Female Orgasms: Poor Science Reporting Feeds Obsession and Misinformation


Every couple years or so, there’s a slew of coverage of the evolutionary “mystery” of the female orgasms, with everyone weighing in on the question regardless of their understanding of the science of it.  It’s a popular thing to cover because it gives everyone an excuse to indulge in some pedestrian sexism under the guise of “science,” even though there’s often very little discussion of the actual science part of the science, you know, the creating-hypothesis-testing-against-evidence part.  Just lots and lots of pointless speculation that says very little about science but quite a bit about our cultural biases, especially our culturally-ingrained fears and resentments towards unapologetic female pleasure. 

With that in mind, here’s some widespread fallacies I’ve seen in the coverage of research into the female orgasm that I would very much like to see an end to.  Some of the fallacies come from the researchers, and some from the pundits and reporters, but all tend to obscure more than illuminate.

The male orgasm’s origin is completely obvious. Wired employed this fallacy, but to be fair to them, it’s widespread in the scientific discourse around this issue. The basic theory is that the male orgasm needs no research, because it’s supposedly self-evident that men have orgasms in order to coax them into sex so they reproduce.  And that therefore it’s only female pleasure that is a mystery.  The rationale for ignoring the male orgasm is that all male mammals have one and not all female mammals do.  But I have to question that assumption strongly.  We know that all male mammals ejaculate, but do we know for a fact that they all enjoy it like human males do?  I’m skeptical.  Other animals don’t use porn to enhance their experience or hold back on orgasming to improve their pleasure, so simply waving off half our species as too unremarkable to research is a problem.

The fact that so many people seem to think it’s obvious that female orgasms require a more elaborate justification for existing than male orgasms suggests that we have more than a scientific mystery on hand, considering all this.  It also suggests that we as a society are still deeply uncomfortable with female pleasure, and demand higher standards of proof that it deserves to exist.

Women’s desire to have sex without pleasure is a given.  The entire discussion is also poisoned from the get-go by widespread misogynist narratives that assume that men can barely stand women and only put up with them in order to have sex, but that women adore and worship men and will do anything—even things that are dangerous or uncomfortable—to get men to approve of us.  That’s part of why men’s orgasms are seen as self-evident, because it’s the cookie to get them over their instinctual loathing for inferior females, but women’s orgasms are supposedly a mystery, because it’s assumed our main motivation to have sex is male approval.  The evidence for this is that men really can’t be bothered most of the time to have sex they won’t enjoy, but women do it all the time.  But no one asks if that would remain true if we suddenly woke up in a matriarchy where men depend on women for resources and social status.  I suspect that if power suddenly switched from men to women like that, women would be the ones who were having orgasms no matter what, and men would be the ones reading books about how it’s okay to enjoy sex just for the companionship. Neglecting to factor in the influence of patriarchy is a major flaw in the coverage of these studies.

Either/or thinking. In many articles on the subject, you see the argument that either the female orgasm is a byproduct of the male orgasm, or it was selected for on its own.  The possibility that it could be both is never raised, even though that’s an entirely reasonable possibility—that women had an “accidental” orgasm of sorts that got selected for because it has evolutionary value. Since all traits start off as “accidental” mutations that then get selected for, this doesn’t seem like it’s too complicated a possibility to discuss in detail.

The only relationship between sexual pleasure and reproductive success is that more sex means more babies. Part of the reason the male orgasm isn’t treated as a mystery is that it seems self-evident that it encourages men to have sex and therefore have more babies. But that’s really not a given at all.  Human beings have way more sex than they have babies by many factors, even if they don’t have contraception.  That’s because we have sex for reasons outside of maximizing the number sperm that touch eggs—in fact, it’s understood in biology that too many children can reduce reproductive success because you run out of resources to invest in your children. Across cultures, people have sex for status, for bonding, and to make themselves happier.  All these things can improve reproductive success simply by making it easier to survive.  All these factors complicate the simple notion that one can really tell much about the value of orgasms from the number of them.

Evolutionary origins are prescriptive. This is the most disturbing fallacy of all, the idea that the selective pressures on a biological function should have any bearing on how modern people employ said function.  You see a lot of people say things like, “It’s good for women if it evolved X way,” as if your orgasms somehow count for more if your genes look one way or they look another way.  Again, women’s right to pleasure is always up for debate in a way that men’s just isn’t. 

