The Mystery of Female Orgasms

This is an item the creationists will probably avoid. It’s in The Australian, the biggest-selling national newspaper in the country. Their attention-getting headline is Why do women orgasm? Science in a fluster over female orgasm. (For some reason, that link isn’t working at the moment.)

The newspaper has a comments feature, and it’s rather active — at least for this article. There are almost 150 already. Here are some excerpts from the news story, with bold font added by us:

If you really want to upset an evolutionary biologist, the surest thing to do is to raise the subject of female orgasm.

Does the subject upset you, dear reader? Well, you’ll have to to deal with it. We’re proceeding nevertheless. The newspaper says:

The most furious intellectual controversies of the past couple of millennia – the divine nature of Christ, the trial of Galileo, Darwin’s theory of natural selection – pale beside the question of whether, from a biological perspective, women truly have to climax, or whether it is just a nice thing for them to do.

Your Curmudgeon is shocked — shocked! We’ve been dealing with The Controversy between evolution and creationism for some time now, yet we’ve somehow been unaware of this furious controversy. Well, it’s never too late to catch up. Let’s read on:

Now two scientists in the US have claimed that it could be explained as a relic of a long-dead age when our distant female ancestors needed something very much like an orgasm to have babies. Their theory is likely to prove controversial in a field where there are few established facts and many fierce opinions.

They’re talking about this paper, which appears in the Experimental Zoology Part B: Molecular and Developmental Evolution: The Evolutionary Origin of Female Orgasm, by Mihaela Pavlicev and Günter P. Wagner. You can read it online without a subscription, but we’ll stay with The Australian, which tells us:

It is not even clear what proportion of women have orgasms or how much of the time they do so.

That’s discussed for a couple of paragraphs, but we’ll skip over it because it’s a bit speculative. The news article continues:

Why they do so at all is a mystery, given that orgasm does not seem to be linked to having more children. In a new paper Gunter Wagner, from Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, and Mihaela Pavlicev, from the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in Ohio, argue that the origin of the female orgasm can be traced back deep into our mammalian history.

Egad — it’s evolution! Here’s more:

The biologists say that tens of millions of years ago, before primates split off from rodents, females only released eggs when they had intercourse with males. This meant that they evolved a sex-induced “hormone surge”, a sort of crude precursor to the orgasm, as an incentive to get on and reproduce.

The females of many modern mammal species, from rabbits to alpacas and cats to koalas, still need copulation and this rush of biochemicals to make them ovulate. Over time other species, including humans, gained the ability to get their eggs spontaneously ready to be fertilised. The female orgasm, though, appears to have survived in spite of being effectively useless to us in evolutionary terms.

Aha — the female orgasm is a vestigial reminder of our evolutionary ancestors. Moving along:

… Dr Pavlicev and Professor Wagner say that when women climax one of the most marked effects they experience is a sudden flood of two hormones, prolactin and oxytocin. This is exactly the kind of chemical surge that triggers ovulation in the mammals that still need to have sex to free up their eggs for reproduction. Why it should have hung around in humans, though, remains an enigma.

The Australian article ends by mentioning a couple of other ideas to explain the female organism: it bonds the male and female emotionally, and it somehow helps a female choose a high quality male. Those seem, at least to us, far less likely explanations than the vestigial theory — which has some evidence in its support.

If creationists bother to write about this, what will they say? We can think of three possibilities. They’ll claim that the true reason for this phenomenon is: (a) an irreducibly complex gift from the intelligent designer; (b) a reward devised by the devil that causes women to lure men into sin, or (c) it’s an abominable Darwinist fantasy.

Copyright © 2016. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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18 responses to “The Mystery of Female Orgasms

  1. Christine Janis

    “Does the subject upset you, dear reader?”

    Not as much as the fact that, alone among the primates, human males have no baculum. Proof that there is no god, if you ask me.

    “The biologists say that tens of millions of years ago, before primates split off from rodents—-”
    Oh deary me —–

  2. “…(a) an irreducibly complex gift from the intelligent designer; (b) a reward devised by the devil that causes women to lure men into sin, or (c) it’s an abominable Darwinist fantasy.”
    or (d) something that tends to make females WANT to copulate and reproduce?

