Mucus vs. Semen: Up Close and a Little Too Personal

Jesse Bering, of the Scientific American column Bering in Mind, has taken a bit of a man-hating beating this week.  Over what?  Cervical mucus.  That’s right.  Women’s post-sex discharge mucus, used to expel excess semen.

In a recent column, Bering half-jokingly commented that researchers poring through two-day-old female cervical mucus must have “stomachs of steel.”  In response, a sex educator and blogger, Dr. Nagoski, went on a rant about his anti-feminist attitudes that undermine the supposed glory (or, in her words, “intelligence”) of female cervical mucus.

His amusing response is the backlash that his critic deserved.  However, it still leaves something to be desired.

Awhile ago, I went to an acupuncturist for help with irregular and intensely painful periods.  She asked me point blank what types of mucus I excrete at different times of the month.  I was like, lady, I have no idea.  So she taught me the different types of mucus, which stages of my cycle they indicate, and how to tell if I’m ovulating.  It was like a revelation.  In all my science classes, sex-ed, or gynecology appointments, the practical daily functioning of women’s bodies was never discussed (and I never asked).  So I had no idea if my body was normal, and I sort of assumed I was weird.  Turns out, I wasn’t weird at all.  Just a little ignorant.

I would imagine that there are many other women who are also a little bit ignorant, assuming that sex ed hasn’t dramatically improved in recent years (which I highly doubt given the plethora of abstinence programs in schools now).  The result, if we aren’t adequately educated about our own bodies, is that we naturally struggle to engage in a cultural dialogue that could imbue women’s mucus with a benign sense of normality, rather than the fear or repulsion that often comes with otherness.  In our silence, we remain distinctly ‘other,’ and our own perspective on ourselves takes on a judging and shameful quality.

So yes, Dr. Nagoski was way over the top (can anyone really “LOVE the word mucus”?).  But what if we operate under the assumption that she is responding out of frustration toward a broader cultural dialogue and that her reactivity may also arise out of an honest soft spot of insecurity?

In many cultures (arguably including our own), semen is seen as an essential life force.  It is revered and imbued with power.  Women’s fluids, on the other hand, get no such status.  Menstrual blood is commonly seen as ‘unclean,’ and vaginal discharge is widely described as gross or smelly (remember middle school?).

In fact, women are often expected to actually want to swallow semen (given, most men will give us a break on this one).  But would men ever willingly swallow a teaspoon or more of vaginal fluid, shot projectile into the back of their throats?  I highly doubt it.  Most of them are probably cringing at the thought.  It’s okay, I am too.

Bering’s comment could be perceived as upsetting because it fits into a larger cultural dialogue that tends to assign power to men’s bodily fluids and deviance (or even disgust) to women’s.   I would argue, though I don’t have anything more than anecdotal evidence, that this attitude is so pervasive that women often adopt it unwittingly, causing the insecurity that Dr. Nagoski’s rant betrays.

Let’s step back and be honest for a minute:  Neither women’s nor men’s fluids are particularly savory.  So there’s no need for a contest over whose is better.  And there’s no need to pretend like both are so amazing that they should be revered.  But perhaps we can all agree that both are equally natural, sexual, and sometimes a little bit gross?

Unfortunately, nothing is communicated in Dr. Nagoski’s post because she’s too reactive to sound rational.  She sounds like that cringe-worthy brand of man-hating feminism that most women do not identify with, no matter how ardently we support women’s rights and equality.

To illustrate the impact of her attitude, Bering cites an interesting study, which showed that men and women alike associate negative words with feminism, suggesting that the negative connotations of a feminist identity might deter women from calling themselves feminists.  (Note: This gets to some of the issues discussed in the comments section of my Lady Gaga post, about why Lady Gaga might hesitate to call herself a feminist).

You certainly won’t find me loving the word mucus, or demanding recognition for my cervical mucus’ “beauty and wonder.”  But perhaps Bering could be moved to admit that he’s prodding a soft spot when he calls cervical mucus cringe-worthy.  We’ve heard that a bit too often.



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6 responses to “Mucus vs. Semen: Up Close and a Little Too Personal

  1. emily

    I was reactive, it’s true; I should have just turned my anger inside out and posted something the opposite of what he wrote, something positive and healing, rather than lambasting him rather carelessly the way I did. I appreciate your more considered approach.

    I have, though, since posted a rather more thoughtful rejoinder, if that’s in any way an improvement.

    • Thank you so much for reading this and responding. I’m honored that you found my approach thoughtful and I appreciate your response to Bering’s reaction as well. Your original post might have sparked some controversy, but it brought up an important issue and created a forum to talk about it, so thank you for taking the heat with grace and let’s hope the conversation continues.

  2. Doug Sunshine

    Ok, so I am going to court disaster again by actually hypothesizing that cervical mucus might actually be rationally more “gross” than semen. Not MUCH more gross, but more gross nonetheless.

    First, one could say that the rational part of our “disgusted” reaction is that part that represents our body’s aversion to disease and bacteria. While semen is a bodily fluid and therefore suspect as a matter of course, it is unlike cervical mucus because its biological purpose is not the trapping and containing of bacteria.

