Sexed-Up Statistics – Female Genital Mutilation

“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes” – Mark Twain.

I had planned on finishing up another post today (which will likely be up tomorrow now) until a news story caught my eye this morning, changing my plans somewhat. The news story (found on Alternet) is titled, “Evidence shows that female genital cutting is a growing phenomenon in the US“. Yikes; that certainly sounds worrying. From that title, and subsequent article, it would seem two things are likely to inferred by the reader: (1) There is more female genital cutting in the US in recent years than there was in the past and (2) some kind of evidence supports that claim. There were several facets of the article that struck me as suspect, however, most of which speak to the second point: I don’t think the author has the evidence required to substantiate their claims about FGC. Just to clear up a few initial points, before moving forward with this analysis, no; I’m not trying to claim that FGC doesn’t occur at all in the US or on overseas trips from the US. Also, I personally oppose the practice in both the male and female varieties; cutting pieces off a non-consenting individual is, on my moral scale, a bad thing. My points here only concern accurate scholarship in reporting. They also raise the possibility that the problem may well be overstated – something which, I think, ought to be good news.

It means we can start with just the pitchforks; the torches aren’t required…yet.

So let’s look at the first major alarmist claim of the article: there was a report put out by the Sanctuary for Families that claimed approximately 200,000 women living in the US were living in risk of genital cutting. That number sounds pretty troubling, but the latter part of the claim sounds a bit strange: what does “at risk” mean? I suppose, for instance, that I’m living “at risk” of being involved in a fatal car accident, just as everyone else who drives a car is. Saying that there are approximately 200,000,000 people in the US living at risk of a fatal car crash is useless on its own, though: it requires some qualifications. So what’s the context behind the FGC number? The report itself references a 1997 paper by the CDC that estimated between 150,000 and 200,000 women in the US were at risk of being forced to undergo FGC (which we’ll return to later). Given that the reference for claim is a paper by the CDC, it seems very peculiar that the Sanctuary for Families attaches a citation that instead directs you to another news site that just reiterates the claim.

This is peculiar for two reasons: first, it’s a useless reference. It would be a bit like my writing down on a sheet of paper, “I think FGC is one the rise” because I had read it somewhere, and then referencing the fact that I wrote that down when I say it again the next time.Without directing one the initial source of the claim, it’s not a proper citation and doesn’t add any information. The second reason that the reference is peculiar is that the 1997 CDC paper (or at least what I assume is the paper) is actually freely available online. It took me all of 15 seconds to find it through a Google search. While I’m not prepared to infer any sinister motivation on the Sanctuary for Families for not citing the actual paper, it does, I think speak to the quality of scholarship that went into drafting the report, and in a negative way. It makes one wonder whether they actually read the key report in the first place.

Thankfully, it does finally provide us with the context as to how the estimated number was arrived at. The first point worth noting is that the estimate the paper delivers (168,000) is a reflection of people living in the US who had either already undergone the procedure before they moved here or who might undergo it in the future (but not necessarily within the US). The estimate is mute on when or where the procedure might have taken place. If it happened in another country years or decades ago, it would be part of this estimate. In any case, the authors began with the 1990 census data of the US population. On the census, respondents were asked about their country of origin and how long they lived in the US. From that data, the authors then cross-referenced the estimated rates of FGC in people’s home countries to estimate whether or not they were likely to have undergone the procedure. Further, the authors made the assumption in all of this that immigrants were not unique from the population from which they were derived with respect to their practicing of FGC: if 50% of the population in a families’ country of origin practiced it, then 50% of immigrants were expected to have practiced it or might do so in the future. In other words, the 168,000 number is an estimate, based on other estimates, based on an assumption.

It’s an impressive number, but I worry about its foundation.

