s genital fluids; she’s lectured and taught on the matter for 25 years and no book rivals her contemporary classic. Her curiosity was piqued decades ago when she found herself releasing fluid during sex, and her resultant research positioned her as leader of the gushing vanguard. She takes issue with the word “squirting” on the grounds that it’s “a porn term.”
“It’s a rather adolescent description of the full fountainous beauty of female ejaculation,” she told me. Though I understand why she finds it pejorative, I don’t share her objection. For the purpose of this piece, I use “gushing/squirting” and “female ejaculation” in keeping with Whipple’s definitions, but individuals are quoted using the terms they prefer. (And it’s worth noting now that since almost all historical documents and scientific studies adopt a cisnormative viewpoint, most of what follows speaks to the bodies of cis women only.)
Both Sundahl’s Female Ejaculation and Whipple’s The G Spot includea slew of evidence of historical awareness of female ejaculation/squirting, and later enthusiasts began took to referencing even more. These documents came (heh) to constitute something of a female ejaculation canon. Today, academics and sexperts alike confidently point to suggestive documents that span centuries and continents, ranging from Aristotle to contemporary reports on practices of some African tribes. But not everyone is persuaded. As Catherine Blackledge, author of The Story of V: A Natural History of Female Sexuality explains, “one of the main arguments against the accuracy of historical descriptions of female ejaculation is that descriptions…could refer to any of the many aspects of female genital secretions.”
Secret Instructions Concerning the Jade Chamber, a 4th century Taoist work, is one of the more convincing exhibits because it distinguishes between “slippery vagina,” which happens first, and then “the genitals transmit fluid.” It also warns women against “exhaust[ing]” their “female fluid” before a man is as equally aroused, an attitude that contradicts the way general female wetness (“Yin”) was spoken of at the time. (Unlike a man’s finite Yang—you can imagine what that is—Yin was regarded as inexhaustible, which means there’d be no reason to advise against going nuts with it.) The 6th century’s Secrets Methods of a Plain Girl is equally evocative, separating “moist and slippery” genitalia as the predecessor to “copious emissions from her Inner Heart begin[ning] to exude outward.” Is it hot in here or is it just me?
Squirt fans now regard the whole of the Eastern world as particularly forward-thinking re:female fluids thanks to texts like the 12 century’s Sanskrit “Ratirahasya.” It explains that while women are subject to a continuous “moist flow,” that’s only a “small portion” of their pleasure and “at the end they have like men, the…swooning of emission.” Western tantra practitioners claim that the Sanskrit word “amrita,” which literally translates as “nectar,” really meant “female ejaculation,” but I was unable to find any credible source for this. There are also claims that some Indian temples are decorated with reliefs of women gushing but the only image I could find was a lo-res but badass picture Deborah Sundahl shared with me:
Even as someone who’s squirted, I’m skeptical that much of what’s put forth as historical documentation of female ejaculation actually identifies the act. Vaginal lubrication can be copious, impressively so; it can create wetness outside as well as in, smearing thighs and vulva lips, and its transparency and viscosity vary based on Ph balance and whatever other fluids have been introduced into the mix. So when Aristotle wrote that female “discharge” sometimes “far exceeds” a man’s “emissions of semen,” he could have meant ejaculation—or he could’ve been referring to sheer vaginal wetness. It’s impossible to divorce Galen’s, Hippocrates’, Aristotle’s, and other ancient figures’ references to female “seed” or “semen” from their androcentric milieus, such that their writing can be taken as conclusive recognition of a female prostate.
After acknowledging such objections, The Story of V’s Blackledge adds that sometimes “there is little room for dispute.” But the passages presented as obviously about female ejaculation still strike me as obviously not. Blackledge introduces 17th century anatomist Reiner de Graaf as having the “clearest insights” on the matter before quoting his description of “thick and copious” amounts of liquid that “pour” from women’s genitals during fits. I’ve never experienced or witnessed any fluid literally “pouring” out, and I can’t imagine “thick” discharge, of all the possible types of discharge, would be the type to do it.
