Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Defending the Female Orgasm

"The pleasure of living and the pleasure of the orgasm are identical." Wilhelm Reich

There's a new book out which is the object of substantial scientific debate. It takes on virtually all previous studies on human sexuality, specifically the subject of female orgasm. Thinking women, liberal or conservative, will not be thrilled by this book. Fundamentalist Christians, on the other hand, will be ecstatic.

Apparently scientists and anthropologists have spent the past 74 years studying human and primate sex drives-including the female orgasm-from a strictly evolutionary standpoint. Dr. Elisabeth Lloyd, Indiana University philosopher of science and professor of biology, has reviewed that extensive research. And in her new book concludes none of it can substantiate the claim that female orgasm has any value in the perpetuation of the species.

I beg to differ. I'm no scientist but I know what I like. And I wouldn't have perpetuated anything with anybody who couldn't bring me bliss.

However, back to pure science. Lloyd's book analyzes 32 studies on the female orgasm which attempted to link it to the same evolutionary imperative as the male orgasm, clearly biologically engineered for procreation. She says none of them did the job. Women can have sex, and get pregnant, without orgasm playing any biological role. Dr. Lloyd believes that fact alone debunks the scientific, Darwin-inspired theory that all human functions have an evolutionary genesis.

Other biologists don't agree with Dr. Lloyd's thesis. Interestingly, some of the most vocal among them are men. And their reasoning is, well, typically male. Dr. John Alcock (his real name, I swear) of Arizona University posits that a woman could view achieving orgasm as "an unconscious way to evaluate the quality of the male." Is he kidding? Any woman with a pulse could have told him that. Of course what he means is that female orgasm is an unconsciously selective method for females to determine a male's genetic suitability for procreation. Forgive my lapse into scientific jargon, but I just have to add: Duh.

Although there are segments of the female population sadly not enlightened enough to seek, expect or demand orgasm from themselves and their partners, it still remains a fairly universal and logical predictor of a desire to move forward into marriage, and for most, subsequent procreation.

A female scientist weighs in with another, highly disturbing view. Dr. Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, emeritus professor of anthropology at University of California says, "Perhaps the reason [female] orgasm is so erratic is that it's phasing out. Our descendants on the starships may well wonder what all the fuss was about."

S H U T! U P!

Okay, not quite the reasoned response I was going for, but gloryoski, what a dismal prospect. Dr. Hrdy spends way too much time in her lab, if you ask me.

But if Dr. Lloyd is right, and Darwin's theory, when applied to female orgasm, just doesn't hold up, that worries me. Not because I'm a strict Darwinist, although I do believe in a primarily scientific rather than creationist explanation for the origin of the species. However, I'm just spiritual enough, and cautiously optimistic enough to hope that in some unknown and unknowable way there is also another, greater force at work.

Still, this is a slippery slope. Women have enough trouble achieving parity in our still male-dominated society. A scientific claim that our most intimate sexual response shows us to be evolutionary inferiors is grist for too many strict Creationist and Radical Christian Right antifeminist mills.

With the debate on the Theory of Evolution Vs Creationism heating up again, fired by the efforts of those determined to introduce a biblical interpretation of human origins into our children's classrooms, one can see Evangelical Christians salivating at the prospect of new ammunition in the battle to put women, and Darwinism way, way, WAY down.

We would all do well to maintain a certain amount of skepticism about either camp's claims. No matter how we got here, we still need each other, and a healthy sex drive, to stay here.

And let's face it, sexuality and the ability to have orgasms is integrated into human physiology for a reason. Whether intended for procreation or in the case of females, as Dr. Lloyd suggests, "just for fun," orgasms have enormous intrinsic value all on their own.

Frankly I think anyone who would deny that, just simply hasn't had one.


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5 Comments:

Blogger Missbossy said...

I find it ridiculous that thousands of generations of "females choosing" would result in us having orgasms as some kind of side effect or accident. On that I agree completely: duh, duh, duh! (I would be interested to know how our female bonobo cousins react to a lousy lay...)

But likewise I find it equally ridiculous that we should be concerned that the female orgasm might be labelled "evolutionary inferior" and that this will somehow weaken our ability to achieve parity. Evolution has provided enough hurdles in that department that no theory, debate, or fact about the big O will make any difference to the lives of women now or in generations to come.

If anything, the Christian right should be appalled. If evolution is only claiming the male orgasm, then surely the female orgasm is a product of God. Another sign that She works in mysterious ways.

12:36 AM  
Blogger akimbo said...