I would call this figure, well, a very-rough estimate, and not exactly solid evidence. Further, it’s an estimate of FGC in other countries; not in the US. The authors of the CDC paper were explicit about this point, writing, “No direct information is available on FGC in the United States”. It is curious, then, that the Sanctuary report and the Alternet article both reference the threat of FGC that girls in the US face while referencing the CDC estimate. For example, here’s how the Sanctuary report phrased the estimate:

In 1997, however, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that as many as 150,000 to 200,000 girls in the United States were at risk of being forced to undergo female genital mutilation.

See the important differences? The CDC estimate wasn’t one concerning people at risk of being forced to undergo the practice; it was an estimate of people who might undergo it and whom might have already undergone it at some point in the past in some other country. Indeed, the CDC document could more accurately be considered an immigration report, rather than an paper on FGC itself. So, when the Sanctuary report and Alternet article suggest that the number of women at risk for FGC is rising, what they appear to mean is that immigration from certain countries where the practice is more common is rising, but that doesn’t seem to have quite the same emotional effect. Importantly, the level of risk isn’t ever qualified. Approximately 200,000,000 people are “at risk” of being involved in a fatal car crash; how many of them actually are involved in one? (about 40,000 a year and on the decline). So how many of the 168,000 women “at risk” for FGC already had one, how many might still be “at risk”, and how many of those “at risk” end up actually undergoing the procedure? Good evidence is missing on these points.

This kind of not-entirely-accurate reporting remind me of a piece by Neuroskeptic on what he called “sexed-up statistics”. These are statistics presented or reported on in such a way as to make some problem seem as bad as possible, most likely in the goal of furthering some social, political, or funding goals (big problems attract money for their solution). It’s come up before in the debate over the wage-gap between men and women, and when considering the extent of rape among college-aged (and non-college aged) women, to just name two prominent cases. This ought not be terribly surprising in light of the fact that the pursuit of dispassionate accuracy is likely not the function of human reasoning. The speed with which people can either accept or reject previously-unknown information (such as the rate of FGC in the US and whether it’s a growing problem) tells us that concerns for accuracy per se are not driving these decisions. This is probably why the initial quote by Mark Twain carries the intuitive appeal that it does.

“Everyone but me and the people I agree with are so easily fooled!”

FGC ought to be opposed, but it’s important to not let one’s opposition for it (or, for that matter, one’s opposition or support for any other specific issue) get in the way of accurately considering and reporting on the evidence at hand (or al least doing the best one can in that regard). The evidence – and that term is used rather loosely here – presented certainly does not show that illegal FGC is a “growing phenomenon in the US”, as Jodie at Alternet suggests. How could the evidence even already show it was a growing problem if one grants that determining the initial and current scope of the problem hasn’t been done and couldn’t even feasibly be done? As far as the “evidence” suggests, the problem could be on the rise, on the decline, or have remained static. One of those options just happens to make for the “sexier” story; the story more capable of making its way halfway around the world in an instant.

Female Orgasm: This Time, With Feeling

I’ve written about female orgasm on two prior occasions, but in those cases I used the subject more as a vehicle for understanding the opposition to evolutionary explanations rather than discussing orgasm itself. The comments section on a recent Cracked article that concludes female orgasm is a byproduct – not an adaptation – attests to the issues I had discussed. There, we see dozens of comments made by people who’s expertise consists of maybe having watched some documentary once they sort of remember. Believe it or not, as this part is shocking, these uninformed people also have very strong opinions about whether female orgasm has an evolved function. The most commonly hypothesized function for female orgasm found in the comments is that it motivates women to have sex, typically followed with a “duh”. The two assumptions embedded in that idea are (1) women who orgasm during intercourse engage in more sex than women who do not and (2) having more sex means having more children. If either of those points turn out to be false, that hypothesis wouldn’t work.

The first point may be true. According to Lloyd (2005), there is some evidence that suggests women want more sex the more frequently they orgasm. Sure, it’s correlational in nature, but we’ll not worry about that here. It’s the second point that raises some more serious issues. As women can only become pregnant during a specific point of their cycle where an egg is available, having more sex during a non-fertile period will do approximately nothing when it comes to a shot at successful conception. Further, in principle – and many times, in practice – you only need to have sex once to become pregnant; having sex beyond or before that point will not make a woman any more pregnant. The heart of the issue, then, seems to concern proper timing. Having sperm present and ready to do some fertilizing at all points may increase the odds of conception, as neither the man or the woman know the precise moment ovulation will occur. However, at some point there will be diminishing returns on the probably of increasing conception from each additional act of intercourse. It’s not a simple formula of “more sex = more babies”.