So is this a bad translation? Or is it accurately conveying the hyperbolic thinking of a man writing from within a culture that saw women’s sexuality, by definition, as extreme? de Graaf is credited with extensive investigation into the female prostate; he probably watched at least one woman ejaculate. (Later, he more soberly reported “one gush” of fluid sourced from the prostate and distinguished it from other types of genital lubrication.) But his overblown descriptions are characteristic of much historical writing, and it leaves room for uncertainty about what was actually observed.
Victorian-era “The Pearl,” an erotic magazine mentioned in The G Spot as being full of female ejaculation, offers a less outrageous take. “I was so excited that a sudden emission wetted his fingers all over in a creamy spend,” one of its fictional characters reports, quite possibly referring to ejaculation. But it’s just as plausibly speaking to how mounting vaginal secretions break open when the inner labia are parted. It’s hard to take descriptions of female sexuality in both erotica and male-penned scientific works at face value given how breathlessly exaggerated they often are. Considered as a whole, these documents reveal repeated attempts to parse women’s tangible sexual response. But it’s almost always without direct input from women themselves.
And it still is. The argument about whether or not squirting was “real” never made much sense to me. I knew my body could produce something distinct from urine in almost every sensory aspect: taste, smell, color. (“Like a cup of warm, salty water,” as one my interviewees said.) If it was indeed urine, it was so diluted as to be unrecognizable, and when I’d use the toilet afterwards, typical urination followed. “The fluid is really thin and clear, like peeing when you’re extremely well-hydrated,” one woman told me of her own output, while another said, “I’ve tried to actually urinate during orgasm several times and it doesn't work. [Squirt] smells a little like pee, but when I go to the bathroom after intercourse or oral, I relieve a full bladder full of a much different liquid.”
Squirt queen herself, Cytherea, had this to say about accusations that she’s really only peeing:
I know a lot of women currently in the industry who are squirting and they are just straight-up pissing. It’s yellow and smelly […] I know I pee a whole different way [than I squirt,] in how it feels and the consistency and everything. I’ve given up on trying to convince people. Fine, whatever. If it’s pissing, it’s pissing, and I piss in two ways, and that’s all there is to it.”
As my friend Lux Alptraum once asked, “Who cares if it’s pee? It feels good!” Lux’s take on the debate about squirting’s authenticity is that it belies “skepticism about women’s ability to understand their own sexual responses”; even if squirt “comes from the bladder, it looks, smells and feels different from urine.” Her impression is confirmed by the way most media coverage inflates shoddy studies purporting that the G spot doesn’t exist, or that squirting is pee, with declarative, provocative headlines. Finally, these articles imply, ejaculating women have been revealed as shiesters or morons, or both.
It’s easier to just cede that ground than shout yourself hoarse, which explains why so many others have adopted Cytherea’s and Lux’s “who cares?” approach. Even Ginger, whose precocious internet search helped her become comfortable with gushing years ago, now believes the fluid is urine. But not everyone is prepared to go down without a fight.
“It’s not urine!” Deborah Sundahl insisted to me when I brought up Whipple’s distinction between squirting (diluted urine) and ejaculation (primarily prostate emission). “This is a backlash! Two little tear ducts can cry a river, right? There are up to 48 ducts and glands in the female prostate. And answer me this: if it’s urine for women, then why—when a man has a prostate orgasm—is his ejaculate watery and there’s a lot of it, just as is true for us?”
When I squirted on webcam, I stopped only because I’d ran out of full-sized bath towels to soak and I was tired. The amount of liquid I could create in a few hours felt like it well exceeded the amount of urine I produced on most days. And when I spoke to men who were in the habit of inducing orgasms through prostate stimulation, they mostly confirmed what Sundahl said. Stace told me his prostate orgasms can create as much as 10 times the fluid his penile orgasms once did. Georgia Lee, a dominatrix experienced in prostate massage, said her clients usually produce twice if not three or four times as much. Drew described the smell of his resulting ejaculate as not fishy but “aquatic,” like “a salty sea breeze.” Sound familiar?
