The Myth of the Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm
The value of self-report
Posted Dec 12, 2013
Doris Lessing taught me a lot about female orgasms.
Lessing’s recent death has been somewhat overshadowed by that of another rather prominent African thinker and social reformer. However, in her time she was a fearless campaigner and expositor. Among her many awards was a Nobel prize for literature. Sometimes claimed as a feminist champion, she was actually a free thinker who would often say things that exasperated anyone who tried to pigeonhole her.
This is what she says about orgasms in the Golden Notebook
"A vaginal orgasm is a dissolving in a vague, dark generalised sensation like being swirled in a warm whirlpool. There are several different sorts of clitoral orgasms, and they are more powerful (that is a male word) than the vaginal orgasm. There can be a thousand thrills, sensations, etc., but there is only one real female orgasm and that is when a man, from the whole of his need and desire takes a woman and wants all her response. Everything else is substitute and a fake, and the most inexperienced woman feels this instinctively… ‘ 'Do you know that there are eminent physiologists who say women have no physical basis for vaginal orgasm?’ ‘Then they don’t know much, do they?’ (Lessing, 1962, p. 200).
Tampering with Forces I Don’t Understand
I sometimes get asked—what is a guy doing investigating women’s orgasms anyhow? My answer is usually the same—I am reporting what women tell me. What they tell me seems to partially solve a vexed question in the biological literature—namely “what, if anything, are female orgasms for?” Maybe one of the reasons why some scholars are talking past each other at the moment might be simply this—female orgasm is not just one thing—it’s complicated. Lessing, more outspoken than most, was always unafraid to accurately report her experiences and her enjoyment of passionate sexuality.
I vividly remember when I first started my research I assumed that the fashionable story of the time—that vaginal orgasms were mythical beasts—had to be true. After all—I had seen Anne Koedt’s famous tract of that name quoted with approval by a number of scholars. Apparently it is received wisdom that only 25% of women are capable of vaginal orgasm. The official story is that the rest are somehow dysfunctional. Maybe worse than that—perhaps the female sexual system has never designed to function in that way? I have addressed these questions elsewhere.
I have a friend who I can always trust for frank appraisal. I handed her Koedt’s “The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm” and asked for her opinion on it. “Why is she trying to spoil it for the rest of us?” was her reply.
A Word About Self-Report
Self-report can get a bad press in psychology—it has been referred to as psychology’s four letter word. It’s true that people are often bad at accurately reporting their own motives—even to themselves. However, subjective experience is a real part of the world and a complete scientific account of that world cannot leave it out.
The great neurologist Ramachandran made progress in understanding conditions like synaestheisa, phantom limb and Capgras’ delusion only when he started taking the self-report of sufferers of the conditions seriously. Other neurologists had dismissed these conditions out of hand.
Our quest for objectivity—often just a form of physics envy--can go too far. In a recent Cochrane review of obstetric interventions most had sophisticated objective measures of pain. Galvanic skin response, blood-pressure, cortisol levels. All these had been measured. However, in only two interventions had the only really important question been asked. Namely; “Does it hurt?”
The upshot of this is that if you don;t think self-report is worth anything please don't tell me about it. I won't take your self-report on this seriously.
Two Cheers for Self-Report
So, I think it’s worth listening to people’s experiences. Especially when we are trying to find out the details of an otherwise puzzling event.
When we sat down at interview and asked “What should scientists be asking women about their orgasms” we frequently got the following response:
“Well, that’s a dumb question—which ones do you mean?”
“Ok,” we said, “Why don’t you tell us which ones you mean?”
Terms like vaginal and clitoral have become so confused, emotionally charged, and politicized in relation to orgasm that we avoided using them when asking women about their experiences. As I have said elsewhere—the all female orgasms involve the clitoris--which is much larger than many folk suppose. However—many women themselves kept using such terms—and in ways that suggested that there was a qualitative difference in their sexual experiences. Some orgasms were described as occurring deep inside, accompanied by sensations of floating, even loss of self. Sometimes internal pulsing—perhaps indicating uterine peristalsis—were reported. Sometimes—but not always—ejaculation occurred. In contrast, other orgasms were reported as sharper—more localized and intense—and more on the surface.
All very interesting—sensations like floating, trust, loss of self and uterine peristalsis all sound like the action of oxytocin—a known correlate of orgasm. Also--associated with sperm transport.
“Alright”, we asked (after thanking the ladies for their valued participation—of course) “When do these orgasms occur?”
“Well, that’s a dumb question too”, the women replied, “They vary in response to what we are doing and with whom.”
“Umm..Ok”, we said, slightly chastened, “Please tell us about that”.
And they did. There is a well-known smorgasbord of characteristics that biologically minded behavioral scientists look for when examining mate selection of males by females. And we asked them all.
Were their partners big and muscular?
Were they aggressive or masculine?
Meh. Not so much.
Being confident, passionate, and providing deep penetration certainly counted, as did being a considerate sexual partner—we assumed this meant at a minimum that they listened to what the females said that they liked—and acted accordingly.
But what was the single most important predictor of orgasms experienced deep inside with all the associated symptoms of oxytocin action?
[Drum roll, please]
A nice smell.
Now, we would not even have thought of asking this unless so many women at the initial interviews had stressed it. Some interviewees well into their seventies could recall the smell of a much favored sexual partner over several decades.
When I talk about this research in public the men in the audience typically go “Huh?” while the women go “Duh!” Most men don’t know this fact about smell. Many women cannot conceive of how someone doesn’t know this.
Smell is important—it conveys information about genetic compatibility and this is one of our best guesses for the point of sex in the first place. Building strong babies with immune systems that can keep one step ahead of disease. There is some evidence that smell is important to men as well--but not nearly as powerful in them as in women.
We concluded several things from all this.
1) Women are a lot more interesting sexually than men are.
2) They respond differently to biologically salient partner characteristics
3) Men are right to worry about their sexual performance. It matters. Even if there are some things about it always beyond their control.
Novels and writing—either well or badly done—are in many ways the epitome of self-report. Doris Lessing used to be a neighbour of mine—in that she lived round the corner from me in West Hampstead in one of the Greek Streets. Occasionally she could be spotted in local coffee shops—either reading or writing. I never plucked up the courage to go and talk to her—concerned that I would come over as some dribbling fanboy. In fact—on reflection—maybe it’s for the best that I never got the chance to embarrass myself.