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The Case of the Female OrgasmReview - The Case of the Female Orgasm
Bias in the Science of Evolution
by Elisabeth A. Lloyd
Harvard University Press, 2005
Review by Rob Loftis, Ph.D.
Aug 2nd 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 31)

Elizabeth Lloyd's new book has attracted a lot of attention for a technical work of academic philosophy, including profiles in the New York Times and Slate, and an appearance on The View (right between an interview with television doctor Noah Wyle about the health insurance crisis in America and a tribute to Merv Griffin). Lloyd was even the subject of a joke on Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update," certainly a first for the philosophic community.†

Lloyd's book is obviously receiving attention because her topic is, quite literally, sexy. But perhaps more importantly for the popular media, her theses are very easy to state in layman's terms. Lloyd believes that the female orgasm is a evolutionary byproduct of the male orgasm, the same way that male nipples are a byproduct of the evolution of female nipples. Furthermore, she believes that biases in the research community have prevented scientists from seeing this obvious truth, including a bias toward adaptive explanations and a nasty tendency to assume female sexuality is like male sexuality. Clearly, she has an interesting and important set of theses. On top of that, her argument has a straightforward, logical structure. She canvasses the 20 adaptive accounts that have been proposed so far and finds obvious gaps in reasoning, while the one nonadaptive account has a lot of prima facie evidence for it. It is nice to see that you can get on television with a clear and important argument.

Once you get into the details of her refutations of the individual adaptive accounts things become more complicated, but certain consistent themes emerge. Twelve of the accounts she surveys are pair-bond accounts that is, they assert that the female orgasm evolved to reinforce a monogamous bond between a man and a woman. All of these accounts descend, in one way or another, from Desmond Morris's infamous The Naked Ape, which painted a popular, seductive picture of human evolution that was little more than a projection of his contemporary Father Knows Best suburban culture on our hominid ancestors. All of the pair-bond accounts falter on a basic fact of female sexuality. Women do not orgasm reliably with vaginal intercourse. After a painstaking review of the sexology literature since 1921, Lloyd concludes that about 10% of women never have orgasm with vaginal intercourse and about 25% always have orgasm with intercourse. The middle 65% of women are contingent orgasmers, climaxing when the circumstances are right. In contrast, 95% of women who masturbate can achieve orgasm that way, and they do so in the same amount of time it takes men to orgasm, about four minutes. None of the pair-bond accounts can explain this distribution. For Morris, the orgasm simply reinforced the pair bond. But if that were the case, we would expect selective pressure towards consistent orgasm. So 75% of the variation is left unexplained. A more sophisticated pair-bond account, due to John Alcock, suggests that female orgasm serves a function in mate selection: men with the decency to give their partners orgasm are also likely to be good fathers, so contingent orgasmers have an advantage over others in their ability to select good mates. But this account still leaves 35% of the variation--the women who always or never orgasm--unexplained.

Other adaptive accounts run into other problems. Many are based on faulty work by Baker and Bellis which purported to show that orgasm causes an "upsuck" of sperm into the uterus. At the most basic level, there is no empirical evidence that women who orgasm have had more reproductive success than women who do not. In the end, Lloyd argues that the loyalty to adaptive explanations can only come from an irrational bias toward adaptive explanations and a failure to understand female sexuality, evidenced primarily in the failure to appreciate the variation in female ability to orgasm.

The structure of Lloyd's argument suggests an easy route for rebuttal: one simply goes looking for missing adaptationist accounts. The book would be obviously inadequate if there were compelling accounts out there that were overlooked. This line of argument turns up some oddities. No account that has actually been developed in the literature Lloyd is critiquing has been overlooked, so her charge of bias holds up. However, there are nascent ideas in the literature that Lloyd does not hit on, some of which may yield fruit in the future. One popular account of the male orgasm is the "when to stop masturbating theory." It is obviously adaptive for men to enjoy stimulating their genitals, but without a clue as to when to stop men could actually damage their sex organs from too much rubbing. Male orgasm, on this theory, lets us spare our chafed privates and move on to other things. Why not extend this account to women? The female version of this theory is missing from Lloyd's book, but that is no loss because the female version of the theory is a nonstarter. It only works if you assume that female orgasm is like male orgasm in that it makes one sleepy and uninterested in sex. But Masters and Johnson, along with personal experience and popular wisdom, show that this is not the case. Women, after orgasm, return to a plateau level of sexual excitement.

