Oh "Hedy" Days of Youth!
Sex and engineering. Natural bedfellows?
Posted Nov 10, 2014
Do you want to see something really naughty?
Of course you do—or you wouldn’t be here. Rest assured, it’s coming. But first, a personal confession.
I think my father was always a bit disappointed in me. My father was an engineer, and I grew up thinking it was perfectly normal to live surrounded by draughtsman’s tables festooned with circuit diagrams and various half-finished projects. I think my father always wanted me to be an engineer too, and the fact that I went into soft science must have puzzled him.
Psychology (and biology) are soft sciences. But then, humans are soft. However, that doesn’t mean that engineering insights don’t apply to them.
More on this in a bit….
You have been patiently waiting for your naughtiness—and here it is. The first ever female orgasm committed to mainstream cinematic celluloid.
(You are wondering how I am going to tie this to the engineering theme, aren’t you?)
That’s the great actress Hedy Lamarr—who would have turned 100 today. In the film Ekstase (Ecstasy), which horrified the Hays code censors of 1933, she abandons her staid husband and finds sexual fulfilment in the arms of another. After her character finds pleasure in her asserted sexuality, the abandoned husband kills himself.
Hedy Lamarr, as well as being a taboo-breaking screen goddess, also thought it was normal to be surrounded by circuit diagrams and had a draughtsman’s table permanently installed in her home. This is because she had patents for radio technology inventions. She is most famous for the introduction of frequency hopping. This is a technique—based on music—to keep radio transmissions from being interpreted by the enemy. It is one of the insights that allows modern mobile phones to work. (1)
The world is full of apparent design. It’s a feast of the senses for those who enjoy engineering solutions. And, ever since Darwin, we know the only non-magical answer to the otherwise stark staring mystery of this. Things appear designed because millions of years of small changes, that respond to the environment, ratchet up to eventually create “endless forms most beautiful”. (2)
Whether I inherited a bunch of engineering genes, or I had all problems modelled to me by my father as basically engineering issues I don’t know. But Darwinian selection is fundamentally an engineering take on the world. Why does a thing look this way? What does it appear designed to do? Why is it apparently not working? The only natural mechanism that explains apparent design is natural selection. So, engineering, and Darwinian insights are close cousins.
Orgasms and engineering.
Lots of scholarly ink has been spilled (and today, scholarly pixels rendered) on the subject of female inorgasmia. Lots of women don’t orgasm during sex. Most men do. Leaving aside the possible medical complications that might lead to this, there are several possible reasons for this orgasm gap.
2) Women are not designed to have orgasms at all. The "by-product" view (4)
3) The reason women don’t have orgasms every time is that the system is accurately separating males into wheat and chaff. (5)
I have blogged about why the first two ideas are probably wrong elsewhere (6). In essence—the broken/badly designed ideas don’t do justice to the complexity, intricacy and specificity of the female sexual system.
This leaves us with the 3rd idea. Females are working just fine. It’s males that are not.
Now this may seem a little harsh. But nature is harsh. More women than men become ancestors. (7) More men than women are consigned (or consign themselves) to reproductive oblivion. It’s the central theme of Hedy Lamarr’s Ekstase. It’s the central theme of a lot of art, literature and myth. Female sexuality is powerful and potentially dangerous.
A recent paper showed that female orgasmic response (quantity and quality) accurately tracks a range of things that females desire in male partners—intelligence, drive, focus and determination. And, yes, it turns out that laughing at your jokes (although perhaps not at other things) is an important clue to whether your female partner will produce involuntary pleasurable muscle spasms at…err…other moments of social importance. (8)
This came as no surprise to us. (9) We found that female orgasm accurately tracked things like partner considerateness, dominance, vigour and even pleasant smell (which signals immune system compatibility). Previous research has linked female sexual response to attractiveness (10) and masculinity (11). A lot of these things probably co-vary.
So, what does an engineering insight offer to the mystery of female orgasm?
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, might be an admirable political motto. An engineer’s motto is “if it ain’t broke—it doesn’t have enough features yet”. Engineers tinker with things until they break. This is also the way of thought that someone doing conceptual engineering—like adaptationist thinking trains you to do. So, if we have a highly complex system (like the integrated set of nerves, muscles and physical structures making up the female sexual system) that appears to be broken, well, maybe, just maybe—it’s doing exactly what it was designed to do.
