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The Case of the Female Orgasm: Bias in the Science of Evolution Hardcover – April 22, 2005

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The New York Times Book of Medicine by Gina Kolata
The New York Times Book of Medicine by Gina Kolata
Look back at over 150 years of the evolution of medicine as told by The New York Times. Learn more | See all by author

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Biologists agree that the male orgasm has a straightforward evolutionary function: it makes males want to have sex more often, which in turn makes them more likely to have offspring. But how to account for female orgasm, when nearly three-quarters of women don't always reach orgasm during sexual intercourse? Were they driven by the same evolutionary pressures, females would have adapted to be as consistently orgasmic as males. Through the vast majority of this book, Lloyd, an Indiana University biologist and philosopher of science, trashes evolutionary arguments, which range from pair-bonding (orgasms make females more likely to form stable partnerships) to sperm competition (orgasms expel previously deposited sperm from other sexual partners). Lloyd draws on the earlier work of Donald Symons to account for female orgasm as "a byproduct of embryological development," like male nipples. Lloyd argues that "the history of evolutionary explanations for female orgasm is a history of missteps, misuse of evidence, and missed references." Though built on a comprehensive survey of female sex research, the book is more a salvo in a scientific debate than an introduction to the field, and lay readers may well find it drier and at times more opaque than expected. (May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


Lloyd summarizes dozens of evolutionary accounts of the female orgasm--and knocks them all down. Like [Stephen Jay] Gould, she thinks the female orgasm is purposeless; which is not to say pleasureless. And she extends the charge of bias, charging that too many scientists take the male-centered view that the female orgasm is closely linked to heterosexual intercourse and reproduction. (Christopher Shea Boston Globe 2005-04-24)

It's been 52 years since scientists first considered the female orgasm a legitimate object of scrutiny (thank you, Dr. Kinsey). But they still can't settle on its raison d'etre...Lloyd knocks down all but one of the 21 existing explanations. Along the way, she makes a critical distinction between sexual arousal, which she says is critical in evolutionary terms because it makes women want to have sex (and thus results in pregnancy), and female orgasm, which she argues is merely a bonus...Lloyd settles on the unpopular but, she insists, most scientifically solid theory available...From an evolutionary perspective, female orgasm is superfluous...Lloyd hasn't written off the possibility that an 'obscure' and 'exquisitely designed' Darwinian function has yet to be discovered. But for now, she makes a convincing case that from an evolutionary perspective, female orgasm is just the icing, not the cake. (Sue Ferguson Maclean's 2005-04-29)

[Lloyd's] study of evolution and orgasm offers the most thorough and serious treatment of the subject to date--and strongly rejects the claim that orgasm in women serves an evolutionary purpose. Lloyd has scrutinized 21 evolutionary accounts of female orgasm and makes a convincing case for the single account that treats orgasm as a happy accident, a byproduct of the role that male orgasm plays in reproduction and the sharing of early embryonic tissue by the male and female genitalia. The other 20 theories she dismisses as illogical or incompatible with data on women's sexuality. This time the press has it right. Lloyd's analysis is worth all the attention. (Amanda Schaffer 2005-05-26)

Okay, you have to be a science nerd to read this, a Stephen Gould fan, but what's here is [fascinating]. Really, the most radical book about how female orgasm has been so sensationally misunderstood and manipulated. Lloyd doesn't draw political conclusions--but you sure will. (Susie Bright

Lloyd's book is penetrating and tantalizing, even intensely satisfying...Her findings about the scientific process really are something to scream about. (Alison Motluk Toronto Globe and Mail 2005-05-28)

The conclusion, Lloyd argues, must surely be that the female orgasm has no biological function. Rather, it's on a par with the male nipple--an accident of shared developmental pathways in the early embryo. Because women need nipples to suckle their babies, men end up with rudimentary versions too. They may not give milk, but like the female's they have erotic sensibilities. As for genitalia, because men need ejaculatory penises, women end up with clitorises capable of similar sexual pleasures. 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. The late Stephen Jay Gould, who encouraged Lloyd's long-standing investigation, must be cheering from above. (Gail Vines New Scientist 2005-05-14)

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...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 interested in everything from scientific methodology to the role of science in society. (The Complete Review)

Underlying biases exist throughout science, but surely nowhere in as extreme a form as in research into female sexuality...Elisabeth Lloyd neatly dissects the history of these biases and their results in The Case of the Female Orgasm. (Sarah Venis The Lancet 2005-09-03)

She has an interesting and important set of theses. On top of that, her argument has a straightforward, logical structure…I recommend Lloyd's book to all philosophers of biology and students of human evolution. (Dr. Rob Loftis Metapsychology)

