Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Why is the female orgasm so complicated?

(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.)

When 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.
And to some extent, this could be true: I have very little experience with female organs, and vastly more experience with male organs, particularly my own.
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 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.)
But 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.
And 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?
Yeah, 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.
This 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.


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