I’m going to get soooo pregnant; you have no idea!

If female orgasm evolved to motivate women to have sex with men, it does so rather inefficiently. When women masturbate, the vast majority do not do so in a manner that simulates penetrative intercourse alone, as penetration rarely provides the proper stimulation. When women do achieve orgasm with intercourse, which is often quite variable, most require additional manual stimulation of the clitoris; orgasm is not generally reached through the sex itself. In terms of providing some crucial motivation then, this accounts seems to take an odd do-it-yourself approach to reinforcement. This also raises the question of why so many women are unable to reach orgasm either frequently or at all from intercourse alone if it’s supposed to provide some crucial motivation. Under this functional account, women who did not experience orgasms with intercourse would have been selected against, yet they persist in substantial numbers. In terms of taking home the coveted label of adaptation, this account doesn’t fare so well.

There are many additional adaptive accounts of female orgasm, but I’d like to discuss only one other hypothesis here: the upsuck hypothesis. Though the account had been proposed prior to Baker and Bellis (1992), they were the first to attempt to empirically test the suggestion that female orgasm may serve a function manipulating the amount of sperm retained or ejected from copulation. To test this suggestion, Baker and Bellis found some very willing volunteers to first collect semen samples from sex using condoms in order to generate an estimate of sperm count in the ejaculate. After this period, the couples engaged in unprotected sex and collected the flowback – the secretions from the vagina following sex, including fluids from both the male and female. Sperm count was then obtained from the flowback samples to estimate how much sperm had been retained. The samples were finally assessed on scales of taste and presentation*.

Don’t worry; taste testing was carried out using a double-blind procedure to avoid bias.

The results showed that female orgasm was unrelated to sperm retention in general. However, female orgasms that occurred from one minute prior to male ejaculation to forty-five minutes following ejaculation were associated with greater estimated sperm retention. Lloyd (2005) critiqued this study on statistical grounds, but I’m not currently in a position to evaluate her claims, so I’ll ignore those for now (though I will say I’m always uncomfortable relying on median values without accompanying means). Lloyd also mentions that a later reexamination of the data found that female orgasms occurring one minute to ten minutes following male ejaculation actually did not show that effect of increased sperm retention, which would require the odd pattern of female orgasm having no effect prior to one minute before male ejaculation, then it would increase sperm retention, then decrease retention, then increase retention again. It seems more plausible that there’s an issue with the data, rather than that such a peculiar pattern exists.

There is another concern of mine regarding Baker and Bellis’s flowback data, though it has not been raised by other authors to my knowledge. Perhaps that is for a good statistical reason that escapes me, so bear in mind this may be a moot concern. Naturally, it’s hard to recruit for this kind of research. As a result, Baker and Bellis had a small sample size, but did manage to collect 127 flowback samples across 11 couples. Now Lloyd mentions that, of these 127 samples, 93 came from just one couple. What she does not mention is that this couple also happened to have the second lowest median percentage of sperm retention of all the couples, and they were lower by a substantial margin. In fact, the couple providing most of the data retained only about half of the overall median number of sperm. For reference sake, the only couple to have a lower median retention rate was estimated to have retained a negative number of sperm. If most of the data is coming from an outlier, that would be a big problem.

For example, the average income of these men is roughly ten-million dollars a year.

