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Why do women have orgasms?

One of my favorite science books ever is Elisabeth Lloyd’s The Case of the Female Orgasm, which does a beautiful job of going case-by-case through postulated adaptive explanations for female orgasms and showing the deficiency of the existing body of work. It’s a beautiful example of the application of rigorous scientific logic; it does not disprove that female orgasms have an adaptive function, but does clearly show that the scientists who have proposed such functions have not done the work necessary to demonstrate that fact, and that some of the explanations are countered by the evidence. Her conclusion was that the likely explanation for the female orgasm was that it wasn’t directly adaptive: women have them because men are selected for having them, and that the women are just along for the happy ride, just as men have nipples because there has been selection for women to have them.

A lot of people detest the book, though. It does rather ruthlessly cut through many adaptive scenarios, and some people just seem to have a bias that if something exists, it must have a purpose. And for some reason, there is an odd preconception that purposeless features are counter to evolution (they aren’t).

Now there’s a new paper out by Zietsch and Santtila that purports to challenge the non-adaptive explanation. It fails. It fails pretty badly, actually. I’ll go further: I thought it was a terrible paper, especially in contrast to the clarity of Lloyd’s work. Here’s the abstract:

The evolutionary basis of human female orgasm has been subject to furious scientific debate, which has recently intensified. Many adaptive explanations have been proposed, invoking functions from pair bonding and mate selection to sucking up sperm, but these have been attacked as being based on flawed logic and/or evidence. The popular alternative theory is that female orgasm is not adaptive and is only evolutionarily maintained as a by-product of ongoing selection on the male orgasm-ejaculation system. This theory has not been adequately tested. We tested one of its central tenets: that selection pressure on the male orgasm is partially transmitted to the female via a positive cross-sex correlation in orgasmic function (susceptibility to orgasm in response to sexual stimulation). Using questionnaire data from over 10 000 Finnish twins and siblings, we found significant genetic variation in both male and female orgasmic function, but no significant correlation between opposite-sex twins and siblings. This suggests that different genetic factors underlie male and female orgasmic function and that selection pressures on male orgasmic function do not act substantively on female orgasmic function. These results challenge the by-product theory of female orgasm.

So their method was to survey twins and siblings about their sexual performance, and an absence of a correlation between different-sex siblings was interpreted to suggest an absence of a shared, heritable property between males and females. The logic of this experiment falls apart at every level.

First, they are relying on self-reporting of a trait that has strong psychological and cultural components, without making any effort to isolate any of the variables that would bias the subjects’ answers. I would be extremely cautious in interpreting the answers, yet the authors are making quantitative assessments of an inferred genetic network on the basis of some very mushy data.

Secondly, and this one drove me up the wall in trying to read this paper, they are comparing men and women…but asking the two sexes completely different questions. How can you even compare the answers? Men were asked, “How fast have you typically ejaculated after the intercourse (vaginal or anal) has commenced?” — a question about speed that assumes a 100% incidence of orgasm, and only considers intercourse. Women were asked, “Over the past four weeks, when you had sexual stimulation or intercourse, how often did you reach orgasm?” — so no constraint on how orgasm was achieved, or how long it took, but they do limit the interval. In order to compare a time to a frequency, the authors crunch the numbers down to a single value they call a measure of orgasmic function in males and females. But this is still bogus: they really are comparing apples and oranges at every step.

It seems to me that the relevant parameter to measure is whether the subject has any capacity to have an orgasm — do they have the physiological machinery to carry out this function? The question of how robustly this property is expressed is a different issue altogether. When you look at their data this way, it looks just as flawed, but with another twist. All of 1.9% of the male subjects reported never achieving orgasm through intercourse; 12% of the female subjects reported “rarely or never” having an orgasm in the last 4 weeks. This is actually a surprisingly good number; worldwide frequency of anorgasmia in women is typically around 20%, but the sample the authors are taking their data from is fairly homogeneous, consisting of Finns between 18 and 49. Again, though, the results highlight the cultural variability: the female response seems to be much more sensitive to environmental conditions, while the male response is strongly canalized. You can’t assess orgasm in women without taking a whole battery of social issues into account, while men are easy. The orgasmic response in men is locked in as a response to testosterone levels, which are reliably high in most men, while the same response in women relies on other, probably diverse, developmental cues to be switched on.

The situation is that when you examine orgasm in men, you find a heritability that’s near zero — what that means is that there are almost no phenotypic differences in the population that can be accounted for by genetic variation. There could be hidden variation that is swamped out by a robust environmental effect (like testosterone!), but you can’t measure it. One interesting way to look at women, though, is they have the same genetic variations as men, but those variations are unmasked and exposed phenotypically by the absence of the canalizing effect of testosterone, and that’s one mildly suggestive result of this paper — they found a correlation in the frequency of orgasmic response in monozygotic female twins that was stronger than that between dizygotic female twins. Similarly, they found a correlation in the rapidity of orgasmic response between male monozygotic twins, which suggests there could be some genetic component there, as well.

But you can’t compare the male and female measures! They’re different things! Men and women could be sharing the very same genetic circuitry behind orgasm, supporting the by-product hypothesis, but the different endocrine regimes of male and female embryos could be activating entirely different auxiliary genetic circuitry that contributes to the response. In fact, I’d consider it extremely unlikely that female orgasm doesn’t use exactly the same genetic apparatus as male orgasm. If anyone wants to really show that the byproduct hypothesis is false, a demonstration that the female orgasm is produced by pathways that are independent of, and evolved in parallel to, the male machinery would be more than sufficient. A study that is built around subjective reporting of the experience of orgasm isn’t going to do it, though.


A few other sites have looked at this paper.

Greg Laden has more on the behavioral biology of primates, but I’m afraid he doesn’t really get the byproduct theory at all — he keeps talking about the adaptive value of female orgasm, but they’re all post-hoc rationalizations. That culture adapts to the existence of female orgasms does not imply that female orgasms evolved as an adaptive phenomenon. I can show that orgasms make women happy; the question is, does the happiness of women contribute to the evolutionary success of the species? And I’m sorry, evolution doesn’t care.

Scicurious rightly concludes that the paper does not demonstrate what the authors claim it does, but I get the impression that she hasn’t read Lloyd — she has a brief summary of the adaptive alternatives that is fairly casual. Really, Lloyd demolishes them all. She doesn’t necessarily prove that they’re wrong, nor does she claim to do so, but she does show that most of the hypotheses are little more than wishful thinking.


Zietsch B, Santtila P (2011). Genetic analysis of orgasmic function in twins and siblings does not support the by-product theory of female orgasm Animal Behaviour DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2011.08.002

(Also on Sb)

Comments

  1. tsig says

    The idea that if women enjoy sex they’ll have more sex and therefor more babies seems reasonable.

  2. Carlie says

    Secondly, and this one drove me up the wall in trying to read this paper, they are comparing men and women…but asking the two sexes completely different questions.

    What the…how did this ever pass peer-review????

  3. Physicalist says

    It’s a beautiful example of the application of rigorous scientific logic

    *ahem* You mean philosophical reasoning. Lisa’s a philosopher

  4. Lyra says

    I went to a discussion where we talked about this very subject, and one of the things we also talked about is why some people really want the female orgasm to have a purpose. In some circles, people believe that if a trait has no purpose, then that trait isn’t important. To go with your male nipples example, these people would believe that male nipples aren’t important (because they have no function). Women are really, really nervous about having their orgasms labeled as “unimportant.” So there is the inclination to shout, “No, no, my orgasm is just as purposeful (important) as your orgasm is!”

    Now, I’m of the opinion that orgasms aren’t evolutionarily adaptive. There are many reasons, but one reason that I haven’t seen this is thread yet is that most women cannot orgasm from intercourse (penis in vagina) stimulation alone. A lot of us can’t come without direct, focused clitoral stimulation, and a chunk of us require this stimulation to be more intense than can be found in nature (vibrators, not just fingers/tongues). It doesn’t make a lot of sense that female orgasms would have an important evolutionary function in orgasm like men and yet miss as often as we do. To me, the whole thing practically screams “biproduct!”

    But it’s going to be hard to get people on board with this when they hear “There is no evolutionary purpose” as “It isn’t important.”

