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Why do women orgasm? Evolution has the answer

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Is there any point in the female orgasm?

It might sound like a question posed by the most retrograde chauvinist in the pub, but it’s a mystery that has foxed scientists for years. Because from an evolutionary standpoint, the human female orgasm serves no real ‘purpose’ at all. Unlike the male orgasm, it’s not essential for the continuation of the human race – which is lucky, considering that only a quarter of women regularly climax during penetrative heterosexual sex.

So why does it happen at all?

Two US scientists think they might have figured it out. Mihaela Pavličev and Günter Wagner of Yale University claim that the female orgasm could be an evolutionary hangover from thousands upon thousands of years ago, when the hormonal changes associated with orgasm were essential in triggering ovulation – thus enabling women to reproduce.

“It is important to stress that it didn’t look like the human female orgasm looks like now,” said Pavličev, of Cincinnati children’s hospital. “We think that [the hormonal surge] is the core that was maybe modified further in humans.”

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None of Monica's seven erogenous zones in Friends were 'essential' from an evolutionary standpoint

Pavličev and Wagner examined various different mammals, and found that some female animals – such as cats and rabbits – cannot ovulate without the hormonal changes brought about by sexual stimulation from a male.

Human women, in contrast, ovulate spontaneously, with no connection to whether they have had sex or not.

When the researchers traced these different kinds of ovulation across the ‘evolutionary tree’ of mammals, they found that so-called “male-induced ovulation” came before spontaneous ovulation.

They claim that this suggests that the original purpose of the human female orgasm was to trigger the release of eggs during sex. But once we evolved to ovulate without sex as a prompt, the theory goes, the female orgasm went on to acquire different roles.

“There is a lot of discussion about whether it could have any functions like in bonding behaviour and things like that – so we cannot exclude that it actually has co-opted some other function after it lost its function in reproduction,” Pavličev said. 

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In When Harry Met Sally, Meg Ryan shows Billy Crystal how to fake an orgasm – highlighting that most women don’t orgasm during penetrative sex at all

The theory seems to be supported by the fact that the clitoris is found in different places in different animals. In mammals where sex is essential for ovulation, the clitoris tends to be inside or near the female sex canal – making it more likely to be stimulated during sex. Animals who ovulate spontaneously, meanwhile, usually have the clitoris located further away.

Pavličev says this helps explain why many women do not orgasm during penetrative sex. “It seems very natural not to automatically accompany orgasm with copulation,” she said.

The new research is expected to help scientists further explore the evolution of the orgasm. However, Elisabeth Lloyd, professor of biology at Indiana University and the author of The Case of the Female Orgasm, points out that it doesn’t take into account any of the neurological or muscular aspects of human female orgasm.

Lloyd’s theory is that rather than ever having served a specific evolutionary ‘purpose’, the human female orgasm is simply a lucky accident of evolution, the result of developmental changes that take place while we’re still in the womb. “It is only at eight weeks that there is a surge of male hormones that turns the genitals into male genitals,” she told the Guardian. While men need to orgasm to transfer sperm, she said, women are left with the nerve and muscle tissues that cause orgasm as “a fantastic bonus”.    

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Unlike in Friends with Benefits, most women do not orgasm through penetrative sex alone


The worst female orgasm scenes in literature

It’s not just scientists who have been perplexed by the female orgasm. Over the years, several writers have been fairly confused about how it all works, too…

Too Beautiful for You by Rod Liddle

“Joanne hung with her head flung back over the side of the bed, her hair splayed out across the floor, which required Christian to cling on to her waist so they both didn't fall off, and then after a modicum of congenial thrusting, she came with the exhilarating whoops and pant-hoots of a troop of Rhesus monkeys, which was flattering, if alarming.”

Eleven Minutes by Paolo Coelho 

“He stopped moving inside me while his fingers worked quickly and I had one, two, three orgasms in a row… When his hand took me to my fourth orgasm, I entered a place where everything seemed at peace, and with my fifth orgasm I knew God.”

The Age of Magic by Ben Okri

“When his hand brushed her nipple it tripped a switch and she came alight.”

Images: iStock, NBC, Screen Gems, Columbia Pictures

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