Saturday, May 21, 2005

The Joy of Uselessness

It'd be foolhardy of me to imagine that I have anything worthwhile to add to Echidne's comments on the "evolutionary uselessness" of the female orgasm. However, the fact that I've been enraged ever since I read her post leaves me no choice but to try.

The article Echidne discusses deals with the views of Dr. Elizabeth Lloyd, who champions an earlier theory of Dr. Donald Symons:

That theory holds that female orgasms are simply artifacts - a byproduct of the parallel development of male and female embryos in the first eight or nine weeks of life....In boys, the penis develops, along with the potential to have orgasms and ejaculate, while "females get the nerve pathways for orgasm by initially having the same body plan."
Echidne wonders how multiple orgasms fit into this scheme. It's a good question. I've had occasion to note, over the course of my reproachable existence, that if anyone's orgasmic capacity should be considered substandard, it's that of men. And yet, one doesn't want to imply that abundantly orgasmic women are more "feminine" than others, as Dr. Lloyd, to her credit, notes:
If women, she said, are told that it is "natural" to have orgasms every time they have intercourse....then they feel inadequate or inferior or abnormal when they do not achieve it.
So what's the solution to the fact that our culture makes sexual "underachievers" feel abnormal? Apparently, the solution is to inform nonorgasmic women - despite the lack of any evidence whatsoever - that the female orgasm is "useless" in the grand scheme of evolution, and that only for men is it natural to have orgasms. That sounds like cold comfort indeed, especially given that many of these women are still going to have sexual urges, and be expected to cater to those of others. And, of course, the flipside of this argument is that women who are orgasmic are abnormal oddballs who represent an evolutionary dead end. You gals can't do anything right, can you?

Speculations like Dr. Lloyd's are basically pseudoscientific, like phrenology and astrology. I once knew someone who argued to me that astrology, whatever I thought about it, nonetheless had a success rate higher than mere chance could explain. Rather than argue over that point, I said, "Suppose I believed racial stereotypes about blacks, and because I felt they had a certain predictive power. Would it be ethical to pre-judge black strangers on that basis?"

In other words, how should I form an opinion about an individual: from assumptions about supposed tendencies of his or her racial group, or from direct, open-minded interaction? Even if astrology were real, what would be more important to focus on from an intersubjective (i.e., ethical) standpoint: the alleged similarities between Aquarians, or the observable differences that make them individuals?

Similarly, the fact that Dr. Lloyd's wildly irrational hypothesis could prove to be true - someday - doesn't change the fact that it should, ethically speaking, be treated as addled nonsense until then. Its potential for misuse, by people who find it agreeable to claim that woman aren't supposed to feel sexual pleasure, outweighs any conceivable benefit. The irresponsible overeagerness to privilege certain points along the continuum of human behavior as more "natural" or "useful" than others - especially in cases involving sex or race - is precisely why evolutionary psychologists are so often accused of being simpleminded buffoons with axes to grind.

Speaking of simpleminded buffoons with axes to grind, here's Dr. Lloyd again:
"Accounts of our evolutionary past tell us how the various parts of our body should function," Dr. Lloyd said.
Well, maybe. It didn't work so well for the "vestigial" appendix, after all. In any case, there's a huge difference between describing how the parts of our body should function, and ordaining how we should function, socially and sexually. Any theory that draws normative conclusions from an evolutionary interpretation of human behavior is a question-begging product of pseudoscience, and is likely to be dangerous into the bargain.

The fact that "suggestive" evidence can be produced for some bizarre proposition means nothing. People didn't make phrenology or astrology up out of whole cloth; they found what looked to them like evidence, in the form of patterns and correlations that seemed to offer predictive or explanatory power. From there to Bedlam is, too often, a journey of a few small steps:
"Perhaps the reason orgasm is so erratic is that it's phasing out," Dr. Hrdy said. "Our descendants on the starships may well wonder what all the fuss was about."
Then again, perhaps the reason orgasm is erratic is that human beings are erratic...and never more erratic than when they're trying to navigate the treacherous waters of human sexuality (too often equipped, I might add, with charts drawn up by unreliable sources like Drs. Lloyd and Symons). Since recorded history began, the dominant scientific, sociological, religious, and legal approaches to sexuality in general - and female sexuality in particular - have been vicious, ignorant, and oppressive; I don't think it's unreasonable to see current sexual behavior as reflecting this legacy in any number of ways.