  5. jasondick says

    I somewhat wonder if the sexual sensitivity of the male prostate might have something to say about this, considering the fact that it is entirely hidden within the body and doesn’t appear to be stimulated much at all during “normal” intercourse. The sensitivity of the prostate gland *might* be a side effect of its normal sexual function, but I wonder if it might instead be a side effect of the female orgasm.

  6. Hershele Ostropoler says

    I wonder if people jump all over the non-adaptive explanation because it sounds sexist against women.

    On the one hand, it’s not denying the existence of female orgasms, and “no evolutionary purpose” isn’t the same as “no purpose,” but on the other “just a byproduct” is a bit dismissive. Since the female orgasm used to be pathologized (source: comment someone left on another blog, but it sounds right) I can understand why people are resistant to the notion that it’s an extra or even a bonus.

  7. jose says

    Is science sure male orgasms are adaptive, too, and not a side effect of some other thing? Since we’re here, I’m fairly sure our ancestors did fine without orgasms.

    You may say males who don’t enjoy sex are less likely to want it and therefore to have descendants. But so are women. If a woman doesn’t enjoy sex, why would she have it at all? She too would be less likely to have descendants, wouldn’t she?

    We know the most sexually active female chimpanzees are the most desired by the males. We also know those less interested in sex are more likely to do the role of “aunts”, belonging to a family core and taking care of their sister’s kids, helping the mothers. So the disposition of the females towards sex influences the outcome of reproduction, too.

  8. DLC says

    I agree on the paper. it shouldn’t have got past peer review.
    As for the orgasms. . . there I shrug my shoulders and move on.
    not enough data.

  9. Riptide says

    At first brush, it might indeed seem sexist to “dismiss” the female orgasm as “merely a byproduct” of the male orgasm. But at root here is the inherent *similarity* of the sexes, that when one reproductive gender has certain adaptations, these adaptations are often reflected in phenotypical expressions in all the other genders.

    I’m sorry, but nature doesn’t care about personal and cultural relations within the human population. And while I think it’s a bit more complex than “just a byproduct”, it is evident that a lot of male/female genitalia are (slightly) different expressions of the same kinds of organs. That is probably why it’s difficult for many women to orgasm without direct clitoral contact–how many men can orgasm from testicular and lower-shaft stimulation alone? Quite a few, but probably not a majority. It makes sense that similar mechanisms would be used, and ultimately points to the *unity* of the sexes (along with the non-cisgendered individuals of the species) at the genetic level. The rationalizations we wish to lay upon the facts at hand serve little point, either for or against a specific psychosexual point of view.

  10. Myti says

    Why does evolution ‘not care’ about happiness? I thought happy people had less chance of committing suicide while still young (thus increasing chances of their children getting to puberty), remained healthier, made better parents (ok this one I haven’t seen a study on, anyone have one?), and would be doing whatever made them happy more often.

    There seems to be a pretty straightforward link between their being happy doing something and doing it more often… This is in the case of animals that are capable of actually avoiding things they don’t want to do, of course – but humans fall into that category, I would think…

    So wouldn’t the trait of actually enjoying the act that gets you kids get passed on more often?

  11. tim Rowledge says

    Given the amount of effort that goes into making the clitoris and associated nerves it doesn’t seem that it should count as ‘unimportant’. There’s a lot of nerve tissue there – an article referred to some time ago (I’m fairly sure via PZ, possibly boingboing? Quick google returns way too many unrelated things to be sure) claimed that the clitoral nerve complex wrapped around a lot of the vulva, vagina and even the inner thighs and anal area. When I showed it to my wife she just laughed and said they should have asked her. Dim memories suggest that most of the women that have been generous enough to share intimacy with me would agree; a couple could orgasm multiple times without stimulation directly to vulva or clitoris.
    Either there is some evolutionary benefit or it’s a wonderful side effect of some other bit.

  12. ChasCPeterson says

    Is science sure male orgasms are adaptive, too, and not a side effect of some other thing?

    like what?

    Since we’re here, I’m fairly sure our ancestors did fine without orgasms.

    of course, we also have ancestors without hair, fingers, pancreases, eyes, collagen, and endoplasmic reticula…what’s your point?

  13. Algernon says

    But it’s going to be hard to get people on board with this when they hear “There is no evolutionary purpose” as “It isn’t important.”

    Yeah, this. You’re dealing with the backlash of people who we can still read about having their genitals cauterized with irons to “cure” their orgasms.

    It’s unfortunate that people are so ignorant of science, but that’s really what you’re dealing with right there…

    People have fought long and hard just to get female orgasm recognized and to have sex with females brought out of the duck-sex arena.

    Unfortunately, people can’t seem to grasp the idea that just because something isn’t biologically essential it doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile. While, at the same time you still have a large contingent of people who are eager to have scientific evidence that it’s ok to take a 12 year old girl, keep her in a basement, and stick your dick in her to get a baby and then move on to the next kid.

    People suck.

    What was the point?

    Oh yeah, that.

  14. says

    I thought happy people had less chance of committing suicide while still young

    Suicide seems to be pretty uncommon in people who are constantly fighting for their survival anyway ;)

    As somebody who hasn’t invested much time into studying this, would this:

    . In fact, I’d consider it extremely unlikely that female orgasm doesn’t use exactly the same genetic apparatus as male orgasm. If anyone wants to really show that the byproduct hypothesis is false, a demonstration that the female orgasm is produced by pathways that are independent of, and evolved in parallel to, the male machinery would be more than sufficient.

    mean that they haven’t demonstrated the first liklier scenario either?
    So, well yes, finding a different independent pathway would demolish the byproduct hypothesis, but doesn’t this meant that it is not supported by demonstrating that it does use the same pathways either?

    I would also think that self-reporting about female orgasms is rather difficult, unless you go very much into detail to control for different behaviour.
    Or test it. Volunteers forward, you get paid a handsome compensation for trying differnt methods of stimulation over a course of 4 weeks.
    If one woman answers “yes, lots of wonderful orgasms” because she’s found that perfect 1200 volt vibrator while another woman reports “never ever” because she or her partner never bothered about stimulating her, how can they think those answers to tell anything about their actual physiological abilities?

  15. says

    I think, “because it’s fun,” and “because it relieves stress” are good enough reasons. Even sounds evolutionarily sound.

    Whatever. The paper sucks and should be soundly slammed.

    Mormon women have orgasms too, but in some circumstances they add a shitload of guilt, and that’s got to be bad for their psychological health. The mormon women on the “Baby Center” are having a discussion today about masturbation.

    One of the women wrote about her problem and asked for advice. Excerpt:

    I’m struggling with masturbation. AHHH! I just said that! This is something that started after I was married a few years. I never did it when young or single and didn’t have the desire then.
    My dh [dear husband] and I have a pretty active sex life of at least 4 times a week. In my late 20s I craved sex A LOT. I mean at least 2 a day and my dh liked it at first and then tired of doing it too much. That is when I started to masturbate. I did it almost every day for several months. After a few more babies I haven’t been doing it as much. Now I do it at least once a week on stressful days. It seems I do it just to get that “release” to relax and feel better. Whenever I’m stressed I feel like taking a bath and doing it.
    My dh doesn’t know anything about it and I have never mentioned this to anyone.
    I’m trying to stop and don’t know if I need to talk to the bishop about it. Is this something I need to let anyone know of? Can I just stop and repent on my own?

    The poor women is receiving all kinds of terrible advice, including this:

    I do think you need to go to your Bishop. When in doubt, do see your bishop. Masturbation is a sexual sin. It is not something to be taken lightly. I do think that his gospel is WONDERFUL and TRUE. He has provided a way for us to repent and be clean again. How awesome! I know going to your bishop will be a really hard thing…. embrrassing to say the least. Please, do remember that this is a man of God. He has been called to be YOUR leader. He loves you, cares for you, and can recieve revelation for you. He can guide you in taking the right path and help you to take the correct steps. Just think…how wonderful it will to be clean and whole again. …

    http://community.babycenter.com/post/a29344591/tmi-_touching_oneself_repentance

  16. Physicalist says

    Scientific reasoning is a subset of philosophical reasoning. Lloyd’s book exemplifies the way I think scientists ought to think.