And feminists can be just as bad as anyone else. Tracy Clark-Flory unearthed a distressing example of someone clinging to the “happy accident” theory in order to support an unrelated claim that orgasms just aren’t important.

Speaking of, Leonore Tiefer created the New View Campaign to “challenge the distorted and oversimplified messages about sexuality that the pharmaceutical industry relies on.” She wrote me in an email that an orgasm is “a nice thing,” but “it doesn’t last very long, and it’s not the easiest thing to have, so I think it’s overrated.” Tiefer, a psychiatry professor at New York University, quoted journalist Malcolm Muggeridge: “The orgasm has replaced the cross as the focus of human longing and fulfillment.” That line, she says, “summarizes for me the symbolic importance of the orgasm in contemporary life.”

Once again, the value of “I” statements would have been useful here.  That something is fleeting is not evidence that it’s unimportant to everyone.  Tiefer can’t just say, “Hey for me orgasms are overrated,” but instead has to imply—in a culture that already discourages female pleasure!—that women who enjoy this pleasure are shallow, silly people who should be doing something more important than worrying about getting off.  Which just so happens to have been the patriarchy’s message to women for thousands of years!  And is exactly the rationale that anti-choicers use now to tell women that we don’t deserve sexual rights! 

To some of us, the fact that pleasures are fleeting actually makes them all the more precious and important.  After all, in the grand scheme of things, you could make the same argument for life itself: that it’s nice,  but it doesn’t last very long and it’s not the easiest thing to have, so it must be overrated.

But I digress. The problem here is relying on the fallacy that biology is destiny, that if an orgasm evolved in one way, that means that one should spend less time trying to get one, but that if it evolved another way, then one is obligated to have one.  That doesn’t follow.  After all, the uterus objectively evolved to carry babies, but that doesn’t mean that all women are obligated to have children.  Our legs evolved to carry our bodies, but that doesn’t mean that someone who is relegated to a wheelchair should have them chopped off.  Evolution is an amoral, brainless process.  It doesn’t “intend” anything.  If individuals make decisions for themselves, evolution doesn’t care.  If anything, it just changes the selective pressures in an environment.  So do what you want: have orgasms, don’t, think they’re important, think they’re overrated, whatever.  Just don’t claim your view is the one right one for everyone because of evolution.  It’s not your god who has a plan for your life, but a biological process that has no mind at all.   

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  • clumsygirl

    i really can break the mystery of female orgasm, but no one trust me so far. i wrote all facts on my blog. i dare to do any test to prove that. i really need your help to reveal the facts to all people. i do mean it.

    Women also fall asleep after a real orgasm.
    http://orgasmgirl.blogspot.com/2011/09/women-also-fall-

    asleep-after-real.html

    Kidney also plays an important role in female

    ejaculation
    http://orgasmgirl.blogspot.com/2011/09/kidney-also-

    plays-important-role-in.html

    No orgasm may be the key of the Menopausal Syndrome;

    ejaculation is the best way to treat insomnia.
    http://orgasmgirl.blogspot.com/2011/08/no-orgasm-may-be

    -key-of-menopausal.html

    Understand female orgasm from difference between Male &

    Female Circumcision
    http://orgasmgirl.blogspot.com/2011/08/understand-

    female-orgasm-from.html

    No difference in brain scan between male and female

    orgasm
    http://orgasmgirl.blogspot.com/2011/08/no-difference-in

    -brain-scan-between.html

    Maybe there is some organ unknown in labia majora
    http://orgasmgirl.blogspot.com/2011/08/maybe-there-is-

    some-organ-unknown-in.html

    Every orgasm is the result of different kind

    masturbation.
    http://orgasmgirl.blogspot.com/2011/08/every-orgasm-is-

    result-of-different.html

    Women and men have the same ejaculation system and

    process.
    http://orgasmgirl.blogspot.com/2011/08/women-and-men-

    have-same-ejaculation.html

    Why do women always like to fake orgasm?
    http://orgasmgirl.blogspot.com/2011/07/why-do-women-

    always-like-to-fake-orgasm.html

    Ejaculation is a habit, don’t blame male
    http://orgasmgirl.blogspot.com/2011/07/ejaculation-is-

