Book Review

O my!

The Globe and Mail, 28 May 2005

O: The Intimate History of the Orgasm
By Jonathan Margolis

The Case of the Female Orgasm
Bias in the Science of Evolution
by Elisabeth A. Lloyd
Harvard University Press, 2005

The orgasm," writes Jonathan Margolis in his delightful, wide-ranging history on the subject, "is the ultimate point of . . . sex. It is what we hope to attain. As any football fan will confirm, there is enjoyment to be had from a game that ends in a nil-nil scoreline, but a great match requires goals. And many of the greatest matches, for connoisseurs, have been high-scoring draws, with equal satisfaction on both sides."

Like many of us, Margolis takes it for granted that, for both men and women, climax is simply meant to accompany sex, and that there must be some good evolutionary reason for it. In other words, there must be genetic influences on orgasm, and people who happened to have had those orgasm genes and were good at it, fared better in the reproductive stakes. Figuring out how that might have worked for men is simple: Orgasm rewards them for spreading their seed. But what about women?

There are several intriguing suggestions. One is that keeping women sexually satisfied helps keep couples, or "pair-bonds," together. In the days when men went off hunting for weeks at a time, the argument goes, they needed to be confident that their women back at the camp were going to stay true, and being great in bed was one way of increasing the odds of that. Another idea is that orgasm signals female satisfaction and therefore fidelity, so it helps protect her from male jealousy.

Other theories propose that orgasm during intercourse actually increases a woman's chance of getting pregnant. Various accounts are put forward: In one, it's because female orgasm promotes male orgasm and ejaculation; in another, it's because orgasm relieves the "vasocongestion" that can allegedly interfere with fertility; in yet another, orgasm creates an "upsuck" that physically pulls sperm further into the reproductive tract, where it's more likely to bump into an egg. By extension, the guy who can give a gal the bigger thrill may be more likely to father her child -- even if several studs are competing during the same cycle.

Margolis has great fun with all of this. In his chapter titled The Evolutionary Paradox of Orgasm, he gives a concise, if largely unreferenced, overview of the disparate views, and what they might mean. He peppers his prose liberally with clever little nuggets like this one: "There is a broad, cross-cultural, popular perception, accurate or not, that women set out with a generalized longing for romance, affection and security that only finds proper fulfilment with the relief of a localized neural desire in the pelvic region; whereas men set out with a localized neural desire in the pelvic region that only finds proper fulfilment in romance, affection and security."

For Margolis, a British writer and journalist, why female orgasm exists is just another curiosity in a book that trades on such curiosities (how the clitoris was "discovered" at least twice, for instance, or that even piano legs had to be draped in crinolines at the height of American prudery).

Enter Elisabeth Lloyd. She is a philosopher of science at Indiana University, and female orgasm is the meat and potatoes of her book. In it, she examines all 20 published theories about why female orgasm exists, and she declares all but one seriously flawed. Phrases like "grossly deficient evidence" and "highly misleading" are common fare here, and not even the most prominent researchers in the field escape her censure.

Two books could hardly be more different. Whereas Margolis is playful and light and dances merrily along the surface, Lloyd is serious and scholarly and digs deep. His writing could be described as flirtatious, and hers as, well, frigid. But while his book is by far the more entertaining, hers is the more rewarding. His book leaves you vaguely suspicious that a crucial shoebox was left unopened under the unmade bed, but with hers, you know even the dust bunnies have been analyzed under the microscope. Lloyd not only cites extensively, she also points out where the original authors drew the wrong conclusions about their own data. She is the Sheila Fraser of science, and she's holding a public inquiry.

Let's just take the idea of "upsuck," for instance. Several highly regarded theories rest on the idea that orgasm somehow assists sperm in getting where it needs to go. But is there evidence for this? One research team in 1970 claimed to show that there was a drop in uterine pressure following orgasm, which they believed would create such a sucking action, and this paper is widely cited as persuasive evidence for upsuck. But as Lloyd points out, those researchers only studied one female subject during a grand total of two episodes of sex. And, critically, they did not test whether semen moved one way or the other. Other researchers who did try to measure such movement did not find it.

Or take intercourse itself. According to people who study sex, such as Masters and Johnson, female orgasm during intercourse isn't as common as we like to presume. About half of all women routinely do not reach orgasm when they have intercourse, and a small percentage simply never do. Many researchers choose simply to overlook this. "What is most peculiar about these authors," writes Lloyd, "is their ritual citation of the sex literature, despite the fact that the very results cited show exactly the discrepancy they ignore."

On the other hand, almost all women are able to reach orgasm by other means. This is odd. It suggests that, for women, orgasm may not have much to do with intercourse at all, and by association, with reproduction. Observations of some of our primate relatives seem to bear this out. A study of stumptail macaques, one of only a few studies of female orgasm outside the human family, revealed that when females had orgasms, it was always with other females -- never, apparently with males -- and that these orgasms did not take place during the fertile period.

Despite never witnessing heterosexual orgasms in these female monkeys, the researcher who did the stumptail work assumed that if orgasm happened between females, it must happen between males and females, too. Ironically, these findings became "strong evidence" for the existence in the stumptails of orgasm during copulation. Says Lloyd: "I suggest that [the researcher] is committed to showing that females get the same pleasure out of sexual intercourse that males do, regardless of her evidence."

Leaving no stone unturned, and finding a good deal of rot underneath them all, Lloyd concludes that there is no evidence linking female orgasm to increased fertility. There is no convincing evidence, she says, that female orgasm is an adaptation at all. The only theory that fits with the available evidence is the idea that female orgasm is a bit of an accident -- a mere byproduct of the male need for it.

That proposal, largely ignored, was first put forward in 1979 by Donald Symons, who remarked that "human female orgasm is best regarded as a potential." During the first seven or so weeks in utero, before hormones start to differentiate us, males and females are essentially the same template. Importantly, the penis and the clitoris are the same structure -- set on different developmental paths only by the bath of hormones they receive starting in week eight of gestation. In that sense, females only have a clitoris, and therefore the means to experience orgasm, because males need a penis -- in exactly the same way males have nipples because females need to be able to nurse their young.

Okay, I admit it, Lloyd's book is penetrating and tantalizing, even intensely satisfying, but her conclusion about how female orgasm may have come about is a bit of an anticlimax. A byproduct? Hmph. But her findings about the scientific process really are something to scream about.