Wired, The By-product Theory of Female Orgasm, A Twin Study, and Scientists Being Thick

Well, Wired, maybe you should stick to reviewing phone apps and stay out of science articles. I just don't think it's your forte.

Actually, Wired's Female Orgasm Remains an Evolutionary Mystery isn't really any worse than most pop science articles. It's just a bunch of fluff about fluff science that hopes to hook people in with it's edginess, humor, or weirdness, but doesn't actually say anything useful - and more often just misleads. 


I recently reviewed a book (The Case of the Female Orgasm: Bias in the Study of Evolution by Elisabeth Lloyd) that methodically and thoughtfully combed through all the evolution of female orgasm theories out there and all the relevant scientific data. Lloyd then threw out the crap and put forth the best possible evolutionary explanation for the female orgasms from the current state of knowledge. She said that it's most likely the female orgasm arose as a by-product of the male orgasm. Unsurprisingly, it's often called the By-product Theory of Female Orgasm. 

You see, orgasm in males is highly associated with ejaculation, which is necessary for procreation, so they have a strong evolutionary push to keep bodies that can orgasm properly. We ladies reap the benefits.  It's kinda like the way men have nipples because female nipples are so very important to the survival of our species. Lloyd, of course describes all this better than me, and her argument is pretty damn solid. It was actually a really straightforward argument, and some of the most interesting stuff in her book was then discussing why evolutionary biologists seemed to ignore really basic scientific knowledge and basic methodology in most theories on the subject and why the by-product theory gets so much resistance. Anyway, point is - the book is good, and it's weird how the female orgasm seems to make scientists forget logic or something.

The Wired Article

This article is all like..".Uh Oh, ya'll! The by-product theory is in trouble cause this one study (Genetic analysis of orgasmic function in twins and siblings does not support the by-product theory of female orgasm)
 came out!" Anyway, here's the Wired description of the study.
...Zietsch and Santtila devised a test. They surveyed 1,803 pairs of opposite-sex twins and 2,287 pairs of same-sex twins, asking them how often and how easily they reached orgasm. If female orgasm is evolutionarily connected to male, opposite-sex twins should have similar orgasmic function. 
But that’s not what they found. Instead, while orgasmic function was genetically shared in same-sex twins — brother tended to share function with brother, or sister with sister — the relationship vanished in opposite-sex twins, though both share the same amount of genetic material. The underlying genetics, and thus the underlying evolutionary pressures, thus appear to differ. 
“This does not support the hypothesis that female orgasm is maintained only as a byproduct of selection on the male orgasm,” wrote Zietsch and Santtila.

I'm sorry, but a study informing me that females would report "how often and how easily they reach orgasm" more similarly to other females than they would to males...well, that just doesn't really surprise me. The experience of, knowledge of, and culture of males orgasm is very different from that of female orgasm, so yeah, that makes some sense.

 The Study
I went ahead and read this entire study, and there were some pretty glaring problems that the Wired article would have done well to speak of. Firstly, the questions asked men are different than the questions asked women: Here is an excerpt from the Methods section.
Female orgasmic function was assessed by two items: ‘Over the past 4 weeks, when you had sexual stimulation or intercourse, how often did you reach orgasm?’ ... and ‘Over the past 4 weeks, when you had sexual stimulation or intercourse, how difficult was it for you to reach orgasm?’
Male orgasmic function was assessed by two items: ‘How fast have you typically ejaculated after the intercourse (vaginal or anal) has commenced?’ ... and ‘How often have you in your own opinion ejaculated too soon or too late?’ 

I mean...researchers, really?...at least ask your male and female sets of twins the same question so you can be comparing the same thing when you make your conclusions. Oh, and maybe not have one of your questions to the males be a blatant opinion question. Don't you think that maybe a lot more than the genetic influence on ease of and ability to orgasm is addressed in that question? Don't you think maybe that their learned feelings of what is acceptable or not in the society and in their particular sexual relationships might just have a strong influence on that answer? It's a ridiculous question for a study aimed at the heritable qualities of a person's orgasm. It just is. (To be fair, the researchers address the 2 different questions issue briefly in the discussion section, but sluff it off easily, simply saying something to the effect that their conclusions could be affected by this - yeah, they might be).

And the questions for women...the fact that this study about female orgasm is even based on asking women questions about their orgasms and not on actual physical investigation, to me, speaks to the absolute ignorance in our culture about orgasm inequality (I kinda made that phrase up just now). Our culture is ladygasm and clitoris ignorant.  Female bodies are not equipped to orgasm easily during intercourse the way men's are, yet intercourse is still our most important sexual act, and women are still largely expected to enjoy it in much the same way men are. What I'm saying here is that because of this and other deep cultural misunderstanding about female orgasm, women have a strange complicated relationship with their ability to come. We lie about it. We lie to ourselves about it. We don't get it as much as we want or as much as we feel we should have it. We give up on it. We comfort ourselves by believing that we just naturally have less biological ability to get them. It's a wild west of possibilities about how each woman deals with the disconnect between what their bodies know and what our society expects from it. At this point in history, OUR ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS ABOUT OUR ORGASMS ARE GOING TO BE BIASED, UNINFORMED, CONFUSED, AND SOMETIMES STRAIGHT UP LIES - EXPECT NOTHING LESS, RESEARCHERS. 

Okay, so assuming that the answers to these questions were, by some miracle, answered as accurately and objectively as one could expect. That brings me to another huge issue. Should these researchers so easily be making the jump between how quickly one orgasms or how often one feels able to orgasm and the heritable, genetic ability of a person to orgasm? Clearly, the capability for orgasm is a physical, heritable property, but whether one feels able to do it or how fast one does it has oh-so-much to do with very non-heritable variables. Masters and Johnson's book Human Sexual Inadequacy pretty clearly makes a case that the human orgasm is physically available for all healthy bodies to enjoy, but that any number of environmental experiences can suppress it (or make it happen too quickly for one's liking). Everything from the type of partner one has to basic sexual knowledge to experience to feelings about sex to type of sexual activities one normally engages in all have incredibly strong influence over the answers to the questions these researchers were asking. The approach to this study just seems to me to be super naive and ineffective for its goals.

My Conclusions
So, my points here are as follows:
1) This study that Wired thought was important enough to bring to the masses is misleading, problematic, and frankly doesn't have anything actually interesting to say....and 
2)  it certainly doesn't take any chunks out of the by-product theory of evolution.
3) Come on, Wired, there's amazing, important, cool science going on all over the world, and this is all you could come up with? It's sad.
4) Our culture is so back asswards about our understanding of females and orgasm (how it works, how it is experienced, and the cultural context of it) that science investigating the two together are usually ridiculous, useless, and way off base. This study was no exception.

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