    I’m sure I don’t have to tell this educated audience that one of the primary functions of cervical mucus is to protect reproductively crucial organs from disease. And it has quite an important job to do: how many men get UTI’s, yeast infections, etc? And why not? Because the female reproductive system is simply more susceptible to disease.

    How does it perform this crucial task? By trapping these unhelpful substances and slowly draining them away where they can’t do as much harm. All right, all well and good.

    Compared to cervical mucus, however, semen is kept (relatively) pristine in the testes, and despite the ever-present risk of sexually transmitted disease, comes with comparatively few disease risk factors. That’s why shooting a teaspoon of cervical mucus in the back of a man’s throat might just be objectively “gross”er.

    Second point: Men actually ARE exposed to A LOT of cervical mucus through oral sex — perhaps a greater amount than the amount of semen a woman is exposed to! (It depends on the generosity of the man, I suppose). The only difference is in the delivery method, really.

    Third: Both acts of oral sex rely on trusting another person that they are disease-free. I think that this is the source of intimacy that make oral sex such a popular, ahem, pastime, and certainly plays a huge part in the male fetishization of “swallowing”. Without any contact with the semen, has a woman really communicated any trust whatsoever?

    I’m sorry for anybody that gets offended by my comments — i wrote them quickly and had no time to scrub for potentially insensitive remarks …

  3. liz

    Yikes! Who knew that so soon after I commented on Lady Gaga’s waffling over whether she considered herself a “feminist,” and you wrote of so many women’s confusion over, and concern about the label inferring some sort of anti-male sentiment, that we’d be discussing such a perfect example of the man-hating vitriol that has lead to what, in my opinion, is a mistaken interpretation of the word. That was a long sentence.

    I can see nothing offensive in the masturbation column, and don’t agree that he says anything bad about women’s mucus. He’s talking about “flowback,” which he describes as day old semen being pushed out spontaneously. Bering never even mentions the word mucus. And although I have no issue whatsoever with the “sticky” (meaning bodily fluids: his, mine and ours) on me, in me, or around me during sex, when it oozes out into my underwear hours later, I don’t lap it up or rub my nose in it. I put it the laundry basket so I can wash it out. It’s gross.

    Make the point that researchers deal with all sorts of icky stuff that us lay people would be cringing about, and women squatting over beakers and coughing out globules of goo is just another bit of same, and what’s the big deal. He needn’t have mentioned the stomaches of steel, it was, I assume, an attempt to be clever. But how Dr Nagoski manages to twist his squeamishness into some sort of insult to women is beyond me. It requires looking for something to get mad about, and making stuff up when there really isn’t anything worthy of a fight.

    And yet she attacks him, personally, with name calling and insults, brings up his sexual orientation, calls him “fucking rude.” Even threw in the stupidity of “our fluids are better your fluids,” that was just plain embarrassing. Then she complains in her rebuttal to his rebuttal, that he used 2500 words to respond to her mere 300. Yes, 300 words ATTACKING him, calling him sexist and a misogynist, swearing at him and full of general nastiness. Of course he should defend himself, however many words he needs, and he did a good job.

    So with all that out of the way, on to women and their fluids. I agree with Doug that oral sex, mutual (hetero) oral sex, probably involves a comparable amount of male and female fluids being ingested. And he’s right about the cleanliness part. In the absence of disease, semen’s clean. But if you don’t like the word mucus, call it juice. And there are plenty of guys who love it. If you’re with one who doesn’t, and you want one who does…you may want to keep looking.

    It’s too bad some women think they taste and smell bad, and the media helps promote this with ads for feminine deodorant, and douches, which only make things worse. As my first GYN told me, “It’s a self-cleaning organism.” Leave it alone.

    • I know, who would have thought we’d have such a perfect example of feminism’s bad reputation so soon??

      As for your comment that there are plenty of guys who love it, my experience (and maybe I’m just lucky) has been that guys are way more into it than women tend to think they are. So maybe that suggests that men already embrace it, and that we’re the ones who could use a change in perspective. Maybe more comprehensive sex education could be the start of that. Or like you said, less media suggesting that women need deodorants or douches (which, if we’re talking bacteria, can make things pretty legitimately gross).

      • Liz

        In my experience men fall into different camps, from those who love it, to the opposite extreme. Overall, I too have been lucky, but looking down at a face with a grimace that says, “who put anchovies on my ice cream?” is a real mood destroyer. That said, I’ve heard from men who claim some women won’t do it either–either at all, or the swallowing part. So we’re probably on pretty even turf. Sexual compatibilty is just that, there’s no such thing as one size fits all. Everyone has to find the mate that fits.

        As for our body awareness, or lack thereof, that you discuss in the original post, I have been lucky in that regard as well. My friends and I discuss all of this stuff, and always have all the way back to high school, so that’s a really long time. We talk about how we taste, what we excrete and when, what we feel and what we like and don’t like, both done to us and to do, and what ultimately does the trick. We’re all so different, and our likes and dislikes varied, and the topic is endlessly interesting. At least to us. My body and all of its doings has never a topic I’ve shied away from…can you tell?

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