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Rambling About Orgasms

Elizabeth Lloyd has an interesting post up responding to feminists who criticize her theory that the female orgasm is a byproduct (or "bonus," as she would like to rephrase it) of evolution, rather than having been directly selected for. Her point is that it's wrong to say that if something is not an adaptation, it's of less worth.

I think too many Americans believe in the common-descent model of biologic history that comes out of evolutionary theory, but interpret it as a sort of "nature creationism." They concur with evolutionists on the basic facts of where organisms come from, but their metaphysical infrastructure is still modeled on creationism. They still hold to the basic idea (noted in my discussion in the previous post about the deontological argument against masturbation) that there is an origin process that confers moral legitimacy on its products, and that the reason something exists tells us what we ought to do with it. They just substitute "nature" for "God" as the designer. (Many also adopt the converse philosophy of adaptationism, usually by saying orgasms are so much fun that they must have evolved. Nature creationism says "if something was directly selected for in evolution, it is valuable." Adaptationism says "if something is valuable, it must have been directly selected for in evolution.")

One might take a more favorable reading of the feminist case against Lloyd. Here the feminist critics are not themselves nature creationists, but they fear the consequences if all the other nature creationists in society believed Lloyd's theory, since they would use it to deny women's sexual pleasure. There are three different ways one could criticize this formulation. One, raised by Amanda Marcotte, is that the rest of society is going to belittle the female orgasm anyway, so giving them one more post hoc rationalization for it isn't going to make a difference in the actual acceptance of the orgasm. Another is the basic (perhaps a bit simplistic, but useful as a rule of thumb) liberal reaction against political restrictions on science. Third, I think criticizing research because of how it will be used by a sexist society is an unsustainable solution. Denying a theory that sexists will exploit may improve things in the short run. But the real problems -- sexism and nature creationism -- remain. You can only suppress the little forest fires for so long.

All of this is not to say that Lloyd's theory is necessarily correct, just that nature creationist rebuttals miss the mark. Much of Lloyd's argument rests on the great variability in women's ability to orgasm -- such that 14% of women never orgasm no matter what they do, and for many of the rest it's not reliable. Viking Grrl points out that a plausible case could be made that much of that variability has a social cause, coming from men who don't care about their partner's pleasure, messages that tell women that enjoying sex is bad, and/or a lack of good information on what kind of techniques work (since "standard" intercourse doesn't do it for many women). Lloyd, in comments to Marcotte's post, points out that women who don't orgasm still have the same amount of sex as women who do, thus showing that (at least in the culture where those statistics were gathered), the obvious sort of selective pressure on female orgasms -- the "they make women have more sex" hypothesis -- is not occurring. One explanation for Lloyd's observation, congenial to the "intercourse and orgasm aren't everything" school of thought, is that non-orgasmic pleasure is enough to get people to have sex. An alternative is that the patriarchy (the very force Viking Grrl blames for many women's lack of orgasms) also deprives women of some of the choice about whether to have sex. The latter explanation raises an interesting possibility. If orgasms really do have a major influence on women's desire for sex, then increasing sexual equality will allow women to exercise that preference, and hence women who orgasm more easily will have more sex -- thus creating the selective pressure on female orgasms that Lloyd says is absent today. Of course, this is complicated by the fact that increasing sexual equality will also lead to increased availability of birth control, and it seems much less plausible that women who have more orgasms would be any more likely to want to bear and raise children.


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