By DINITIA SMITH, Ney York Times
Evolutionary scientists have never had difficulty explaining the
male orgasm, closely tied as it is to reproduction.
But the Darwinian logic behind the female orgasm has remained
elusive. Women can have sexual intercourse and even become pregnant -
doing their part for the perpetuation of the species - without
experiencing orgasm. So what is its evolutionary purpose?
Over the last four decades, scientists have come up with a variety
of theories, arguing, for example, that orgasm encourages women to
have sex and, therefore, reproduce or that it leads women to favor
stronger and healthier men, maximizing their offspring's chances of
But in a new book, Dr. Elisabeth A. Lloyd, a philosopher of science
and professor of biology at Indiana University, takes on 20 leading
theories and finds them wanting. The female orgasm, she argues in
the book, "The Case of the Female Orgasm: Bias in the Science of
Evolution," has no evolutionary function at all.
Rather, Dr. Lloyd says the most convincing theory is one put forward
in 1979 by Dr. Donald Symons, an anthropologist.
That theory holds that female orgasms are simply artifacts - a
byproduct of the parallel development of male and female embryos in
the first eight or nine weeks of life.
In that early period, the nerve and tissue pathways are laid down
for various reflexes, including the orgasm, Dr. Lloyd said. As
development progresses, male hormones saturate the embryo, and
sexuality is defined.
In boys, the penis develops, along with the potential to have
orgasms and ejaculate, while "females get the nerve pathways for
orgasm by initially having the same body plan."
Nipples in men are similarly vestigial, Dr. Lloyd pointed out.
While nipples in woman serve a purpose, male nipples appear to be
simply left over from the initial stage of embryonic development.
The female orgasm, she said, "is for fun."
Dr. Lloyd said scientists had insisted on finding an evolutionary
function for female orgasm in humans either because they were
invested in believing that women's sexuality must exactly parallel
that of men or because they were convinced that all traits had to
be "adaptations," that is, serve an evolutionary function.
Theories of female orgasm are significant, she added, because "men's
expectations about women's normal sexuality, about how women should
perform, are built around these notions."
"And men are the ones who reflect back immediately to the woman
whether or not she is adequate sexually," Dr. Lloyd continued.
Central to her thesis is the fact that women do not routinely have
orgasms during sexual intercourse.
She analyzed 32 studies, conducted over 74 years, of the frequency
of female orgasm during intercourse.
When intercourse was "unassisted," that is not accompanied by
stimulation of the clitoris, just a quarter of the women studied
experienced orgasms often or very often during intercourse, she
Five to 10 percent never had orgasms. Yet many of the women became
Dr. Lloyd's figures are lower than those of Dr. Alfred A. Kinsey,
who in his 1953 book "Sexual Behavior in the Human Female" found
that 39 to 47 percent of women reported that they always, or almost
always, had orgasm during intercourse.
But Kinsey, Dr. Lloyd said, included orgasms assisted by clitoral
Dr. Lloyd said there was no doubt in her mind that the clitoris was
an evolutionary adaptation, selected to create excitement, leading
to sexual intercourse and then reproduction.
But, "without a link to fertility or reproduction," Dr. Lloyd
said, "orgasm cannot be an adaptation."
Not everyone agrees. For example, Dr. John Alcock, a professor of
biology at Arizona State University, criticized an earlier version
of Dr. Lloyd's thesis, discussed in in a 1987 article by Stephen Jay
Gould in the magazine Natural History.
In a phone interview, Dr. Alcock said that he had not read her new
book, but that he still maintained the hypothesis that the fact
that "orgasm doesn't occur every time a woman has intercourse is not
evidence that it's not adaptive."
"I'm flabbergasted by the notion that orgasm has to happen every
time to be adaptive," he added.
Dr. Alcock theorized that a woman might use orgasm "as an
unconscious way to evaluate the quality of the male," his genetic
fitness and, thus, how suitable he would be as a father for her
"Under those circumstances, you wouldn't expect her to have it every
time," Dr. Alcock said.
Among the theories that Dr. Lloyd addresses in her book is one
proposed in 1993, by Dr. R. Robin Baker and Dr. Mark A. Bellis, at
Manchester University in England. In two papers published in the
journal Animal Behaviour, they argued that female orgasm was a way
of manipulating the retention of sperm by creating suction in the
uterus. When a woman has an orgasm from one minute before the man
ejaculates to 45 minutes after, she retains more sperm, they said.