    I agree. My comment was made with toungue in cheek.

  17. jose says

    ChasCPeterson,

    I have no idea. Has the question been posed at all? Or science just took for granted it is an adaptation because it obviously can’t be anything else?

    Care to comment about the rest of my comment, where I talk about actual animals?

  18. Putting On The Foil says

    Choking the bishop is always a good way to blow off some stream, but a mormon woman who chokes her bishop might end up in hot water.

  19. Cheri says

    Orgasm would likely fall along a continuum for all people depending on what the fetus was exposed to during development, just like there is a continuum of physical sexual characteristics. When I was a teen (just barely at that) I had many sexual encounters that did not lead to orgasm. I still enjoyed those encounters, however. Now that I am older, I know how to reach orgasm and rather expect it.

    I talk to a lot of women who really don’t like sex because it is painful and they don’t have orgasm. Are they somehow that genetically different from me, or did their fetal development just occur differently from mine?

    The only way to really study this is to do physiological testing to determine the true variability. I am sure that every variation might somehow be evolutionarily beneficial, if not for the individual, then for the species.

  20. Jefrir says

    jose, it’s not just a matter of enjoying sex. It’s perfectly possible to enjoy sex without having an orgasm, and even possible to orgasm without enjoying sex. For men, orgasm includes ejaculation which is obviously necessary to reproduce. That physical requirement is not present for women.

  21. Lyra says

    @Jose

    Men cannot reproduce without orgasming. Women can and do reproduce without orgasming. There are lots of reasons that women can have sex for while excluding orgasm: her man wants to have it, it makes her feel attractive, it generates harmony, to convince a man to do something, to make money, to bond socially . . . the list goes on. Men can also have sex for these reasons, but orgasm almost always goes with it, which is not necessarily the case for women. And for both sexes, being interested in sex is not necessarily the same as being interested in orgasm; there’s a reason that we don’t just all masturbate.

    This ties into what I said in a different post: many women can’t orgasm from vaginal sex alone. The clitoris is where it’s at for women, not the vagina. If the goal of the female orgasm is to get women to put penises in vaginas, then evolution hasn’t done a very good job of providing proper motivation. It’s like evolution wanted us to put food in our mouths and swallow it, so it made looking at food the most foolproof way of satisfying hunger.

  22. says

    Could one function of orgasm be to help a woman feel closer to her mate? I believe oxytocin is released during and after orgasm. I’m certainly no biologist and I don’t believe this is about orgasm being adaptive. I do understand the problem a lay person like me would have with women’s orgasms being deemed “evolutionarily unnecessary”. That doesn’t mean “not important” but women’s sexuality has been dismissed and demeaned so much over time that this view can be quite threatening. It reminds me of fatherhood ideologues’ reactions to a paper about essentialism and parenting (in particular fathering). The paper referred to biological essentialism whereas the ideologues misrepresented what the authors meant, insisting they believed fathers were not important. That wasn’t what the paper was about at all.

  23. ChasCPeterson says

    Care to comment about the rest of my comment, where I talk about actual animals?

    The chimpanzee thing? I don’t really see the relevance.
    Are you suggesting that variation in orgasmicity might result from simultaneous direct selection for orgasmia (plausibly corelated to ‘sexual activity’) and kin selection for anorgasmia?

    Orgasm would likely fall along a continuum for all people depending on what the fetus was exposed to during development

    I suppose it’s possible, but afaict this is pure speculation.

    Are they somehow that genetically different from me, or did their fetal development just occur differently from mine?

    Far from the only two alternatives.

    I am sure that every variation might somehow be evolutionarily beneficial, if not for the individual, then for the species.

    oh…no…evolution can’t really work like that.

  24. Anri says

    The idea that if women enjoy sex they’ll have more sex and therefor more babies seems reasonable.

    The idea that if women enjoy childbirth they’ll have more sex and therefore more babies seems reasonable.

    …and yet…

  25. Lyra says

    Ok! I did a little digging on reasons men and women have sex, and I found a paper. I haven’t spent much time looking at it yet, so I’m not sure how good it is, but I thought I’d share it in case anyone was interested. This is a paragraph that I thought was particularly relevant.

    http://homepage.psy.utexas.edu/homepage/group/busslab/pdffiles/why%20humans%20have%20sex%202007.pdf

    Gender differences in reasons for having sex To examine gender differences at the item level, given that 237 t-tests would be conducted, we set the significance threshold at a conservative level of p < .005. Thus, roughly one difference that showed significance at this level would be attributable to chance alone. An astonishing 123 items, or 52% of the items, showed significant gender differences at or beyond the p < .005 level.
    Men showed significantly greater endorsement of having
    sex due to physical reasons, such as ‘‘The person had a
    desirable body’’; ‘‘The person was too ‘‘hot’’ (sexy) to resist,’’ and simply because the opportunity presented itself: ‘‘The person was available’’; ‘‘The person had too much to drink and I was able to take advantage of them.’’ Men exceeded women on many items that pertained to physical pleasure such as, ‘‘I wanted to achieve an orgasm,’’ and ‘‘It feels good.’’ Men more than women reported having sex as a way to improve their social status (e.g., ‘‘I wanted to enhance my reputation’’; ‘‘I wanted to brag to my friends about my conquests’’) and their sexual experience (e.g., ‘‘I needed another notch on my belt’’; ‘‘I wanted to improve
    my sexual skills’’). Finally, men exceeded women on
    endorsing a variety of utilitarian reasons for sex: ‘‘I wanted to change the topic of conversation’’; ‘‘I wanted to improve my sexual skills.’’

    Women exceeded men on only three of the 237 reasons
    (at p < .005): ‘‘I wanted to feel feminine’’; ‘‘I wanted to
    express my love for the person’’; ‘‘I realized that I was in
    love.’’ Means, SDs, and effect sizes calculated using Cohen’s
    d are reported for the 50 items showing the largest
    sex differences in Table 3.

    All very interesting, assuming there wasn’t something seriously wrong with the study.

  26. Peter says

    I don’t understand why it’s clear that the male orgasm is adaptive, but the female orgasm is up in the air.

    Also, if I assume that only the male orgasm is adaptive, then why isn’t that a satisfying explanation for why females have orgasms also? Surely, what would need explaining then is not so much why females have orgasms, but why they wouldn’t. Why would the default assumption be sexual dimorphism in orgasms?

  27. bananacat says

    The idea that if women enjoy sex they’ll have more sex and therefor more babies seems reasonable.

    Orgasm isn’t synonymous with sexual enjoyment. Sex and masturbation always felt really amazingly good for me, even though it took me years to have an orgasm. Even now I don’t have orgasms every time or even half the time, and I still enjoy sex a lot. I frequently don’t even orgasm when I’m masturbating but obviously feels great anyway so I keep doing it.

    Of course orgasms are awesome and I’m sure some people will find sex unfulfilling without them, but orgasm isn’t the ultimate goal of sex, and lacking them doesn’t mean sex isn’t enjoyable.

    So you boys (and girls) can relax a little and know that your partner probably enjoyed sex even if she didn’t have an orgasm and you didn’t “fail” to satisfy her. The same thing can be said to partners of men, even if those men usually do orgasm.

  28. Pseudosaurus says

    While a number of theories on the matter make sense and yet are contradictory to one another, I can’t help but be reminded of a creationistic propaganda message, “why are we here? Are you suggesting we have no purpose?! Explain that atheists!”

    Just as our existence does not have to have a purpose, perhaps then nor does the orgasm, further, why do our males have to make such a fuss to deposit their seeds? If it’s supposed to be so cut and dry, let’s reproduce, why not just drop a desposit off?

    I think that, probably, merely from my own personal anecdotal evidence, both male and female sexual enjoyment and orgasm are equally either purposeful or purposeless…or something. either way, I think that the complexity of sexual interludes- the careful attention paid to one another’s needs (at least in mutually respectful relationships), the time invested and experiments employed, the excitement one partner experiences from witnessing the other climaxing…whew- got a bit carried away there…some heavy bertation…

  29. bananacat says

    Men cannot reproduce without orgasming.

