Last post, I described why female orgasm is considered an evolutionary mystery. Here, we’ll look at some suggested solutions to this mystery … none of which, unfortunately, seems very promising.
The redoubtable Desmond Morris, whose fertile imagination gave us the “buttocks mimic” hypothesis for the evolution of breasts, once unburdened himself of yet another howler, proposing that orgasm is natural selection’s way of keeping a woman horizontal after sex, which in turn supposedly makes fertilization more likely.
This “knock-down” hypothesis has problems. For one, despite substantial efforts, it has never been demonstrated that postcoital positions influence fertilization. And if they did, there are lots of possible ways of inducing individuals to remain prone, or supine, or on one’s side, etc., such as reducing blood pressure after sex, without any particular subjective bells and whistles.
Moreover, if our upright posture somehow necessitates such an intervention, then other upright animals should behave similarly, yet kangaroos and wallabies pop right up and hop about immediately after copulating.
It has similarly been suggested that under more “natural” conditions, orgasm would have made a postcopulatory woman less conspicuous to predators, perhaps by making her somewhat less physically active following sex. The problem here is that if the strategic goal is to remain below the perceptual horizon of potential predators, who might have been attracted to all that commotion in the bushes, it would be far more efficient to eliminate female orgasm altogether, which would likely have contributed significantly to the ruckus in the first place. If our ancient ancestors were being prodded by natural selection to keep from being detected—by potentially jealous conspecifics as well as predators—they would seem better advised to keep quiet and minimally aroused all along.
Another possibility, superficially plausible but ultimately unconvincing, is that orgasm is an evolutionary tactic to induce women to copulate at all. The biggest problem here is that there are many animals that lack anything resembling the bells and whistles of female orgasm, and for whom copulation is a dutiful but unexciting act. Instead, they copulate with the same resignation (occasionally mixed with moderate enthusiasm) with which they might build a nest, feed their offspring, or defecate. Orgasm clearly isn’t a prerequisite for copulation. Why should we, more than any other species, require profound waves of cataclysmic ecstasy to do what other animals do simply as a matter of course, like scratching when they itch?
Maybe our extraordinary development of female orgasm—and although it is not unique to Homo sapiens, it is without doubt uniquely elaborated and more fully developed in our species than in any other—has something to do with that other uniquely human trait, consciousness.
In an earlier post, I developed the hypothesis that concealed ovulation might have evolved because prehistoric women were aware of the downsides of pregnancy, causing natural selection to favor those women who couldn’t tell when they were fertile. Isn’t it also possible that this same awareness, on the part of ancestral women, would have made them hesitant to engage in sex at all?
With great insight, we might say, comes great reluctance. If so, natural selection might well have favored orgasm as a reward, a tactic getting women to make love when—being in a sense too smart for their own evolutionary good—they otherwise might have declined.
Maybe in the distant past evolution favored women who found sex especially rewarding—that is, orgasmically so—even if these days, for whatever reason, the connection has been loosened. Philip Larkin once defined sex as an attempt to get “someone else to blow your own nose for you,” a perspective that is provocative, even comical, but that may ultimately tell us less about sex than about Mr. Larkin himself (who was, by all accounts, as despicable a human being as he was admirable as a poet). It seems unlikely that sexual relations among two emotionally healthy human beings are motivated solely by each seeking to get his or her nose blown by the other, just as it seems highly likely that by virtue of his egocentric self-concern, Larkin was a lousy lover.
In this regard, it would be interesting to see whether orgasm actually motivates sex: whether those who are orgasmic engage in more coitus than those who are nonorgasmic, and whether multiply orgasmic women are more sexually active than one-at-a-timers. Even if this turns out to be the case, it wouldn’t necessarily mean that orgasm evolved to get women to engage in intercourse.
In a renowned essay titled Knight’s Move, literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky pointed out that “If you take hold of a samovar by its stubby legs, you can use it to pound nails, but that is not its primary function.” Shklovsky went on to note that during the Russian civil war, “With my own hands I stoked stoves with pieces of a piano . . . and made bonfires out of rugs and fed the flames with vegetable oil while trapped in the mountains of Kurdistan. Right now I’m stoking a stove with books. . . . But it’s wrong to view a samovar with an eye to making it pound nails more easily or to write books so that they will make a hotter fire.”
Good advice for the evolutionary biologist too: Just because something can serve a given function doesn’t mean that it was “designed” to do so. Almost certainly, it is wrong to view the female orgasm as designed to induce sexual intercourse, just because it may provide an occasional payoff for doing so. The question of orgasm’s “primary function” remains open.
Next up: Female orgasm as a non-adaptive byproduct?