Welcome to Fairer Sex, a new biweekly column about the intersection of sex, gender, and the science of the human body.
One of the #blessed things about living in 2016 is that it’s no longer controversial to remark that a majority of women don’t regularly orgasm from intercourse alone. This reality has been so extensively confirmed that practically everyone—even academics desperate to re-establish “vaginal orgasm” supremacy—obliquely admits it’s true. But before we get too optimistic about living in a brave new world where the way cis women’s sex organs usually function is acknowledged instead of admonished or denied, there’s some unpleasant business to attend to: the sexist legacy of putting women’s orgasms on evolutionary trial.
This sad history of men scratching their heads and asking “What’s the point?” of women’s sexual climax is worth delving into, if only to purge the assumptions and inaccuracies left in its wake. Since previous inquiries were mainly predicated on our most simplistic, reductive, and—worst of all—scientifically unsound ideas about human sexuality, it’s time to revisit the question of why women orgasm.
The issue is usually presented like so: Male orgasms are “straightforward” and serve an obvious purpose. But female orgasms—what’s the deal with those? If they aren’t reliably sparked by a penis pumping away in the baby chute, why do they happen at all? This conundrum caused many academics and researchers extreme consternation throughout the later half of the 20th century, and the resulting orgasm angst yielded such an avalanche of dubious accounts that in 2005 Elisabeth A. Lloyd, a professor of biology and philosophy, dedicated an entire book to highlighting the collective failings.
The Case of the Female Orgasm is a glorious, devastating critique of bad science in general and sexist bad science especially. (Lloyd described her reaction when she first read the existing arguments as, “Wow! This is horrible science,” which pretty much sums it up.) These poorly constructed theories make claims about orgasm’s function as a facilitator of sperm competition, mate selection, and pair bonding, all of which may seem plausible but are ultimately unsubstantiated, devoid of evidence and rooted in unexamined presumptions. Lloyd catches scientists only considering the female orgasm as an event tied to intercourse and wrongly asserting its (unestablished) relationship to fertility—including but not limited to the idea that a woman’s orgasm “induces a sucking motion of the uterus.”
Adaptations have to contribute to reproductive success in order to be considered such; a trait is not an adaptation if it doesn’t improve the likelihood of generating offspring, even if it’s otherwise useful. That doesn’t mean a characteristic has to directly pertain to sex—it could involve evading predators, for instance—but evolution academics have had trouble seeing past the act of intercourse as key to the female orgasm mystery. They know female orgasm is rarely brought about by penis-thrusting, yet don’t make the connection that, therefore, studying female orgasm solely within those parameters is a doomed endeavor. Since it mainly happens outside of penetrative sex, “explanations given for female orgasm only during intercourse [cannot address] the phenomenon they purport to explain,” Lloyd writes.
To free the conversation from its allegiance to penis-in-vagina sex, Lloyd’s ultimate suggestion is that, until contrary evidence surfaces, we assume female orgasms are the by-product of male orgasms, just as nipples on cis men are the by-product of their necessity in cis women. Though this angers feminists who worry the argument subordinates female pleasure to male pleasure, Lloyd’s proposal is merciful. Trying to prove that female orgasm serves a function in its own right requires far too many heteronormative and sexist intellectual contortions. And the origin of female orgasm should have no bearing on how we relate to the phenomenon. Believing otherwise is the result of “a false equation of what is important with what is naturally selected.”
Lloyd’s book nips a lot of bullshit in the bud, so to speak, which is why I so treasure it. There’s too much rampant misrepresentation of women’s sexualities and bodies when their orgasm is seen as urgently needing evolutionary justification. But if we loop back to the original framing—orgasm obviously makes sense in men, but not in women—the root of the larger problem is painfully apparent. What assumption underlies “obviously”? Is it a conflation of ejaculation and orgasm, which are separate biological experiences? (Truly, they are, which is why they can and do occur independently, as tantric sex practitioners are often so eager to tell.)
Or is it the notion that it behooves our species for men to be incentivized toward intercourse in a way women aren’t, which promotes the vision of a hellscape in which lust-mad men are always in the mood and disinclined women acquiesce for unclear reasons, or else are raped? Social implications aside, this option fatally ignores the fact that sexual pleasure as a phenomenon is not dependent upon orgasm. What these scientists are really saying is that pleasure motivates men to have sex. But sexual excitement is not synonymous with or contingent upon climax. Physical pleasure motivates plenty of women to have intercourse too, even if it doesn’t resolve in the big O. So which came first, the horniness or the orgasm?