    Human men can’t, but plenty of other species can ejaculate or release sperm without orgasming. But people don’t question as much why human men require erection (many other species, even mammals, have bones in their penises), why it takes time to ejaculate, and why the ejaculation requires such intense pleasure and muscle spasms; rather than just producing semen that can dribble out at will. Of course plenty of scientists do study these things, but in the general public plenty of people will wonder why women have orgasms without giving a second thought to why men need orgasms to reproduce.

  30. jose says

    Lyra,
    men cannot now, But that’s beside its evolutionary origin. What it does now and how it originated are different things. Our ancestors were able to reproduce without orgasm, so it’s not impossible that it appeared for some other reason, since at that time it wasn’t necessary for reproduction.

    About the reasons. You say in the case of women those reasons don’t always go with orgasm, but I think that’s due to the historical disregard for her pleasure. Socially, it’s okay if she doesn’t finish because what’s important is that he gets to finish. But that’s all cultural, not biological.

    I get your point about the bad design. That’s one of the bad things about evolution, it has to work with what it’s got. Men and women have homologous sexual organs, so evolution was constrained to work with that, which could be the reason the design isn’t as good as it could be if it had been specifically designed.

    True that many women don’t have orgasms from vaginal sex alone. But I think it’s also true that women who have a lot of sex are more likely to get orgasms than women who aren’t interested in sex. It might be relevant here to note that our most frequent position does in fact stimulate the clitoris. I don’t know if it was the most frequent one for our ancestors, though we do know the missionary is the bonobo’s most frequent position as well.

  31. says

    Lyra @ 7,

    A lot of us can’t come without direct, focused clitoral stimulation, and a chunk of us require this stimulation to be more intense than can be found in nature (vibrators, not just fingers/tongues)

    The problem with this is that you’re assuming women’s capability to orgasm is fixed in stone. When really, any woman you’re talking about is the product of decades of cultural conditioning and these women were almost certainly raised in a patriarchy.

    We live in a society where people say “vagina” when they mean “vulva”, the vagina being the part of the anatomy that straight men use. A student can go through sex ed and never once hear the word “clitoris” but you can bet they’ll hear plenty about the male orgasm. Lesbians are considered by some to be perpetual virgins because “no penetration = no sex”. A woman who enjoys sex is called a slut, a skank or a whore. Sex is used as a weapon in rape.

    So yeah, no shit some modern women have trouble orgasming. That doesn’t make this some universal absolute.

    I’d love to see a study comparing the orgasms of Western women to the orgasms of those isolated, matrilineal tribes about which I keep hearing. But I never will, because there’s a limited number of studies you can do (without completely fucking up their culture, which is bad from both ethical and scientific standpoints) and the female orgasm isn’t nearly important enough to make the cut, from the perspective of those who organize and fund such studies.

    That’s the whole damn point. We’d love to see data on the female orgasm, but we won’t see much. Most of the “data” we get is propagandizing sewage like this “study” or generic shit along the lines of “BT dubs, females don’t orgasm as often as males” without any insight into why.

  32. Stephen says

    Many years ago when I was doing my undergraduate physical anthropology degree, this discussion came up over, unsurprisingly, beer. The best guess we came up with then, and I do think it is a decent guess, is that the genetic pathways were likely always there; Phenotype selection, however, probably came about through a combination of factors. We had considered social factors such as increased pair/group bonding through mutually enthusiastic sex combined, but one of the women pointed out something quite obvious: in a bipedal species which has the reproductive system aligned with gravity working against it, anything that makes a woman feel like mellowing out horizontally for a few minutes after intercourse can’t help but increase the chances of conception.

  33. tim rowledge, Ersatz Haderach says

    Lyra wrote:
    “Men cannot reproduce without orgasming”
    Are we sure? It may be a definition thing I suppose but I can assure you (not only from personal experience) that guys can ejaculate without experiencing any of the pleasurable bits of orgasm. Does that mean it doesn’t count as an orgasm? It’s also possible to experience the pleasure bits without the ejaculation – is that an orgasm?
    What are the definitions accepted as standard – are there even widely accepted ones?

  34. Lyra says

    @bananacat

    Yep! And I think that the evolutionary origin of the orgasm is actually a pretty interesting topic. If anyone has any papers that talk about this, I’d be interested in seeing them. ^_^

    But I have to go correct biology lab reports right now, so I’ll check back later.

  35. Antiochus Epiphanes says

    I don’t understand why it’s clear that the male orgasm is adaptive, but the female orgasm is up in the air.

    Is that because you are defining it as something other than the process of ejaculation in males?

    Anyway, I’m actually surprised that more isn’t known about the development of orgamsic apparatus* in men or women. Nonetheless, in the absence of evidence that these really are homologous, the principle of parsimony requires that we assume that they are (because we need only explain a single origin rather than two). Since we have a very good reason to think that this is adaptive in men, we don’t need to invoke an ad hoc explanation for how it developed in women.

    What would require such an explanation is the discovery that these really are not developmentally homologous at all.

    It makes one wonder though: why is this something that would be adaptive in human males in a way that isn’t true of any organism with an intromittent organ?

    *I am very surprised that I know nothing about it. I don’t recall having thought about this with any seriousness.

  36. ChasCPeterson says

    ‘X is an adaptation’ does NOT mean ‘X is required to reproduce successfully’!
    It means something a lot more like ‘individuals with X have tended, on average, to leave more offspring than individuals without X’.

  37. C. S. says

    I suppose I can accept “female orgasm is not adaptive” as a null hypothesis, but if you add “…and is a byproduct of selection for male orgasm”, I think that’s something that needs support. What evidence is there that female orgasm is a byproduct of male orgasm, and not of something else?

  38. Carlie says

    What evidence is there that female orgasm is a byproduct of male orgasm, and not of something else?

    Because the clitoris and the penis are the same organ, developmentally speaking.

  39. says

    Oh man, I’ve had Lloyd’s Kindle version of the book on my Amazon wish list for a while now. I suppose it’ll have to be next on my reading list!

  40. Sili says

    Why do women have orgasms?

    I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure it has something to do with men being superior and awesome.

    And hey! Lookit my peepee!: I can has no 4skin, so my orgasms are not as good as they cood beee. HELP HELP I’M BEING OPPRESSED!

  41. Algernon says

    Anyway, I’m actually surprised that more isn’t known about the development of orgamsic apparatus* in men or women.

    I’m not surprised, given the enormous load of social bullshit lumped onto sex. I mean, really just getting to where scientists could legitimately study it took forever. What I do hope, is that we can keep doing better and better science on the issue.

  42. Randy Owens says

    But, I thought the biological ejaculations were just random?

    (I was going to comment on the utility of finding sex pleasurable, too, but it looks like that’s already pretty well covered.)

  43. ChasCPeterson says

    Orgasms in general are more complex physiologically than most people think. There are several nerves involved, some sensory and some motor. Some of the sensory neurons involved project to the somatosensory cortex (conscious perception of touch), but others do not, instead delivering stimuli to the brain of which we are not aware.
    The vagus nerve carries some of the traffic in both directions, and because it’s a cranial nerve (i.e. it emerges directly from the brain, instead of the spinal cord) this means that in many cases total neck-down quadriplegics can nevertheless experience erection (penis or clit) and orgasm. They report not ‘feeling’ any direct stimulation, but nevertheless experience the pleasure and post-mellowness of orgasm similarly.

  44. Antiochus Epiphanes says

    ChasCPeterson: Do human males differ significantly from other hominins in those mechanics? Females?

    Turtles?

  45. uncle frogy says

    given that there is very little that we as humans do that is not learned and taught to us by our culture and we in the west have had a very strained relationship with sex for so many generations that sexual dysfunction and sexual obsession are very common.
    We have to be taught how to eat and how to talk but
    Can you imagine what would happen if we would offer a class in sexual performance in grammar school? We can just barely even give a class in the biology of reproduction and health without going to court over it.
    So we have to make scientific studies with poor methods and ambiguous controversial results to determine what?

    Is it OK to have pleasure in sex?
    Women have orgasms?

