It's not been uncommon to wonder why women have an orgasm - a reflex devoted to pleasure with no apparent further purpose, including procreational. Naturally, lay people and scientists alike have wondered whether it has some hidden, evolutionary purpose. And so, apparently, there have been 21 theories on the subject since the mid 20th century, all speculating on the purpose of the female orgasm. And according to professor Lloyd, with one honourable exception, they have all been just that - speculation - for in this book Lloyd conducts a meticulous piece by piece deconstruction, and ultimately demolition, of these attempts to crack the conundrum.
Much of the 20-odd conclusions are based, among other things, on surveys, and Lloyd's first salvo comprehensively points to the holes in these surveys. They fail even to achieve a proper definition of the female orgasm, and then go on, on the say-so of unreliable witnesses and dodgy surveys, to build a picture of the experience of womankind in this area. Anatomically speaking they by and large even neglect the crucial matter of the varying proximity of clitoris to vagina. In my observation, in terms of the general survey of the phenomenon, they also seem to neglect the importance in pre-orgasmic arousal of the panoply of mental issues involved. At some point in the evolving literature, investigators did come to differentiate between 'assisted and unassisted orgasm with intercourse', but I suspect they don't really understand what they're talking about here either, given the great variability of practices that the term 'assisted' might cover here.
I was pleased to see that Lloyd, when considering the supposedly differing post-orgasmic refractory periods between men and women, unusually, does at least give a one line acknowledgement of the practice of male 'retention' and what may be learnt from it.
Cutting to the chase, the one theory that Lloyd is sympathetic to, is the 'byproduct' theory, developed by Donald Symons in the 70's. Evolutionary biologists distinguish between adaptations and traits, more broadly speaking. An adaptation is a development which contributes to reproductive success (hominids standing up on their hind legs), while a trait, although genetic and inherited, may or may not (like our differing eye colours.) Writers in this field have displayed an inclination, tantamount to an assumption, that the female orgasm is an adaptation. Unpalatable as it may be, especially to a certain section of feminists, all the evidence for female orgasm being an adaptation proves to be paper thin. The trait/byproduct theory, on the other hand, runs thus. The human embryo lies sexually undifferentiated for the first 8 weeks of life; it has a genital tubercule, and it also has nipples. Then the embryo becomes either male or female. The female develops nipples capable of delivering milk, while the male nipples, with no need so to do, remain, a spinoff of the primordial nipples, with no reproductive (or essentially other) function. Similarly, while the genital tubercule in males goes on to become the penis as we know it, the female equivalent emerges as the (already sexually sensitised) clitoris.
It is argued that female orgasm is an adaptation only if in ancestral populations orgasmic females enjoyed greater average reproductive success than nonorgasmic females. Naturally, it is rather difficult to discover very much about the sexual experience of our female ancestors. Given that on any public scale, the clitoris and female orgasm have only even become known to a small section of humanity for a small section of history, I would suggest that they may have lain dormant, undiscovered, and totally useless and unused for the majority of humankind, for the majority of our time on earth so far.
One of the threads in the book looks at research into female orgasm in the animal world. There are greater and lesser supporters for the notion that females in the wild have orgasms. I would suggest that the relevant issue is not whether or not they actually have orgasm, but the degrees to which they are potentially capable of orgasm - and this is a stronger possibility. Some monkeys and apes are capable of learning to take advantage of the orgasmic possibility for their own pleasure - possibly, just like women have done!
The book is subtitled 'Bias in the science of evolution.' The 'case' in the main title is both specific and general. Specifically, about investigating the female orgasm, and generally, about the pitfalls of scientists' own prejudices creeping into their research. Towards the end Lloyd summarises this thread of the book with a list of eight assumptions she identifies as having been made by the scientists under scrutiny here. Having said all that, she does make the point that although unpersuaded so far, she remains open to the case for the adaptive orgasm, should further evidence be forthcoming.
There was just one book, (The Sex Contract, by anthropologist Helen Fisher) which, in her own admission (personal communication), the author confessed she had overlooked in her research, and has resolved to review soon. I suspect that this one too will fall under her analysis. I find her argument persuasive. (So did the late Stephen Jay Gould.) I leave the final judgement to her scientific peers. As a lay person (!), I welcome any further demystification, demythologising and de-media-fying of this glorious territory. The truth will set us free - in the boudoir, as elsewhere.