Female Orgasms: Poor Science Reporting Feeds Obsession and Misinformation

 Every couple years or so, there’s a slew of coverage of the evolutionary “mystery” of the female orgasms, with everyone weighing in on the question regardless of their understanding of the science of it.  It’s a popular thing to cover because it gives everyone an excuse to indulge in some pedestrian sexism under the guise of “science,” even though there’s often very little discussion of the actual science part of the science, you know, the creating-hypothesis-testing-against-evidence part.  Just lots and lots of pointless speculation that says very little about science but quite a bit about our cultural biases, especially our culturally-ingrained fears and resentments towards unapologetic female pleasure. 

With that in mind, here’s some widespread fallacies I’ve seen in the coverage of research into the female orgasm that I would very much like to see an end to.  Some of the fallacies come from the researchers, and some from the pundits and reporters, but all tend to obscure more than illuminate.

The male orgasm’s origin is completely obvious. Wired employed this fallacy, but to be fair to them, it’s widespread in the scientific discourse around this issue. The basic theory is that the male orgasm needs no research, because it’s supposedly self-evident that men have orgasms in order to coax them into sex so they reproduce.  And that therefore it’s only female pleasure that is a mystery.  The rationale for ignoring the male orgasm is that all male mammals have one and not all female mammals do.  But I have to question that assumption strongly.  We know that all male mammals ejaculate, but do we know for a fact that they all enjoy it like human males do?  I’m skeptical.  Other animals don’t use porn to enhance their experience or hold back on orgasming to improve their pleasure, so simply waving off half our species as too unremarkable to research is a problem.

The fact that so many people seem to think it’s obvious that female orgasms require a more elaborate justification for existing than male orgasms suggests that we have more than a scientific mystery on hand, considering all this.  It also suggests that we as a society are still deeply uncomfortable with female pleasure, and demand higher standards of proof that it deserves to exist.

Women’s desire to have sex without pleasure is a given.  The entire discussion is also poisoned from the get-go by widespread misogynist narratives that assume that men can barely stand women and only put up with them in order to have sex, but that women adore and worship men and will do anything---even things that are dangerous or uncomfortable---to get men to approve of us.  That’s part of why men’s orgasms are seen as self-evident, because it’s the cookie to get them over their instinctual loathing for inferior females, but women’s orgasms are supposedly a mystery, because it’s assumed our main motivation to have sex is male approval.  The evidence for this is that men really can’t be bothered most of the time to have sex they won’t enjoy, but women do it all the time.  But no one asks if that would remain true if we suddenly woke up in a matriarchy where men depend on women for resources and social status.  I suspect that if power suddenly switched from men to women like that, women would be the ones who were having orgasms no matter what, and men would be the ones reading books about how it’s okay to enjoy sex just for the companionship. Neglecting to factor in the influence of patriarchy is a major flaw in the coverage of these studies. 

Either/or thinking. In many articles on the subject, you see the argument that either the female orgasm is a byproduct of the male orgasm, or it was selected for on its own.  The possibility that it could be both is never raised, even though that’s an entirely reasonable possibility---that women had an “accidental” orgasm of sorts that got selected for because it has evolutionary value. Since all traits start off as “accidental” mutations that then get selected for, this doesn’t seem like it’s too complicated a possibility to discuss in detail.

The only relationship between sexual pleasure and reproductive success is that more sex means more babies. Part of the reason the male orgasm isn’t treated as a mystery is that it seems self-evident that it encourages men to have sex and therefore have more babies. But that’s really not a given at all.  Human beings have way more sex than they have babies by many factors, even if they don’t have contraception.  That’s because we have sex for reasons outside of maximizing the number sperm that touch eggs---in fact, it’s understood in biology that too many children can reduce reproductive success because you run out of resources to invest in your children. Across cultures, people have sex for status, for bonding, and to make themselves happier.  All these things can improve reproductive success simply by making it easier to survive.  All these factors complicate the simple notion that one can really tell much about the value of orgasms from the number of them.

Evolutionary origins are prescriptive. This is the most disturbing fallacy of all, the idea that the selective pressures on a biological function should have any bearing on how modern people employ said function.  You see a lot of people say things like, “It’s good for women if it evolved X way,” as if your orgasms somehow count for more if your genes look one way or they look another way.  Again, women’s right to pleasure is always up for debate in a way that men’s just isn’t. 

And feminists can be just as bad as anyone else. Tracy Clark-Flory unearthed a distressing example of someone clinging to the “happy accident” theory in order to support an unrelated claim that orgasms just aren’t important.

Speaking of, Leonore Tiefer created the New View Campaign to "challenge the distorted and oversimplified messages about sexuality that the pharmaceutical industry relies on." She wrote me in an email that an orgasm is "a nice thing," but "it doesn't last very long, and it's not the easiest thing to have, so I think it's overrated." Tiefer, a psychiatry professor at New York University, quoted journalist Malcolm Muggeridge: "The orgasm has replaced the cross as the focus of human longing and fulfillment." That line, she says, "summarizes for me the symbolic importance of the orgasm in contemporary life."

Once again, the value of “I” statements would have been useful here.  That something is fleeting is not evidence that it’s unimportant to everyone.  Tiefer can’t just say, “Hey for me orgasms are overrated,” but instead has to imply---in a culture that already discourages female pleasure!---that women who enjoy this pleasure are shallow, silly people who should be doing something more important than worrying about getting off.  Which just so happens to have been the patriarchy’s message to women for thousands of years!  And is exactly the rationale that anti-choicers use now to tell women that we don’t deserve sexual rights! 

To some of us, the fact that pleasures are fleeting actually makes them all the more precious and important.  After all, in the grand scheme of things, you could make the same argument for life itself: that it’s nice,  but it doesn’t last very long and it’s not the easiest thing to have, so it must be overrated.

But I digress. The problem here is relying on the fallacy that biology is destiny, that if an orgasm evolved in one way, that means that one should spend less time trying to get one, but that if it evolved another way, then one is obligated to have one.  That doesn’t follow.  After all, the uterus objectively evolved to carry babies, but that doesn’t mean that all women are obligated to have children.  Our legs evolved to carry our bodies, but that doesn’t mean that someone who is relegated to a wheelchair should have them chopped off.  Evolution is an amoral, brainless process.  It doesn’t “intend” anything.  If individuals make decisions for themselves, evolution doesn’t care.  If anything, it just changes the selective pressures in an environment.  So do what you want: have orgasms, don’t, think they’re important, think they’re overrated, whatever.  Just don’t claim your view is the one right one for everyone because of evolution.  It’s not your god who has a plan for your life, but a biological process that has no mind at all.   


RH Reality Check / By Amanda Marcotte

Posted at September 13, 2011, 3:50am

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