    The Chinese Taoists wrote books on how the “superior man” should have sex in order to live forever by satisfying 100 women every day.

    the Hindu taught how one could obtain the divine oneness through the proper practice of sex.

    all the while we were taught in the christian west that sex was sin.

    why is a surprise that the results are so poor. that there is even a debate seems ludicrous and predictable given the history we have .

    uncle frogy

  46. Toasted Rye says

    It is my opinion that female orgasm may be adaptive and one possible reason that could explain its evolutionary adaptivity is sexual selection. It seems to me that women are more likely to choose mates that are attentive to their needs. By allowing orgasm for females to be separate from direct methods for reproduction and the fact that similar bonding chemicals are released in orgasm for females, sexual selection can ensure that women are more likely to pair bond with males that are attentive to the pleasure of their partners. This is likely to push women toward partners that are more likely to accept long term roles in child rearing. One of the features of sexual selection is the huge variety that can be present. It seems that this would explain the enormous variation in sexual stimulation in females. I am no biologist so my ruminations may be way off the mark. I welcome feedback or anyone who can flesh out this idea more.

  47. Canuck says

    What? I thought everybody knew the answer to that. It’s because they rubbed the nub. Or it’s because someone licked their clitoris (such a wonderful thing to do). Or for that privileged small percentage of women who have them through penetration, they were in the midst of a good shag. Doesn’t that cover it?

    Oh, I misunderstood. You mean “why” in the sense of “how did it come to pass that their bodies had that facility?” No idea. And as much as I love science, frankly, I don’t care. The fact that they can is good enough.

  48. azkyroth says

    I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure it has something to do with men being superior and awesome.

    And hey! Lookit my peepee!: I can has no 4skin, so my orgasms are not as good as they cood beee. HELP HELP I’M BEING OPPRESSED!

    Interesting how you’re the first person to introduce these topics.

  49. azkyroth says

    It is my opinion that female orgasm may be adaptive and one possible reason that could explain its evolutionary adaptivity is sexual selection. It seems to me that women are more likely to choose mates that are attentive to their needs. By allowing orgasm for females to be separate from direct methods for reproduction and the fact that similar bonding chemicals are released in orgasm for females, sexual selection can ensure that women are more likely to pair bond with males that are attentive to the pleasure of their partners. This is likely to push women toward partners that are more likely to accept long term roles in child rearing. One of the features of sexual selection is the huge variety that can be present. It seems that this would explain the enormous variation in sexual stimulation in females. I am no biologist so my ruminations may be way off the mark. I welcome feedback or anyone who can flesh out this idea more.

    This suffers from the usual evo-psych problem of making sense intuitively but having no data to differentially support it and explicitly producing no testable hypotheses. (It doesn’t, however, suffer so much from the other evo-psych problem of requiring one to hold and have never thought to question a lot of fairly cringe-worthy assumptions about humans in general and specific races or genders in particular in order to make that intuitive sense, so that’s something.)

  50. madscientist says

    Quick – someone tell the authors that same gendered twins are not monozygotal! The question that comes to mind is: how does such crap get published? Then I think about “evolutionary psychology” and I no longer wonder … Some people simply have a fixation that everything must somehow be explainable as an adaptation. Hell, there are still idiots out there insisting that the human appendix still has a function.

  51. Kagehi says

    Problem is probably even more complex than already considered. Some species need specific stimulation to ovulate, even when “in” heat. There is no reason why the orgasm couldn’t still exist, as a byproduct of some “prior” necessity, in some previous species, where it triggered such release. Then, over time, the need to have that happen, to procreate at all, was lost, but the stimulation a) shifting to be more external, and b) not being lost/taking on some other purpose, which might even include something like pair bonding (something that, if it happens, is often tangential to actual sex, for most species, which may, in many cases, pick one “partner”, yet have many mates).

    So, we just don’t know why it exists, what, if anything, it might be a byproduct of, whether it had a more serious function once, but doesn’t now, if that function has changed, thus preserving it, etc.

  52. Steve Gerrard says

    I thought the point Greg Laden was making was that human sexuality is unusual for primates, in that we need to form close monogamous relationships in order to successfully rear young, yet live in closely knit communities that would typically have a dominant polygamous male instead.

    The solution is to separate sexuality from reproduction, so the males loose the penis bone, and both males and females develop an interest in sex when the female is not ovulating – that interest being orgasms. Selection would favor just enough orgasmic potential to meet that need, which might well differ between males and females.

    It is interesting to note that the evident Catholic notion that it is less sinful to have sex only for reproduction purposes would in fact make us more like the beasts, not less so.

  53. naturalcynic says

    @ 29:

    Men cannot reproduce without orgasming.

    Men *can*. During intercourse a small amount of fluid containing sperm comes out of the penis before ejaculation. Colloquially pre-cum. Enough that some might have a head start. It is also the second reason that coitus interruptus is less than effective as a method on contraception, even if it is practiced correctly. [after “gee, it felt so good that I forgot”]

  54. says

    It is my opinion that female orgasm may be adaptive and one possible reason that could explain its evolutionary adaptivity is sexual selection. It seems to me that women are more likely to choose mates that are attentive to their needs. By allowing orgasm for females to be separate from direct methods for reproduction and the fact that similar bonding chemicals are released in orgasm for females, sexual selection can ensure that women are more likely to pair bond with males that are attentive to the pleasure of their partners. This is likely to push women toward partners that are more likely to accept long term roles in child rearing. One of the features of sexual selection is the huge variety that can be present. It seems that this would explain the enormous variation in sexual stimulation in females. I am no biologist so my ruminations may be way off the mark. I welcome feedback or anyone who can flesh out this idea more.

    It’s pretty easy to come up with possible adaptive scenarios, but it proves very little. Philip Kitcher calls these “Darwinian Histories”, and argues that, by themselves, they do little more offer up possible hypotheses for testing, and provide answers to creationists who insist “It is impossible for X to evolve by natural selection.”

    As for your particular adaptive scenario, I don’t find it very plausible. Orgasm doesn’t seem like the best way to tell if someone is attentive to his partner’s needs. I mean, if women were looking for outward signs of attentiveness in potential mates, it seems to me that they would want to have those signs in place BEFORE they begin copulation. That’s pure speculation on my part, but it’s no less speculative than your own hypothesis.

    As for PZ’s comment about Lisa’s booking taking criticism, one thing that I found really disappointing was that she has been attacked by other feminists for supposedly diminishing the female orgasm or subjugating it under the male orgasm. The fact that Lisa would have to defend her feminism cred to anyone is mind boggling in itself. But what’s even more perplexing to me is that she argues pretty explicitly in many places that decoupling orgasm from reproduction could be seen as liberating for female sexuality. In fact, given that evolution itself is value neutral, how one chooses to interpret it is entirely determined by one’s own values, so her work poses no threat to feminism at all. And yet she still gets accused from time to time of de-valuing female sexuality. If it were me, I’d be really frustrated by that, especially coming from people who should be your allies. But she just sort of laughs it off. She’s a much more easy going person than I am, I guess. :)

  55. Guaron says

    Wot’s this business of clitorides or “female” orgasms being the “byproduct” of their male counterparts? We all begin as female. If anything, dude junk is the byproduct its female counterpart.

  56. says

    I can show that orgasms make women happy; the question is, does the happiness of women contribute to the evolutionary success of the species? And I’m sorry, evolution doesn’t care.

    Only if most of the sex throughout the history of the species was rape or prostitution rather than women doing it voluntarily because it was pleasurable.

  57. scooterKPFT says

    Lyra wrote:
    “Men cannot reproduce without orgasming”

    The epic historical failure of the ‘pull-out’ method negates this.

  58. says

    Guaron @ 64 says:

    Wot’s this business of clitorides or “female” orgasms being the “byproduct” of their male counterparts? We all begin as female. If anything, dude junk is the byproduct its female counterpart.

    You misunderstood. That’s not at all how the byproduct hypothesis works. It has little to do with what sex the fetus starts out with. It has to do with which features are both 1) genetically determined and 2) adaptively valuable versus features which are 1) genetically determined and 2) not adaptively valuable in themselves, but genetically linked to a phenotypic feature that is adaptively valuable. So male nipples (no adaptive function), for instance, are a byproduct of female nipples (adaptively functional). Lisa’s thesis is that the female orgasm works the same way, but with the sexes switched.

