Sex Ed

The Female Orgasm: Nature’s “Fantastic Bonus?”

May 2, 2012 by Justin Lehmiller

Sexual scientists do not agree on why the female orgasm exists. Most of the theories that have been offered to date suggest that the ability of women to climax during sex is an evolved adaptation. For instance, some researchers have argued that orgasm promotes bonding between a woman and her partner, while others have argued that the female orgasm is a “sperm retention mechanism” that increases the odds of conception by drawing sperm further into a woman’s reproductive tract. Another provocative theory that has received somewhat less attention suggests that there may not be any adaptive value at all to the female orgasm and that the pleasure it provides is nothing more than a “fantastic bonus” that accompanies being a biological woman [1].

The main argument against all of the theories that female orgasm represents some type of evolutionary adaptation is that women’s experience of orgasm is so infrequent during sex. In fact, research has found that most women do not regularly reach orgasm during vaginal intercourse and require other forms of stimulation in order to climax [2]. It also takes significantly longer for a woman to reach orgasm than a man. If orgasm really is adaptive in the sense of increasing the odds of conception or facilitating a bond with one’s partner, shouldn’t it be a little easier to come by?

The “fantastic bonus” theory suggests that, rather than being an adaptation, the female orgasm is simply a byproduct of how the tissues in the human body are laid out during our initial development. Keep in mind that everyone (regardless of whether they are biologically male or female) initially looks the same when they are in the womb. For the first two months of development, we have undifferentiated genital structures that have the potential to develop into either penises or vaginas. The male and female genitals thus develop out of the same exact tissues and nerve structures. These structures are aligned in such a way as to ensure orgasm if a male develops because the male orgasm is essential to reproduction (men cannot reproduce without it). The female orgasm may therefore only exist because men’s ability to orgasm is so heavily favored by biology.

From this standpoint, the female orgasm can thus be thought of as being akin to the male nipple. Biology favors development of nipples in women because they make breastfeeding possible. Although men’s nipples don’t really serve an important biological or reproductive function, they do contain a lot of nerve endings and can thus be a “bonus” in the bedroom. Of course, keep in mind that this is just one of many theories of female orgasm and it is certainly not the final word on this topic.

To learn more about female orgasm and why some women have an easier time climaxing than others, see here.

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[1] Lloyd, E. (2005). The case of female orgasm: Bias in the science of evolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[2] Fugl-Meyer, K., Oberg, K., Lundberg, P., & Lewin, B. (2006). On orgasm, sexual techniques, and erotic perceptions in 18- to 74-year-old Swedish women. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 3, 56-68.

Image Source: iStockphoto

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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