    habit-dont-blame-male.html

    If you just provide your vagina as the receptacle for

    the penis during sexual intercourse, you will never get

    an orgasm
    http://orgasmgirl.blogspot.com/2011/06/if-you-just-

    provide-your-vagina-as.html

    Distinguish between orgasm and urination-female

    incontinence is not orgasm at all
    http://orgasmgirl.blogspot.com/2011/06/distinguish-

    between-orgasm-and.html

    I am challenging Barry R. Komisaruk and Beverly Whipple

    here
    http://orgasmgirl.blogspot.com/2011/06/i-am-challenging

    -barry-r-komisaruk-and.html

    Female also require time to switch back to urine mode

    after ejaculation mode
    http://orgasmgirl.blogspot.com/2011/05/female-also-

    require-time-to-switch-back.html

    The female body also has a system that keeps it from

    being able to ejaculate and urinate at the same time.
    http://orgasmgirl.blogspot.com/2011/05/female-body-also

    -has-system-that-keeps.html

    Women also can get orgasm during their menstrual period
    http://orgasmgirl.blogspot.com/2011/05/women-also-can-

    get-orgasm-during-their.html

    Orgasm together is never going to happen – whatever in

    straight couple or in gay couple
    http://orgasmgirl.blogspot.com/2011/05/orgasm-together-

    is-never-going-to.html

    Women also have refractory period after a real female

    orgasm
    http://orgasmgirl.blogspot.com/2011/05/women-also-have-

    refractory-period-after.html

    Women have two balls as homologous to the male two

    testes?
    http://orgasmgirl.blogspot.com/2011/04/women-have-two-

    balls-as-homologous-to.html

    Female ejaculation—liquid from urethra?
    http://orgasmgirl.blogspot.com/2011/04/female-

    ejaculation-liquid-from-urethra.html

    Premature ejaculation-A real disease or named by people?
    http://orgasmgirl.blogspot.com/2011/04/premature-

    ejaculation-real-disease-or.html

    Female multiple orgasms -A beautiful lie
    http://orgasmgirl.blogspot.com/2011/04/female-multiple-

    orgasms-beautiful-lie.html

    I don’t love porn, but I need to see it
    http://orgasmgirl.blogspot.com/2011/04/i-dont-love-porn

    -but-i-need-to-see-it.html

  • aardvark

    That orgasm is pleasurable is stands by itself.  Knowing that C6H12O6, the chemical formula for simple sugar, in no way diminishes its sweetness.

     

    When I was working on my Master’s degree at Texas A&M in 1973, one of my fellow (female) students asked me if women had orgasms in their sleep.  She asked me that because I had read Master’s and Johnson’s work, and was in the process of reading Helen Singer Kaplan’s book.  I did not know the answer, so I went to the library, and happened to check out the Kinsey book on women.  I had always thought it was antiquated and old news, but I found it to be a fountain of information that neither Kaplan nor M&J ever really noted.  And my career path changed forever.

     

    My doctoral dissertation is titled A Study of Women and Orgasm.  Now, I can hear the collective sigh/disdain/hostility from the female readership upon learning I am a 60 year-old male.  (For my 60th birthday, my present was three teenagers, as my youngest had turned 13, my daughter 15, and my oldest 18; yes, I got started later in life in the parenting business; and we are coming upon the seventh anniversary of their mother’s–my wife’s–death; that is a completely different story.  Suffice it to say, I have been a single parent for seven years now.)

     

    OK, so I am a guy, and what could a guy possibly have anything intelligent to say about women’s orgasm?  Well, if you hear me out, perhaps more than you think.

     

    Before I forget, let me point-out, that Amanda has a point about, “why male orgasm,” as orgasm and ejaculation are not the same.  Most male mammels ejaculate in a matter of seconds.  Some frogs over a period of days.

     

    My best credential is the paper I published on the role of the muscle spindle and gamma bias in B. Graber’s The sexual function of the circumvaginal musculature, 1981.  It had also be the featured article in the Journal of Sex Research a year earlier.  So, I do know something about the scientific literature on orgasm, especially women’s.

