Ooh, Ooh, Eee: Orgasm Science

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

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21 comments for “Ooh, Ooh, Eee: Orgasm Science

  1. May 16, 2005 at 2:01 pm

    I never cared for the feminist and anti-feminist bickering over this issue either. My mouth didn’t evolve to suck cock, and frankly cock-sucking is very much at my evolutionary disadvantage, but yet it happens anyway. Go figure.

  2. Thomas
    May 16, 2005 at 2:52 pm

    What Amanda said. Sociobiology and evolutionary theory can provide some useful description, but there are huge limitations on the explanatory power of arguments from biology. When it comes to sexuality, we have added layer upon layer to the biological roots of the behavior.

    So what if the clitoris is evolutionarily vestigal? That has no implications for what we do with it. It is its role in the biology of female sexual pleasure now that has implications for what we do with it.

  3. JC
    May 16, 2005 at 3:11 pm

    1. I don’t believe it’s possible to have value-free science.

    2. It seems to be pretty obvious that female orgasm is evolutionarily unimportant, otherwise it seems there would be a lot less women getting pregnant.

    3. The trouble comes in trying to map “evolution” onto our own (sexual) lives. Evolutionary schemes are not prescriptive, they are descriptive, and as such can only explain why our bodies are the way they are, not what we should do with them. So, it shouldn’t matter that evolutionary theory says your ability to orgasm is “useless.” All that should matter is finding pleasure in your own body.

  4. ac
    May 16, 2005 at 4:00 pm

    This was my thought on the subject.

  5. May 16, 2005 at 7:38 pm

    Where was this splendid article last week, when I needed it for my teenagers?

  6. michelle
    May 16, 2005 at 9:05 pm

    These evolutionary biolgists are starting from the assumption that pleasure is useless, irrelevant, an evolutionary “accident” when it occurs. Um, no. The pursuit of happiness is widely regarded as a unique characteristic of the human condition. There’s more to the evolution of human life than just the pursuit of propagation (regardless of religious dogma that says otherwise!). Orgasm does provide many physical and mental health benefits. But what’s unevolutionary about pleasure for pleasure’s sake, experienced during sexual intercourse and/or other sexual activity?

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  8. May 17, 2005 at 6:16 am

    My mouth didn’t evolve to suck cock

    Funny you should say that! Our closest (?) animal relative (the Bonobo) also engages in some oral sex. Plus face-to-face coitus, female-on-female vagina rubbing which seeingly induces orgasms.

    My theory is the female orgasm is to develop social bonds (sex for pleasure) and has little to do with reproductive sex. That would be a secondary benefit.. a bit like Amanda’s mouth!

  9. jam
    May 17, 2005 at 6:26 am

    i’m reading Lloyd’s book right now. it’s excellent.

  10. May 17, 2005 at 8:42 am


    Are you planning on writing a review on it when you’re finished? I’ve got so many books in my pile that I don’t want to rush out for another unless it’s top notch.

    Good timing on our part, by the way. I looks like the New York Times just decided to publish a review of the book today.

  11. May 17, 2005 at 8:56 am

    Hi, the male orgasm isn’t particularly important, either.

    Male ejaculation is very important evolutionarily. But the “ohmigod, this feels GREAT” of orgasm? Not evolutionarily necessary.

    Funny, though, that it’s woman’s pleasure that’s got to be understood (ah, it serves no purpose–clearly a frill) while we blindly accept the idea that male pleasure was a biological necessity. The necessity is ejaculation–the rest of it is just a frill…

  12. May 17, 2005 at 10:19 am

    I agree with Monjo that the female orgasm is about social bonding, and I wonder if it’s particularly to do with inter-female bonding when two or more females need to bond in a group for raising young. Certainly there are many species where the offspring are raised by the bioogical mother and other females, and this is a lot more common than the “nuclear family” type arrangement.

    As Lloyd said in her book, the idea of the female orgasm being for male/female pair bonding makes no sense. Also there would have to be a big assumption that male-female pair bonds are a natural thing for humans, and that they confer some evolutionary advantage. There’s not a great deal of evidence for that, and just because that’s the way our society is usually arranged today, doesn’t mean it’s always been that way.

