Female orgasms and cheating risk: in which evolutionary psychology actually tests a hypothesis

Regular readers will know that a particular bugbear of mine is evolutionary psychology and its persistent habit of throwing out hypotheses without ever bothering testing them. Hold onto your hats, ladies and gentlemen. I found an instance where they test a hypothesis.

The study, “DO WOMEN PRETEND TO ORGASM TO RETAIN A MATE” is rooted in the “sperm selection” hypothesis of female orgasm–that women have orgasms so their wombs act as a kind of jizz-hoover, and they’re more likely to have an orgasm when having sex with a man with good genes. Following from this, men evolved interest in women’s sexual pleasure so that they can be sure their lady-friend is keeping the little deposited parcel of spunk. Women might therefore fake orgasms in order to keep a man interested and stop him from straying. Now, there’s a lot of assumptions in there, building on the sperm-sucking uterus idea. Can this possibly translate into decent research?

In short, not really. What came out of all of this hypothesising was something which can kindly be described as shaky.

The participants were a reasonably decent sample of college-age women, all of whom had been in a committed heterosexual relationship for more than six months. Participants were asked two questions to assess their perceived likelihood of their partner cheating, and filled in a 104-item survey of “mate retention behaviours” such as calling to check where the partner is, dressing nicely to retain interest and holding hands to when other women are around. I have no idea why the poor participants were subjected to a 104-item questionnaire when there’s one which does the job for the far less tedious 38 items. Pretending orgasms was measured by two questions: “During sexual intercourse with your current partner, have you ever pretended you were more sexually excited than you really were?” and “During sexual intercourse with your current partner, have you ever pretended you were having an orgasm when you really weren’t?”

Astute, observant people may notice a problem with the measurement of faking orgasms here. So could a seven year-old. The first question does not measure faking orgasms at all. Despite this rather obvious point, the authors insist on averaging together scores on not faking orgasms with scores on faking orgasms throughout the study. This is further compounded by each item being measured on a ten-point scale ranging from “definitely not” to “definitely yes”. The authors insist on referring to this score as “frequency of pretending orgasms”, but there is absolutely no measure of time in here. It is more a measure of how sure the survey respondent is that they have done this.

Because of this silly wording of the question, I would expect most of the respondents to the survey to reply with either a very low number if they had not faked orgasms, or a large number if they had. Unfortunately, I will never know if I’m right here, as the authors opted not to publish the mean and measure of spread for the responses to this question. In fact, they’re rather shy about providing a lot of this rather useful information.

After gathering some questionable data, the authors proceeded to performing what the scientific community call a metric fuckton of correlation analyses. When someone does a lot of the same sort of analysis on a big data set, they are likely to get a significant result based on chance alone, unless they adjust for this, which the authors didn’t. Furthermore, if the data isn’t continuous, e.g bunched up at the edges like the orgasm-faking data probably was, you can’t really do a correlation analysis on it. It is possible that that’s why they averaged faking-orgasm data with a behaviour that was not faking orgasms–to smooth it out somewhat and make it more continuous.

The authors pulled out the big guns and decided to do mediation analysis to see whether mate retention behaviours, faking orgasms and perceived infidelity risk correlated in a way where they influenced each other. I will spare you the dry statistical details, but they used a method called Baron and Kenny which is awful, awful, awful andย can’t show what it says it shows.

Of course, the press has crawled all over this tripe and gone with the authors’ intepretation of their dodgy, dodgy findings. We women fake orgasms so our men won’t stray. Isn’t that sweet in an adorable lady-neurosis way?

Let us imagine, for a second, that the entire study wasn’t completely FUBAR. They properly measured frequency of women faking orgasms, they accounted for statistical problems, and it emerged, solidly, that perceived risk of cheating correlated with faking orgasms.

It still wouldn’t show that women fake orgasms to hold on to a partner, as it’s a correlation. Nowhere have I seen an alternative possibility explored: that women perceive a greater risk of cheating when their partner is crap in bed, or there’s some sort of sexual incompatability which means they feel the need to pretend. Or, more plausibly, the relationships where there is a high perceived risk of cheating and sex that is so unsatisfying as to necessitate faking orgasms are probably ones which are somewhat broken anyway, and the two factors have a common cause which was not measured in the study.

Essentially, female orgasms probably aren’t a method for holding on to a man. It also doesn’t strike me as particularly plausible that the sole reason female sexual pleasure evolved was to more efficiently funnel semen where it needs to be in the first place. What we have here is a study which is flawed from top to bottom, yet the media springs on it as it confirms societal expectations of women: that we want nothing more than to hold on to a man, and our orgasms are important only for making babies.

These tired tropes are trotted out time and time again, repeated without criticism. Most are, with scrutiny, utter rubbish.

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