While these results are suggestive, they beg for replication before full acceptance. Nevertheless, let’s take the results of Baker and Bellis at face value. While all women in the sample were estimated to be able to either nearly completely retain or expel all the sperm of an ejaculate, regardless of whether they could orgasm during sex or not, Baker and Bellis suggest that female orgasm may play some role in affecting the sperm retention process. To attempt and complete an adaptive account, it’s time to consider two other points: first, it’s unclear as to whether the additional sperm retention has any effect on conception rates, either between or within men. It might seem as though additional sperm retention would be useful, but that assumption needs to be demonstrated. Second, female orgasm does not reliably accompany intercourse at all, let alone with a specific timing (up to a minute before hand, but not from one to ten minutes afterwards, but then again after ten minutes, and only during ovulation). As most female orgasms require additional clitoral stimulation on the part of either the man or the woman, this would require ancestral humans to have reliably provided such stimulation, and whether they did so is an open-ended question. Even if female orgasm had this potential function of sperm retention, it does not follow that female orgasm was selected for; that potential function could be a byproduct.

There are certain adaptive hypotheses still to be tested, but what we need is more evidence that’s less ambiguous. The case of whether female orgasm is an adaptation or not is still open to debate. At present, I find the evidence favoring the adaptation side of the debate lacking, much to the dismay of many people who determine the social and personal value of a trait on the basis of whether it’s an adaptation or a byproduct. They seem to think tentatively labeling female orgasm as a byproduct somehow makes it less valuable and reflects a mean-spirited sexism towards women. On a redundant note, they’re still wrong.

*That sentence may or may not be true. I wasn’t there.

References: Baker, R.R. & Bellis, M.A. (1993). Human sperm competition: Ejaculate manipulation by females and a function for female orgasm. Animal Behavior, 46, 887-909

Lloyd, E.A. (2005). The case of the female orgasm: Bias in the science of evolution. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

The Case Of The Female Orgasm: Bias In The Critiquing Of Science

The last post dealt with the moralistic outrage that some people feel towards a trait being labeled an adaptation or a byproduct, but I only skimmed the surface of the issue. Since it’s such an important point, I felt it would only be proper to expand it a bit further.

Because I crave pain and disappointment, I actually read every last comment on both articles. A reoccurring theme seen throughout the comments sections is that many people seem to feel female orgasm is obviously and adaptation and anyone who comes to the opposite conclusion is probably a sexist being mislead by a male-centered society that’s out to demean women. It’s at this point they’ll generally state female orgasm clearly has the function of [making women have more sex, drawing sperm into the reproductive tract, making women lay down to retain more sperm, reinforcing the pair bond, even - are you ready for this one - feeling good. That's right, it evolved for reasons that have nothing to do with reproduction], and why haven’t people figured that out? It’s all because those silly evolutionary psychologists are blinded by current cultural trends and institutions, whereas their critics presumably feel they are not similarly influenced.

“Orgasms feel good, therefore they evolved to feel good. Duh”

In case you’re curious, those possible functions have already all been explored. The only one that seems like it might – and I do stress might – have some traction is the sperm transport hypothesis, though it rests on some questionable data.

These are some pretty strong intuitions people seem to have about whether female orgasm is adaptive based upon very little evidence, if evidence is involved at all. Ironically, people who are so fond of saying, “evolutionary psychologists spin just-so stories” appear completely willing to accept even a possible scenario as clearly true (say, female orgasm encouraged women to have more sex) if it matches their view of how the world should be; female orgasm should be socially important, therefore female orgasm is evolutionarily important (an adaptation).

“If this didn’t have anything to do with reproduction, I’d probably have to stop doing it”

What I feel we do have at this point is the knowledge that people are not overtly hostile to an adaptationist research paradigm in all cases, but will tend to be when it doesn’t come to the right conclusions. For instance, it’d otherwise be odd that people calling the byproduct hypothesis “evolutionary psychology bullshit” are perfectly happy to advance their own evolutionary accounts for female orgasm. You see, where evolutionary psychologists are naive, their critics are informed and knowledgable, having cast off their cultural trappings and viewed the underlying essence of human nature. I’d point out that evolutionary psychologists also proposed many of those other possible functions in the first place, but that would just totally ruin the buzz the critics have going.