    It’s also no true that “we all begin as female”. Sex is determined by an XX or XY chromosome in almost all cases, and that is in place at conception. It is true that gender dimorphisms don’t turn up until later in development, so that early on all fetuses look female. But that doesn’t change the chromosomes. It’s just that the androgens that make a male externally distinct from a female don’t start to do their thing until later in development.

    Finally, neither PZ nor Lisa said that anyone’s “junk” is a byproduct. Obviously both the penis and the vagina have adaptive function. The question is about the function of the orgasm, not the function of the genitalia.

    Calling something a byproduct isn’t a value judgment. Gravy is a byproduct of cooking meat, but that doesn’t mean it’s not delicious. Similarly, the female orgasm is most likely a byproduct of the male orgasm, but that doesn’t mean women can’t enjoy them.

  59. Antiochus Epiphanes says

    Gravy is a byproduct of cooking meat, but that doesn’t mean it’s not delicious.

    The more that we can work gravy into didactic metaphor, the better. It’s what my old man always said, anyway.

  60. Rey Fox says

    The book mentioned at the top of this post is on shelf at a local used book store, good to see some endorsement of it. Maybe I’ll go drop the bucks for it now.

  61. Toasted Rye says

    Azkyroth #58. Thank you for your thoughts. I see what you mean by a non testable hypothesis. I do have to agree with you that it is a common problem in evo-psych. I guess I don’t think that something like this is worthy to write books or even papers over because it still doesn’t completely eliminate that aspects of arousal and orgasms in females may still be piggybacked while other aspects may be adapted. For that I have less a problem with an intuitive leap that is not inherently testable. I also have no problem that eventually my intuition may be shown to be absolutely silly. Simply put if it turns out that orgasm in the females of many species has evidence for adaptive causes, my scenario may be a plausible explanation. I can’t imagine a testable scenario that would otherwise explain that possibility. I can imagine other non-testable scenarios but none quite feel as intuitive as they tend to fall prey to the other problems you discussed.

  62. Toasted Rye says

    Wes #63. It seems more plausible to me in that I wasn’t assuming that females would use choose their reproductive partners based on this but rather they would choose long term partners based on this. It would only be selected for in that females who have orgasms as well as long term partners willing to communicate enough to help their partner achieve orgasm. Then the children of that female are more likely to have parental resources that allow them to reach sexual maturity. Keeping in mind that the long term sexual partner of that female may very well be another female that she may eventually pairbond with while seeking reproduction outside this relationship. Still children of that female that chose a long term mate based on attentiveness to complex sexual response seem intuitively more likely to reach maturity than children of females who pairbond without that or a comparable mechanism. Simply put orgasm in females having adaptive causes similar to other social bonding universals perhaps.

  63. Enkidu says

    Sylvia Sybil @ 39

    I pretty much agree with what you are saying about cultural conditioning, but, (pedantic point) I think you are confusing matrilineal = tracing descent through the female line, with matriarchal = ruled by females. Jews are a matrilineal tribe, matriarchal, not so much. Except for my mother-in-law of course…

  64. Pierce R. Butler says

    Two points came to mind while reading the above:

    1) An experiment I read about in a book, at least 10 years ago, which I’m not going to hunt for tonight, in which a smallish (rhesus?) female monkey was restrained and digitally stimulated on the genitals by a human. She eventually had a semi-convulsive response that was interpreted as orgasm – but it took hours, and convinced the researchers in question that female rhesus(?) orgasms never occurred in the wild.

    2) A somewhat similar experiment, also at least a decade old, in which female humans were wired up to various gadgets and genitally stimulated. In a surprisingly (to me & the author of the book) large minority of cases, the instruments reported the neural activity, muscular contractions, etc, generally considered symptomatic of orgasm – but the women themselves said they never noticed anything of the sort.

    What to conclude from this? Damfino, except that we’re a long way from definitive answers, or maybe even the right questions.

  65. says

    Enkidu @ 75

    I’m not, though I do appreciate you clarifying (sincere). To my knowledge, there aren’t any true matriarchies right now. It’s hypothesized that there may have been some in the past, especially in societies that are currently matrilineal, and there are societies in which women’s power approaches parity, but nothing where women rule over men.

    The closest to a matriarchy that I have heard of as existing today are isolated tribes that are matrilineal and almost egalitarian, and that’s the type of society to which I was referring.

  66. Kurt Horner says

    If I understand correctly, the logic of the non adaptive theory is this:

    1) Male and female orgasms arise from homologous parts of the reproductive system.
    2) Male orgasm is obviously adaptive.
    3) Female orgasm is not.

    Therefore:
    4) Female orgasms are vestigial.

    In other words, the failure of imagination present in step 3) constitutes “evidence” for the theory. If female orgasms are vestigial one would expect them to be either exactly like male orgasms, or like them but muted in some way. Instead we find that female orgasms tend to be longer, more intense but require more stimulation to achieve. That seems like a really odd combination of features for something that is vestigial. If it just required more stimulation, I’d buy the argument — but longer and more intense too? Wouldn’t shorter and less intense female orgasms be more consistent with the theory that these are a non-adaptive version of the male orgasm?

    The better question is not why women *have* orgasms, but why do female orgasms differ from male orgasms in such a peculiar way?

  67. says

    I might point out that ‘most females can’t orgasm from intercourse’ is a cultural phenomena, and is no better than any of the questions that study asked as a reason to deny it as an adaptive trait.

    Anyhow, there really isn’t any way to know if it arose as adaptive or non-selective trait anyhow – we don’t have a population of homo erectus to study.

    There’s lots of reasons it could be adaptive. There’s probably just as many the other way. (The non-intercourse orgasm, for instance)

  68. says

    I might point out that ‘most females can’t orgasm from intercourse’ is a cultural phenomena, and is no better than any of the questions that study asked as a reason to deny it as an adaptive trait.

    Please explain.
    What cultural things prohibit me from having a bodily reaction from stimulation with a penis in my vagina that I can perfectly well have from stimulation with a finger on my clitoris or, for that matter without any physical stimulation just by dreaming to have it (ye-es, wet dreams, only with 100% less mess on the sheets)

  69. says

    *sigh* Ejaculation and male orgasm are not the same thing. It’s entirely possible (very difficult, but entirely worth the effort) to have an orgasm without ejaculating. It’s also possible to ejaculate without having an orgasm.

  70. David Marjanović, OM says

    What the…how did this ever pass peer-review????

    “The closer you get to humans, the worse the science gets.”

    how many men can orgasm from testicular and lower-shaft stimulation alone? Quite a few

    *blink* Really?

    Well, if that’s true, I wonder if it’s the mechanical stimulation or the psychological one: “ooh, there’s a woman at my genitals !!” After all, orgasms from fantasy alone are (I hear) possible.

    many other species, even mammals, have bones in their penises

    Most mammals do, and not many other vertebrates do.

    why the ejaculation requires such intense pleasure

    It doesn’t. It requires an orgasm, but no pleasure. Technically, it doesn’t even require an erection, though that only applies when there’s not enough space for an erection to occur; that’s not the case in, uh, reproduction.

    in a bipedal species which has the reproductive system aligned with gravity working against it, anything that makes a woman feel like mellowing out horizontally for a few minutes after intercourse can’t help but increase the chances of conception.

    This can only explain why the female orgasm hasn’t been lost in humans. As an explanation of how it ever spread through the population in the first place, it assumes that it’s limited to humans, and that… would surprise me.

    Hell, there are still idiots out there insisting that the human appendix still has a function.

    It does: it’s a reservoir for gut bacteria during diarrhea.

    In places with halfway modern hygiene, that’s just not a net advantage anymore.

    The solution is to separate sexuality from reproduction, so the males loose the penis bone, and both males and females develop an interest in sex when the female is not ovulating – that interest being orgasms.

    You’re saying that only humans and bonobos have orgasms – while chimps and gorillas don’t.

    Evidence?

    We all begin as female.

    It’s actually quite a bit more complicated than that.

    I can show that orgasms make women happy; the question is, does the happiness of women contribute to the evolutionary success of the species? And I’m sorry, evolution doesn’t care.

