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the Complete Review
the complete review - science


The Case of the Female Orgasm

Elisabeth A. Lloyd

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To purchase The Case of the Female Orgasm

Title: The Case of the Female Orgasm
Author: Elisabeth A. Lloyd
Genre: Science
Written: 2005
Length: 257 pages
Availability: The Case of the Female Orgasm - US
The Case of the Female Orgasm - UK
The Case of the Female Orgasm - Canada
The Case of the Female Orgasm - India
Il caso dell'orgasmo femminile - Italia
  • Bias in the Science of Evolution

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Our Assessment:

B : methodical rather than titillating, but a fascinating case-study

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Globe & Mail . 28/5/2005 Alison Motluk
The Guardian . 9/12/2006 P.D.Smith
The Lancet . 3/9/2005 Sarah Venis
Nature . 18/8/2005 Olivia P. Judson
New Scientist . 14/5/2005 Gail Vines

  From the Reviews:
  • "This is an important book that casts light on the biases that can prejudice science." - P.D.Smith, The Guardian

  • "Underlying biases exist throughout science, but surely nowhere in as extreme a form as in research into female sexuality. The assumptions in this area boil down to two: female orgasm must be "for" something, and this purpose must be linked to reproductive sex. Elisabeth Lloyd neatly dissects the history of these biases and their results in The Case of the Female Orgasm." - Sarah Venis, The Lancet

  • "Lloyd reckons that biases in evolutionary thinking have blinkered generations of mostly male biologists. It is time to give up the adaptationist's fallacy and face facts." - Gail Vines, New Scientist

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Elisabeth A. Lloyd's The Case of the Female Orgasm considers how theorists have approached the surprisingly complicated question of why women have orgasms. The male orgasm comes with ejaculation -- the reward, as it were, for depositing (or at least unloading) one's seed, which facilitates all-important (in long-term biological-evolutionary regard) reproductive success. It makes good sense, in evolutionary terms; after all, if men didn't have orgasms they'd probably be less (or entirely un-) eager to perform the sexual act, which wouldn't make for a very successful species (i.e. it would die out soon). But the female orgasm isn't as obviously (or possibly at all) connected with reproductive success -- so why does it exist ? Females of almost no other species appear to have them -- so why do humans ?
       Lloyd counts 21 evolutionary accounts that scientists have proposed, and she goes through them all here -- and finds all, save one, wanting. The Case of the Female Orgasm is, decidedly, a scientific book: Lloyd is concerned with theories, facts, and evidence (and combinations thereof), and uses the case of the female orgasm to describe (and decry) the practise of science: "a story of scientific dysfunction" is what this amounts to, she argues. Her detailed analysis of the theories that have been proposed and how they were presented (including what evidence was used to support them, and how) gives a remarkable insight into how science is done. Bias in the Science of Evolution, as her subtitle has it, is only one of the problems she uncovers.
       The female orgasm is a fun problem for evolutionary scientists to tackle -- but evolutionary-theory zeal is part of the problem in understanding it. Almost all the explanations for it Lloyd discusses find the female orgasm to be an adaptation. (Adaptations, in evolution-speak, are "traits that have evolved to serve a particular fitness-enhancing role" -- though there are variations on the precise definition that help muddy the waters.) In particular, scientists have been prone -- for a variety of reasons, as she shows (including the one that it just seems like the obvious explanation) -- to tie orgasm to reproductive success. As Lloyd demonstrates, over and over, the evidence is not particularly convincing, no matter how you look at it.
       Among the problems with focussing on an orgasm-intercourse connexion (intercourse being the necessary step for reproductive success) is that most of the evidence suggests that there is a significant percentage of women who rarely or never experience orgasm (and there are many who only experience it occasionally during intercourse), and that intercourse doesn't appear to be the easiest way for women to achieve orgasms (direct manual (or, presumably, oral) manipulation of the clitoris appears to have a much higher success-rate, and, tellingly, few women simulate intercourse when masturbating). Here as elsewhere, Lloyd faces the problem of poor data, and it's striking how badly formulated many of the sex-surveys and studies on which contemporary sexual science is based are. But the poor data allows theorists to pick and choose what fits their theories (and Lloyd convincingly shows that that is what a lot are guilty of).
       Lloyd looks at all the possibilities, but finds: "There is no plausible evidence that links orgasm to reproductive success." (She does admit that there might be a link, but notes that science can only be based on available evidence, and the evidence currently available does not support such a link.)
       There are some interesting ideas that have been proposed, but Lloyd doesn't have too much trouble knocking most of them down completely. Frequent references to the literature and piece-by-piece counter-arguments make for an occasionally dry and strained read, but most of it is still quite fascinating. Theories such as the "upsuck hypothesis" (one of the 'sperm-competition accounts' -- and yes, the upsucking is pretty much what you'd guess (this really is not a titillating account)) are neatly discussed and critiqued (in this case, the fact that orgasm isn't consistently achieved at a high rate, and that it often isn't simultaneous with delivery of the sperm seriously dent that idea).
       Not surprisingly, the one account Lloyd finds plausible is the one that doesn't insist the female orgasm is an adaptation. She votes for Donald Symons' "byproduct account", the female orgasm seen as an evolutionary byproduct, "potential" like the male nipple. This theory may not have quite the same intellectual appeal (evolutionary scientists love to have traits develop for a reason), but, given the currently available evidence, it does appear, scientifically speaking, to be the most convincing.

       The Case of the Female Orgasm is of particular interest because it offers a fairly accessible account of competing scientific theories, how they are presented (and accepted), and what evidence they are based on. The data on female orgasm is shockingly flimsy, and Lloyd nicely shows how even carefully conceived experiments (such as for testing the upsuck theories) present a host of problems. Far more troubling, however, is what the scientists do with that data, often using it as they see fit -- or simply incorrectly using it (Lloyd points out some shocking statistical method howlers, for example).
       As she shows, a lot of the work in this field is pretty shoddy science -- that much will be apparent even to the layman. The implications are, of course, significant and disturbing: if 'scientists' play this loose with something like this, what about everything else ?
       In the final chapter Lloyd considers the reason why scientists appear to have gone so wrong with their theories of the female orgasm, finding a variety of biases that obviously affected their work. Most notable is the common presumption that the female orgasm has to be an adaptation, but several others are equally problematic. Again, much here would seem obvious even to the layman, and it's scary to think how readily scientists can head down the wrong path, not even considering alternatives.
       The Case of the Female Orgasm isn't exactly a gripping read: the point-by-point deconstruction of so many theories while trying to give them some benefit of the doubt, along with the constant references to the literature that most readers will not be familiar with (or have ready access to) makes it an occasional grind. But Lloyd presents the material about as clearly -- and, it would appear, about as fairly -- as one might hope for, and it offers an excellent insight into how 'science' is done. This is an important book, and highly recommended to all scientific practitioners (who might be reminded of the bias that can so easily creep into their work) as well as those who are interested in everything from scientific methodology to the role of science in society. (Those looking for titillation -- or even just how-to advice: look elsewhere.)

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The Case of the Female Orgasm: Reviews: Elisabeth Lloyd: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Elisabeth A. Lloyd teaches at Indiana University.

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© 2005-2012 the complete review

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