The results are finally in – a study in Clinical Anatomy has found that the clitoris does play an important role in reproduction, activating a series of brain effects (taking as read, incidentally, that it is done right: so we are talking about a female orgasm, not about an ignored clitoris, sitting there, minding its own business). Those brain effects in brief: enhancement of vaginal blood flow, increased lubrication, oxygen and temperature, and an altered position of the cervix, which paradoxically slows down the sperm and improves their motility.
From a lay perspective, this feels pretty uncontroversial. The clitoris is right there in the reproductive ballpark; it would be weird if it did not at least try to help. Yet this – perhaps predictably, since female sexuality is involved – is a highly contested space.
It was a popular view in the 70s, that female orgasms were important to egg fertilisation, thanks to the suction effect of the muscle contractions, ensuring that sperm went in the right direction, and did not get distracted by, you know, open air. This was decreed false by the end of last century, and the debate took on the distinctive language of scientific scorn: it was a “zombie hypothesis”, according to the physiologist Roy Levin; it wasn’t live but it refused to die.
A feminist case was powerfully made by philosopher Elisabeth Lloyd in The Case of the Female Orgasm. When we seek to characterise sexual pleasure in women as an aid to fertility, we are turning it into an adaptive mechanism, any pleasure a by-product to the service of the species.
We are also being androcentric, taking the male reproductive journey (have orgasm; produce sperm; make baby) and trying to find its mirror in the female (have orgasm; grab sperm; make baby). If you want to explore female sexuality meaningfully, you have to see it as its own terrain, in which pleasure quite possibly exists for its own sake, irrespective of such a mechanism being absent in men.
Daniel Bergner’s book What Do Women Want? makes a parallel and fascinating case that starts with nerve endings in the vagina and ends (I paraphrase) at the conclusion that female desire is so immense we could be turned on by anything, up to and including bonobos.
At the risk of sounding a bit triangulated, I wonder if there is any need for these ideas to be at war; you can see the clitoris as reproductively useful, if that is how the science directs you, without minimising the epic power that has nothing to do with reproduction.