    Only if most of the sex throughout the history of the species was rape or prostitution rather than women doing it voluntarily because it was pleasurable.

    Well, why is that the case? Why aren’t we more like, say, ducks?

    Anyhow, there really isn’t any way to know if it arose as adaptive or non-selective trait anyhow – we don’t have a population of [<i>H]omo erectus[</i>] to study.

    Why is it that so many people assume by default that anything that occurs in humans is unique to Homo sapiens sapiens?

    It’s entirely possible (very difficult, but entirely worth the effort) to have an orgasm without ejaculating.

    You mean, after you’ve become old enough to have ejaculations?

    How???

  71. Antiochus Epiphanes says

    *sigh* Ejaculation and male orgasm are not the same thing. It’s entirely possible (very difficult, but entirely worth the effort) to have an orgasm without ejaculating. It’s also possible to ejaculate without having an orgasm.

    It’s also possible to achieve fertilization in vitro. So what? Natural selection explains shifts in reaction norms. Unless you suspect that human sexuality was considerably more tantric 150 kya than it is now, a distinction between orgasm and ejaculation seems hardly worth considering.

    And what’s the *sigh* for? For all the dudes out there that are just ejaculating during orgasm like a bunch of idiots?

  72. says

    Giliell @ 82,

    I listed several cultural phenomena in my 39. Basically: what you need to get off cannot be assumed to be universal for all human females everywhere and everywhen.

  73. Hershele Ostropoler says

    Steve Gerrard, 61:

    It is interesting to note that the evident Catholic notion that it is less sinful to have sex only for reproduction purposes would in fact make us more like the beasts, not less so.

    Not really; that imputes an understanding of animal husbandry to the animals themselves. I don’t think the lioness knows she has to get the lion to mount her to get cubs, I think it’s mostly an urge to be mounted (or something, I’m no better informed about lion reproduction than I think the lions are). Pigs’ reward for fucking isn’t piglets three and a half months later, it’s the half hour immediately following.

  74. uncle frogy says

    Giliell

    I would suggest that what is preventing or maybe retarding is a better word to use, of the orgasm with just penis penetration alone is just that penis penetration alone.
    We have been living with an evolving culture along with our bodies for a very long time and we are effected by that culture in all areas of our life. To put it bluntly we (in general in the west) do not know how to fuck. There does not seem to be any argument about the existence of the orgasm only whether it is adaptive or not.
    I do not see how we could really do any studies to find that out seeing how much the whole subject with the history that sex has especially in the west.
    it seems simple to me. anecdotally (is that a real word? spell check says not) speaking no one ever told me how to “fuck” so how am I am I expected to be able to “do it right”? Everything else we do must be learned and taught expect maybe sucking, why would we think that sex would be different?
    Our bodies have not changed that much in thousands of years but we in the west are just now even looking into these types of subjects, that is not culturally influenced?
    how are you going to separate any of that out in any study?
    sorry if I’m not very clear.
    uncle frogy

  75. illuminata says

    What cultural things prohibit me from having a bodily reaction from stimulation with a penis in my vagina

    All the things that brainwash us into seeing female sexuality as dangerous and needing to be rigidly controlled while simultaneously being non-existant because wimminz just want the luvs.

    misogynistic religion. rape culture. total lack of sexual education. Porn poisioning. etc etc etc.

  76. scooterKPFT says

    It’s entirely possible (very difficult, but entirely worth the effort) to have an orgasm without ejaculating.

    I need sturdier rubber bands.

  77. says

    Kurt Horner says:
    12 September 2011 at 2:10 am

    If I understand correctly, the logic of the non adaptive theory is this:

    1) Male and female orgasms arise from homologous parts of the reproductive system.
    2) Male orgasm is obviously adaptive.
    3) Female orgasm is not.

    Therefore:
    4) Female orgasms are vestigial.

    In other words, the failure of imagination present in step 3) constitutes “evidence” for the theory. If female orgasms are vestigial one would expect them to be either exactly like male orgasms, or like them but muted in some way. Instead we find that female orgasms tend to be longer, more intense but require more stimulation to achieve. That seems like a really odd combination of features for something that is vestigial. If it just required more stimulation, I’d buy the argument — but longer and more intense too? Wouldn’t shorter and less intense female orgasms be more consistent with the theory that these are a non-adaptive version of the male orgasm?

    The better question is not why women *have* orgasms, but why do female orgasms differ from male orgasms in such a peculiar way?

    You don’t understand correctly. An evolutionary byproduct is not the same as a vestigial organ. Vestigial organs are organs that no longer serve their original function but continue on in a reduced state. Byproducts are not necessarily reduced. Byproducts are non-adaptive traits that continue in a population because they are genetically attached to an adaptive trait. They could very easily be even more strongly expressed than the adaptive trait, and will often show more variety in expression because there’s no direct selection pressure on them. That answers your final question.

    Clearing up that misunderstanding about vestigial vs. byproduct traits renders almost all of the rest of your argument irrelevant. The only other part that needs addressing is the “lack of imagination” charge. This is totally off the mark, seeing as it is quite easy to imagine all kinds of ways that the female orgasm could be adaptive. Numerous such proposals have been made. The problem is not lack of imagination, but lack of evidence. Experiments to find an adaptive function for the female orgasm haven’t fared very well. The hypothesis that sticks closest to the known, available evidence is the byproduct hypothesis. Until the female orgasm can be linked experimentally to improvements in survival and reproduction, the byproduct hypothesis is the most parsimonious.

  78. says

    Sylvia Sybil, uncle froggy, Illuminata
    I’ve read all your responses, they still don’t make it clear to me.
    For example, almost all the things Illuminata mentions were not present in my upbringing.
    I even remember The Talk about how to have fun with myself given by my mother. That’s what you get when you’re raised by feminist atheists. Sure, I’m not free from the culture I live in, but that is pretty different here, too. Girls are raised with the expectation that they will have teen-sex before marriage, that there’s nothing wrong about it if they take propper precaution, that to tell them how to do so is an important task of the adults and that she is to enjoy this as much as he is.
    True our bodies have been this way for a long time.
    And I have no problem achieving orgasms.
    Just not from penetration.
    So, if the “hardware” is there, why would the “software” prevent one type from happening but not the other one?

  79. Kurt Horner says

    You don’t understand correctly. An evolutionary byproduct is not the same as a vestigial organ.

    Yes, I should not have used the word vestigial.

    They could very easily be even more strongly expressed than the adaptive trait, and will often show more variety in expression because there’s no direct selection pressure on them.

    How could it possibly be more strongly expressed overall? More variety in expression makes sense (and that’s why the non-adaptive theory almost makes sense). But the female orgasm is in general of longer duration than the male, and that implies that the emergence of the female orgasm may have been non-adaptive, but its subsequent development was not. That’s why I think the non-adaptive theory is not entirely convincing.

    The hypothesis that sticks closest to the known, available evidence is the byproduct hypothesis.

    Only if one ignores the longer duration and intensity of human female orgasm and claims that this is just a totally random way in which the capacity for orgasm expresses itself in females.

  80. says

    what Giliell said, plus teen magazines that actually provided accurate and sex-positive information about sex, and pleasure, and masturbation, etc.

    I can’t orgasm from penetration either, and I even orgasm in my sleep, with no physical stimulation at all.

    I’m somwehat surprised at people promoting the “vaginal orgasm” myth here; G-spot or no, PIV doesn’t generally produce orgasms (except through mental stimulation)

  81. uncle frogy says

    as I understand how it works there are two people involved with penis in vagina. From what I have read and some limited experience there is more to it then just pumping in and out fast enough and long enough to achieve the desired result. I have never heard of any sex education in the west that explains how to “make love” only thing I have ever of heard in the most liberal ones is how to be safe and an encouragement to have fun with your body.
    we spend a lot of time learning to speak language but we are not explained how to have sex.

