Can Evolution Explain the Female Orgasm?

How Women Got Their CurvesWe recently posted an excerpt on evolutionary explanations of the female orgasm from David P. Barash and Judith Eve Lipton’s How Women Got Their Curves and Other Just-So Stories. The post received some, well let’s say hard-earned praise from Jessa Crispin at Bookslut:

I generally find articles that try to figure out the evolutionary purpose of the female orgasm offensive and weird. Like, “Gee, it seems to have no purpose at all! You ladies sure lucked out.” And then I stab the researcher to death. But this chapter on the female orgasm from David Barash and Judith Eve Lipton’s How Women Got Their Curves and Other Just-So Stories: Evolutionary Enigmas … is less bad than the others. (They talk about Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s research, and I have yet to see Hrdy do anything wrong.)

The female orgasm is just one of the evolutionary enigmas that Barash and Lipton explore as they examine questions such as “Why do women have breasts, while other mammals only develop breast tissue while lactating, and why do women menstruate when virtually no other beings do so? and of course “How did women get their curves.”

As to the female orgasm, the authors examine a variety of possible evolutionary explanations including the idea that it facilitates fertilization and that it is the body’s way of telling a woman that she has found a suitable partner and potential father. In a sense, the orgasm might let women know whether their partner is a “cad” or a “dad.” (These are of course, evolutionary explanations and the authors recognize that the orgasm is not limited to heterosexual intercourse or the propagation of the species.) The authors write:

Male mammals are, in a sense, roving inseminators. Sperm are abundant and cheap, and males, as a result, are primed by evolution to be quick on the draw and not terribly selective as to targets. Their modus operandi is shoot first and ask questions later, if at all. But in certain species, human beings most especially, males have more to contribute: they can be providers, protectors, helpmates, and partners, not just lovers. In addition, a man’s behavior as a lover may yield some clues as to his inclination in these other crucial dimensions. According to a simple game theory model, males can be caricatured as either Cads or Dads. Cads are superficially attractive, but lack parental follow-through; they’re inclined to love ’em and leave ’em. Dads are, as their name implies, more likely to stay the course and to take the kids to soccer games, but less flashy and perhaps with less instantaneous sex appeal. Might it be that the elusive orgasm has been tuned to help transcend first appearances and encourage women to respond to men who aren’t simply out for a quick sexual encounter—that is, to respond in favor of those who are likely to be Dads? If so, how might this work?

If female orgasm were unlocked quickly and easily, then any Cad could do the trick, then be on his way. But, of course, it isn’t. Women are somewhat slower to rouse, often requiring extensive foreplay and direct, focused attention to the clitoris, which, after all, isn’t within the vagina and thus isn’t likely to be stimulated by a hurried and selfish sexual “technique.” This requirement, in turn, may have set the stage for a woman to assess whether her partner demonstrates an inclination to be lovingly generous, predisposed to meet her needs rather than selfishly focus only on his own pleasure. If so, then maybe he’ll also be inclined to pay for the kids’ orthodonture.

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