What is the point of a female orgasm?

Totally useless?
Totally useless?
Image: Reuters/Jason Lee
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The mystery of the female orgasm is far greater than frustrated women and their fumbling partners would like to believe. A paper recently published in Socioaffective Neuroscience and Psychology argues that it exists as a way for men to leverage control over their partners. This is far from the first new theory and won’t be the last. But do we truly have a sense of the purpose behind the female orgasm—or if there is a point at all?

The orgasm as a form of social control

The latest published theory on the female orgasm combines behaviorism with evolutionary biology. Diane Fleischman, psychology lecturer at the University of Portsmouth, argues that, just as if you give a dog a treat at the same time as ringing a bell then the bell will ultimately become rewarding, so too if you associate a person with an orgasm then the person will become positive reinforcement in their own right.

Random reinforcement is much more powerful than consistent rewards, and so women don’t have to reliably orgasm for this to be highly effective.

“If you put money into a slot machine and every time you pulled a lever it gave you a small amount of money, that’s not nearly as reinforcing as getting a lot of money at random intervals,” she says. “The payoff for women for sexual behavior is much more variable than for men, so it makes sense that the reinforcement would be more variable: That they’d be more likely to have orgasms with specific men who have specific qualities. But also that those reinforcements with those specific men would be variable and therefore cause them to go back more often.”

In other words, Fleischman believes that the pleasure women get from sex motivates them to take part in such reproductive activities, and ultimately to get pleasure from a particular partner. This encourages them to keep returning to the same partner, which would in turn lead to strong social bonds between parents.

A key part of this idea is not simply that women enjoy orgasms, but that the orgasms give their partner leverage in the relationship.

“It would be very weird if we didn’t evolve to control each other with various rewards and punishments, just like we would with children or dogs,” she says. “Actually seeing someone have an orgasm is itself reinforcing because it’s an indicator of your power over them. It all sounds really sociopathic but, yeah.”

Totally and utterly useless?

The puzzle of why women orgasm is only emphasized by the male orgasm, which is clearly necessary for the survival of our species. But women do not need to orgasm to reproduce, and the variability of the female orgasm suggests that it’s less of an evolutionary necessity.

In a University of Portsmouth press release on her paper, Flesichman states, “the fact that [women] do have orgasms is evidence that they serve a purpose.” But she later acknowledged in conversation that, in terms of evidence and theories to explain the female orgasm, “there’s nothing definitive yet.”

Mihaela Pavlicev, evolutionary biologist and professor at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, says that we need to pause before asking what the purpose of the female orgasm is.

“I think there’s a question that should be asked first, which is, does it have a function at all?,” she says. “ Most literature comes at the point assuming that there is a purpose and we have to figure it out.”

Though Fleischman’s paper doesn’t identify explicit reproductive benefits to orgasms, the social bonds she suggests it creates between parents would still be evolutionarily beneficial.

“It’s still introduced as a way to gain copulation,” says Pavlicev. “The problem to me with that is it’s much easier and more reliable to get to orgasm either by masturbation or with female homosexual sex.”

Pavlicev’s own work on the female orgasm suggests that it is a remnant of a function that was once evolutionarily beneficial in our ancestors, but has now lost its purpose. She acknowledges that lack of data means that, though she supports this theory, the debate is still a question. “Evolutionary events are hard to definitively prove because, you know, they happened a long time ago,” she adds.

That said, even if the female orgasm does not currently serve a functional purpose, that could still change. Pavlicev points out that feathers first evolved as a means of temperature regulation, but then allowed for the possibility of flying. “Traits do evolve,” she says. “Now it might be that the orgasm and clitoris are free to acquire a new function.”

Unfortunately, that means it will take several hundred thousand years before the mystery of the female orgasm is finally settled.