This is a bigger stumbling block than it might seem. If orgasm is such an irresistible imperative—and such a unparalleled motivator towards any behavior that will yield it—it seems at least as likely, if not more likely, that its existence would incite men to constant, mass masturbation rather than bothering to woo or overpower a woman. Wouldn’t men be getting off by the easiest means necessary, regardless of how likely it was to make a baby? Why wouldn’t homosexuality be much more prevalent? Picture two burly neanderthals gesturing: “You really want to come, I really want to come, let’s cut those prudish chicks out of the equation.” Makes sense to me!
In conversations that treat a strong orgasm-propelled sex drive as “obviously” beneficial to the species when present in men, women are usually depicted as proportionately disincentivized to have intercourse. It won’t get them off and it might get them pregnant—which is a total bummer, resource-wise—so what’s in it for them? The same people who regard (male) orgasm as the most powerful reward known to humankind inevitably embrace that tired evopsych fantasy of reticent, selective women and indiscriminately horny men. At some point, one has to imagine, these desperate dudes would just satisfy themselves with their hands.
For that matter, why aren’t women doing the same, even more than we already do? Female capacity for orgasm is not usually at issue in these discussions. Women come, they just don’t come often from intercourse. If we accept the Cosmo rhetoric of orgasm as earth-shaking, consciousness-altering mega reward of intense pleasure—which a disconcerting number of doctors and academics endorse unreservedly—humans of all genders should just be rubbing themselves off all the time. It doesn’t follow that just because orgasm feels good and because orgasm, for most men, can be obtained during PIV sex, that PIV sex would be the only, or even the main, behavior pursued to induce it.
It’s not only problematic to chain female orgasm to intercourse—it’s equally misguided to treat male orgasm as exclusive to intercourse. Orgasm and intercourse are two separate acts, and neither requires the other. It’s a culturally and historically specific gender myth that all men want from sex is to bust a nut; when invited to discuss their priorities freely, they value closeness and intimacy in the act.
When men and women get it on, there’s usually much more at work for both parties than just scratching the orgasm itch or responding to hormonal pressures. Why else would both male and female non-human primates have sex when they’re not in heat? If the female’s body is not receptive to conception and she, unlike the male, doesn’t obtain the (allegedly) crucial carrot of orgasm, why is she doing it? If researchers had been more interested in this particular “why,” as opposed to obsessing over the perceived design flaw of women’s insufficient intercourse-derived orgasms, we might have some durable insights into the evolution of human sexuality instead of a lot of unproven, sexist speculation.
The fact is that orgasm, which probably occurs in most other mammals but is far from a certainty, is not a requirement for reproduction. (Some bird and insect species also have penetrative sex, and we’ve no evidence at all that non-mammals orgasm.) Orgasm is not necessary for incentivizing intercourse, nor for insemination or conception to occur—at least not as far as we can observe or prove.
The real question, then, is not “Why do women orgasm?” but “Why do any of us orgasm?” Sexual pleasure, an orgasm-autonomous phenomenon, can provide the incentive, and the reflex of ejaculation provides its own muscle spasm to propel sperm; the common pelvic contractions of orgasm are not required to do this. Lloyd briefly mentions that the muscle activations associated with orgasm assist ejaculation, but no research proves it. I was unable to find studies showing that a) the force of ejaculation is weaker if not accompanied by orgasm, or b) that greater force of ejaculation improves the likelihood of conception.
In other words, there’s no proof that orgasm increases male virility, just as there’s no proof that it increases females’ fertility.
Not every characteristic of an animal is an adaption; not every human feature and capacity is present because it was reproductively advantageous. There are side effects, there are vestiges, and there is an element of chance. To treat a body—and inevitably, a male body—as a perfect machine in which there are no superfluous functions is to invent a “just-so” story that cannot carry scientific weight.
So what evolutionary value does any orgasm have? We don’t know. And maybe if we admit that, we can finally begin the process of finding out.
Charlotte Shane has written for Matter, Pacific Standard, The Verge, and is the author of Prostitute Laundry.