More troubling is the absence of serious discussion of possible models for the evolution of human sexuality from the bonobo research. Right now we have a fairly clear picture of bonobo sexuality, both from field studies like the work of Takyoshi Kano and Hohmann and Fruth and from captivity studies like the work of Franz de Waal. These studies show that bonobos use sex to mediate a wide range of social difficulties, including preventing conflicts and aiding reconciliation after conflicts, regulating tension, solidifying same-sex and different-sex alliances, and expressing social status. A parallel account of the evolution of the human female orgasm would be a kind of social bonding account, quite distinct from the pair-bond accounts offered by Morris and his followers. Such an account would not stumble on what Lloyd calls the orgasm/intercourse discrepancy, because stimulation would not be limited to vaginal penetration, but could include cunnilingus and manual stimulation.

In an email to me, Lloyd said she was open to such an account, but has her doubts, largely because the cross-cultural evidence suggests that males typically show little interest in providing direct clitoral stimulation, or in female pleasure at all, and because competition between females played more of a role in human evolution than cooperation, at least according to Sara Blaffer Hrdy. In any case, this account has never been fully developed, so Lloyd does not need to respond to it. It does, however, reveal an oddity in Lloyd's argument. For Lloyd, the so called "orgasm/intercourse discrepancy" is a crucial piece of evidence revealing androcentric bias in current research. But she mischaracterized the discrepancy in a way that also falls victim to androcentrism. (In saying this I mean no insult to her feminist credentials. Even the best of us have lingering androcentric biases.) The discrepancy isn't between orgasm and intercourse but between clitoral stimulation and vaginal stimulation. Only 25% of women reliably achieve orgasm with vaginal stimulation, but 95% of women can achieve it with clitoral stimulation. But this is only a gap between orgasm and intercourse if you assume that intercourse means vaginal intromission. This Clintonesque definition of sex is clearly androcentric, indeed, phallocentric. Moving past it can only improve our understanding of evolution.

This is an excellent book, and it makes an important point, but it has a number of quirks. My biggest complaint is that little space was devoted to analyzing the bias behind this science and to methodological issues in general. The bulk of the book is spent critiquing the existing models. Only in the last chapter do we get a discussion of how bias led to these models and what the role of bias should be in science--in short, the actual philosophy. The structure of the book is also peculiar. Since the argument has such a clear logical structure, it would make sense to pattern the book the same way. Instead we get odd digressions. The accounts being critiqued occur in chapters three, four and seven. In between we get a discussion of adaptationism and a survey of the account Lloyd likes. I also had trouble individuating accounts at times. (Does Morris present one account or two?) Nowhere is there simply a list of the 20 accounts she critiques, although there is a list that covers 18 of the 20. This book also had a long gestation period, which makes parts of it seem weirdly dated. Lloyd started working on this material 20 years ago and published a major paper on it in 1993. A lot of space is devoted to refighting a battle led by Stephen Jay Gould in the pages of Natural History in 1987. This time capsule quality is in part responsible, I think, for the neglect of recent bonobo research.

I recommend Lloyd's book to all philosophers of biology and students of human evolution. I plan to use it in an upper level undergraduate course in the philosophy of biology next spring. I also recommend much of the Internet discussion that has occurred on this topic, and the related topic of a study by Dunn et al showing that ability to orgasm is about 45% heritable. Lloyd discusses the study on the weblog Philosophy of Biology. Anthropologist John Hawks also has some interesting reflections on John Hawks Anthropology Weblog (on heritability and Lloyd).


© 2005 Robert Loftis


Rob Loftis, Ph.D., Department of Philosophy, St. Lawrence University


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