Evolution of Female Orgasm is one of the ever-recurring themes on blogs. This post was first written on June 13, 2005. There were several follow-ups as well, e.g.,
here, here and here. Under the fold.
The discussion about the recent studies on female orgasm, first about its adaptive function and later about its genetic component, has been raging around the blogosphere for a while now. It was spawned by the publication of Elizabeth Lloyd’s book on the topic (it is on my wish-list), and by a paper in Biology Letters about the genetics of female orgasm based on a survey of twins. For instance, see these posts on Pandagon, Pharyngula, The Loom and American Street. Elizabeth Lloyd, who I think is absolutely correct, writes her own blog post on the topic.
Now, via three posts on MindHacks, through an interesting blog (new to me) called PsyBlog, we find two excellent post by a blogger who is a professional sexologist. Dr.Petra, in two posts, destroys both the study (the one on genetics of orgasm) and the way media reported on it. Here they are with short excerpts:
Shock stories about women’s orgasm problem tap into the agenda of Big Pharma who want to medicalise a lack of orgasm as a clinical event requiring treatment. It increases women’s anxiety about orgasm, and reinforces the idea that a lack of orgasm is a chronic problem – rather than a normal life event.
But the main problem about this story was the speed it travelled round the world and the lack of interrogation of the actual research.
It broke the first rule of research. It didn’t measure what it claimed to measure.
Yet the public won’t know this, and as a result thousands more women and their partners are now being made to worry needlessly about their sexual functioning.
Look closely about what this is really saying about sex. Apart from it being entirely geared towards heterosexuals who want a baby it’s also suggesting something else. It’s implying a natural order of sex that’s an entirely twentieth century creation. It’s suggesting that ‘real’ men ought to delay orgasm, and implies those that can will make better fathers. There’s no evidence for this at all. Only from the latter part of the twentieth century have Westerners become preoccupied with the female orgasm, or men lasting longer in bed. Blame porn if you like, but not genetics. In the past men just came quick and that was that. Female orgasm wasn’t considered at all. This research is claiming a biological and evolutionary link for a very modern cultural view of sexual behaviour. And none of these factors were either tested nor reported in the original research all this media coverage is focusing on.
This is what I wrote in the comments on Pharyngula:
We have to keep these three things separate: sexual reproduction, sexual pleasure, and orgasm.
1) Sex: Maynard Smith and others have grappled for a long time with the problem of evolution of sexual reproduction. If you reproduce by division or budding, all your offspring are exact genetic clones of you – the most preferred option for you from a fitness standpoint: it is fast, safe and clean. Biologists generally do not like the “good for the species” arguments, but sexual selection is really good for preserving lineages (as it introduces gene-shuffling, hence genetic variation, thus faster adaptation to changes in environmental circumstances). But the individual suffers: first, it has to come out of hiding into the dangerous world in order to find a mate, second it gives each offspring only half of its genes. This is already a big concession to give, and that is why we do not see any reproductive system that requires the existence of three or more sexes, although they are theoretically possible. It makes sense (but needs to be tested – this is in no way conclusive) that species selection had a say in the evolution of sex. Opponents of species selection re-define “fitness” to include many (or infinite) generations of offspring instead of usual one or two – a metric used by biologists in day-to-day research.
2) Pleasure: When two Paramecia (silver-slippers: Protista) meet they have “sex”, i.e., conjugation. Do they feel pleasure? I doubt it. How about plants – does it feel reeeaaal goooood when the guy-oak’s pollen lands on your flower? While fission or budding may be pre-programmed, the complex behavioral activity of leaving the safety of your burrow, going out into the dangerous world, looking for a mate (wasting time better spent foraging), competing for a mate (dangerous), evaluating the quality of the mate (tricky and often dissappointing), mating (yukky and potentially very dangerous), laying eggs or giving birth (potentially dangerous), parenting (expensive!), starting all over, requires a lot of “decision making” by the animal. There are so many negatives (somewhat more for females than males, though), it makes sense that more complicated the mating setup, more dangerous it becomes, and more it appears likely that some kind of reward may be neccessary. A Just So Story so far, but it appears that many animals (both sexes) enjoy sex and it is reasonable to test the hypothesis that sexual pleasure is adaptive in both sexes.
3) Orgasm: Having sex is very pleasurable (take my word for it!), but ALL of it, not just the orgasm. Meeting somebody attractive is pleasure in itself, talking, exchanging glances, touching, kissing…all great pleasure. In a sense, climax is anti-climax (“Darn, it’s over! Was I too fast?”) – makes you stop. If pleasure is adaptive (in order to have you go out and risk having sex), then perhaps orgasm is adaptive in stopping the pleasure once insemination is over (and scurrying back to safety, or going foraging). That is, perhaps, why orgasm happens at the time of ejaculation and not an hour later. That is, perhaps, why the timing of MALE orgasm is important. If a male does not have an orgasm, he’ll just keep going and going like an Energizer bunny, endangering both of them (getting eaten in flagranto) . On the other hand, fertilization will happen if the female does not experience an orgasm, but that does NOT mean she did not have pleasure!
If a female orgasm was an adaptation, what would be its function? If it was an adaptation, wouldn’t we expect selection to make it easier to achive one by moving the sensory endings into the vagina itself? If it was an adaptation, wouldn’t we expect a much greater percentage (perhaps even 100%) of women to easily achive an orgasm during vaginal sex? If it was an adaptation, why is there such a wide variation among women (and not among men)? Have you seen the website Beautiful Agony? All guys are the same. Women are all different! Some immediatelly fall asleep afterwards, some get there fast, some take a long time, some are quiet, others noisy, some do it once, other have a whole series of orgasms, or do it a few times in a row. If it was an adaptation, this kind of variability would not be expected.
All of this suggests that developmental parallels with the building of male genital organs is the most likely evolutionary explanation for female orgasm. That does not mean that this may not BECOME and adaptation today. The evolutionary pressures today are very different from 10,000, or 100,000, or 1,000,000 years ago. Perhaps having an orgasm has a function for a CIVILIZED female. Any ideas?
Update: Even more on female orgasm
When Elizabeth Lloyd wrote this blog post about the thesis of her book on the evolution of female orgasm, many feminist bloggers misinterpreted her and bashed her wildly.
She has now written a response to all of them (which includes links to their rants, plus a link to a very generous apology from one blogger – actually the only blogger on that list that I know and read). Several other (not listed) feminist bloggers that I like a lot, have also posted similar knee-jerk responses.
The natural suspicion towards Evolutionary Psychology which is mostly very mysoginist, combined with atrocious reporting by the media, further combined by lack of time to research the issue, plus lack of deep understanding of evolutionary theory, plus the urge to post a lot and often (and no editor to check facts), results in such reflexive responses on blogs.
Another recent example of decent research misinterpreted by the media resulting in knee-jerk rants by feminist bloggers can be found here.