[Paleopsych] NS: The Case of the Female Orgasm: Bias in the science of evolution by Elisabeth A Lloyd
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The Case of the Female Orgasm: Bias in the science of evolution by Elisabeth A
* 14 May 2005
* Gail Vines
SEXUAL climax for the male is, evolutionarily speaking, rather dull.
Its raison d'être seems crystal clear. Orgasm fosters men's
reproductive success, because it is linked to the ejaculation of
sperm. Only devotees of tantric yoga, apparently, can achieve orgasm
But women too are able to experience orgasm. Sexologists have
documented the "clonic contraction of pelvic and abdominal muscles
initiated by a spinal reflex", and, in Elisabeth Lloyd's favourite
definition, the "combination of waves of a very pleasurable sensation
and mounting of tensions, culminating in a fantastic sensation and
release of tension". What has puzzled generations of thinkers,
however, is why women, as well as men, should have evolved the
capacity for such sexual pleasure.
Over the past century, scores of biologists have sought an answer in
natural selection. In The Case of the Female Orgasm, Lloyd, who is a
professor of biology at Indiana University, has totted up 21
alternative explanations. All these "adaptationist" theories share one
thing: the belief that women have evolved the capacity for orgasm
because it fosters their reproductive success. In one of the most
popular accounts, female orgasm is the cement in pair bonds: mutual
pleasure fosters happy monogamous couples who share childcare ever
after. The latest idea, "sperm competition", is more hydraulic in
tone. It argues that orgasmic contractions of the uterus are designed
to suck up sperm from the vagina, fostering the reproductive success
of the male who gives pleasure to his partner.
There is one big problem with all these ideas: no study has ever
established a reliable link between a woman's orgasmic capabilities
and her fertility or fecundity. And that, says Lloyd, should
immediately set warning lights flashing.
And there's another problem: the glib assumption that female orgasm is
designed to happen during heterosexual intercourse. In fact, the data
shows that many women struggle to climax during conventional
penetrative sex, and usually do so only with direct clitoral
stimulation. Yet during masturbation both women and men can achieve
orgasm in about four minutes.
The conclusion, Lloyd argues, must surely be that the female orgasm
has no biological function. Rather, it's on a par with the male nipple
- an accident of shared developmental pathways in the early embryo.
Because women need nipples to suckle their babies, men end up with
rudimentary versions too. They may not give milk, but like the
female's they have erotic sensibilities.
As for genitalia, because men need ejaculatory penises, women end up
with clitorises capable of similar sexual pleasures. Lloyd reckons
that biases in evolutionary thinking have blinkered generations of
mostly male biologists. It is time to give up the adaptationist's
fallacy and face facts. The late Stephen Jay Gould, who encouraged
Lloyd's long-standing investigation, must be cheering from above.
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