    Like the retort often given to the insult “your penis is little” it’s not how big the tool is but how you use it.
    To get an idea of what is not taught in sex ed classes try reading The Tao of Sex very poetic language being Chinese but extremely graphic none the less. That is just the physical, the emotional and psychological are more layers of “baggage” we bring to any encounter.
    reproduction has much simpler requirements all that is required is sperm be deposited in the vagina within the proper time period to achieve the fertilization of the ova, that requires no communication nor cooperation at all while making love as practiced by humans is all about communication and cooperation.
    seems like different things to me.

    isn’t that part of what the these studies are trying to understand.
    uncle frogy

  82. says

    Giliell, Jadehawk,

    Were you raised in a patriarchy? Then yes, those elements were present. No one is immune to their culture. Your families may have been able to mitigate some of the horrors, but they couldn’t cancel them entirely. No matter how safe you may have been at home, your larger society was still hostile to you, and that has to have affected your psychology. (Mine too. Everyone’s.)

    Which isn’t to say that I’m promoting the idea that vaginal orgasms are possible for everyone (they’re hardly a myth, they’re possible for a few females; just not very many). I’m just saying that we can’t draw conclusions about what was or wasn’t possible for our ancestors based on modern circumstances.

    To borrow Giliell’s metaphor, we know our software is buggy and we know the prototypes had different software. Any suspicions we have about the hardware have to keep that in mind. And if we really want to know about the hardware, comparing ours to someone’s with a different software would be a good start.

    It may well be that females’ orgasms are a by product of males’. It might also be that females’ orgasms are adaptive. I wouldn’t be surprised by either, or both. But I do think that dismissing the influence of culture on feminine sexuality is ignorant of most of history.

    Shorter me: Moar data.

  83. says

    Silvia Sybil

    Were you raised in a patriarchy? Then yes, those elements were present. No one is immune to their culture. Your families may have been able to mitigate some of the horrors, but they couldn’t cancel them entirely. No matter how safe you may have been at home, your larger society was still hostile to you, and that has to have affected your psychology. (Mine too. Everyone’s.)

    That’s terribly condescending. I told you that those things are not even very popular in my culture. I grew up and live as a German in Germany, a place where even catholic organisations offer comprehensive sex-ed.
    You have no idea how my society behaved towards me. I don’t claim it is the wonderful egalitarian society we’d all like to have, but it is significantly less misogynist and religious than what I’ve heard about American society.
    Still you have not made one single coherent argument as to why that would prohibit the allegedly existing vaginal orgasm but absolutely not the very obtainable and wonderful clitoral orgasm.
    It.Doesn’t.Make.Sense.

  84. says

    You’re right that the specific examples I used were USA-centric, but the gist of them is not. For example, a quick bit of googling shows me that the USA has a 13% rape conviction rate while Germany has 17%. Not significantly different.

    Is German society as a whole less misogynistic than USAian society? Probably, it’s not like that’s a high bar to get over. Does that mean German society isn’t misogynistic? No.

    I’m not the one who brought up the vaginal orgasm and it’s not related to any of my points.

  85. David Marjanović, OM says

    what Giliell said, plus teen magazines that actually provided accurate and sex-positive information about sex, and pleasure, and masturbation, etc.

    Seconded. Scarleteen is weaksauce.

    Were you raised in a patriarchy? Then yes, those elements were present. No one is immune to their culture. Your families may have been able to mitigate some of the horrors, but they couldn’t cancel them entirely.

    It’s not just their families. The whole patriarchy thing is lighter in most of Europe than in the USA. For instance, everyone except bored nerds like me reads the mentioned magazines, and they don’t beat around the bush.

    Does that mean German society isn’t misogynistic?

    Nobody said there’s no misogyny at all. Do you believe a complete absence of misogyny in a society is necessary if any of its female members are to have the orgasms they’re physically capable of…?

  86. says

    as I understand how it works there are two people involved with penis in vagina.

    relevance? unless we’re talking penis mods that reach the g-spot during PIV, I suppose.

    From what I have read and some limited experience there is more to it then just pumping in and out fast enough and long enough to achieve the desired result.

    if you’re orgasming from something that happens during PIV (even when the PIV may be contributing to the stimulation), then it’s obviously not a “vaginal orgasm”.

    I have never heard of any sex education in the west that explains how to “make love”

    I got my “sex ed” from family and the aforementioned magazines, and they did explain that just fine. And not in the cosmo way, but the way sex actually works to make it pleasurable for both men and women.

    sybil, none of the stuff in #99 has fuck-all to do with the vaginal orgasm. You have not provided any evidence whatsoever about your claim that the very low probability (close to nonexistence) of vaginal orgasms is cultural.

  87. says

    Silviy Sybil

    I’m not the one who brought up the vaginal orgasm and it’s not related to any of my points.

    So what the fuck actually is your point.
    You claim that “I might point out that ‘most females can’t orgasm from intercourse’ is a cultural phenomena”, so when I ask you to clarify on how this relates to the clitoral vs vaginal orgasm, you tell me to read what you wrote in 39.
    So I asked you again explicitely.
    And you told me vaguely that it’s “because of patriarchy”. So when I mentioned that things are quite different here, you went on to tell me about my own culture.
    And now you claim that the question I asked you three times and to which you responded with incoherent ramblings didn’t have anything to do with your point at all.
    So why did it take you several posts to simply tell me that instead of saying the first time that this wasn’t what you were talking about at all?
    I can tell you: because you have no actual argument and before you had to admit that you tried to pull that trick and I have to tell you I’m not falling for it.

    Why is some of the biggest shit I’ve ever heard about women and female sex coming from people who call themselves feminists?

  88. Greg Laden says

    Steve G. I should have just said what you said!

    you’re saying that as if most of humanity were monogamous.

    Monogamy and other labels for mating systems should be avoided unless everyone in the conversation is on the same page as to their meaning. Anthropological “monogamy” is prescribed one-woman, one-man marriage, with or without fidelity. Biologically it is a term that is rarely used.

    Better to think of it in terms of “OSR” (Operational Sex Ratio). A low OSR is associated with what people call “monogamy”

    As I mention in my post, once you utter the phrase “monogamy” there will be a lot of people distracted by the fact that “monogamous” species (song birds, Protestants, etc) seem to have about an 80% correct attribution rate for paternity. If you think that is not still monogamy, fine, but please provide a term we can use, or just understand that “monogamy” is a term for system of rules or a system of typical overt behaviors, not a term for an OSR of 1.0

  89. RadFemHedonist says

    What’s wrong with Scarleteen? The fact that it’s pretty much the only resource that good in the u.s. is terrible but it is still an excellent resource. And as someone who comes from the u.k. (ie part of europe), I don’t like having the endless bullshit messages I got growing up minimised, I’ve suffered from intrusive sexually shaming thoughts for years.

    And on that topic, I have experienced intensely pleasurable orgasms before, but never during intercourse, or from insertion of my own or my partner’s fingers into my vagina, whereas clitoral stimulation does it easily. There are women who can come from intercourse alone, but they are in the minority (I read on Scarleteen that rates of orgasm from intercourse alone are around %25 of people with vaginas, and while it’s something of a diversion from the main point, as I understand it women tend to be less likely to orgasm from anal intercourse alone as they do not have prostates, though a lot of men who are the receptive partner in anal sex include other stimulation of their bodies, often their genitals during the act anyway).

    There have been times when intercourse felt really good for me in terms of physical pleasure rather than just feeling nice, painless and enjoyably close as it mostly does (with long term boyfriend, we use lots of lube and condoms every time, I’m on the minipill and seldom forget it and if I do we don’t have intercourse or do anything else with a pregnancy risk until it’s effective again, we always bring me to orgasm first so I’m properly aroused), but never anything that was close to an orgasm.

    I’d second what was said about whether it is actually believed by anyone in this thread that a complete absence of misogyny in a society is necessary for the women in that society to have the orgasms they’re capable of having?

  90. RadFemHedonist says

    Oh, and not all men who are upset about being circumcised think that women are inferior to men, my boyfriend thinks medically unecessary genital cutting of legal minors (female, male, intersex, whoever) is wrong and he’s one of the most feminist men I’ve met. It is a basic principle of feminism that everyone has the right to ownership of their body, and I don’t know how someone can claim to be a feminist and attempt to justify or endorse cutting off parts of the genitals of infants when it’s not medically necessary, regardless of the infant in question’s actual or assumed gender.