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    Sometimes Cunnilingus Is Just Cunnilingus

    Written by

    Kelly Bourdet

    Photo: Crystal Martel / Flickr

    As a writer and editor who spends a lot of time at the intersection of sexuality, relationships, and gender, I see the influence, both undeniable and subtle, of the cult of evolutionary-psychology-explains-everything on the material I read and the articles I am pitched. And if I read one more email that leads with any variation of, “Because women are seeking partners for monogamous relationships/to breed with and men were born promiscuous cheaters who want to spread their seed..,” I will lose it.

    Much as I lost it over this week’s news of some hapless social scientists having proven the evolutionary origins of cunnilingus. Through rigorous scientific research they discovered that men with most “recurrent risk of sperm competition” are likely to perform cunnilingus to orgasm on their partners more often. How did they conjure up this risk? Well, they took “the mean of four variables: how sexually and physically attractive the participant views his partner, and how sexually and physically attractive the participant believes other men view his partner.”

    So they took the subjective ratings of men who were already in sexual relationships with women and used them to deduce how much sperm competition the man faced. By their logic, how attractive a man finds his girlfriend is just another way of saying how afraid the man is that his partner is going to bone another man.

    This study is rife with the exact sorts of biases that infuriate me.

    First, and most generally, no one thought to ask the women anything? How attracted they were to their partners? How empowered they felt to ask for what they liked in bed? Because the frequency at which the men brought their partners to orgasm could have a lot to do with the frequency the women asked for it. It’s the subtle framing of the issues, our invisible cultural context that dictates the very questions we ask. This interpretation is colored by the idea that sexually attractive women are a commodity that men compete for–-not the equally compelling idea that men who know how to perform oral sex are the commodity competed for by women.

    And then there's attractiveness, which is subjective. It can have a lot to do with the status of an emotional connection. You know how a partner can sometimes appear more attractive the more you begin to like them? Or even less attractive after the emotional bond is gone? Maybe the men who are more attracted to their partners just really like and value them. Maybe that’s why they’re happy to give them head.

    I’ll be clear: I believe in biological evolution. I also believe there are real differences between men and women. But I don’t believe that every stupid study that successfully measures the differences in behavior or values between genders somehow “proves” those differences have an evolutionary origin. Sometimes – a lot of times  – you find what you’re looking for.

    There’s also the similar interpretation of a recent new proposal of why menopause affects middle aged women. Traditionally, it's been thought that the "grandmother effect" was at play here. Women evolved to lose fertility at middle age because it freed them to help with the rearing of younger generations. This is a plausible explanation -- one that could explain why a woman's genes would continue to be passed on even as she was no longer fertile. 

    But evolutionary biologist Professor Rama Singh, whose new theory is published in the online journal Public Library of Science Computational Biology, believes that it was the male preference for younger mates that led to middle-age fertility becoming useless. Common wisdom holds that men are attracted to younger women because they're the fertile ones. But this theory claims that men wanting younger women is itself what led them to become the only fertile subset of females. But why do men like younger women in the first place? No one says. It's just how some dudes roll.

    When looking backwards into scientific and medical paradigms of the past, we’re quick to congratulate ourselves on how far we’ve come, on how enlightened and correct our science is today. We forget that an entire generation of reputable scientists believed in the existence of female hysteria, and that women’s weak minds and bodies were an evolutionary outgrowth of being the “gatherers” rather than the “hunters.”

    We forget that less than 20 years ago The Bell Curve made serious waves with its proposition that intelligence is tied to genes (read: race, specifically). This was merely the newest incarnation of the phrenology fad that also “proved” racial minorities’ subpar intelligence and a host of other pseudoscience that justified Jim Crowe, slavery, and segregation. During slavery in the US, plenty of people would have espoused the view that black people had evolved to be slaves, that they possessed the kind of minds which thrived only under the guidance of an owner. And it was within this decade–-this decade–-that former Harvard President Larry Summers put forward the claim that women are simply mentally inferior when it comes to math and abstract thinking.

    Yeah, even though men have run shit and had far greater access to wealth, power, and education for literally all of human history, it's probably just women's brains not working well enough. That's got to be it. It’s easy to justify all sorts of things when you’ve got “science” on your side. 

    Of course, some science is good. Some evolutionary psychology science is good. But we often forget that Science (with a big "S") isn't always facts. It isn't always right. And when it comes to social science, particularly, it's often evaluated by human beings who have their own sets of biases and expectations.

    Maybe cunnilingus doesn't have some secret pattern of evolutionary cues waiting to be parsed by white guys in white lab coats. Maybe it's just a fun part of a really complicated issue: What makes us choose a partner, stay with a partner, and care about our partner's satisfaction? But for now, ladies, you better hope your man sees you as a source of high risk of recurrent sperm competition. 

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