May 17, 2005

Media literacy tip: reading about human sexual evolution

The New York Times reports that Dr. Elisabeth Lloyd has published a book declaring that the female orgasm has no evolutionary purpose (The Case of the Female Orgasm).

There are many, many little annoyances in that article and the author’s statements— though I happen to agree with her theory. Since it was only last week that I was complaining with LaSara about evolutionary journalism, I’m going to list these problems here. Comments? Email me.

Evolutionary news gets recycled a lot.

The clitoris chapter in Woman: An Intimate Geography covers all of the points mentioned in the NYT article— it even comes to the same conclusion that the clitoris is probably just for fun— and it was published in 2000. Yawn!

It’s entirely possible that The Case of the Female Orgasm offers new ideas to the debate rather than simply siding with known problems. That’s the main thing I’d like to know from the NYT article, so I wish they had put this discussion in context with the discussion that has gone before. Did Dr. Lloyd do any primary research or just emphasize known criticisms? Are there new reasons to dismiss existing theories?

When beating a horse, please prove it is a live one.

Evolutionary research is not just about arguing

As part of evolutionary news recycling, a lot of articles present debates about logic and biases rather than about experimental evidence. This NYT article presents Dr. Lloyd as a critic, arguing about logic.

I really think this aspect of evolutionary journalism has contributed to the number of people who think that anyone can come up with evolutionary theories just by thinking and debating, and the idea that evolution is not an experimental science.

It’s true that there is a lot of debate about biased researchers asking biased evolutionary questions and setting up poorly controlled experiments (I’d like to point out Richard Dawkins’ sexuality surveys and the authors of A Natural History of Rape as examples). The goal of this debate is to determine valid experimental set-ups for testing, not to answer evolutionary questions through discussion alone.

This is one reason I think “hard” scientists should get in the habit of declaring their biases the way social researchers do. It would be much easier to classify and weigh answers if the motivations behind the question were transparent.

... But I would argue a few things about counting orgasms during intercourse

The Case of the Female Orgasm seems to depend on a contrast between the ubiquity of male orgasm during intercourse and the relative rarity of female orgasm during intercourse. “Biologists agree that the male orgasm has a straightforward evolutionary function... But how to account for female orgasm, when nearly three-quarters of women don’t always reach orgasm?”

Since when do males always achieve orgasms during sex? I think there is a skewed definition of sexual intercourse at work. If he can’t keep an erection or doesn’t ejaculate, does that mean the intercourse itself doesn’t count? What if I can’t stay aroused, or don’t orgasm? These are Cosmo-level semantics!

A little Google searching turned up some example statistics from a study of 100 married couples, 80 of whom described their sex life as satisfactory. “Forty percent of the men reported erectile or ejaculatory problems, and 63 percent of the women reported arousal and orgasmic dysfunction.”

Male orgasm is not entirely consistent either, and I think that’s an important consideration. Guys still make the connection between arousal, orgasm and sex, and I think women make the connection too.

It would probably be enlightening to consider the whole spectrum of arousal, rather than simply counting orgasms. Maybe female orgasms are an artifact of female arousal, not of male orgasm. In my experience, arousal is the real motivator to have sex, not the abstract memory of orgasms. I sometimes have sex just to feel aroused, with no intention of having orgasms. Surely there is research out there along these lines.

I might be more selfish than my genes are

Dr. Lloyd says, “Accounts of our evolutionary past tell us how the various parts of our body should function... Women feel inadequate or inferior or abnormal when they do not achieve [evolutionary standards of sexual performance].”

Dr. Lloyd’s solution to this is apparently to set more accurate evolutionary standards for women’s sexual achievement, to declare female orgasms a bonus and not a required performance. This is kind of like the guy who thinks he has a small penis until his girlfriend says it is “big enough.” Choosing a new standard does not free people from oppressive rules (what if that guy’s girlfriend loses credibility?).

In the case of modern human sexuality, there is no reason to stick with any oppressive biological standards. All evolution can tell us is how we “should” behave to successfully reproduce our genes. That’s not a personal goal; it’s a genetic one. Independent thinkers are capable of having any sexual goals or attitudes they can imagine, so why not be creative?

There’s more to life than breeding, even if you care about your family line.

The Sexual Olympics are a scam

I have one more thing to say about women feeling inadequate “when they do not achieve.”

Evolutionary standards are not the only kind that come up. Sexual goals about pleasure, politics, spirituality or even art can be just as stressful and just as needless.

I much prefer to consider sex in whatever terms suit me at any moment, and to be flexible. Learning about physiological possibilities and common or admirable experiences can be helpful, but there is no need for possibilities to be taken as standards. Unless you are trying to sell something, and need to convince people it’s important.

One good book about this perspective is Sex Is Not A Natural Act. One guide to more creative possibilities is The Good Vibes Guide to Sex.

In conclusion, I’m not actually angry about this

1. I’ve been meaning to post some tips or perspectives on interpreting news about human sexual evolution for some time (I think science appreciation is important). This article by itself probably does not warrant this million word essay.

2. Sorry if this was repetitive for frequent readers. It feels good to have collected all these thoughts in one place.

3. I’m inclined to like Dr. Lloyd because she compares clitorises to male nipples, which I do all the time. Pure in purpose. Just for fun.

4. I hope this doesn’t spark a volley of inflamed emails, but I’m always interested in your comments.

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