How Cosmo Stole the Clitoris: Plagiarism in Print

Ms. M

Try asking the next person you encounter to tell you where the clitoris is located.  Having posed this question to others many times myself, I’ll guess that the majority of answers you receive will sound something like, “It’s that small bulb at the top of my lips,” or, “That’s the button up under the hood.”

Although these responses aren’t exactly wrong, the interesting truth is that the majority of the clitoris is actually within the pelvis – that is, it’s far more internal than external. Even most of the women I coach, women who are generally worldly and well-informed about their own bodies, react with a combination of fascination and confusion when I explain that their clitoris extends deep within them.

This is Sex 101 according to Ms. M, a sex therapist, professional musician and composer, and advice columnist for the New York Museum of Sex. (Recent: Swing Clubs and Breakups, Father-Daughter Sex and How to Have Safe Double-Penetration.)

I co-edit digital publications for the Museum with Lia Wong, and invited Ms. M to contribute to the blog.

I’m quoting her November 30 post, The Internal Clitoris, highlighting the research of Dr. Buisson, Dr. Foldès, and Dr. O’Connell on the structure of the internal clitoris – and translating for the rest of us:

What does all this mean? Well, for starters, we can finally end that age-old debate of vaginal vs. clitoral orgasms.

It’s all the same clitoris. Eureka!The web responded: Ms. M’s post received 150,000 pageviews and counting, over 100 comments (mostly “thank you”) and dozens of pingbacks.

Robert T. Gonzalez for  Until 2009, the human clitoris was an absolute mystery.

Andrew Sullivan for TheDailyBeast: The Clitoral Hug (although he was a bit lazy not to credit the author by name).

Jessica Knoll, Senior Editor for Cosmo: “Have Easier, Stronger Orgasms,” (Cosmo U.S., May 2012, page 179).

Except that Ms. Knoll did not cite her source. She decided to steal it.

I don’t mean lifting a well-written sentence or two. I mean plagiarism with a capital P.

(Click here to view a pdf of “Have Easier, Stronger Orgasms.”)

UPDATE: Ms. M responds.

Ms. M:

Try asking the next person you encounter to tell you where the clitoris is located.  Having posed this question to others many times myself, I’ll guess that the majority of answers you receive will sound something like, “It’s that small bulb at the top of my lips,” or, “That’s the button up under the hood.”


If someone were to ask you to describe the location of your clitoris, what would you say? Maybe “It’s that buttonlike think above my vagina”?

Ms. M:

The scientific name for the external “little button” or “bulb” is glans.


The tiny button that was mistakenly dubbed the clitoris is actually the glans of the clitoris

Ms. M:

This little structure contains approximately 8,000 sensory nerve fibers; more than anywhere else in the human body and nearly twice the amount found on the head of a penis!


“The glans has about 6,000 to 8,000 nerve endings,” says Debby Herbenick, PhD, author of Sex Made Easy.” It’s roughly the same amount men have in the head of their penis”

Ms. M:

Even most of the women I coach, women who are generally worldly and well-informed about their own bodies, react with a combination of fascination and confusion when I explain that their clitoris extends deep within them.

Cosmo quoting Dr. Herbenick, not Ms. M:

“When I teach women about the internal clitoris, not only are they shocked that all this is going on inside them and they had no idea, but it’s also like a switch flips on in their minds”

Which raises the question, of course, as to why Ms. Knoll would attribute a botched version of Ms. M’s quote to Dr. Herbenick.  Could it have something to do with promoting Dr. Herbenick’s new book? Was Dr. Herbenick misquoted, or was she in on it too?

(UPDATE: Excellent post by Dr. Herbenick explaining how she was neither mis-quoted nor apparently in on anything. Read it here. “Ultimately, information about the clitoris belongs to us all – especially factual statements for which there are few new ways to say them.” My apology to Dr. Herbenick and thanks for her response.)

Ms. M: “They didn’t even mention the doctors who worked with no funding to do the research.”

Ms. M’s research was self-funded – the Museum of Sex does not pay writers for their contributions to the blog – and included calls to doctors in Paris at 4am (she speaks fluent French), conversations with oncologists, urologists, and her own gynecologist, who she says was surprised by the findings.

I had friends sneak me into the Columbia Medical School Library. I worked out an exchange with the New York City Medical Library to get my hands on The Journal of Sexual Medicine, August 2010, Volume 7, Issue 8 where [Dr. Buisson’s] and Dr. Foldès’s findings were published – normally a $900 annual subscription.

The irony should not be lost that Cosmo stole what they could have had for free – with proper attribution.
To be fair, a Mr. Robert Conway, Senior Photo Editor for Cosmo, did email the Museum of Sex in February, asking who owned the rights to the images in Ms. M’s post, and who he could contact for permission to use them.In her post, Ms. M credits Dr. Buisson and Dr. Foldès for the 3D imagery:

Alas it wasn’t until as recent as 2009, French researchers Dr. Odile Buisson and Dr. Pierre Foldès gave the medical world it’s first complete 3-D sonography of the stimulated clitoris.

