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Women, orgasm and genetics

June 8th, 2005

Dr Petra

Today the world of sexology, particularly those working in the area of sexual dysfunction got a little upset.

That’s putting it mildly. Actually they were very angry about the latest study supposedly proving women’s orgasmic problems are genetic.

The research by a team of UK scientists was published in Biology Letters and studied identical and non-identical twins, and claimed the ability to orgasm has a genetic and evolutionary basis.

And the press went wild!

Hundreds of radio and television shows, newspapers and websites ran the story stating women’s orgasmic dysfunction is all down to genetics (it isn’t). You can’t get pickup on stories about sexual confidence, clitoral stimulation or communicating your desires to your partner. But mix in the key terms ‘genetics’, ‘biology’, ‘evolution’ and ‘orgasm’ and you can’t move for coverage. Most media outlets didn’t read the original research, which is probably why they didn’t pick up on the key flaws within the work.

What was so wrong with the study?

1. It overlooked existing evidence
In the introduction of the study paper, the researchers argue ‘the study of male sexual function is widely accepted…the female orgasm is well less studied’. Hundreds of studies have been carried out on the female orgasm! It’s not to say they’re all particularly good, but it’s wrong to say the topic’s not been studied. Currently contemporary sexologists are concerned about the amount of research being completed on the female orgasm, since most of it is attempting to negatively label women who don’t orgasm. This current research just added to this crisis.

2. It didn’t measure orgasmic dysfunction

The researchers state in their paper “orgasmic dysfunction was defined primarily by using two questions on frequency of orgasm during intercourse and masturbation. The questions were, ‘overall, how frequently do you experience an orgasm during intercourse’ and ‘overall, how frequently do you experience an orgasm during masturbation by yourself or a partner?’”

Let’s look at those questions in more detail. First off, what does ‘overall’ mean? Is it ‘overall’ in your life at the moment? ‘overall’ across your lifespan? ‘overall’ in your current relationship, or perhaps past relationships? If you don’t define parameters, you can’t be certain what people are responding to. That’s why reputable studies of sexual functioning define a specific period (e.g. the past month, the past year, your current relationship) to direct participants’ answers.

And what about ‘frequently’? Even novice social scientists know to avoid the term ‘frequently’. In this study ‘frequently’ could mean daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly. Participants are left to decide what frequently means to them, and you can be sure it’ll vary across respondents. Again, in kosher sex research you give participants amounts to respond to, rather than using abstract terms like ‘frequently’.

The question on masturbation is confusing because it’s two questions in one. Existing sex research shows women have different orgasmic experiences when masturbating alone or with a partner, and usually are more likely to orgasm through masturbation on their own, than when their partner’s masturbating them. Again, reliable sex research always breaks down questions to avoid confusing participants.

But the main problem with the questions asked, was that frequency of orgasm doesn’t equate to orgasmic dysfunction. Because you don’t have an orgasm ‘frequently’ doesn’t make you dysfunctional. Only this research assumed it did. Those were the questions asked of women to identify sexual problems.

The study found 1/3 respondents didn’t orgasm through penetrative sex. Welcome to the real world! Most women do not orgasm through penetrative sex alone, and this is neither a problem nor a pathology. It is incorrect of these researchers to assume the absence of orgasm during intercourse is anything other than a normal female sexual response. And if they’d read any other studies on the female orgasm they’d know this.

Sexual dysfunction can be classified as a lack of desire, the inability to become aroused, problems with orgasm, or pain during or after sex. Each of these problems has many possible causes. However this current study didn’t ask about any of these issues nor their potential causes.

3. It omitted required additional measures
As well as not asking about classic signs of sexual dysfunction, the current study committed a major sex research blunder. It failed to ask about distress. It assumed women reporting a lack of orgasm were indicating a sexual problem. Existing evidence suggests women are not always bothered by not having an orgasm, and a lack of orgasm alone is not a sufficient indicator of a dysfunction. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) do not accept research on female sexual problems without an additional corresponding measure of distress. This is supported by other ethical and research organisations specialising in sexual functioning research. Because if you don’t always come, and it doesn’t bother you, then you haven’t got a problem.

4. It made claims but offered no solutions
This study made bold claims from their two flawed questions on orgasm that orgasmic problems are genetic. This research created huge amounts of interest, but offered no support or advice to women who are having sexual problems. Any responsible sex research always has this kind of support built in, but this study made no mention of this either in the published paper, or in offering any practical advice for media reports. Basically we’ve been told there’s a genetic link to orgasmic problems, but no more information than that. And we can’t support the study findings since it never accurately measured orgasmic dysfunction.

5. It wasn’t published in a recognised sex journal

This research was published in the perfectly respectable Biology Letters. But ask yourself why it wasn’t published in one of the many reputable sexology journals? With respect, authors of a biology journal are not going to be familiar with the regulations around sexual functioning research, and may have published the study without knowing it was intrinsically flawed. This paper is unlikely to have been published in a reputable sexology journal, and many respected sexologists are currently concerned about the quality of this study. Let’s hope that was the case. It would be terrible to assume the journal that published this study was aware of its flaws but saw it as a controversial study designed to gain maximum publicity.

6. It was presented in an odd context

The two questions on orgasm were presented within a wider questionnaire. The authors tell us this in their research paper. They don’t say in what context these questions were presented. Were they in a general survey that covered a variety of topics? If so, the sudden appearance of two questions on orgasm would have shocked some participants, and certainly they’d have given different answers in a general survey that happened to contain a few personal questions, than they would on a more specific survey of sexual functioning.

7. It wasn’t representative

98% of the respondents in this research were straight. Hardly surprising. If you ask participants to report on intercourse, lesbian or bi women may well assume the study isn’t aimed at them. We cannot conclude from a study where most volunteers were in middle aged and straight, that these findings represent all women globally.

8. They didn’t use any other measures

Apart from the two questions about orgasm, the researchers didn’t take any additional measures to explain the data – for example questions on emotional/physical health, other sexual or relationship difficulties, or even a physical exam of participants. This is standard in other sexual functioning research on women’s orgasms. Part of the reason for this was this was a postal survey. The researchers never met the women they were studying.

So why is this a problem?

Because it creates a lot of fuss and interest, based on a flawed study. There may be a genetic link to orgasm, but this study doesn’t prove it. Any research that doesn’t accurately ask about orgasm (and orgasmic dysfunction) can’t claim to be groundbreaking. It’s a problem because it’s a missed opportunity to discuss the many causes of orgasmic problems women have. Whilst these can include physical and emotional health problems, women’s difficulties with orgasm are far more likely to be caused by a lack of awareness, a lack of body or sexual confidence, relationship problems, or the inability to know what excites them – and have a partner who can arouse them.

Shock stories about women’s orgasm problem tap into the agenda of Big Pharma who want to medicalise a lack of orgasm as a clinical event requiring treatment. It increases women’s anxiety about orgasm, and reinforces the idea that a lack of orgasm is a chronic problem – rather than a normal life event.

But the main problem about this story was the speed it travelled round the world and the lack of interrogation of the actual research.

It broke the first rule of research. It didn’t measure what it claimed to measure.

Yet the public won’t know this, and as a result thousands more women and their partners are now being made to worry needlessly about their sexual functioning.

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