Monday, September 12, 2011

On the Whys and Wherefores of the Female Orgasm: Impressions of Recent Research

I am, God knows, hardly an expert on the female orgasm.  So anything I have to say on that topic ought to be taken with a mountain of salt.  

Still, I'm fascinated by several recent discussions of the latest research asking why, precisely, women have orgasms, when the evolutionary function of the male orgasm seems well-established, while the reason for women to have orgasms seems murky at best from an evolutionary standpoint.  The impulse to procreate is naturally rewarded, so the reasoning goes, in the case of the male by a nudge of pleasure that assures the continuation of that impulse in the human species.  But since procreation is, as we all know, primarily a matter of the male implanting the seed of life within the passive receptacle of the woman's womb, why would that passive receptacle need any biological reward or stimulus akin to orgasm, to assure the propagation of the species?

At Salon on the weekend, Tracy Clark-Flory surveys the discussion, looking at the recent work of Elizabeth Lloyd and Leonore Tiefer.  And on the same day, by chance, Andrew Sullivan discusses the work of Brendan Zietsch and Pekka Santtila on the same topic.

I won't summarize these two articles.  They're both brief and easy for readers to find and digest.  I do want to record some of my own initial impressions after reading both fascinating pieces, however.

First and foremost, I'm intrigued by the (I suspect entirely predictable) way in which the discussion of the female orgasm is still subjugated to male needs, male concerns, male perspectives, and male terminology.  The vagina functions as a "sperm upsuck" channel, designed to be all about sperm, receiving sperm, speeding them on their way.  (Or, as North Carolina Republican legislator Johnny Hunter recently elegantly argued, the vagina is the sole lock into which the key of the penis fits naturally, and by divine design.)

Or there's this: women have orgasms for the same reason males have nipples.  The female orgasm is an echo of the biologically justifiable male orgasm, because women are, as it were, created out of the biological substance of males and have inherited the tissues and nerve pathways for orgasm from their shared embryological origin with males (who presumably come first biologically, in this biological schema).

And the clitoris is, as we all know, a tiny penis, albeit one that lacks the all-essential function of implanting the seed of life in a receptacle . . . .  And so in and of itself, its existence poses the conundrum of female pleasure: why, when that pleasure is not oriented to reproducing the species?

It's all about males.  Even when we're discussing women and their biology and why their biology behaves as it does.  The problem we keep trying to confront in our biological (and theological) explanations for human sexuality is to explain why women enjoy privileges that seem right and just to us, from the standpoint of evolution, in the case of males, when those privileges appear to be without rationale in the case of females.  

And to frame the problem in this way--as it is implicitly framed in many of these biological discussions--is, it seems to me, to underscore how much of our thinking even in the realm of science continues to be rooted in deeply grounded suspicions about the roles of men and women that ultimately have theological roots.  The presupposition that the natural function of male and female bodies vis-a-vis procreation has to do with active males implanting seed in passive females: this is firmly entrenched in the biologistic understanding of natural law the Catholic tradition inherits from Aquinas and, in the final analysis, Aristotle.

And the presupposition that women are derived from men, are men who did not quite reach their teleological goal in the process of human development in utero: this, too, strongly tinges Catholic natural law thinking about human sexuality, in its reductionistic biologistic expressions.  And it, too, derives from Aristotle by way of Aquinas.

These quasi-biological understandings of human procreation owe something, too, of course, to the way in which the Judaeo-Christian scriptures have long been read to suggest that women are formed out of the rib of Adam, and designated by the Creator to complement, fulfill, and, above all, serve the male.

Reading surveys of research that grapple with the question of why women have orgasms--or vestigial penises--makes me wonder if we've really come very far at all from some of the most primitive religious suspicions of our cultural heritage about gender and gender roles, even in the scientific realm.  When I hear people seeking to justify female pleasure by recourse to concepts like "sperm upsuck" and "nonlactating male nipples," I'm not convinced we are beyond primitivism in our notions of gender and gender roles.

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