I find it interesting the anxiety that Dr. Lloyd's book has created among those who should know better. I suspect that few who have criticized her book have actually read it. Had they, one would never find the notion that somehow female orgasm is "evolutionarily inferior". It is not. All that Dr. Lloyd claims, and does so in a carefully reseasrched and argued case, is that female orgasm seems UNLIKELy to be an evolutionary adaptation. Note that she does not say that it is not an adaptation, just that the current data do not substantially support any of the adapations proposed. That doesn't eliminate the possibility that such evidence will be forthcoming or that some as yet unimagined adapation is in fact the case. She only argues that at this time the best explanation for female orgasm is that it is a freeby that results from the strong selection acting on male orgasm. Her primary evidence is the great variability in the occurrence of female orgasm, as compared to the almost 99.9% surity of male orgasm if he at least bothers to show up.

Dr. Alcock may be right that women use the occurrence of orgasm with a male partner as a way of choosing between males. Dr. Lloyd's point is that there is in fact no credible evidence that this is the case. Furthermore, there is no credible evidence that males whose female partners always have orgasm are better genetically than those whose partners do no achieve orgasm. Both of these principles would have to be demonstrated for Alcock's hypothesis to be supported. There simply are no such data.

Look at the issue in its simplest form. Dr. Lloyd is not saying that orgasms are not wonderful, important, maybe even crucial to womens' happiness. She is saying that a woman who never experiences orgasm is just as likely to get pregnant from intercourse as is a woman who always has orgasm. Now if the woman who never has orgasm has intercourse less with her partner than the always orgasmic women then maybe her pregancy rate could be lower. However women, unlike men, reproduce slowly, It really makes little difference in the lifetime reproductive output of a woman whether it takes her one ovarian cycle or three or four or five ovarian cycles to get pregnant. Both women would still end up with the same lifetime reproductive output. Hence even if nonorgasmic women take longer to get pregnant (something for which there is not evidence, this is just speculation), they would, in an evolutionary sense be exactly like their always-orgasmic sisters. That is the argument in a nutshell and it is a very limited evolutionary argument that does not address anything of the remarkable phenomenology of female orgasm.

Why is it that many feminists seem to be so unsettled by this book? Sadly, I think it reflects an internalization of masculinist thinking. The notion that if something is not an adaptation it is necessarily evolutionaryily inferior is a value judgment that bears no relationship to actual evolutionary procresses. I would wish that feminists would take a different message from Dr. Lloyd. She marshalls an incredible body of evidence of the variability in female orgasm. This is impressive, but why does it exist? Why is there this variation in women that we don't see in men. Is there something in the biology of women that produces this variability? We have spent far too little effort on understanding female orgasm with the result that women are constantly counselled about orgasm and its ephemeral nature. When was the last time one saw an article on a mens' health magazine about how ones partner could induce orgasm in a man? Yet every issue of almost every women's magazine has something about female orgasm. There is so much that we do not understand and whether female orgasm is an evolutionary adaptation is really a technical issue that has little to do with understanding female orgasm. Dr. Lloyd's book is a friend of women, not a threat.

8:02 AM  
Blogger Sally Swift said...

Akimbo, thank you for your thoughtful and insightful post.

At the time I wrote this it was more a rant against religious extremists and the way the book's findings could be twisted to show women as inferior beings.

You make some very cogent points, some of which I see now I should have considered and incorporated here.

I wanted to see what else you've written but was disappointed not to find anything recent.

You write so well and with such passion, but perhaps you don't have the time or inclination to research and compose your own essays ... or maybe your greatest strength is as a critic.

So here's an idea for you: go around the blogosphere, read and comment on blogs, then post those same comments on your own blog. Miss Demeanor, head of the Blog Squad, nailing the inconsistencies, misconceptions and errors of fellow Bloggers.

I'm completely serious here. You have a gift, you could use it and have some fun. People might like to read a compilation of commentary from a solid voice of critical reason, which could be you.

Let me know if you give it a try. I'd read it, that's for sure.

10:55 AM  
Blogger Josh said...

It always helps to check several places. Like this one law enforcement

6:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is an intrinsic state of human sexuality, that any loving caring male would wish the best for his partner, and that means an orgasm for the partner.

The cervical entrance in orgasm does indeed help the male ejaculate get to where it needs to go, and it is a preferred way of 'getting things right' in evolution terms.

Yes, it is better if it is fun... otherwise we would have to be suggesting that rape was as good a method of procreation as a far more loving approach... I think not!

4:23 AM  

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