Furthermore, they asserted, when a woman has intercourse with a man
other than her regular sexual partner, she is more likely to have an
orgasm in that prime time span and thus retain more sperm,
presumably making conception more likely. They postulated that women
seek other partners in an effort to obtain better genes for their
Dr. Lloyd said the Baker-Bellis argument was "fatally flawed because
their sample size is too small."
"In one table," she said, "73 percent of the data is based on the
experience of one person."
In an e-mail message recently, Dr. Baker wrote that his and Dr.
Bellis's manuscript had "received intense peer review appraisal"
before publication. Statisticians were among the reviewers, he said,
and they noted that some sample sizes were small, "but considered
that none of these were fatal to our paper."
Dr. Lloyd said that studies called into question the logic of such
theories. Research by Dr. Ludwig Wildt and his colleagues at the
University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany in 1998, for example,
found that in a healthy woman the uterus undergoes peristaltic
contractions throughout the day in the absence of sexual intercourse
or orgasm. This casts doubt, Dr. Lloyd argues, on the idea that the
contractions of orgasm somehow affect sperm retention.
Another hypothesis, proposed in 1995 by Dr. Randy Thornhill, a
professor of biology at the University of New Mexico and two
colleagues, held that women were more likely to have orgasms during
intercourse with men with symmetrical physical features. On the
basis of earlier studies of physical attraction, Dr. Thornhill
argued that symmetry might be an indicator of genetic fitness.
Dr. Lloyd, however, said those conclusions were not viable
because "they only cover a minority of women, 45 percent, who say
they sometimes do, and sometimes don't, have orgasm during
"It excludes women on either end of the spectrum," she said. "The 25
percent who say they almost always have orgasm in intercourse and
the 30 percent who say they rarely or never do. And that last 30
percent includes the 10 percent who say they never have orgasm under
In a phone interview, Dr. Thornhill said that he had not read Dr.
Lloyd's book but the fact that not all women have orgasms during
intercourse supports his theory.
"There will be patterns in orgasm with preferred and not preferred
men," he said.
Dr. Lloyd also criticized work by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, an emeritus
professor of anthropology at the University of California, Davis,
who studies primate behavior and female reproductive strategies.
Scientists have documented that orgasm occurs in some female
primates; for other mammals, whether orgasm occurs remains an open
In the 1981 book "The Woman That Never Evolved" and in her other
work, Dr. Hrdy argues that orgasm evolved in nonhuman primates as a
way for the female to protect her offspring from the depredation of
She points out that langur monkeys have a high infant mortality
rate, with 30 percent of deaths a result of babies' being killed by
males who are not the fathers. Male langurs, she says, will not kill
the babies of females they have mated with.
In macaques and chimpanzees, she said, females are conditioned by
the pleasurable sensations of clitoral stimulation to keep
copulating with multiple partners until they have an orgasm. Thus,
males do not know which infants are theirs and which are not and do
not attack them.
Dr. Hrdy also argues against the idea that female orgasm is an
artifact of the early parallel development of male and female
"I'm convinced," she said, "that the selection of the clitoris is
quite separate from that of the penis in males."
In critiquing Dr. Hrdy's view, Dr. Lloyd disputes the idea that
longer periods of sexual intercourse lead to a higher incidence of
orgasm, something that if it is true, may provide an evolutionary
rationale for female orgasm.
But Dr. Hrdy said her work did not speak one way or another to the
issue of female orgasm in humans. "My hypothesis is silent," she
One possibility, Dr. Hrdy said, is that orgasm in women may have
been an adaptive trait in our prehuman ancestors.
"But we separated from our common primate ancestors about seven
million years ago," she said.
"Perhaps the reason orgasm is so erratic is that it's phasing out,"
Dr. Hrdy said. "Our descendants on the starships may well wonder
what all the fuss was about."
Western culture is suffused with images of women's sexuality, of
women in the throes of orgasm during intercourse and seeming to
reach heights of pleasure that are rare, if not impossible, for most
women in everyday life.
"Accounts of our evolutionary past tell us how the various parts of
our body should function," Dr. Lloyd said.
If women, she said, are told that it is "natural" to have orgasms
every time they have intercourse and that orgasms will help make
them pregnant, then they feel inadequate or inferior or abnormal
when they do not achieve it.
"Getting the evolutionary story straight has potentially very large
social and personal consequences for all women," Dr. Lloyd
said. "And indirectly for men, as well."