10.10 What’s up with the human female orgasm?

Biology is Sexy!

Considering that it happens all the time across the world, scientists are fairly clueless about the female orgasm. Among the most tantalizing of questions is, “what is the evolutionary significance of the female orgasm?”

It is widely thought that the male orgasm exists to encourage men to spread their sperm (i.e. genetic material) as much as possible. Some argue that women orgasm for the same reason: to encourage procreation. But in practice, compared with the male orgasm, female orgasm is extremely difficult to achieve and nearly 10% of women never have an orgasm in their lifetime. Furthermore, unlike the male orgasm, which is coupled with the release of sperm and other ejaculates necessary for reproduction, the female orgasm appears to serve no similar role. So then what is the purpose of the female orgasm? Why do women orgasm? Few questions regarding human evolution have been more difficult to answer than those regarding the female orgasm and for the most part there are two firmly opposed arguments for this phenomenon.

One hypothesis harkens back to a concept we previously discussed- women orgasm simply because men do; in other words, female orgasm occurs because of selection on males. This answer is similar to the reason why men have nipples because women need them to feed their children. Because men and women share a similar developmental pathway, whatever structure or process appears in one sex will necessarily appear in the other. Women develop similar erectile and nervous tissue that is necessary for orgasm in virtue of the strong and ongoing selective pressure on males for releasing sperm via coupled orgasm and ejaculation.

While most scientists agree that women probably started having orgasms as a by-product of men having them, why women still have orgasms is hotly debated. Some people think that this holdover from development continues to be the reason that women experience orgasm. The holdover camp claims that female orgasms are an incidental by-product of male orgasm, and that’s it.

Another evolutionary holdover hypothesis involves ovulation. In some species, like humans, ovulation is spontaneous. In other species, females actually do not ovulate until stimulated to do so through hormonal surges during and after copulation. Scientists have recently proposed that human women orgasm because of an evolutionary holdover from closely related species that used orgasm as an ovulation-triggering event. In other words, human women orgasm not because of a holdover from male development, but because of a holdover from our early female ancestors.

Many scientists are unwilling to accept that the female orgasm does not serve an adaptive purpose. This group of scientists has proposed three broad categories for why women orgasm: pair bonding, mate choice, and enhanced fertility. The pair-bonding hypothesis suggests that female orgasm facilitates the bond formed between sexual partners, aiding in mate retention and bi-parental care. Others propose that women can judge the quality of potential long-term mates by whether or not orgasm is achieved during their sexual interaction. This last hypothesis states that the female orgasm actually does aid in reproductive success. Referred to as the “upsuck theory”, the idea is that during orgasm, muscles contracting and relaxing in the uterus and vagina create suction that moves sperm up the female reproductive tract, resulting in enhanced fertility.

We may never know the exact reason why women orgasm from an evolutionary perspective, but simply pondering the question is interesting. Much of the fun for researchers is returning to scientific questions with new methods and with fresh eyes!

 

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The Evolution and Biology of Sex by Sehoya Cotner and Deena Wassenberg is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.