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10 things you didn't know about orgasm | Mary Roach
Why do women have orgasms? Most of the time, I'm so occupied with answering questions about why some women don't have orgasms that I rarely stop to think about why women do have orgasms. It's a good question, really. And sexual scientists typically don't agree on the answer. But I came across a couple of studies recently published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior that discuss an evolutionary explanation for the ever-elusive female orgasm.
Dr. Puts and colleagues conducted a review of the literature on the evolutionary function of female orgasm. There are two main evolutionary approaches to explaining female orgasm: the byproduct hypothesis and the mate-choice hypothesis.
The byproduct hypothesis states that female orgasm doesn't have a direct evolutionary function; rather, women experience orgasm because of men's adaptation to it. The idea is that men were given sensitive orgasmic penises to reward them for spreading their seed. And recall that everyone, regardless of being biologically female or male, is born with the same anatomical structure. For the first two months after conception, the genitals are undifferentiated. So because male and female genitals are developed out of the same structure, women also get the benefit of this pleasure reward. For more details on this, check out The Case of the Female Orgasm: Bias in the Science of Evolution.
The mate-choice hypothesis states that female orgasm has evolved to function in mate selection in order to better attract mates who will be invested long-term or to select higher quality sperm for higher quality offspring. A variety of studies have suggested that female orgasm increases the odds of getting pregnant. Interestingly, another recent study also published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior found that women who faked orgasm performed a greater number of mate retention behaviors than women who didn't fake orgasm, perhaps offering more evidence to support the mate-choice hypothesis.
The main argument against women's orgasm being explained by an evolutionary perspective is how infrequently it happens during intercourse. Most women require additional stimulation in order to climax during intercourse (usually in the form of clitoral stimulation), and you'd think that if it were adaptive, an orgasm would be a little easier to come by.
Additionally, compared to masturbation, penile-vaginal intercourse is pretty inefficient when it comes to producing an orgasm. If female orgasm were really an evolutionary adaptation, one would think the opposite would be true.
The main question I am left with (which is a common theme I find missing in most evolutionary explanations), is 'where is the pleasure?' Female sexual pleasure certainly isn't considered as an adaptation or an evolutionary function in itself. There is some evidence to suggest that female (and male) orgasm aids in pair-bonding through the release of the anxiety-reducing and calming hormone oxytocin, especially in women, but that's about as close as any of this literature gets to female sexual pleasure.
I'll conclude in a similar way the scientific article was
concluded, by saying there is still a lot of additional work
to be done in decoding the possible function(s) of female
orgasm. I'm certain of one thing -- this won't be the last
time sexual scientists disagree on the topic of female
1. Keeps Your Blood FlowingAccording to Dr. Jennifer Berman, co-founder of the Female Sexual Medicine Center at UCLA, orgasms increase your circulation, keeping the blood flowing to your genital area. This in turn keeps your tissue healthy!
2. It's A Form Of CardioAlthough it can't be considered an alternative to daily exercise, having an orgasm is a cardiovascular activity. "Your heart rate increases, blood pressure increases [and your] respiratory rate increases," says Berman. And because it's akin to running in many physiological respects, your body also releases endorphins. Sounds like a pretty fun way to work your heart out.
3. Lifts Your MoodFeeling down in the dumps? An orgasm might be just what you need to pick yourself up. In addition to endorphins, dopamine and oxytocin are also released during orgasm. All three of these hormones have what Berman terms "mood-enhancing effects." In fact, dopamine is the same hormone that's released when individuals use drugs such as cocaine -- or eat something really delicious.
4. Helps You SleepA little pleasure may go a long way towards a good night's rest. A recent survey of 1,800 women found that over 30 percent of them used sexual release as a natural sedative.
5. Keeps Your Brain HealthyHaving an orgasm not only works out your heart, but also your head. Barry Komisaruk, Ph.D. told Cosmopolitan that orgasms actually nourish the brain with oxygen. "Functional MRI images show that women's brains utilize much more oxygen during orgasm than usual," Komisaruk says.
6. It's A Natural PainkillerOne thing that Victorian practitioners may have been onto is that orgasms can work to soothe certain aches and pains -- namely migraines and menstrual cramps. (So now you know what to do next time you have a headache if you don't feel like popping an Excedrin.) According to Berman, the contractions that make up an orgasm can actually work to evacuate blood clots during your period, providing some temporary relief.
7. It Relieves StressMost of our lives are so hectic that it's hard to even imagine being relaxed. However, it turns out that sexual release can double as stress relief. Not only do the hormones help with this task, Berman says that being sexual also gives our minds a break: "When we're stressed out and overextending ourselves, [we're] not being in the moment. Being sexual requires us to focus on one thing only."
8. Gives You A Healthy GlowThere actually might be something to the idea that we "glow" after sex. The hormone DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone), which shows increased levels during sexual excitement, can actually make your skin healthier.
9. Aids Your Emotional HealthLast but not least, when you
know what it takes to make yourself orgasm, you may increase
your emotional confidence and intelligence. "When you
understand how your body works and ... [that it] is
capable of pleasure on its own, regardless of your partner
status, you make much better decisions in relationships,"
says Logan Levkoff, Ph.D., a sexologist and certified
sexuality educator. "You don't look to someone else to
legitimize that you're a sexual being.
In 2009, I walked onto the TED stage and gave a talk that included video of a Danish pig inseminator. The topic of the talk was orgasm, and the video related to a centuries-old debate over "upsuck": that is, whether the contractions of the uterus during orgasm serve to draw the semen toward the egg and boost the odds of conception. In pigs, research suggests, this is the case. The inseminator up on the screen was practicing the Five-Point Stimulation Plan, a technique developed by Denmark's National Committee for Pig Production, following research that showed a 6 percent higher farrowing rate among titillated sows. In other words, as a group, they produced 6 percent more piglets than sows inseminated while idly standing around the sty.
William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the pioneering sex researchers of the '50s and '60s, were upsuck skeptics. They didn't believe orgasm facilitated conception, at least not in humans, and they worried that the belief might be hobbling fertility research. So they set out to prove their case. Six women came into the lab and were outfitted with a cervical cap filled with artificial semen. A radiopaque marker had been added, such that one could document the goo's travels by X-ray. The women were installed in front of the X-ray machine and invited to bring themselves to orgasm. Before and after images showed no evidence of upsuck, and infertility research was freed to move on to a more productive line of inquiry.
There were those at the TED organization who felt that
the pig footage should be edited out of my talk before
posting it online. Not because it was pornographic; there is
little overlap between the things a human male does to
arouse his partner and the techniques of the amorous boar.
The reason, I was told, was that the animal welfare
community might look askance. People had tweeted during my
talk, and apparently pig foreplay out of context and limited
to 140 characters sounds like sow abuse. But the sows'
quality of life is, if anything, improved, and I am guessing
that the larger concern -- as reflected in some of the early
comments posted for my talk -- was that the video was
sensationalistic. That the footage and the topic of orgasm
were a cheap grab for hits that debased the goals and
principles of TED. I understand that sentiment. But to me,
the talk was quintessentially TED. The same goal-directed,
out-of-the-box thinking that led to the sow stimulation
plan, that led Masters and Johnson into the lab with their
cervical caps and six bold women, lies squarely at the heart
of TED. What good are good ideas if you keep them to
yourself? Raised eyebrows be damned! People are drawn to TED
for the freshness of the ideas and the willingness to
confront the inevitable blowback of skepticism. TED is the
antithesis of knee-jerkism, of political correctness and
fear-based passivity. That's why we love it. I do realize
I'm likening TED to the Danish pork industry. I do so with
the utmost respect.
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