The hand-drawn sketches in the post are her own.


erect internal clitoris by Buisson and Foldes

Ms. M’s sketch of the erect internal clitoris












The Museum passed Ms. M’s email address to Mr. Conway, but Mr. Conway never emailed her –  to request permission to use her hand-drawn sketches, or to contact Dr. Buisson and Dr. Foldès.

Why credit your source when you can just make up your own? Here’s what Cosmo went with:


Cosmo U.S., May 2012, p 179


But wait – it gets worse!

In August, longtime Cosmo editor Helen Gurley Brown died, setting off a firestorm of news features, like How Cosmo Conqured the World, an excellent read by Edith Zimmerman for The New York Times, in which she describes Cosmo’s lean, mean editorial machine:

The brand saves money by repurposing its covers across various editions, and it shaves costs in other ways, too. For the most part, articles are created by a small team of staff members at Big Cosmo and then ripple outward through the Cosmo network. Writers do not receive royalties when their work is repurposed. Huffy freelancers are virtually nonexistent….

One byline that regularly appears in editions around the world is that of Jessica Knoll, a pretty, friendly and immaculately put-together 28-year-old senior editor. Over drinks at a quiet wine bar near the Big Cosmo office, Knoll explained that it’s not only cheaper to produce features from within but also easier for maintaining the Cosmo voice.

And anyway, there’s less of it to write these days: “We did a redesign in January and slashed word count,” she said. “Part of that is because we live in a Twitter generation. We’re not going to be indulgent writers who ramble on for a couple thousand words — we need to find a way a to say things quickly but also have some personality.”

(Ms. M’s post: 1,432 words.)

Then, Ms. Knoll takes credit for the plagiarized story:

“I learned a lot from your recent, um, article,” I said to her, about eight minutes into our meeting. “About the wishbone-shaped… uh…”

“Oh, about the internal clitoris?” she said. “See, I don’t get bashful. It becomes completely normal to talk to your boss and have the word ‘penis’ appear 15 times in your conversation.”

The article in question — “Have Easier, Stronger Orgasms” — was on “surprising new findings” about the clitoris based on research done in the 1990s (not exactly new) but features an interview with a woman whose sex book came out this year (new).

(Ms. M clarifies: “Dr. O’Connell published work on cadavers in 1998, 2004 and 2005.  It wasn’t until 2009 that Buisson and Foldès did the first sonogram of an erect internal clitoris. Before then, we had no idea about how the internal clitoris functions regarding erection.”)

Then, Ms. Knoll digs her grave a little deeper:

It ran in the May edition of Cosmo U.S. and will likely appear in Cosmos around the world for months to come. “It’s always our goal to make something feel timely and fresh,” Knoll said. “Nothing can be evergreen.
Even if it’s an age-old idea, we have to somehow find a way to put a fresh spin on it.”

Here’s an age-old idea: Credit your source.

We can even put a fresh spin on it and call it hyperlinking.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Simply highlight the website within the interNet browser like InterNet Explorer.
  2. Copy it by right clicking on your mouse and choosing COPY.
  3. Paste it in the place you wish use it in like MS Word or an email by right clicking agin and choosisng PASTE..

Then hit “Enter.” (Thanks to Ganderton on for the instructions. See? Hyperlinking. Not that hard.)

People often talk about the internet as if it’s this lawless place where someone can steal what is rightfully yours – an article, a copyrighted song, a sex tape – and spread it infinitely over the internet.

But the internet also gives us hyperlinking!  Steven Johnson, in his 1999 book Interface Culture: “The hyperlink is the first significant new form of punctuation to emerge in centuries.”

A new form of punctuation 37 different websites that picked up Ms. M’s post all managed to include.

A new form of punctuation the old print world can’t actually print – or perhaps be bothered with. (See also: Jonah Lehrer, Fareed Zakaria.)

The internet also gives us a fighting chance of finding out who stole your work and calling them out. How did you call someone out in an analog world? A letter to the editor?

So I’m calling out Jessica Knoll, Robert Conway, @Cosmopolitan and Cosmo U.S. Editor-in-Chief @katemwhite.

What’s the deal? How are you going to address this before you syndicate plagiarized content – albeit on a topic as many women as possible should hear about – to your global empire of 100 million readers?

Or did you already?

How would we even tell? There are no hyperlinks in print!

All this attention on Cosmo is a nice reminder that the magazine once had a place on the cutting edge of sex – 50 years ago. In print.

I appreciate its place in our history, but “50 Kinky Sex Moves” is no longer cutting edge. It’s Kama Sutra.

(Ms. M: “I’ve probably had more sex than all of the women in that Big Cosmo office combined.”)

The cutting edge of sex is online, where people are writing from passion, not paychecks.

People like Ms. M, Cindy Gallop, Dan Savage, Laura Augustin, Stephen Ira, Melissa Gira Grant, Tracy Clark-Flory. (Perhaps Ms. Knoll, if she’d like to contribute something original?)

If Cosmo were smart, they’d try hiring a few of them.

UPDATE: Read Ms. M’s perspective on how the Cosmo Clitoris Heist went down.

Julie Ruvolo is a freelance writer. She co-edits digital publications for the New York Museum of Sex and edits

Who else is writing on the cutting edge of sex? Share your recommended reading in the comments.