  3. I think we can all agree that the female orgasm is irreduceably complex, from the man’s point of view.

  4. It takes two to tango, and isn’t tango more likely if both want to tango? I don’t see why anyone sees a mystery. Consider that the sexual response cycle is nearly identical in men and women. Why again would evolution give rise to something new when it doesn’t have to?

  5. michaelfugate

    From the Guardian

    Elisabeth Lloyd, professor of biology at Indiana University and author of The Case of the Female Orgasm, also described the research as important. “I think they are on to some pretty interesting ideas tracing back what occurs today as orgasm and seeing where it came from,” she said.

    But, says Lloyd, she is yet to be convinced by Wagner and Pavličev’s theory, not least because it does not take into account neurological and muscular aspects of human female orgasm. What’s more, she says, very little is known about orgasms in the females of other species.

    Instead, Lloyd favours the theory that female orgasms are simply a happy quirk of embryo development. “It is only at eight weeks that there is a surge of male hormones that turns the genitals into male genitals,” she said. While men need to orgasm in order to transfer sperm, women, said Lloyd, end up with the nerve and muscle tissues for orgasm as “a fantastic bonus”.

    “It all seems to be rather purposeless – except for the enjoyment, obviously,” she said. “It doesn’t mean it is not important, it just means it doesn’t have an evolutionary purpose.”

  6. The link to the newspaper article still isn’t working. I went to the newspaper’s website, found the headline in their “Life” section, but I couldn’t click on it from there to bring it up. Either they’re getting an ark-load of volume, or for some reason they’ve blocked it.

  7. docbill1351

    I am certainly not going to be the first one to bring up Olivia.

  8. docbill1351, you will note that Megalonyx is absent from this topic. That’s because it’s totally alien to his experience.

  9. michaelfugate: First, I have no idea why your comment ended up in the trash folder. Beyond that, I disagree with Elisabeth Lloyd when she says “it doesn’t have an evolutionary purpose.”

    I can see a big reproductive advantage. Would you prefer to be with a female who is delighted with your amorous activities, or one who merely tolerates your exertions?

  10. Christine Janis

    “I can see a big reproductive advantage. Would you prefer to be with a female who is delighted with your amorous activities, or one who merely tolerates your exertions?”

    And from the other viewpoint —- would you be more likely to have repeated sex with some guy who helped you have an orgasm than with one who did not?

  11. Our Curmudgeon notes

    that Megalonyx is absent from this topic.

    I have been attending to poor Olivia, who has been reduced to raging hilarity by the title of this post.

    In the past two hours, she has only managed, between paroxysms of merriment, a single coherent utterance, viz.: “The Curmudgeon writing about that? Whatever next? Pee Wee Herman’s Guide to Quantum Mechanics?”

    If she hasn’t stopped laughing in another half hour, I’m phoning an ambulance…

  12. Our Curmudgeon asks

    Would you prefer to be with a female who is delighted with your amorous activities, or one who merely tolerates your exertions?

    This question administered the necessary bucket of ice water to shock poor Olivia out of her incontinent hilarity; without hesitation, she grimly answered, “His ‘exertions’ are intolerable…”

    Cancel the ambulance!

  13. My guess is that females have orgasms for the same reason males have nipples – we evolved from something originally hermaphroditic and still develop in utero from the same basic body plan.

  14. I recall, but I could be mistaken, that whiptail lizards, which are female only, must be stimulated by another in order to ovulate.

  15. Emily Nagorski writes that, as Maezeppa notes above, we’re all built from basically the same, analogous parts. A penis is just an overgrown clitoris and the scrotum is just fused labia over testes (which would’ve been ovaries without hormonal cues at the appropriate time in development).

  16. The selection for orgasms seems pretty obvious. Women who have orgasms will want to have sex more often than women who don’t. More sex = more babies.

  17. When you look at this from an anthropological perspective, every one of your ancestors going back many millions of years got laid.

  18. “Why do women orgasm? Science in a fluster over female orgasm. (For some reason, that link isn’t working at the moment.)”

    You have to set the right mood. A little wine usually helps…