This insight would come as no surprise to Hedy Lamarr’s character in Ekstase either. In the movie, her wedding night is a disaster. The scene opens with her kind (but over-controlled) husband failing to open a locked door to the bedroom. He tries several keys, all to no avail. Cut to scene of Lamarr looking disappointed. Whatever could the symbolism be?
Later, the bored Lamaar runs free in the woods and encounters a man she finds more compelling. This leads to that scene, where the pearls break over the floor… The final scene is a fantasy one of her holding a baby. It’s hardly symbolism at all at this point.
The oft-quoted statistic is that only 25% of women can orgasm through penetrative sex. (13) Now, we don’t know actually that. We only know that women orgasm through penetrative sex 25% of the time. That doesn’t mean that they are incapable of it. For starters, in our highly embarrassed culture, a huge amount of sex doesn’t take place without one or both parties being somewhat inebriated. All of that would need to be controlled for before we rush to conclusions about women being broken or badly designed.
There’s a reason why men suffer performance anxiety. Indeed—they suffer anxiety about a lot of things that affect their fitness as mates. Height, status, penis size. (12)This is no different. It also explains why men get defensive over female inorgasmia (“women are broken”, “women are badly designed”). But nature doesn’t care about your excuses or your ego.
Of course—these days we can circumvent nature--and a good thing too. Partner inorgasmia can be overcome by diligent study, playfulness, paying attention to what your partner actually wants, and as Carol Tavris puts it, “Sex is not soccer: the use of hands is permitted”.
1) Scientific American on Frequency Hopping http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/hedy-lamarr-not-just-a-pr/
2) Darwin, C. (1859). On the Origin of Species. 1. London: Murray.
3) Freud, S. (1931). Female sexuality (Vol. 14, pp. 515-537). na. These days the same view is championed by Stuart Brody. E.g Brody, S., & Costa, R. M. (2008). Vaginal orgasm is associated with less use of immature psychological defense mechanisms. The journal of sexual medicine, 5(5), 1167-1176.
4) Symons, D. The evolution of human sexuality, 1979. Symons proposed the idea. It was enthusiastically taken up by Steven Jay Gould and Elizabeth Lloyd.
GOULD, S. J. (1993). Male nipples and clitoral ripples. Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, 80-96.
Lloyd, E. A. (2009). The case of the female orgasm: Bias in the science of evolution. Harvard University Press.
5) King, R., & Belsky, J. (2012). A typological approach to testing the evolutionary functions of human female orgasm. Archives of sexual behavior, 41(5), 1145-1160.
7) Wilder, J. A., Mobasher, Z., & Hammer, M. F. (2004). Genetic evidence for unequal effective population sizes of human females and males. Molecular Biology and Evolution, 21(11), 2047-2057.
Baumeister, R. F. (2010). Is there anything good about men?: how cultures flourish by exploiting men. Oxford University Press.
Low, B. S. (1988). Measures of polygyny in humans. Current anthropology. 29:189–194.
———. 2000. Why sex matters: a Darwinian look at human behavior. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.
8) Gallup Jr, G. G., Ampel, B. C., Wedberg, N., & Pogosjan, A. (2014). Do orgasms give women feedback about mate choice?. Evolutionary Psychology, 12(5), 958-978.
9) King, R., & Belsky, J. (2012). A typological approach to testing the evolutionary functions of human female orgasm. Archives of sexual behavior, 41(5), 1145-1160.
10) Thornhill, R., Gangestad, S. W., & Comer, R. (1995). Human female orgasm and mate fluctuating asymmetry. Animal Behaviour, 50(6), 1601-1615.
11) Puts, D. A., Welling, L. L., Burriss, R. P., and Dawood, K. (2012). Men’s masculinity and attractiveness predict their female partner’s reported orgasm frequency and timing. Evolution and Human Behavior, 33, 1–9.
14) Tavris, C. (1993). The mismeasure of woman. Feminism & Psychology, 3(2), 149-168.http://www.salon.com/2012/10/16/its_not_an_orgasm_problem/?utm_source=tw...