(Originally posted by Pat on 6/19/10)
Again with the sex blogging. Well, it's on my mind; what can I say?
I come to you all with a question: Why is the female orgasm so complicated?
(If you hadn't guessed, yet again there will be explicit NSFW text and links.)
I bring up this subject with straight male friends, their first
reaction is in fact to (half-facetiously) impugn my sexual prowess. It's
not that complicated, they say; it's just you, you're doing it wrong.
to some extent, this could be true: I have very little experience with
female organs, and vastly more experience with male organs, particularly
But I do not think this is all, and frankly I'm annoyed
that this would be the first reaction. A large fraction of women report
difficulty having orgasm. Virtually no men report such difficulty. 75% of women cannot orgasm from intercourse alone, and as many as 15% have never had an orgasm.
Numerous sources on sex advice are dedicated to female orgasms, from AskMen to NetDoctor for men and for women to Men's Health to even a site called www.givingwomenorgasms.com. There is an entire genre of pornography dedicated to the female orgasm.
(One could counter that most mainstream porn is dedicated to the male
orgasm, but it really isn't; it's dedicated to the act of fucking,
concluding with a quite unsatisying-looking male orgasm with ejaculate
directed on the woman's face. Seriously, fuck mainstream porn.)
So what can science tell us about female orgasms? Well,
the G-spot is real (it is associated with the internal structures of
the clitoris, which isn't surprising at all); brain activation changes
radically (that's what "the brain switches off" means in this case; if
your brain really switched off, you'd be dead); a large
fraction of women have trouble with orgasms (the reason for this post);
much of that variation is genetic (intriguing, and will lead me to
evolutionary psychology in a moment); technology can help (when can't it? Clarke's Third Law, people); and some mystery remains (quite a bit, really).
Research into female orgasm is ongoing,
but there isn't enough because people can't get over the fact that it's
sex and therefore "naughty". It's also interesting to me that this
particular researcher is studying orgasms as an insight into the Hard
Problem. Not sure that's going to work, but it gets into two of my
favorite things at once, so I encourage it.
What really strikes me
as weird is the evolutionary psychology of the female orgasm. It seems
to me that women should be programmed to 1) desire sex, 2) enjoy sex,
and 3) get a lot of pleasure out of the completion of sex. Men certainly
are programmed this way, and it makes perfect sense in Darwinian terms
that we would be.
Now, to some extent women are made this way too.
Indeed, the eternal search for "the function of the clitoris" is
fundamentally misguided, because the adaptive function of the clitoris is that it makes women enjoy sex.
That is a perfectly sufficient adaptive explanation; we don't need it
to do something like squirt out fluid the way that the penis does. There
is very good Darwinian reason to enjoy sex, and it's worth paying
substantial developmental and metabolic costs. (Admittedly, the female urethra can ejaculate under some circumstances.)
the weird thing is that compared to men, women don't seem to desire sex
as much, enjoy sex as much, or get orgasms as much. And this cries out
for adaptive explanation.
Steven Pinker proposed a theory that
makes some sense to me, but still doesn't quite seem right: This is the
idea that the female orgasm is difficult in order to ensure that a
female's mate is of high quality. There is some evidence to support
this, like the fact that female orgasm is correlated with mate fluctuating asymmetry. (In short, maybe I can't make women cum because I am ugly and effeminate. If true, that sucks. But I don't think it is true in fact, because I'm plain but not ugly and neither hyper-masculine nor effeminate.)
There are anatomical differences in women that correlate with orgasm,
however, and that doesn't make sense on Pinker's theory. If female
orgasm is meant as a test of male quality, then why does female quality
matter so much? Also, healthy, sexy women would be expected to attract
healthy, sexy men---so the observed correlation might have nothing to do
with male quality, but simply be an artifact of female quality.
The usual feminist theory is that men are doing it wrong, spending too much time in the vagina and not enough time on the clit.
to some extent I think this is right: Men are doing it wrong. (In fact I
think my own troubles are due to a lack of experience, not a lack of
anatomical knowledge, emotional sensitivity, or masculinity.)
But even this raises question: Why is there a wrong way to do it? Why is the most obvious way, the way that makes babies, not the way that also makes orgasms?
there are plenty of things one could do to a man that wouldn't give him
an orgasm---but if you do to him what is likely to make babies, he will
most likely cum in the process. This is not true for women, and my
question is, why?
Could it be that the female orgasm is a
vestigial function, not unlike the male nipple? If so, we should be so
glad about this spandrel (as indeed I am glad about male nipples, but I
digress). But it seems like a very strange sort of spandrel: First of
all, it involves the genitals, most directly natural-selected of all
organs; and second, there is in fact good reason for women to enjoy sex
and get a great deal of pleasure out of it.
So what's going on? Why are female orgasms so complicated?
A lot of it seems to be the fact that female orgasms are much more strongly psychological than
male orgasms. I don't really have to be all that psychologically
aroused or focused in order to have an orgasm; if I am, it's all the
more pleasurable, but it will feel good and semen will squirt out either
way. Yet from what little experience I have with women, they don't seem
to work this way. Women really do seem to need much more complicated
emotional and psychological experiences in order to have a really
satisfying orgasm. There is definitely something mechanical going on for
women (and something psychological for men), but for women the balance
of the two seems to be strongly titled in favor of psychology.
would also hint at an explanation for why women are more likely to
enjoy written porn and men are more likely to enjoy visual porn; written
porn is inherently more cognitive than visual porn. It might also
explain why porn for men is so bad; it doesn't have to be better, because it works anyway.
Yet again we must ask in evolutionary terms, why would that be so? Why should sexual pleasure be more contingent upon psychology for women than for men? I do not know. The mystery remains.