Lloyd asks whether female orgasm is really related to reproductive success. The search for an answer reads like a mystery story and involves the critical examination of 18 theories developed on the premise that the human female orgasm is an evolutionary adaptation. The author invalidates each of these theories by an examination of their assumptions and, in many cases, the frailty of their supporting data...With its 355 references, this book is a study of the power of a careful analysis of data to show the weaknesses of certain theories. (W. P. Anderson Choice 2005-09-01)

In this scientific review of the literature on women's ability to orgasm, Lloyd lined up thirty years' worth of studies designed to prove that women's orgasms evolved solely to make us better at reproducing and proceeds to demolish them all due to their crappy data, bogus assumptions, or fatal bias. She instead makes a case for men and women having separate, autonomous sexuality. Human orgasm evolved because men need it to reproduce, and women got it as a developmental byproduct. How women use that gift is ours to determine. Feminism and scientific theory can be uninspiring bedfellows, but Lloyd proves here that tenacity and hard work can bring them to a readable climax. (Beth Brown On Our Backs 2005-09-01)

Elisabeth Lloyd provides a comprehensive and critical review of evolutionary explanations of the female orgasm. Through her extensive analysis of 37 years of research on the topic, she argues against the prominent theory that the female orgasm is an adaptation that has evolved to improve reproductive success...Lloyd provides a careful and impartial analysis of the validity of the findings from cross-cultural, animal, and human sexuality studies. Contrary to the adaptation perspective, Lloyd supports the theory, originally proposed in the late 1970s, that the female clitoris and orgasm are by-products of the embryological development of the penis and orgasm in males...The work touches on many of the biases that negatively affect scientific rigor and consequently (mis)shape our understanding of women's sexual functioning. (Jayne E. Stake and Amy K. Silberbogen PsycCRITIQUES)

Lloyd is a philosopher of science interested in evolutionary biology, and she provides a measured scholarly evaluation of both the adaptive and nonadaptive explanations for human female orgasm...Her meticulously researched book examines 21 explanations for the evolution of female orgasm...The book becomes about much more than an aspect of human sexuality. It is an examination of how evolutionary biologists think, and how their system of gathering and evaluating knowledge can falter. Her reasoned approach is refreshingly free of jargon in a field that sometimes seems abstruse for its own sake; even if one does not agree with Lloyd's conclusion, the book provides a blueprint of how to critically evaluate scientific arguments. (Marlene Zuk Perspectives in Biology and Medicine)

In this engaging and carefully argued account, philosopher Elisabeth Lloyd guides her readers through one of the most fascinating controversies in evolutionary theory. (Mark E. Borrello Quarterly Review of Biology)

In this closely argued study, [Lloyd] shows how the leading evolutionary accounts of the human female orgasm are based on two flawed assumptions: that the female orgasm evolved because it contributed to reproductive success ('adaptationism'), and that female sexuality is like male sexuality ('androcentrism'). This is an important book that casts light on the biases that can prejudice science. (PDS The Guardian 2006-12-09)

Upon your shelf...there probably isn't a book on evolution and the female orgasm. That's because it hasn't been written until now...Evolutionarily speaking, the female orgasm is 'for fun,' says Lloyd, and her theory...adds to its more intellectual joie de vivre. (Michelle Humphrey Bust 2007-02-01)

Lloyd, a biologist, philosopher and science historian, uses the human female orgasm (an evolutionary development unique among primates), and science's wholly inadequate explanations for it, to focus on the ways science can be led astray by the biases of those practicing it. (H. J. Kirchhoff Globe and Mail 2006-12-30)

Methodical and lucid, Elisabeth Lloyd's The Case of the Female Orgasm is an exemplar of accessible science writing. Those interested in evolutionary biology, philosophy of science, and feminism will find the book an interesting, if perhaps occasionally frustrating, read...Lloyd offers a rigorous case study showing how political and methodological biases have distorted the practice and results of evolutionary investigations of female orgasm....Although parts of the book are somewhat technical, Lloyd carefully explains most of the crucial concepts and educated readers will find it generally accessible. (Meynell Letitia Hypatia 2007-07-01)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; 1St Edition edition (April 22, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674017064
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674017061
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,516,978 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Lloyd asserts that an alternate theory better explains the female orgasm.
Adam Corson-Finnerty
Towards the end Lloyd summarises this thread of the book with a list of eight assumptions she identifies as having been made by the scientists under scrutiny here.
R. Altman
Science works very well, in general; our increase in understanding of everything from galaxies to quarks is really quite admirable.
R. Hardy

