I know nothing about the evolutionary research into the purpose of female orgasms, nothing. I haven't read the studies or the books and I have not participated in the debate, either.
This is a fun position to be! Because I am going to write on the topic. Many, many writers do exactly that every day, after all. (Nasty, nasty Echidne), and I thought you might like to join me on this virgin voyage into the wonderful world of Female Orgasms: Why Have Them?
You are going to be neophytes with me or the wise advisers, depending on your own knowledge. But in either case you are going to hear the questions I have after reading a very good write-up (by Jennifer Abbassi) of a recent study and the field in general, this one.
So let's put our tourist hats on and grab our guidebooks.
The write-up begins:
There may be few questions of human sexuality more rancorous than those about the female orgasm. Scientists agree that women probably started having orgasms as a by-product of men having them, similar to how men have nipples because women have them. As Elisabeth Lloyd, a philosopher of science and theoretical biologist at Indiana University put it in her 2005 book The Case of the Female Orgasm: Bias in the Science of Evolution: “Females get the erectile and nervous tissue necessary for orgasm in virtue of the strong, ongoing selective pressure on males for the sperm delivery system of male orgasm and ejaculation.” But why we ladies still have orgasms is hotly debated.Take that very first sentence:
There may be few questions of human sexuality more rancorous than those about the female orgasm.Why the rancor? We should NOT travel any deeper into the wilderness without thinking about this. Does Abbassi refer to rancor between researchers? Or rancor within the wider society? And why is something presumably scientific treated with such quarreling?
The obvious reason is, well, obvious: If women's orgasmic capacity is weak for evolutionary reasons, perhaps even disappearing (!), then nobody much needs to be bothered about women who have problems orgasming. They just don't have the capacity, and no army of dildos can change that! What a relief. We can go back to talking about sex as sex-for-men, at least as far as orgasms are concerned.
All this reminds me of that old misogynist joke:
Q: "Why do some women have great difficulty orgasming while having intercourse?"
A: "Who cares."
That's a bit exaggerated but not much. No wonder the topic is rancorous: It has strong gender-political consequences without having many obvious (say, health) benefits for anyone.
Then take that second sentence in the above quote:
Scientists agree that women probably started having orgasms as a by-product of men having them, similar to how men have nipples because women have them.This idea is also an obvious one, and the nipples-example explains it quite well. Except that it does not explain why the same by-product argument wouldn't work with all mammals, say. As far as I know, female orgasms are not that common among animals, though it seems that other primates have them, too. Are male orgasms common among mammals? Nipples on male dogs and cats are. Do female dogs and cats have orgasms? How do we know when an animal is having an orgasm if it cannot communicate with us?
OK. So far we have the theory that the female orgasm is a by-product of the male orgasm, but perhaps not a by-product in general among mammals?
According to this view, men need to orgasm to ejaculate, and women get orgasms as random presents:
Male orgasms exist, it’s widely believed, to encourage men to spread their seed. On face value, it would be easy to say that women orgasm for the same reason: to encourage them to have sex and make babies. But in practice, compared to male orgasm, female orgasm is very difficult to achieve. There's a lot of variation even within individual women, and 10 percent of women never have them at all. And, unlike male orgasm, female orgasm isn’t a prerequisite for pregnancy.Is it really true that male animals cannot ejaculate without orgasms (orgasms as a feeling of intense pleasure, not as contractions, say)? I have no idea.
And what is it that we assume the alternative state to be in these orgasm debates? For instance, is it a total absence of all pleasure from intercourse, or just an absence of that moment (or many moments) when your toe nails fly to the ceiling and so on? Suppose that intercourse was very pleasurable for men but that they would not have that peak. Would they then stop wanting to spread their seed?
I'm pretty sure that the researchers distinguish between orgasms and sexual pleasure. Do they do this for males as well as females?
Then the bit where the different nature of female orgasm is first defined:
But in practice, compared to male orgasm, female orgasm is very difficult to achieve. There's a lot of variation even within individual women, and 10 percent of women never have them at all. And, unlike male orgasm, female orgasm isn’t a prerequisite for pregnancy.As I mentioned above, I'm not yet certain if a male orgasm (as a feeling) is necessary for pregnancy to follow.
But sure, female orgasms do differ from male orgasms in various ways. One way not mentioned in the above paragraph is that at least some women can orgasm multiple times in a row. I'm not sure why the multi-orgasmic aspect is omitted here or whether it is usually omitted in these discussions.
Let's move to the other camp of thought. We have met the by-product school. Now we are going to meet Our Own Orgasm School:
So why do women have orgasms at all? There are two firmly opposed camps on this question. The first group proposes that it has an adaptive function in one of three categories: pair bonding, mate selection and enhanced fertility. I’ll break these down. The pair-bonding theory suggests that female orgasm bonds partners, ensuring two parents for the offspring, while mate selection offers that women use orgasm as a sort of litmus test for “quality” partners. The enhanced fertility theory, meanwhile, proposes that uterine contractions during female orgasm help to “suck up” sperm into the uterus.Very interesting stuff. Could it ever be the case that male orgasms might also be explained in a more nuanced way like this, too? After all, they might contribute to pair-bonding or finding "quality" partners, too. And of course there's the idea (which I introduce with some trepidation) that women might have orgasms because it increases their likelihood of having voluntary sex.
The by-product camp, on the other hand, claims that female orgasms are to this day an incidental by-product of male orgasm, not an evolutionary adaption. “There’s no documented connection between women who have orgasm at all, or faster, having more or better offspring,” Lloyd says.
That there is no documented evidence of women-with-orgasms having more or better offspring wouldn't be that much proof of anything.
Just imagine trying to do a study like that! You'd have to wait until the women in question are pretty old to make sure that they have completed their child births and to have time to measure the "quality" of the offspring, but not wait so long that the women are dead, because then you can't ask them anything.
You'd have to find women who are going to talk to you quite openly about orgasms and such, who have had the goal of having either many children or "high-quality" children and who have not used contraception. Then you have to make sure that the society those women live in allows them complete choice over their fertility decisions, to isolate the orgasm-variable as the decisive one.
I doubt that it could be done.
This completes my first post on the fascinating topic. I'm sure I have asked many stupid questions here. More stupid questions about a new study in the field in the second part.