In 1970, after the the racist pseudoscientist Philip Jensen based a famous argument for the genetic inferiority of blacks on IQ tests, Scientific American was quick to notice the problem with his assumptions:
One would certainly expect, even for equivalent occupational classes, that the black level is on average lower than the white. No amount of money off more than 200 years of accumulated racial prejudices on the part of the whites, or reconstitute the disrupted black family, in part culturally inherited from the days of slavery. It is impossible to accept the idea that matching for status provides an adequate, or even a substantial control over the most important environmental differences between blacks and whites.
And adjusting for these environmental differences is child's play, compared to the methodological problems raised by Dr. Lloyd's argument. There are no objective means of studying a theory like hers. And even if there were - even if you could somehow study female sexual responsiveness in a cultural and emotional vacuum - it'd be meaningless, because it wouldn't have any bearing on the world in which women are obliged to live.

But still...isn't it nice to have a scientific field that's as faith-based, misogynistic, and sexually dismal as religious fundamentalism?

UPDATE: I made a number of very serious errors in this post, especially as regards my representation of Dr. Lloyd's views. Accordingly, I've issued an apology and retraction, which you can read here.


Eli said...

I'm not so sure the female orgasm is maladaptive. Kinda seems to me that it's easier to propagate the species if *both* genders really really dig sex.

Not entirely sure why *men* wouldn't be multi-orgasmic, unless we are essentially "optimized" for monogamy.

Phila said...

Well, that's just it. Lloyd is trying to "solve" a problem that doesn't really seem to baffle anyone but her.

Thersites said...

I could snark, but all this is just kinda depressing. I could also point out the basic issue that... ah, fuck it.

Anyone for charades?

Thersites said...

I could snark, but all this is just kinda depressing. I could also point out the basic issue that... ah, fuck it.

Anyone for charades?

Robster said...

Sounds to me as goofy as breasts evolved to look like buttocks. Never bought that one either. In fact, it makes far more sense for humans to be evolving toward orgasmicity.

Like eli said, if both genders are into sex...

Cervantes said...

Well, of course this whole discussion suffers from the teleological fallacy, i.e. interpreting evolution as somehow "purposive." Phenotypes don't generally have a single "purpose" or raison d'etre; they survive the course of evolution because of how they fit into the totality of the organism and the populations in which they exist.

That said, let us be clear: human females have no problem at all having orgasms, it's just that they don't necessarily have one as a result of having a penis inserted into the vagina and moved about. Cunnilingus, on the other hand, is pretty much a sure bet. What is the evolutionary explanation for that?

Phila said...

Cunnilingus, on the other hand, is pretty much a sure bet.

Well, I think it depends who's doing it...but yeah, you're right.

I've known one pretty much non-orgasmic woman. Couldn't masturbate successfully...didn't get off from this, that, or the other...liked sex well enough, but wasn't getting any sort of actual climax from it.

There were a couple things going on, but the main problem was her upbringing within a philosophically anti-sex and anti-female tradition. She rejected it intellectually, and rebelled against it...but emotionally, it wasn't that easy to overcome. She's more than OK now, thank heavens...but it just goes to show how stubborn these problems can be.

To assume that people are physiologically defective or evolutionarily disadvantaged - rather than bullied and brutalized first by people who despise sex, and then by men who demand multiple orgasms or female ejaculation or God knows what - is pretty despicable, in my book. If men had to function sexually under the stresses women deal with, impotence would be an absolute epidemic, IMO.

roger said...

useless??? to whom?

janeboatler said...

Ah, so much I'd like to say here, but I was brought up in a time when sex was regarded as private. I'll just echo the dread pirate, "useless??? to whom?"

carl.lindstrom said...

Orgasm, "from natures point of view", is useful if a couple want a baby and very destructive of relationships otherwise. The evidence lies in the dynamic of the brain chemicals following orgasm where we are urged by loss of dopamine and oxytocin and gain in prolactin, to do other things and go our separate ways. The species is more successful if we spread out genes rather than "duplicating" them... But with non-orgasmic sex we stay mysteriously attracted to our partner. Who says we can't trick nature ?

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