An article by the Boston Globe covers the scientific recognition of and the evolutionary arguments surrounding the female orgasm. A new book by Elisabeth A. Lloyd, The Case of the Female Orgasm: Bias in the Science of Evolution, “summarizes dozens of evolutionary accounts of the female orgasm – and knocks them all down. Like [paleontologist Stephen Jay] Gould, she thinks the female orgasm is purposeless, which is not to say pleasureless. And she extends the charge of bias, charging that too many scientists take the male-centered view that the female orgasm is closely linked to heterosexual intercourse and reproduction.”
In his 1967 pop-science classic ”The Naked Ape,” the Oxford-trained zoologist Desmond Morris argued that the female orgasm evolved to cement the male-female pair bond, which gave offspring a survival advantage. Furthermore, Morris wrote, when it comes to fertilization ”there is a great advantage in any reaction that tends to keep the female horizontal when the male ejaculates and stops copulation.”
Lloyd wryly points out a couple of problems here. First, connection between the female pursuit of orgasms and monogamy is not exactly self-evident. Second, the link between a ”horizontal” position and the female orgasm is also less than ironclad.
Lloyd likewise dismisses the explicitly feminist theories of Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of California at Davis. Hrdy, who been tinkering with her theories since the late 1970s, believes that the female orgasm evolved to encourage females to mate with numerous men in pursuit of those elusive fireworks. The evolutionary benefits of multiple partners? Not only would women be more likely to conceive, but men would be less likely to kill the resulting infants, since no one would be sure whose child was whose.
According to Lloyd, Hrdy too succumbs to the fallacy that orgasm has a strong link to procreative intercourse, especially given how little attention our ancestor males probably gave to the clitoris (other primate males ignore it). Hrdy counters via email that an alleged emphasis on penetration in the theory ”is [Lloyd’s] insertion (no pun intended), not my assumption.” The theory would still hold if females supplemented coitus with self-stimulation and other sex play, she contends.
Throughout the 1990s, researchers continued to look for empirical evidence that the female orgasm contributed to reproductive success. In 1993, writing in the journal Animal Behaviour, Robin Baker and Mark Bellis reported confirmation of the indelicately named ”upsuck” theory. After measuring (self-collected) semen that flowed out of the vaginas of 32 women following intercourse, Baker and Bellis concluded that orgasms from one minute before male climax to 45 minutes afterwards increased the amount of semen retained by the female.
In 1995, in the same journal, Randy Thornhill, a biologist at the University of New Mexico, and two colleagues announced that female frequency of orgasm correlated with the physical ”symmetry” of their partners’ bodies, which in many species is a rough proxy for health and reproductive fitness. This finding, they claimed, suggested that the orgasm helped steer women toward mates more likely to produce healthy offspring.
Lloyd sees desperation in the sheer variety of proposed explanations for the orgasm. (She also sees fatal statistical problems in the Baker and Bellis article, which Baker, in an email, disputes.) Meanwhile, her critics see her drive to shoot down all adaptive arguments as quixotic.
”If the clitoris is an irrelevant organ,” asks the Emory University psychologist and primatologist Frans de Waal, ”why in cultures that want to control female sexuality do they have it removed?”
Effectively, Lloyd writes that the female orgasm is equivalent to male nipples, a symmetrical if functionally useless sex characteristic. From a feminist standpoint, there are two ways that this information may be taken without having read the book.
She argues that the female orgasm exists independently of the male orgasm and is not an adaptive biological function. On one hand this is somewhat cool: the orgasm is for the pleasure of the recipient, and the individual woman ceases to be a willing vehicle for male sexual pleasure, and thus reproduction.
On the other hand, I wonder if this statement is dismissive of the importance of the female orgasm to an individual woman during sexual relationships.
Nonetheless, Lloyd appears to be dismissive of feminist reasonings behind the explanations for the female orgasm. I don’t find this particularly troublesome, as I prefer my science agenda-free, even free of feminist agenda.
However, Natalie Angier, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist with a feminist bent that somehow manages to transcend feminist polemics, argues for the adaptive female orgasm. She writes in her wonderful book “Woman, An Intimate Geography:”
[The debate] gives the clitoris a jaunty new consequence; a brush with Darwinism can do that. But it is also an unnerving debate. Some researchers have argued the female orgasm so unnecessary as to be on its way out. One unlucky lurch of the evolutionary wheel, and those fibres may fire no more. But let’s not get ahead of the game. […] Perhaps we should start exploring this thesis with a simple question: would the planet now hold six billion people if women did not seek sex? And can you expect them to play a fugue if their organ has no pipes?
…Meridith Small, a primatologist who can always be depended on to question biology’s bromides, has pointed out that male orgasm is not really necessary for insemination. The penis begins releasing viable sperm well before it ejaculates, and those gun-jumpers can thrash their way to an egg just fine, which is why coitus interruptus is such a poor form of birth control. (pp. 71, 74-5)
Frankly, I just don’t know. I am no biologist and have only a passing interest in hard science. But I don’t like being told that my ability to orgasm is useless or that my great-great-great granddaughters may be kicked off this wonderful merry-go-round.
If Lloyd’s assertions are true, what a glorious evolutionary accident.
story via Ryan