It’s probably not surprising, given the circumstances under which I mastered the act, that squirting has never been very pleasurable to me, or something I even think of as being part of my sexuality. I regarded it as an uncomfortable but impressive stunt, something I usually felt pride for accomplishing but that had nothing to do with my arousal or erotic satisfaction. And for most women, context is everything. Ginger, the aforementioned precocious squirter, specified that some of her gushing orgasms have been “shitty, because I felt pressured to perform,” when they’re otherwise “the best and hottest” of her life. Another woman told me that “sometimes [squirting] comes with a really deep orgasm and sometimes it literally doesn’t feel satisfying at all.”
Betty Dodson, a famous sex educator and vehement critic of the promotion of female ejaculation, opposes obsessive attention around the act in part because it’s not indicative of orgasm. Many entries on her site are devoted to addressing women who squirt before they've come and whose partners subsequently fail to help them climax, as well as women who are being pressured to produce proof of their excitement, be it “white stuff” or squirting. Ultimately, men who pressure their lovers to squirt during sex and men who excoriate their partners for “peeing” during sex are not so different; they, like many scientists, are desperate to make women’s bodies give up observable, physical proof of our sexual experience, since our verbal reports can’t be trusted. As Sundahl says, the impulse to devise studies that can disprove women’s own reports of their sexual experiences is “invasive, diminishing, and patronizing.”
And what’s saddest about the distracting and irrelevant “Is squirting pee?” debate is that it dodges the issue of what feels good. Commitment to enhancing and validating pleasure came first for Whipple and Sundahl, who each reject the notion that every (or any) woman’s body needs to behave a certain way. Neither expert intended for her work to create more shame or additional sexual imperatives. But our cultural insistence on gate-keeping bodies—which extends to maintenance of a strict gender divide, and the policing of all aspects of sexuality—wants pure information-sharing to devolve into prescription of certain sanctioned acts. We haven’t stopped freighting genital responses with political meaning, which means a truly progressive, holistic, and accurate take on anyone’s sexuality will continue to elude us.
With squirting now frequently fetishized and consequently popularized, the last frontier of the taboo that is female wetness may be regular, everyday discharge. I was thrilled and slightly scandalized when 2014’s Obvious Child included a running joke about underwear that “looks like it crawled out of a tub of cream cheese.” (“I used to hide what my vagina did to my underpants,” the main character says. Her, and literally everyone else.) I was equally delighted by Amy Schumer’s line about wanting to get through a day without her underwear looking “like I blew my nose on it.” Occasional or regular undie-crusting daily discharge has nothing to do with arousal, sexual performance, or gratifying partners, so it’s unlikely to be hyped in mainstream news articles anytime soon.
Ignorant of this bodily truth, when I hit puberty I thought I’d become sick. I went to my mom with my dirty bikini bottoms as proof and asked her what was wrong with me. The short answer? I had a vagina.
Gina, now 72, can’t remember when she first squirted though she suspects it was in her early twenties. The lack of a specific memory might be attributable to how comfortable she was with the experience in spite of her unfamiliarity with the phenomenon. “I took it to be part of the pleasure nature intended for us,” she told me. And she wasn’t the only one who handled it maturely: “A few of my partners said, ‘It’s nice that you can do that.’ Perhaps many didn’t notice.”
That there’s uncertainty and ambiguity present in historical representations of female sexual secretions, and that there’s still scientific and medical uncertainty about the same, need not be discouraging. Our problems often lie with the insistence on black and white answers about widely variable human responses, not in the functioning of our sometimes surprising erotic bodies. Whipple’s research showed that women need not be ashamed of the liquids they release during arousal because it’s a natural and healthy part of their sexual functioning. But our absolutist cultural mentality perverted this message into a referendum on what physical response is most indicative of a fully realized feminine sexuality.
I asked Whipple if it’s possible many women are already ejaculating and simply not aware of it since the amount of fluid may amount to less than a teaspoon. I was thinking of how many women have been pressured to ejaculate to please their partners, or suspect that they need to do it to enjoy better orgasms, or who think that inability to ejaculate speaks to personal failure. Could these women be berating themselves over not doing something they’ve done before, without realizing they had?
“Absolutely,” she said.
Charlotte Shane has written for Matter, Pacific Standard, The Verge, and is the author of Prostitute Laundry.