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

46 of 48 people found the following review helpful By R. Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on June 24, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Science is the way we have of finding out how the components of the universe work. Science works very well, in general; our increase in understanding of everything from galaxies to quarks is really quite admirable. Nothing humans do is perfect, and the world's scientific effort, for all its successes, has a history that also includes some missteps, prejudices, and erroneous conclusions. It is somehow not surprising that in investigating sexuality, which is still for some people a controversial endeavor, there have been consequential mistakes. This is probably because the subject is both vitally important to us all and also private and covert. Compound this with particular investigation of female sexuality, and all sorts of prejudices might be expected to occur. In _The Case of the Female Orgasm: Bias in the Science of Evolution_ (Harvard University Press), Elisabeth A. Lloyd has examined how scientists have tried to understand how female orgasms evolved. "Female orgasm is a source of fascination for groups ranging from sex researchers to the lay public, and evolutionists are no exception," she writes. Unfortunately, Lloyd shows that the evolutionists' fascination has borne erroneous explanations. This is a tiny area of evolutionary science, but it has been explored and written about by many, often in opposing camps, and Lloyd has given a detailed and serious refutation of all explanations but one, the one she championed in a paper twenty years ago. Others might find this a tempest in a teapot, but Lloyd's serious tone and exhaustive analysis of the flaws in other researchers' ideas, and the causes of those flaws, make this a fascinating book of scientific advocacy.

Females don't have to have orgasms to bring forth children, so why do they have orgasms?
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19 of 22 people found the following review helpful By R. Altman on August 10, 2005
Format: Hardcover
It's not been uncommon to wonder why women have an orgasm - a reflex devoted to pleasure with no apparent further purpose, including procreational. Naturally, lay people and scientists alike have wondered whether it has some hidden, evolutionary purpose. And so, apparently, there have been 21 theories on the subject since the mid 20th century, all speculating on the purpose of the female orgasm. And according to professor Lloyd, with one honourable exception, they have all been just that - speculation - for in this book Lloyd conducts a meticulous piece by piece deconstruction, and ultimately demolition, of these attempts to crack the conundrum.

Much of the 20-odd conclusions are based, among other things, on surveys, and Lloyd's first salvo comprehensively points to the holes in these surveys. They fail even to achieve a proper definition of the female orgasm, and then go on, on the say-so of unreliable witnesses and dodgy surveys, to build a picture of the experience of womankind in this area. Anatomically speaking they by and large even neglect the crucial matter of the varying proximity of clitoris to vagina. In my observation, in terms of the general survey of the phenomenon, they also seem to neglect the importance in pre-orgasmic arousal of the panoply of mental issues involved. At some point in the evolving literature, investigators did come to differentiate between 'assisted and unassisted orgasm with intercourse', but I suspect they don't really understand what they're talking about here either, given the great variability of practices that the term 'assisted' might cover here.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Amanda Dixson on January 3, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Professor Lloyd has the advantage of being a historian and philosopher of science, as well as being a biologist. Thus, this book succeeds on several levels. Firstly it provides a well-organised review of the numerous theories advanced to account for the evolution of female orgasm. The most credible theory is due to Symons, who posited that orgasm in women represents a homologue of the male orgasmic response. As such it is an epiphenomenon....much like the nipples, or the vestigial uterus masculinus are functionless homologues in males.

The bizarre theories of evolutionary psychologists, such as Baker and Bellis are reviewed fairly, critically and at some length in this book. Hopefully this will help to put to rest ideas that are still cited in the literature, concerning the existence of "sperm retention" orgasms in humans, and other absurdities. The second value of the book is thus its detailed analysis of the flawed methods and poor reasoning applied in various studies of female orgasm. The third perspective it provides is historical, tracing how such theories developed and how they came to be widely cited by authors who were at several removes from the experimental reports and (presumably) failed to check original sources. Professor Lloyd clearly checked her sources, and has written a wonderful book.For there was bias in this field, and it needed exposure.
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21 of 29 people found the following review helpful By William Mealiffe on April 24, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Elisabeth's A. Lloyd's book is a comprehensive survey of the theories and conjectures that try to explain the evolutional basis for the female orgasm. It is extremely well argued, and convincely rips into the biases of those who have proposed various adaptational (versus exaptational) accounts. Lloyd shows how theorists have misconstrued and ignored research into human female orgasm and primate female orgasm when drawing their conclusions, and makes a convincing case that many theorists started out with an a-priori notion that human female orgasm has to be adaptive. This book is great documentation in one area on how biased scientists can be, how undisciplined their reasoning can be, and how much this invalidates their conclusions. And the upshot is, if scientists are biased on this subject, how many more areas of research are they biased about?
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