Tuesday, May 17, 2005

On the Logics of the Critic of the Logics of Female Orgasm

There is an interesting discussion going on over at Feministe on the science of the female orgasm, which seems to have started due to a new book by Elisabeth A. Lloyd, The Case of the Female Orgasm: Bias in the Science of Evolution. The central question of the discussions following this book seems to be if the female orgasm is adaptive or just a 'left-over' mechanism from construction of the male neural circuits. But go read Lauren's posts at Feministe for the background, I'm here to analyze an article she linked to from New York Times, A Critic Takes On the Logic of Female Orgasm, by Dinitia Smith. Well, to call it analysis is maybe not correct, it is more a series of more-or-less snarky comments with some thoughts appended at the end.

But the Darwinian logic behind the female orgasm has remained elusive. Women can have sexual intercourse and even become pregnant - doing their part for the perpetuation of the species - without experiencing orgasm. So what is its evolutionary purpose?
Now, I would not automatically assume that the female orgasm has an evolutionary purpose in this context (meaning having a direct influence on the probability to become pregnant). Orgams have for instance been shown to have a positive influence on the immune system, that would have largely the same effect.

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."

Well, if we are aiming for biological correctness here, it should be "males get the nerve pathways for orgasm by initially having the same body plan as females", since getting a female body is the default development for the embryo (which is why androgen insensitivity can make a boy's body look female until his puberty, for instance). However, this biological view clashes with our cultural tradition to see the male as the default - to my eyes this view is quite evident in the wording above.

Theories of female orgasm are significant, she added, because "men's expectations about women's normal sexuality, about how women should perform, are built around these notions."
Um, yea, and not because women might want to know how and why their bodies work...

"And men are the ones who reflect back immediately to the woman whether or not she is adequate sexually," Dr. Lloyd continued
I hope this is meant another way than how it sounds to me.

Dr. Alcock theorized that a woman might use orgasm "as an unconscious way to evaluate the quality of the male," his genetic fitness and, thus, how suitable he would be as a father for her offspring.
Hmm, I wonder where genetic fitness enters into this. How about evaluating personality traits like the extent of the partner's regard for her (assuming that the level of effort he puts into pleasing her correlates with his regard for her)? A suitable father would, in most instances, not only have good genes but also contribute to the survival of mother and child in various ways. And well, for my part at least, this would be quite conscious.
Furthermore, they asserted, when a woman has intercourse with a man other than her regular sexual partner, she is more likely to have an orgasm in that prime time span and thus retain more sperm, presumably making conception more likely. They postulated that women seek other partners in an effort to obtain better genes for their offspring
I really wonder how they can assert something like that. From what? Measurements? Based on what population?

[...] held that women were more likely to have orgasms during intercourse with men with symmetrical physical features. On the basis of earlier studies of physical attraction, Dr. Thornhill argued that symmetry might be an indicator of genetic fitness
Symmetry is a strongly influencing factor when humans decide if someone is beautiful. However, most theories I've seen say that symmetry is an indication for how well the person in question developed in the uterus (disturbances => assymetry). Slight assymetries in facial features have for instance been claimed to indicate subtle developmetal damage leading to problems with anger management (assymetries correlated with anger management problems). In that case, symmetry is not primarily an indicator of genetic fitness but of developmental fitness.

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.
Or they might conclude that something their partner is doing is wrong. Why on earth should they necessarily conclude that they are the only ones to blame? They might (gasp) even conclude that their partner is inadequate! (Orgasms helping to make women pregnant is by they way an old, old theory - several hundreds of years, in fact - that has been thoroughly out of favour. Interesting to see that it is still around)

To conclude: much of the arguments from both sides of the discussion (seen in this article and elsewhere) strike me as bad science. Many underfounded hypotheses based on small datasets and analyses thoroughly angled to suit the preconceptions and goals of the one doing the analysis. Given how culturally loaded the issue of female orgasms and enjoyment of sex is, this is maybe not surprising. But it is depressing to note that scientists, presumably trained to be objective and analytical, seem to carry around as much judgmental luggage as everyone else.

If one still assumes that scienctifical analysis is free from preconceptions, reading T. Laqueur's "Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud" should cure that quite fast. It gives a good view of how cultural views have distorted scientific analysis in this area.

And also, I see an undercurrent of "women only have sex in order to produce children" in this article, and some of the other theories, and that bothers me. Some women may, some surely don't. And another issue that is ignored: women are genetically different, and more diverse than men. What is true for some may not hold for all.


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