June 8, 2005

genetic basis for female orgasms?

The much-blogged New Scientist has an article on a study that just came out on the genetic factors behind female orgasms. Expect to see it in the New York Times in....two days. Anyways, the study was done by Tim Spector who apparently has a lengthy phone list of twins who he can call and ask about whatever he wants. Those responses, people seem to feel, tell us the difference between what is genetic and what is not. I remain suspicious.

The article says genetics explain 45% of the variability of female orgasms, i.e. those women who can and can't achieve orgasm. "Whether that basis is anatomical, physiological or psychological remains uncertain" says Tim. I think we need to add "social" to that list but I can't imagine an evolutionary biologist would agree with me.

So, the results, 35% of women said they could always achieve orgasm through masturbation and 14% of women could never have an orgasm, regardless of the stimulation. And the twin factor explains 45% of the variability.

What would also be interesting would be to look at those women who can achieve orgasm and then look at the size of their clits.....

They also make no distinction between clitoral orgasms and G-spot ones. Which would be quite important when comparing intercourse to masturbation.

But then they just take the ball and run like hell with it. Dr. Elisabeth Lloyd (can you hear the feminists Booing?) used that 14% of women who can't have an orgasm to say that there is no biological reason for females to have an orgasm. (can you hear the feminists laughing?).

Perhaps, one day, Dr. Lloyd will google herself, come upon this site, and respond to my many problems with her logic. That would be wonderful.

So, if I may, Dr. Lloyd, first of all, because we cannot find the reason for something, must we assume that it does not exist?

Secondly, do not human embrios default to female and, only when triggered, do the labia fuse together and the ovaries sink to make the male reproductive system?

I am also really sick of evolutionary biologists acting like everything always is considered beneficial only if it makes us have more babies. Humans are SOCIAL creatures. Things (bahaviours) can be beneficial on that level as well and be selected for, even if they dont make us reproduce like crazy. Let's look at our friends, the bonobos. Female orgasms are clearly beneficial to their society because they make for strong social bonds. To be fair, they do bring that up in the article.

Even so, I don't see the logic in this statement, "The finding that many women cannot achieve orgasm because they do not have the genes for it shows that the ability to orgasm is not a trait for which there has been strong evolutionary selection." 14%! Come on people! What percentage of women have been raped? What percentage of women live in loveless marirages for economic reasons and have zero desire to have sex? I would imagin that patriarchy alone could account for 14% of women not being able to achieve orgasm...

If I am wrong on this, I would appreciate it if someone coudl set me straight.

Full article in "more"

Genes blamed for fickle female orgasm
00:01 08 June 2005
NewScientist.com news service
Rowan Hooper

Is this the ultimate excuse for poor performance in bed? “Sorry, darling,” the man says, just before falling asleep. “It’s your genes.”

According to a study published this week, up to 45% of the differences between women in their ability to reach orgasm can be explained by their genes. Despite decades of surveys and conjecture about the role of culture, upbringing and biology in female sexual function, from Freud in 1905 to the Hite report in 1976, this is the first study of the role of a woman’s genes.

Its findings suggest there is an underlying biological basis to a woman’s ability to achieve orgasm. Whether that basis is anatomical, physiological or psychological remains uncertain, says Tim Spector of the twin research unit at St Thomas’ Hospital in London, UK, who carried out the study.

“But it is saying that it is not purely cultural, or due to peer pressure, or to differences in upbringing or religion,” he says. “There are wide differences between women and a lot of these differences are due to genes.”

Mixed results
Spector’s team asked more than 6000 female twins to fill out a confidential questionnaire about how often they achieved orgasm during intercourse and masturbation. They received 4037 complete replies, which included answers from 683 pairs of non-identical twins and 714 pairs of identical twins. The women’s ages ranged from 19 to 83, and about 3% were lesbian or bisexual.

Only 14% of the women reported always experiencing orgasm during intercourse. Another 32% of the women reported that they were unable to achieve orgasm more than a quarter of the time, while 16% never achieved it at all. Comparing the results from identical and non-identical twins suggests that 34% of this variation in ability to orgasm during intercourse is genetic.

The idea behind twin studies is that pairs of twins grow up in similar environments. So if identical twins are more similar in some way than non-identical twins, then that similarity must be down to their identical genes rather than the environment.

Unsurprisingly, more women were able to achieve orgasm through masturbation, with 34% saying they could always do so. However, the figure for those who could never achieve it was only slightly lower, at 14%. The analysis suggests that 45% of this variation is genetic.

Men cleared
Spector says he was surprised by the similarity in the numbers of women unable to experience orgasm either through intercourse or masturbation. “With masturbation there are fewer external factors – i.e. men,” he says. “So the higher heritability value for masturbation gives us a clearer picture of what’s going on.”

