Science has a way of making humans feel inferior. There are hundreds of things more powerful that defy our understanding of the world, one of them being the evolutionary purpose of the female orgasm. If you’ve worried about whether not having one means your body is somehow defective—or if it’s going to be harder to have children if you don’t come—there’s good news: That’s not true, and hasn’t been for millions of years. Sure, an orgasm isn’t related to survival at this point, but the lack of knowing why it does what it does points to remnants of human evolution.
In a recent study, Dr. Mihaela Pavličev of the University of Cincinnati found that orgasms, though women love to have them, aren't necessary to human reproduction. They don't increase our chances of fertility or somehow make sperm travel faster, as some doctors have claimed in the past. Orgasms are simply a leftover evolutionary trait that has survived for unknown reasons—other than the fact that they're a pleasurable experience. While some might find this revelation disappointing, to me it’s the strongest evidence yet that the best way to think of the female orgasm is like art: beautiful and enriching, but objectively non-essential.
Pavličev explains that around 150 million years ago, our ancient female mammal ancestor used orgasms to release eggs after sex, rather than during an ovulatory cycle. Furthermore, their clitorises were inside the vagina, while ours are outside—the clitoris only began to move away when our ancestors switched to this new monthly cycle. Regardless of its location, though, it still persists as a function within our nervous system.
For those who aren’t experts on female anatomy, the female orgasm, according to William Masters’ and Virginia Johnson’s classic study, Human Sexuality, goes something like this: Woman gets aroused. Blood rushes to her vagina and clitoris. Lubrication pools inside the vagina. Breathing speeds up, heart starts beating faster. Lower part of vagina contracts and upper part expands. Tension builds up, until the anus, vagina, and uterus all contract at intervals of 8/10 of a second. The intervals can range from just a couple to more than 10.
But mysteries abound: In several documented neuroscience cases, women who’ve been paralyzed below the waist due to spinal injuries shouldn't be able to orgasm because the pudendal nerve, the one that carries sensations from the clitoris to the brain, has been severed, but they're still able to orgasm vaginally—and they can feel it happening. Another mystery: Some women can orgasm through only visual stimulation. They leave their minds to do the work, without ever having to lift a finger.
Upon having an orgasm, a woman’s prefrontal cortex (PFC) becomes activated. The PFC is responsible for aspects of self-evaluation, and how well we socialize and understand our fellow humans. In other words, orgasms stimulate the part of the brain that helps us imagine what it’d be like in another person’s shoes. There’s also a release of dopamine, the chemical associated with pleasure.
During the event, more than 30 areas of the brain are activated, ranging from areas dealing with touch, memory, rewards, and even pain. Female orgasms are actually more powerful when there isn’t a partner around to give them to us: Our fantasies carry our brains away, letting us imagine whatever scenario we please. In order to orgasm, we don’t need a form of penetration—and this is what liberates female sexuality from hetero copulation and reproduction.
This may seem like a modern feminist revelation, but humans knew this way before the Second Wave. Early Iranian artists show free-wheeling females in action: The painting below from 16th century Safavid Shiraz is an arousing example of a liberated woman in pre-modern times.
Art historian Nika Matif pointed out to me over email that it’s a scene of a brothel, but it also depicts three half-naked women who appear to be pleasuring themselves with their hands. The older woman, on the upper right side, is smiling beatifically. “The female orgasm as represented here is not linked to a male, and that the women are self-sufficient,” Matif says.
Perhaps hundreds, maybe even thousands of years ago, society knew that women could pleasure themselves without needing to procreate. Or maybe procreating was divorced from pleasure altogether. Either way, the female orgasm has always been, on some level, embraced on its own terms.
The experience of an orgasm—of self-exploration, open-mindedness, release of control, and euphoric state—is similar to walking through an art museum. Art triggers that same frontal cortex, causing deep introspective thought. We can go to an art museum with others or we can go alone. We share responses, such as shock and awe, with those who go with us, but our partners can never truly enter our minds and feel what we feel. Our shared thoughts are generally related to what the artist may have thought, or felt, or seen, but we can never truly know how they felt. These complex pieces, from Old Master paintings to Yayoi Kusama’s latest infinity room, fill human minds with wonder about the other, and compassion for the artist’s painstaking process in order to please (or tease) the viewer’s senses.
Like an orgasm, a response to art is an entirely personal reaction. The internal vibration of an orgasm is completely intangible, at least as far as our external bodies are concerned. But most will argue that it’s temporarily mind-altering—transformative, even. And just as women have many tastes in partners and sexual fantasies, so too could she be aroused by two conflicting forms or shapes or colors. Even if a work of art is abstract or doesn’t quite make sense to us, it triggers our reasoning skills, allowing us to create meaning where there might be none. It’s worth noting that the male orgasm and the reasons driving a male to ejaculate are just as subjective; if male orgasms were really only about the spreading of DNA, why would a male bother to masturbate?
A few years ago, Vilayanur Ramachandran, a neuroscientist at the University of California at San Diego, told Smithsonian magazine that we’ve only begun to map out the human neuroaesthetic experience. He admits that “we have barely scratched the surface…the quintessence of art, and of genius, still eludes us—and may elude us forever.” Why, then, would we expect an orgasm’s existence to be explained?
Perhaps the fact that an orgasm’s function is mysterious is what is enjoyable about it. Women who are anorgasmic might be suffering from fatigue, anxiety, or stress, or suffering from trauma, but it’s also the case that women who are too concerned about their performance have trouble having orgasms. So if the secret is to relax and calm down, allowing a neural miracle to take over, then maybe, like art, we should just enjoy the female orgasm for what it is.
Haniya Rae is a design and technology journalist who writes for The Atlantic, Popular Science, Ms., and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She somehow manages to wrangle three cats in her small Brooklyn apartment.