Friday, May 20, 2005

The Female Orgasm Under the Microscope

One of the most e-mailed New York Times stories is about the possible uselessness of the female orgasm. The article discusses the arguments of Elizabeth Lloyd that all twenty evolutionary theories about the female orgasm are wrong, that the most likely explanation for the female orgasm is that it has no evolutionary function whatsoever:

Rather, Dr. Lloyd says the most convincing theory is one put forward in 1979 by Dr. Donald Symons, an anthropologist.

That theory holds that female orgasms are simply artifacts - a byproduct of the parallel development of male and female embryos in the first eight or nine weeks of life.

In that early period, the nerve and tissue pathways are laid down for various reflexes, including the orgasm, Dr. Lloyd said. As development progresses, male hormones saturate the embryo, and sexuality is defined.

In boys, the penis develops, along with the potential to have orgasms and ejaculate, while "females get the nerve pathways for orgasm by initially having the same body plan."

Nipples in men are similarly vestigial, Dr. Lloyd pointed out.

Hmmm. Do men have like six or eight vestigial nipples? Maybe it's a goddess thing, but my orgasms come in multiples.

The whole article is an interesting glimpse into the weird world of academic arguing, the way one is supposed to sweep aside the opposing theory with a few well-placed words and so on. But let me just point out that if a small sample size was used in a study which appeared to support one theory over the others, criticizing the study for the small sample size is correct, but this criticism doesn't prove that the theory is wrong. It just tells us that we should redo the study with a bigger sample size.

What interests me more about this article than all its (unprovable) hypotheses is the way it will be used in sexual politics. Just notice these comments by Dr. Lloyd:

"Accounts of our evolutionary past tell us how the various parts of our body should function," Dr. Lloyd said.

If women, she said, are told that it is "natural" to have orgasms every time they have intercourse and that orgasms will help make them pregnant, then they feel inadequate or inferior or abnormal when they do not achieve it.

"Getting the evolutionary story straight has potentially very large social and personal consequences for all women," Dr. Lloyd said. "And indirectly for men, as well."

Yes. But what consequences? I can think of quite a few, and most of them will not be pleasant for women. - In any case, Dr. Lloyd hasn't gotten the evolutionary story straight by just giving a different hypothesis. For that to happen we need to see much stronger proof.

I hate being under the microscope. Don't you? Especially when one expert tells us that female orgasms might be evaporating over time:

"Perhaps the reason orgasm is so erratic is that it's phasing out," Dr. Hrdy said. "Our descendants on the starships may well wonder what all the fuss was about."

Yes, while fighting off the ravenous rapists or whatever this development would do to all men who want sex. I understand that amateurs aren't supposed to comment on scientific stuff, but surely there is a very good and simple reason for the enjoyment of sex, whether by men or by women. It makes the whole process of procreation much easier and less expensive in the use of resources. Dr. Lloyd accepts as much in stating that the clitoris serves a specific evolutionary function. But the clitoris is kinda related to orgasms, and also to an area behind it in the vaginal channel. But what do I know?