Some readers may recall my exceedingly peevish post about Dr. Elisabeth Lloyd's theory on the female orgasm.
I recently got a polite but firm reply from Dr. Lloyd, who took issue with my characterization of her as a pseudoscientific charlatan...a characterization that irked her all the more given that she's in basic agreement with the concerns I raised in my post, and had apparently taken great pains to address them in The Case of the Female Orgasm: Bias in the Science of Evolution, a book that she correctly surmised I hadn't bothered to read.
Quite honestly, I'm utterly without excuse. One of my regular themes here is the misrepresentation of science in the popular press. That being the case, it's rather ludicrous that I relied on a popularized article about Dr. Lloyd in order to attack her.
Another thing I often discuss here is ethics. Thus, I look even more foolish for launching an attack that was clearly unethical, given my lazy unwillingness to acquaint myself with the facts of the matter.
I can take a stab at an explanation, so long as no one sees it as an attempt - on any level - to weasel out of taking full responsibility for what I write here. In the first place, there's a constant temptation on political blogs to foment cheap outrage, especially when it's simply a matter of expanding on something someone else said. Posts like those are very easy to write...too easy, I'm afraid. Despite being aware of this mechanism, and often trying consciously to avoid it, I failed to consider whether I was falling prey to it before writing my post on Dr. Lloyd.
Most readers are aware that there are certain people who interpret evolutionary theory in a way that tends to validate sexual or racial oppression. This is an area of science - and ours is a political climate - in which it's extremely easy to assume the worst, and that's precisely what I did here. The media representation of Dr. Lloyd's views fit a stereotype I already had of evolutionary psychology at its most irresponsible.
However, as Dr. Lloyd points out, I was under no compulsion to accept that representation. If anything, I was obliged to take greater care with my response, given my first-hand knowledge of my own prejudices. Dr. Lloyd says:
[I]t's very alarming that anything I said could be misused. In fact, I'm quite shocked that it has been misused and misinterpreted. But all that misuse relies on MISREPRESENTATION. My real views are not in any way damaging to women, which you would know, if you looked at the book. You actively contributed to the problem, by not finding out more about my work before you wrote aboutJust to make it clear how off-base I was, I'd like to reproduce a couple of my original points, with Dr. Lloyd's rebuttals. My remarks are in italics.
it. It would have been easy to do.
Still, I do see now why so many women and feminists have been alarmed-- through the media treatment of the book. The media have emphasized the one conclusion: that female orgasm is an evolutionary byproduct -- while downplaying my other findings. In particular, my findings that the evolutionists, through their sexism, have distorted and ignored real women's sexuality, and through assuming that orgasm is an adaptation, have forced women's sexuality into a reproductive functional model that doesn't reflect women's range of sexual experience and pleasure. Just as with Freud, an evolutionary adaptive or "usefulness" approach to female orgasm has never been an ally of women's sexual expression.
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.If anyone needs further evidence that my original post grotesquely misrepresented Dr. Lloyd's position - to say nothing of her integrity and intellect - I can provide more of her remarkably patient and even-tempered rebuttals. But I think the point is made, for now. I've already apologized to Dr. Lloyd privately, but I also want to apologize publicly. The journalistic sloppiness I displayed on this occasion can be put down to a combination of prejudice, suspicion, overwork, groupthink, and general ill temper...these are things to which all of us fall prey now and again. What's far more disturbing to me is the moral dimension of my critique; a couple of the things I said about Dr. Lloyd were inexcusably mean-spirited and stupid, and I regret them a great deal. In fact, I would certainly have deleted the post if Dr. Lloyd hadn't specifically asked me to leave it as it was.
You make an excellent point, and it's actually a point I make quite firmly in my book. Since you make the point, though, why didn't you follow your own advice? That is, if I'm saying that women's orgasm has no evolutionary function, this has no consequence whatsoever on how we should value it socially and sexually. We take the general point for granted: reading and writing and operating a computer are hugely important in our culture, yet none of these traits are adaptations, they're all evolutionary byproducts. But we don't think they're any less culturally important on that account. In other words, we don't assign cultural importance according to whether a trait is an evolutionary adaptation, and we shouldn't. Period. That goes for female orgasm as much as it goes for reading.
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....
You're right. And I make a point of further documenting this in the book, showing that many of the evolutionists I examine have been exactly as you say. I support your feminist point, and provide further, scholarly documentation for your feminist conclusion.
In any case, this has been a valuable lesson to me, and I'm grateful to Dr. Lloyd for setting me straight far more gently than I deserved!