More Orgasm Questions

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

Well done Mary Roach.

"10 things you didn't know about orgasm" is rather an esoteric list of surprising facts about orgasm. I imagine Mary Roach could easily have shared 101 more such facts. She's funny, and very deft at speaking about difficult topics without descending into smut or anaesthetising the audience with euphemism.

And yet I came away from this talk feeling quite undernourished. I wanted to know what orgasm is all about. Or is that all completely uncontroversial?

I happened today, to be paging back through issues of the journal Evolution and Human Behaviour, the most important scientific journal devoted to the adaptive study of human behaviour. And orgasm is a big, big theme in the journal.

There are papers describing the relationship between partner wealth and self-reported orgasm frequency in Chinese women. Another that that shows more masculine and more attractive men tend to give their female partners more orgasms. Clearly not all women are equally prone to orgasm, and not all men are equally talented at inducing it. But why?

Questions about the function of orgasm abound in the evolutionary and psychological sciences, and the answers remain tentative and controversial. The "up-suck hypothesis" that Roach mentions under point number six is still, in modified form, taken quite seriously in some quarters, despite Maters and Johnston's experiments. Mary Roach has such a fabulous overview that I would have enjoyed knowing her take on the function of orgasm.

Strangely, while the function of the female orgasm is sometimes treated like a mystery, the male orgasm seldom gets the same treatment. Just because orgasm so often accompanies ejaculation, should we think of male orgasm as a mere side effect of ejaculation? A reward that trains naive men to do the single most important thing they can do to become evolutionary success stories?

If that really is the open-and-shut story of male orgasm, is female orgasm just a lucky sub-plot, the side-effect of a side-effect?

Roach's hilarious and disarming talk is short on answers, but I think it's lasting value is the way in which she shows a frank and respectful discussion of sex and science -- a discussion that includes other taboos such as corpses and animals, I might add -- can be funny, entertaining and non-threatening. And that it can be fun to seek the answers.

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