In The Case of the Female Orgasm: Bias in the Science of Evolution, a book perhaps best described as “relentlessly precise,” feminist philosopher of science Elisabeth Lloyd analyzed forty years of research and more than twenty theories about why women have orgasms.¹⁶ She concluded that the theory best supported by the available evidence is that women’s orgasm is not an evolutionary adaptation. Women’s orgasm has no relationship to reproductive success, it doesn’t promote egg fertilization or prevent miscarriage, it doesn’t even “suck” sperm into the uterus—in fact, it turns out sperm is transported most efficiently through a completely unstimulated uterus!¹⁷
Instead, women’s orgasms exist as a byproduct—a result of the fact that male and female genitals develop homologously (remember from chapter 1?). Male ejaculation, with its close tie to orgasm, is crucial to reproduction, so orgasm is embedded in male sexual hardware in the brain and genitals. As a result, orgasm is embedded in female sexual hardware, too, because: homology.
Women’s orgasms are, in this way, rather like the hymen. We make a really big deal out of them, culturally—both pro and con—but evolutionarily they’re more or less an afterthought. Both orgasms and hymens are all different from each other because the variety doesn’t affect reproductive success.
In other words, women can have orgasms for the same reason men have nipples.
My students often hate this idea. They are not intuitively comfortable with the idea that men’s orgasms are evolutionarily crucial and women’s orgasms are just a side effect. It feels Adam’s rib-y, as if the hypothesis is saying women’s orgasms aren’t important. And there are deep historical realities behind that feeling; somewhere in the three hundred years between figuring out that female orgasm isn’t necessary for conception and figuring out female orgasm isn’t an evolutionary adaptation, scientists began saying things about how female orgasm and the clitoris were “of no utility.”¹⁸ Vestigial, like the appendix. So if the phrase “not an adaptation” sounds to you like “not important,” well . . . yeah. That could easily be what science used to think.
What can I say? Science is made of people, and people can be stupid.
Fortunately, the scientific method is specifically designed to help us overcome our stupid! And so science is moving forward, and the rest of us should move with it. In the twenty-first century, only some kind of woman-hating asshat would think that just because it doesn’t help make babies, women’s orgasm isn’t important. Lloyd, only half kidding, suggests we call the byproduct hypothesis the “fantastic bonus” account of women’s orgasm. As in, you don’t have to have orgasms. You may, if you like—they are available to most every woman—but you get to choose! You can have orgasms if you want! Because: pleasure! Hooray!
Women’s orgasms are important because women’s sexual wellbeing is important, and orgasm is part of that for a lot of women. Not everyone is passionate about them, and that’s cool, too. Women vary, and we’re all normal.
Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life – Emily Nagoski
Come As You Are; Ch 8 Orgasm: The Fantastic Bonus — The Evolution of the Fantastic Bonus; pg 271
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