Perhaps this whole debate makes more sense were we to view it as people attempting to persuade each other about something, rather than attempting to discover some historical truth. In this case, it could be that female sexual satisfaction is important; in others it could be that rape is bad, that jealousy should be minimized, or that depression has some cognitive benefits, so depressed people should feel better about their depression, thus cheering up and losing that benefit (read respectively as: rape is not an adaptation, humans haven’t evolved for pair-bonding, and depression is adaptive).

Viewing these debates as attempts at persuasion might help explain why the criticisms that come from the upper levels of academia do not seem substantially different than the ones that come from your everyday internet commenter; the foundation of these debates might not be academic in the first place. It may also help to explain why people who even just suggest certain hypotheses are painted as villains and the same tired straw men are pulled out again and again.

You Mad, Bro?

Moralistic outrage, while infuriating and occasionally dangerous, is often fertile grounds for comedy; not that pre-packaged, bland artificial comedy full of preservatives either, but the organic, flavorful comedy that’s grown right in your own backyard and picked minutes before enjoying. It wasn’t too long ago that a banner reading, “You Mad, Bro?” was displayed at a football game in order to taunt one of the teams. (Story here). It wasn’t long before some people who didn’t understand the connotations of the phrase took it upon themselves to get quite mad, falling right into the lap of the internet troll community.

Could I interest you in a fresh glass of Schadenfreude?

Let’s now turn to an example of silly moralistic outrage as it applies to two things I hold dear: evolutionary theory and female orgasms.

Why do women have orgasms?

I wrote my thesis about a female orgasm, so I happen to know a thing or two about them (I know a thing or two now, anyway; my initial title of Female Orgasm and Other Myths of the Hysterical Woman required a little touching up). There is an on-going debate as to whether or not female orgasm is an adaptation or a byproduct. That debate also happens to involve a fair share of vitriol, with words like “chauvinistic” being thrown around a lot. As you can see from the article and several of the comments, there appears to be a sizable group of people who equate “adaptation” with things like social importance and justification, and “byproduct” with unimportance. (My personal favorite is this one: ”I think this whole article is BS! The writer only continues to denigrate women! Why would a woman be able to orgasm if there was no reason to?”)    

“Stop Denigrating Yourself”

Why does Lloyd (and Dan Savage) seem to suggest that the knowledge that female orgasm isn’t an adaptation might comfort women who experience frustration at an inability to do during sex – or at all – and have wider social implications (despite claiming she doesn’t think people should be deriving social norms from biology – but look, it’s natural that… so we should…)? Perhaps she hopes to make the point that society puts too much pressure on women to orgasm during sex, even though many of them probably won’t – at least not without some manual help – and that pressure makes people feel bad.

As I mentioned previously, no arguments for or against legal rights for homosexuals should turn on the genetic nature of the trait. I don’t think the gay community or their supporters would be comforted at the lack of rights afforded to homosexuals on the grounds that homosexuality isn’t an adaptation, or entirely “in the genes”, and they’d be less distressed if they stopped caring about having them. Similarly, in terms of the social or personal importance of female orgasm, nothing should turn on whether it’s an adaptation or a byproduct.

Strangely, it seems that it does for many people. It might be the case that “adaptation” and “byproduct” have just become placeholders for “genes” and “environment” – that classic false dichotomy – or something similar. For those people, calling a trait an “adaptation” is akin to saying it’s genetically determined and inflexible to environmental influences. This could be a byproduct of the same essentialist state of mind that tells us if we plant an apple seed in a field with pear seeds, it will still grow into an apple tree, not a pear one, or if we paint a lion so it looks like a leopard, it’s still a lion.

That probably also means people are more inclined to think of behaviors they want to encourage – or avoid blame for – as adaptations, and behaviors they want to discourage – or blame others for – as byproducts above and beyond what evidence suggests. As people are generally blind to their own biases, and tend to disagree on matters of morality, the debate about adaptations and byproducts, genes and environment, will continue to thrive and be filled with colorful rhetoric, leaving us to ask “You mad, bro?”