I’m so excited, because I have yet another opportunity to talk about a study in my favorite scientific journal, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Today’s study is about rabbits. Or is it???
This study, “an experimental test of the ovulatory homolog model of female orgasm”, first came to my attention a week ago. It is ostensibly about how female rabbit orgasms may be related to female human orgasms. Honestly it seemed pretty silly at first glance and I debated doing a video on it but I didn’t yet have access to the full paper and I got distracted by something shiny so I dropped it. But a few days ago, PNAS decided to distract me RIGHT BACK to the study by tweeting these rather concerning photos along with a link to the study.
Science Twitter was NOT HAPPY. PNAS was essentially using a very sexualized image of a woman appearing to orgasm in order to promote a study about rabbits fucking. And I mean, it’s not like it’s hard to find pictures of rabbits fucking. Some intern at PNAS wasn’t desperately looking for pics of rabbits getting down when he threw his hands in the air and was like “oh well I guess let’s just post some porn.” This was a business decision to get attention, and it worked. Good job, PNAS, now I’m talking about the study.
PNAS did eventually delete the tweets and apologize. All good there. Here’s the problem, though. Not only did the sexy orgasm photo help reinforce that science is a bro discipline where women are objects to be poked and prodded (sometimes literally), but the photo also allows people to walk away from this study with a fucked up idea of what it actually found. I can definitely foresee some armchair evolutionary psychologist dipshit using this as “proof” that his girlfriend doesn’t orgasm because of a fault in her own evolutionary line, and not a fault in his ability to successfully locate the clitoris with a map and a compass.
Because here’s something that might surprise you: I actually think this study is kind of interesting and deserved to be published.
First let’s do away with the things I find to be bullshit about this study. The study abstract concludes, “This finding helps interpreting otherwise difficult to explain aspects of female sexuality, such as the low rate of female orgasm during intercourse.” It absolutely does not do that. At all. It is not difficult to explain why women don’t often orgasm during intercourse! It’s because we live in a society. A society for men. As a society we treat “sex” as “when a man’s penis goes in a woman’s vagina and then the man orgasms and ejaculates, and then sex is done.” This is obviously a terrible definition of sex for a variety of reasons but it’s what we, as a society, teach and reinforce constantly. We’ve been joking about boys masturbating in movies and on tv shows for decades but it’s still rare for media to show girls doing that. It’s still shockingly rare for women to even understand their own desires and what brings them pleasure. Hell, there’s a significant number of women out there who think they pee out their vagina. Sex ed, particularly in certain US states, is very bad, and when it comes to understanding women it’s horrendous.
I guarantee that many women who have never orgasmed during intercourse would be doing so within minutes if you handed them a vibrator and taught them where their clit is. It’s not some great mystery of the universe.
What is a bit of a mystery, sort of, is why the female orgasm exists. Actually, stet that, it’s not true. The mystery isn’t why it exists, but why it does not have a noticeable impact on reproduction. Because it probably exists for the same reason men have nipples — the sexes are genetically nearly identical and evolution is a thrifty process. If something isn’t actively stopping you from passing on your genes, you’re likely to keep it. So both men and women get nipples even though only women’s nipples are important to the continued health of the human race. But nobody is really out there furiously coming up with explanations for why male nipples are secretly important to reproduction or raising progeny. They just exist, end of story. The same is true of the female orgasm — it’s not stopping women from reproducing, so even if it doesn’t exactly help, we’re not going to just lose the ability to do it. Something generally has to be maladaptive for that to happen.
But that’s not to say there’s not something interesting to discover about the female orgasm’s evolutionary past. It exists, but was there ever a time when it was important to reproduction? There’s reason to suspect so, since there are some animals that do reproduce using a female orgasm. One of those animals is, you guessed it, rabbits. Humans ovulate on a cyclical schedule, but rabbits ovulate when they orgasm. These researchers came up with what I think is a rather clever way to test whether these two methods are at all related in our evolutionary past — they gave the rabbits antidepressants.
SSRIs like Prozac are known to make it difficult for some humans to orgasm. It’s one of the BIG downsides of being a depressive asshole, because in order to get better sometimes you have to try a lot of different drugs and then pick the one that helps your depression the most with the least shitty side effects. The one I’m on just makes it so that sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat and I literally have to roll myself up in a beach towel to get back to sleep. It’s gross but I don’t want to kill myself anymore, and I can still orgasm. These are the compromises we make.
But for many people, including those with ovaries, Prozac is a real horn kill. So the scientists wondered what would happen if they gave prozac to rabbits. Would it also make it harder for them to ovulate?
And it turns out that it did, which is an interesting result that lends a small amount of credence to their hypothesis that in our distant past our ancestors may have also needed to orgasm in order to ovulate. Is it a slam dunk? Not in the least! There are many other possible explanations for why Prozac stopped rabbits from getting their little bunny rocks off, so more research will have to be done to learn about it. But that’s the thing — not every experiment is going to set the scientific world on fire, and that’s okay! It’s okay to just have a little result that is interesting and adds to the larger body of human knowledge. Hell, it’s okay to have a negative result. It’s okay.
The important takeaway is that maybe the human female orgasm once was critical to reproduction. The study tells us nothing about its role in our lives today, why many women don’t orgasm, or why laymen think that it matters at all to their sex lives whether or not it once had a purpose. That brings me back to that PNAS tweet — it’s frustrating because so many laymen (and, let’s be honest, evolutionary psychologists) will see that and say, “aha, women don’t orgasm because of evolution.” And that includes laywomen who may think the same: “I don’t orgasm because of evolution, not because Tanner refuses to go down on me because he doesn’t give a shit about my pleasure in bed.”
So cheers to interesting science (that was crowd-sourced, by the way!), and boo to overreaching conclusions and bad science communication.