     

    The origin of women’s orgasm is an academic issue turned political.  For most women, the origin doesn’t matter; whether they have one does.  Perhaps the most emergent place where politics emerges was the publication in 1966 of Mary Jane Sherfey’s The nature and origin of female sexuality, where she pursued the thesis that women’s penchant for sex and orgasm was unbridled and that men’s ability to capture and contain that was essential for the survival of the human race.  She derived this conclusion from Master and Johnson’s affirming that many women could be multi-orgasmic, something observed and document by Kinsey et al. almost twenty years earlier.

     

    Amanda, you used the term “biology is destiny.”  I presume you know the orign of that term was Sigmund Freud.  And here is where Freud screwed things up for Western women.  Because he believed in the primacy of eroticism, he was not afraid to delve into the erotic.

     

    And, he made an understandable, but monumental mistake.  He believed that since men had orgasms during intercourse, that therefore women should too.  This is where he made the most unfortunate mistake.  Freud was well aware women were capable of having orgasm with clitoral stimulation; however, he conjectured that was a lower-level of psychosexual development, and that the psychologically mature woman would have “given up the active eroticsim for the passive eroticism of the vagina.”  In other words, if a woman did not have an orgasm during intercourse, she was, by definition, “fixated” at a lower level of psychosexual developtment, and therefore, again, but definition, “neurotic.”

     

    Freud assumed a male model of orgasm for women.  But, Kaplan and M&J presumed this as well.

     

    In so far as I am aware, Albert Ellis was the first to challenge this, in his 1959 book, Sex without guilt.   It more or less fell by the way-side.  I am going to make a long story short.  On my way to doing the library research supporting my thesis that women’s orgasm could be inadverdently conditioned to make orgasm during intercourse difficult, what I found was study after study, indeed books, all of which sought to explain why many women did not orgasm through intercourse.  All–all–to no avail. 

     

    That led me to reconsider whether the precept that women should be orgasmic from intercourse, and thus was the focus of my doctoral dissertation.  The results of a discriminant function analysis of the data from over five hundred women failed to validate any of the hypotheses in the scientific literature regarding women’s orgasm and intercourse.

     

    My conclusion?  The idea that women should be orgasmic during intercourse was nonsense.

    Then we had the emergence of the G-spot research.  Bev Whipple and I have been friends for many years now; the last time my wife and I attended a sexuality conference, she and Bev went shoe-shopping together.

     

    The G-spot discovery, unfortunately, revived Freud’s vaginal orgasm hypothesis, something never intended, nor supported by Whipple et als. research. 

     

    OK, I have run-on now longer than I should, so I shall bring this essay to a close.

     

    My personal belief is that women’s orgasm is an artifact of having the same neural pathways laid down prenatally, and that women’s orgasm has no reproductive value (to argue women’s orgasm has reproductive value is to argue women have mostly had choice in participating in intercourse over the last quarter million years of evolution).  That it has not had a role in reproduction also speaks to the broad diversity–much broader than men’s–of women’s sexual response and how they are orgasmic.

     

    So, there is an academic argument, there is a political argument.  Leave it to the academicians to figure it out and ignore the politics, and by all means enjoy your orgasms, however you get them and as fleeting the pleasure might be.  It is still worth it:).

     

     

    I did not get redirected to establish a new password, so perhaps this might be my only post without re-registering.

     

     

  • divine-oubliette

    Vaginal orgasms do happen though and not just from the G-spot either, have you heard of your vagus nerve? Stimulate the vagus nerve with deep cervical stimulation and you get an orgasm. How do we know this? Becasue even female spinal cord victims who have NO feeling can be stimulated into an orgasm. The vagus nerve bypasses the spinal cord hence the ability to have an orgasm depsite spinal cord injuries. Vagus nerve also means that female spinal cord injury victims can feel contractions from labor and childbirth!

     

    Brain activation during vaginocervical self-stimulation and orgasm in women with complete spinal cord injury

    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0006899304011461

     

    10 things you didn’t know about orgasm

    http://www.ted.com/talks/mary_roach_10_things_you_didn_t_know_about_orgasm.html

     

    Not that I am defending Frued or his crack pot ideas but women do have vaginal orgasms! And they are (for me at least) as fulfilling if not more so than a clitoral or G-spot orgasm.

     

    More research is needed on our wonderful vagus nerves!