Magazine article Psychology Today

Peak Experience

Magazine article Psychology Today

Peak Experience

Article excerpt


FOR ALL THE toe-curling, heart-racing, oxytocin-pumping ecstasy that it delivers, the function of female orgasm remains a big question mark. Considered by some the greatest mystery in the evolution of human sexuality, scientists have spent decades trying to explain its origin. Male orgäsYn, after all, serves an obvious purpose: the perpetuation of the species; none of us would be here without it. But women can and do conceive without having orgasms. So why are they endowed with the physiological capability?

The most forceful explanation of recent years comes from philosopher Elisabeth Lloyd, who, in her 2005 book, The Case of the Female Orgasm, argues that there is a scientific bias toward seeing an adaptive purpose for it, and that every prominent evolutionary theory of female orgasm is in fact flawed. The most plausible explanation, she posits, is what's known as the "byproduct theory"-that because male and female embryos develop similarly in the early months of gestation, the same developmental processes that result in the male orgasm incidentally produce its female counterpart as well. Rather than serving any grand evolutionary purpose, this theory goes, female orgasm is analogous to male nipples.

Since Lloyd's book appeared, however, scientists have continued searching for an adaptive reason for female orgasm, and new evidence has slowly accrued to suggest that it might be more than a blissful byproduct after all. The most prominent explanation is that orgasm enables women to covertly evaluate and select high-quality males in order to ensure the fitness of resulting offspring. "There is still no definitive evidence either way," says David Puts, an evolutionary anthropologist at Pennsylvania State University and a leading researcher on the origins of sexuality, "but as new evidence accumulates, it generally seems to support the mate-choice hypothesis."

Puts offered some of that evidence in a study published in Evolution and Human Behavior in 2012. It reported on an experiment in which the female in 110 heterosexual couples on a college campus rated her partner's masculinity and level of dominance, while computer software objectively measured the male partner's facial masculinity and symmetry, markers of attractiveness and genetic quality. The results showed that women with more attractive partners had more frequent orgasms during or after their partner's ejaculation, a time window believed to be optimal for sperm retention. Women partnered with particularly masculine and dominant partners, meanwhile, also reported more frequent orgasms. Because of the correlation between orgasm and men of high genetic quality, researchers cautiously concluded that the results supported the mate-choice theory.

For female orgasm to serve a function in mate selection, it should also increase the odds of conception, an assumption that is hotly debated yet has also gained some scientific support. In 2007, a team of researchers led by obstetrician Georg Kunz at St. Johannes Hospital in Dortmund, Germany, examined the effects of oxytocin-the hormone that causes uterine contractions and is released into the female bloodstream after orgasm- on sperm transport. …

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