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  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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Orgasms and Woolly Mammoths

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 8, 2012

It is such good fun to see one of our public idiots reduced to a laughing stock in the national press.  Zoe Heller does it this week to Naomi Wolf in The New York Review of Books.  Here’s an excerpt:

The “linear, goal-oriented” sex that predominates in the West does not take sufficient account of women’s extreme sensitivity to the emotional conditions in which sex takes place. Both pornography and classic second-wave feminism have tended to promote sexual technique as the key to female sexual satisfaction. Feminists in particular have tried to persuade women that they can “fuck like men, or get by with a great vibrator…and be simply instrumentalist about their pleasure.” But these, Wolf argues, are damaging myths. In order to achieve high orgasm, women need to feel safe and protected. (Ideally, they will feel “uniquely valued” and “cherished.”) They need atmosphere (candlelight, attractive furnishings, dreamy gazes) and “unique preparatory tributes or gestures” (flowers, drawn baths). It also helps a lot, apparently, if their male partners address them as “Goddess.”

These are not, Wolf emphasizes, the culturally specific preferences of a high-maintenance woman, but the biologically determined requirements of all women. In prehistoric times, it was dangerous for women to enter the disinhibited trance state of high orgasm when they were copulating “in the vicinity of wild animals or aggressors from another tribe,” so choosing sexual partners who would value them enough to protect them in an emergency was paramount.

This would seem a very flimsy speculation on which to hang an entire theory about women’s hardwired need for precoital schmoozing. One of its several problems is that it fatally exaggerates the obliviousness of the orgasmic woman. Anecdotal evidence suggests that a female in the throes of more than culturally adequate passion can snap to attention with astonishing rapidity if one of her children happens to wander into her bedroom, and the response time might even be quicker if the intruder were a woolly mammoth.

The lure of having an evolutionary imprimatur for her ideas about female sexuality seems to harden Wolf to such objections. It is striking that when confronted with an evolutionary story that does not suit her prejudices—the idea, for example, that a cross-cultural male preference for a certain female waist-to-hip ratio might be an adaptive preference for fertile-seeming women—she is happy to reject it, without further elaboration, as “sexist.” Yet offered a no less controversial theory that happens to support her a priori convictions, she is all naive fascination. To support her view that vaginal orgasms are superior to the clitoral kind, she cites the phenomenon of “uterine upsuck” as proof that vaginal orgasms are evolutionarily “superefficient.”

Whether she knows it or not, investigations into the adaptive “purpose” of orgasms, vaginal or otherwise, are far more contentious and inconclusive than she suggests. The classic data on which the “upsuck” theory of female orgasm is based derive from one study, involving a single participant, conducted in 1970. And the fact that between a third and two thirds of women rarely or never achieve orgasm through intercourse would seem by itself a pretty conclusive argument against any evolutionary explanation for female orgasm. But there is a further problem with her argument. Why should a feminist woman who is having sex for nonprocreative purposes care whether what she is doing is “adaptive” or not? Wolf, it seems, has ended up in the dangerous position of giving certain sexual behavior greater value because it is “natural” or “evolutionarily valuable.”

As we have seen, Wolf’s belief that the vagina is integral to a woman’s sense of “core self” is predicated not just on the mystical experiences that the vagina “mediates” during orgasms, but on the continuing, salutary effects that orgasms have on the rest of a woman’s life. Wolf claims to find strong evidence in the biographies of women writers and artists (Georgia O”Keefe, Emma Goldman, Edith Wharton) that women often “create best after a sexual awakening or a particularly liberating sexual relationship.” When she canvasses women “from many different backgrounds”—friends, grad students, the 16,800 members of her Facebook community—their responses confirm that there is a connection for women between a happy sex life and enhanced confidence levels.

It seems reasonable, if banal, to suggest that having good sex makes women feel good, and that feeling good might make them more productive in other areas of their lives. But there is no evidence that this is a uniquely female phenomenon, or that the sex in question has to be the mystic kind, and one could cite any number of examples to support the opposite thesis—that the consuming pleasures of sexual love are apt to distract a woman from her desk.

It would be interesting to know how Wolf explains the creativity of virgin artists like Jane Austen and Emily Brontë and Emily Dickinson, or the rapturous experiences of history’s actual women mystics (whose lives tended to be short on liberating sexual relationships). Whatever moral Wolf draws from the fact that Edith Wharton wrote The Age of Innocence after experiencing orgasms for the first time is surely rather undermined by the fact that Emily Brontë wrote Wuthering Heights after having no sexual intercourse at all. (She might have masturbated, of course, but Wolf specifically disqualifies masturbation as a method of achieving high orgasm: “A happy heterosexual vagina requires, to state the obvious, a virile man.”)

After consulting many research papers and interviewing many scientists, Wolf has decided that the sex–creativity link can be “explained” by dopamine, one of the brain chemicals involved in female orgasm. Dopamine, according to Wolf, is the chemical that fosters female focus and motivation. It is what makes women leap up from the rank sweat of their enseamed beds to write novels. Modern women who complain of depression need better sex and more dopamine, but patriarchal societies, fearful of sexually empowered women, prefer to fob them off with antidepressants. “Serotonin,” Wolf writes, “literally subdues the female voice, and dopamine literally raises it.”

Wolf literally does not understand the meaning of “literally” and her grasp of the scientific research she has read is pretty shaky too. By repeatedly confusing correlates with causes, she grossly exaggerates what neuroscience can reliably tell us about the functions of individual brain chemicals. Dopamine undoubtedly has a role in female orgasm. But it also has a role in schizophrenia and, by Wolf’s own admission, a panoply of addictions. Given this, it seems foolhardy on Wolf’s part to designate it “the ultimate feminist chemical.”

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