Why Women Have Orgasms: An Evolutionary Analysis

Abstract

Whether women’s orgasm is an adaptation is arguably the most contentious question in the study of the evolution of human sexuality. Indeed, this question is a veritable litmus test for adaptationism, separating those profoundly impressed with the pervasive and myriad correspondences between organisms’ phenotypes and their conditions of life from those who apply the “onerous concept” of adaptation with more caution, skepticism or suspicion. Yet, the adaptedness of female orgasm is a question whose answer will elucidate mating dynamics in humans and nonhuman primates. There are two broad competing explanations for the evolution of orgasm in women: (1) the mate-choice hypothesis, which states that female orgasm has evolved to function in mate selection and (2) the byproduct hypothesis, which states that female orgasm has no evolutionary function, existing only because women share some early ontogeny with men, in whom orgasm is an adaptation. We review evidence for these hypotheses and identify areas where relevant evidence is lacking. Although additional research is needed before firm conclusions can be drawn, we find that the mate-choice hypothesis receives more support. Specifically, female orgasm appears to have evolved to increase the probability of fertilization from males whose genes would improve offspring fitness.

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Acknowledgments

We thank Drew Bailey, J. Michael Bailey, Steven Gaulin, the Editor, and three anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on previous drafts of this article.

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Puts, D.A., Dawood, K. & Welling, L.L.M. Why Women Have Orgasms: An Evolutionary Analysis. Arch Sex Behav 41, 1127–1143 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-012-9967-x

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Keywords

  • Adaptation
  • Byproduct
  • Female orgasm
  • Good-genes
  • Mate choice