  13. djw
    May 17, 2005 at 10:37 am

    Here’s something that baffles me:

    Some researchers have argued the female orgasm so unnecessary as to be on its way out.

    Whaaa….? Let’s concede the point–the female orgasm is, in an evolutionary sense, an artifact, and it serves no (mechanical) purpose. As others point out, there are other ways to think about the purpose it might serve. But whatever. Let’s assume it’s useless from a scientfic standpoint.

    Why would that mean it’s on it’s way out? That seems like a tendentious and overly functionalist way of interpreting evolutionary logic. Evolution suggests that traits that help you survive are likely to persist because survivors are more likely to have offspring. Similarly, traits that create a disadvantage for survival purposes are likely to go away.

    What evolution doesn’t imply, I don’t think, is that anything in particular is likely to happen to those with traits that are irrelevant for survival one way or the other. Which is probably a lot of traits. I’m amazed by how many scientists casually reduce evolution to functionalism. It’s a little functionalism and a fair bit of artifactualism too. Why do we still have appendixes? etc.

    But I love the message. Women: enjoy it while you can! Evolution won’t let you get away with this non-functional pleasure much longer!

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  16. May 17, 2005 at 4:39 pm

    Eh, even if it’s on its way out that doesn’t mean that anyone’s gonna take it from me.

  17. May 17, 2005 at 4:48 pm

    I can’t wait to see the Cosmo headline: “Get over it, girls! Orgasms are so 2004!”

  18. May 17, 2005 at 7:49 pm

    Now that I think about it, neither orgasm nor male nipples can be vestigal, because that would require them to have been functional – in a different way than now – at some distant point in the past. Right? Like males used to breast-feed or something.

    Cosmo doesn’t scare me! If we’ve had orgasms (and nipples) this long, we’re not going to lose them any time soon! At least not until we all evolve into beings of pure mental energy ;-)

    I know what my orgasm is for, and I’m sure Dr. Lloyd does too. And it’s not reproduction *wink*


    Speaking of male nipples – my boyfriend finds that stimulation of his is simply not arousing (at best ticklish – he’s a very ticklish guy everywhere). He insists that it’s not the same for him as it is for me, and that guys just don’t feel anything there. I wonder if he isn’t repressing a little because, subconsciously, he believe’s it’s “girly” and thus icky. Simliar to the way that guys don’t perceive their bare chests as erotic. Any thoughts?

    The “upsuck” theory – that one really annoys me. My boyfriend has been a believer in it ever since he saw it suggested on one of those Discovery sex shows. Which is embarassing to admit because I thought he was a smart guy =P That theory is so implausible as to be laughable.

  19. Quisp
    May 17, 2005 at 8:24 pm

    I’m amazed by how many scientists casually reduce evolution to functionalism.

    Real scientists? What you’re referring to, I believe, is Lamarckism, the pre-darwin theory of use and disuse. i.e. if you lift weights, your children will inherit your big muscles; if you don’t use your brain, your children won’t have any, etc.. Courtney Love believes in Lamarckism, as she indicated when she said she got plastic surgery because she didn’t want her kids to have ugly noses.

    Re the female orgasm (and forgive me if this point is buried somewhere in these comments), isn’t it possible that evolution has provided a spectrum of different degrees and intensities of female orgasm in the population and the jury on whether it provides any survival advantage is still out. In other words, we might well be in the middle of the experiment, at least as far as survivability goes.

  20. May 18, 2005 at 12:00 am

    What’s confusing about the article is the reporter’s use of the term “evolutionary purpose.” I, like many of you, am not some kind of expert in biology, but I remember learning that you don’t think of evolution as having a purpose, really. Certain traits make a species more likely to survive, and those traits are passed on, as we all know, while others disappear. For instance, males that get pleasure from ejaculation are more likely to pass on their genes, for obvious reasons. It seems to me that females who are capable of sexual pleasure are also more likely to procreate, though it’s also not essential. But again, I’m not some kind of biologist or something, so I’m probably missing something. But I’d bet good money the reporter did a lousy job on this story, as journalists tend to do, routinely.

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