The discovery of a genetic basis for the ability of women to orgasm raises questions about its evolution. One theory is that it is a tool for mate selection, the idea being that males best able to bring females to orgasm are also the best males to help raise children. Another is that the female orgasm produces movements that increase sperm uptake, and therefore fertility.

But studies of other primates suggest otherwise. Female stump-tailed macaques have orgasms too – but mainly during female-female mountings, which hardly supports the fertility or mate-selection idea.

Bonobos engage in highly promiscuous sex and mutual masturbation, complete with orgasms, a practice that is thought to promote group cohesion. This supports yet another theory: that orgasm is important in bonding.

Accidental echo
But even if orgasm does play this role, it cannot be crucial in humans. The finding that many women cannot achieve orgasm because they do not have the genes for it shows that the ability to orgasm is not a trait for which there has been strong evolutionary selection, says Elisabeth Lloyd of Indiana University in Bloomington, author of The Case of the Female Orgasm. This supports her theory that as far as orgasms are concerned, women have been riding on the genetic coat-tails of male evolution, and that the female orgasm is merely an accidental echo of the male one, the equivalent of male nipples.

Lloyd says the findings also challenge the notion that the failure to achieve orgasm represents “female sexual dysfunction”, an idea popular with companies keen to sell remedies for this so-called disorder. “What definition of ‘normal’ could possibly justify labelling a third of women as ‘abnormal’?” she asks.

Even if struggling to achieve orgasm is nothing unusual, Spector says it might be possible to find ways to make it easier. Though hundreds of genes could be involved, “that doesn’t mean we couldn’t find the genes and pathways, if this was taken more seriously as a problem”, he says.

Journal reference: Biology Letters (DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2005.0308)

Posted by bluprnt at June 8, 2005 06:48 PM
Comments

....

Posted by: ryan at June 11, 2005 07:08 PM

What, no category comparing orgasms per partner? As in, it was 36% with Dick, but 68 with Harry. Guess that wasn't part of the study. I saw this article and thought about writing a post, but didn't get around to it, yet.

Btw, ever heard of The Orgasmatron? Check it out- ABC News, not porn. ;0) http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/Living/story?id=235788&page=1

Posted by: Susan at June 16, 2005 10:58 PM

For Dr. Lloyds responds go to http://philbio.typepad.com/philosophy_of_biology/2005/08/_orgasm_again_e.html
Should generate some red ears for this blogger

Posted by: Tomas at August 28, 2005 12:59 PM

It does seem that if one is to criticize Dr. Lloyd they might do two things: 1) Read her book, 2) Get her argument correct.

There is no place in her book where she says that there is no biological reason for female orgasm. Of course there are biological reasons. That is why women who have had a clitorectomy either never have orgasms or have them only with very great difficulty. There are many many biological reasons for female orgasm.

What Dr. Lloyd does say is the female orgasm appears not to be an evolutionary adaptation. Note that she does not say that it is not an adaptation, just that the current evidence provides no confidence that it is an adaptation. What she means by this is a very narrow concept. It means that the occurrence of orgasm in women does not contribute to their reproductive success. In other words women who never experience orgasm can get pregnant just as easily as women who always have orgasm. That is the only meaning of something being an adaptation - it contributes to reproductive success. If something is not an adaptation it does not mean that it is not exquisite, important, or even earth shattering. There is no evidence that ability to play the violin is an evolutionary adaptation, but we certainly would not therefore conclude that it is trivial or unimportant. The ability to write prose that produces goosebumps when read is unlikely to be an evolutionary adaptation, yet we value it highly and are delighted when we run across such prose. The same for female orgasm. Dr. Lloyd's argument is in fact a relatively narrow evolutionary argument, and a very sound and well reasoned one. Sadly, because so few people actually understand evolutionary arguments, her book is seen as devaluing female orgasm. In fact it does not. Furthermore, the variability in female orgasm (why do something like 20% of women never ever have orgasm and somethng like 30% always have orgasm) has led us to try to investigate the biological basis of this variation. Is there something about the the anatommy and physiology of individual women that makes it likely either that they will orgasm or that they won't? It is research questions like this that come directly from acknowledging Dr. Lloyd's essntial point; orgasm for women is a more complicated and variable experience than it is for men. Why?

Posted by: Kim at September 22, 2005 08:14 AM

A large percentage of women don't have orgasms during intercourse. Vibrators and other toys are often the most consistent orgasm givers for many women. Many men don't recognize how much foreplay and then sexual stimulation most women need. Most men don't understand women have two kinds of orgasms: clitoral and g-spot (sometimes called vaginal orgasm). Most couples need to communicate more and experiment more to find the sexual stimulation type, intensity and amount they both need.

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