Monthly Archives: October 2011

The Evolutionary Purpose of the Female Orgasm

Recently, the Discovery Channel featured a Curiosity episode about the female orgasm. Hosted by Maggie Gyllenhaal, the episode explored the question of why females experience orgasm. After all, female orgasm is not necessary for reproduction, unlike the male orgasm. A woman can get pregnant and have children without ever experiencing orgasm (and what a sad thing that would be indeed). While the show did explore the benefits of the female orgasm, it didn’t go into much detail about why women evolved with this capability.

I thought that this was an odd question, asking why women would orgasm or what its purpose might be. It seems to be common sense that it would have more purpose than to simply facilitate reproduction. Men, after all, don’t reproduce every time they orgasm (we would certainly have quite a population problem if they did). What a masculine, scientific mindset to try to equate the value of the female orgasm with whether it directly impacts conception, acting as if it would have no purpose otherwise. And so what if it didn’t have a purpose other than pleasure? What a frightening idea that would be, the idea that women might experience pleasure without purpose. Chalk it up to proof that God is good as far as I’m concerned (although I do believe that the female orgasm does have other purposes than pleasure). Maybe this hang-up that female orgasm must have a reproductive purpose comes (ahem) from the old Christian belief that there shouldn’t be sex without procreation. Or maybe it originates in the belief of the Seven Deadly Sins, and having an orgasm without any connection to procreation might have something to do with plain old Lust.

Ok. So women don’t need to orgasm to get pregnant. Fair enough. Scientific fact. However, having an orgasm is a good incentive to have sex, and wanting to have sex makes conception a lot more likely. Maybe it is a more roundabout route than is achieved by the male orgasm, but it still achieves the same thing. Men, as far as I can tell, generally want a woman who enjoys sex. That would make a woman who likes having sex a lot more appealing as a sexual partner than a cold fish, so to speak. So way back before humans were quite human, the males dug having sex with the chicks who liked having sex and these were the ones who got knocked up and passed their genes and the clitoris onto us. Thanks ancestors. You rock.

So having orgasms makes a woman more likely to have sex more often which does serve the purpose of helping her get pregnant. That leaves us to question, however, why would a woman continue to orgasm even when she is not ovulating or after she has gone through menopause? Even when there is no impact on conception, a woman can still orgasm. The sex drive is still there. Granted, it’s higher when a woman is ovulating, but the drive is still there even if she isn’t fertile.

The Curiosity program featured a brain scan of a woman that showed what was happening neurologically during her orgasm. It was a fancy way of proving what people have known for eons—orgasms make people happy, male or female. Orgasms feel really good. They improve mood. Maybe, in fact, they are vital for psychological health. Shoot, just look at all the neurological fireworks that are happening during orgasm! That’s gotta be good for something, even if it is just to improve happiness.

The human animal is incredibly driven by sex. Scientists tell us that men think about sex every six seconds. Humans are constantly assessing other human beings, measuring their attractiveness, their fitness, their status. The physical characteristics people find attractive, things like physical symmetry and healthy skin and figures, are all markers of fertility.

There are, however, other characteristics about the opposite sex that are attractive. A few years ago when I was a wedding photographer, I saw a somewhat odd looking couple. The woman was blonde and beautiful and just about as physically perfect as a woman can get. Her boyfriend, well, he was pretty chubby, maybe downright fat, and not exactly the most attractive guy in the world. But the couple was obviously in love. I saw it rather clearly when I watched this homely guy spin the girl around for hours on the dance floor as the woman laughed and smiled and gave him sweet little kisses. Maybe the guy wasn’t hot, but that dude was cool. He could dance. Everybody seemed to like him, so he had been dealt the popularity card.

Maybe other women would get the same thrill out of being with a man with a fat wallet or a famous musician. But it goes to show that there are characteristics other than physical ones that are influencing our choice in mates. And it isn’t a one-way street. Maybe men aren’t as influenced by income as women might be in their choice of mate, but they are looking for specific personality or behavioral characteristics that would help increase their happiness. Because who wants to be with someone if they don’t make them at least a little bit happy. What a drag that is. So maybe the geeks are looking for chicks who play video games or the sports nuts are looking for ladies who can play softball with them or watch the bowls. But across the board, geek or jock, men are looking for partners who want to have sex with them.

Flash back a million years or so to our ancestors. The males are having more sex with the females who like sex and are getting them pregnant. But they are also having a better time with these females. They are bonding with them. The males have a reason to stay with the female other than just having produced progeny. The female orgasm makes their partner more likely to have sex and enjoy sex, and this makes the male more likely to stay around, and the female more likely to want him around. And those highbrowed socio-biologists accept that young are more likely to survive if both parents are involved.

The most important evolutionary influence of the female orgasm, however, wasn’t even touched in the show, and I haven’t seen it mentioned elsewhere. Now, I am not a socio-biologist, but I do confess to reading Desmond Morris books for fun and having an acute interest in the theories of Helen Fisher. Clearly, this is not a research article, just the common-sense thoughts of a writer who loaded up on anthropology classes as electives. So proceed at your own risk.

In my opinion, the female orgasm was pivotal in the development of human culture and society. For many other mammals, the male doesn’t hang around with the females. Take the bear, for example. The male will come around when it is time for mate, but other than that, it generally stays away from the female. It can be downright dangerous for the animal to be around the young, as adult males been known to kill cubs.

In contrast, the human male does not come around for a period of estrus. His poor sense of smell makes it so that he cannot sense when the female is ovulating. Because of the female sex drive, strengthened by the large clitoral structure, the female is open to sexual advances even when she is not fertile. This gives the male a lot of reasons to stay around. Not only does he have a willing sexual partner more consistently than other animals, but the lack of clarity about when the female is fertile makes mating regularly more likely to result in conception.

Having the males around caused social groups to form, helped the young and the females survive better than if they were on their own, and cemented a division of labor between the sexes (the men hunting and the women gathering). This large social group made other advances possible, things that likely wouldn’t have happened so easily if the sexes were living separately, things like tool making, building, and agriculture. Would culture have happened like it did if human females were not having orgasms and were just going through a semi-annual estrus? I doubt it.

So next time you get your rocks off, say a silent thank-you to our pre-human ancestors for making something so fun so darn useful.

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