Friday, May 20, 2005

Female Pleasure

Does female pleasure have any purpose? Someone has just written a book on the subject, and there are people all over the blogosphere getting very excited about it.

Press Stories: God's Gift to Women, New York Times, Proof of God,
Chat: Babble
Bloggers: Alina Stefanescu, Brothers Judd, Lorraine Berry,
Weird: The Sacred Purpose

Some biologists including Stephen Jay Gould have thought that female pleasure has no evolutionary purpose. (A similar argument might apply to male pleasure: it is arousal that triggers reproductive activity, not the subsequent pleasure.) However, sociobiologists such as Desmond Morris have suggested it could be a reward for pair bonding.

From a POSIWID perspective, there are two main lines of enquiry. Firstly, it's not difficult to imagine that sexual pleasure might make a difference to the behaviour of at least some women, with both biological (reproduction) and social consequences. Perhaps it's easier to detect social effects than biological ones, although some scientists have suggested biological effects as well (including the upsuck theory).

Secondly, it's possible to observe a range of social arrangements (including various forms of repression and violence) whose effect may be to reduce the biological and social effect of female pleasure. For example, if a woman is encouraged to remain "pure" until she marries and "faithful" afterwards, then her sexual experience will be insufficient to affect her choice of husband. And various forms of coercion and violence interfere with the woman's power to choose when to conceive and with whom.

At the other extreme, in a society where young people can experience safe sex with many partners before settling down, the biological and social importance of female pleasure may also be reduced. By the time the woman is ready to choose a steady mate, she may have been fortunate enough to experience a great deal of sexual pleasure, but that doesn't mean she is going to make this the sole criterion for her biological or social choices.

In other words, the power of this particular POSIWID may be affected by the social context. It is an individual and collective choice whether we allow this pleasant biological reflex to control our behaviour. These choices have certainly changed in many countries over the past fifty years.

Let us now analyse this social change in systems terms. From the 1960s onwards, changes in contraceptive and reproductive technology have permitted changes to sexual values, resulting in modified sexual behaviour, which weakens the POSIWID that upheld the old social system. This is a complex change spannng several levels of Donella Meadows' intervention model.

Update: See new post on oxytocin and trust.

A further challenge to the evolutionary biologists comes from The Riddle of the Sphincter - Why do women who have anal sex get more orgasms? by William Saletan, (Slate 11 Oct 2010). Salatan identifies many possible explanations for this phenomenon, which certainly seems to contradict the simplistic account of female pleasure which evolutionary biologists seem to favour.

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