By Noelle Miller
Recent literature in the field of evolutionary biology has suggested that the female orgasm may be a “happy accident” of natural selection, implying that the sensitivity of the female sexual organs is a result of parallel development with male sexual organs (Lloyd, 2005). Elizabeth Lloyd, in her book The Case of the Female Orgasm: Bias in the Science of Evolution, contends that scientists with feminist agendas have vainly attempted to create meaning for a mechanism that is most likely an evolutionary byproduct. While Lloyd’s “happy accident” theory has been greatly contested by evolutionary biologists and psychologists since its publication, the notion of the unnecessary female orgasm has posed an intriguing discussion in reproductive biology. Many biologists question the evolutionary value of the female orgasm in human sexual relationships since it is not required for conception and is meaningless in terms of reproduction. Yet because women are able to achieve such heightened sensations during sexual activity, it is difficult to imagine the female orgasm as truly an evolutionarily incidental development.
The female orgasm has been described to be reproductively beneficial for heterosexual intercourse on several accounts. First, experiments conducted by Levin have suggested that the muscle mechanisms involved in the female coital organism aid in sperm retention during ejaculation (Levin, 2002). This finding demonstrates how the physical experience of the female orgasm would directly benefit reproductive fitness, since successful sperm retention facilitates conception. Also, Baker and Bellis have shown that the likelihood of a woman to remain in a supine position post-intercourse increases after orgasm, which further suggests that coital orgasm assists with sperm retention (1993). In repeated experiments, Baker and Bellis, Shackelford, and Thornhill have proven the function of the female orgasm as an active agent of sexual selection. They have suggested that the female coital orgasm may aid women in selecting partners with “good genes,” as women are more likely to experience coital orgasm with men they find to be more physically and sexually attractive partners (Shackelford, 2000; Baker & Bellis, 2003; Thornhill, Gangestad, & Comer, 1995). Furthermore, the experience of female orgasm affects the probability of repeated sexual encounters with the same partner, since an individual is more likely to want to engage in sexual activities with a partner who has given her an orgasm in the past (Thornhill et al., 1995). Repeated sexual intercourse is evolutionarily beneficial to the male partner because it increases chances of successful reproduction, facilitates pair bonding, and provides paternity assurance.
While the reproductive benefits of the female coital or vaginal orgasm have been investigated with great depth, the evolutionary benefits of the female clitoral orgasm remain more elusive. Aside from the explanation of the clitoris as an underdeveloped penis with incidental sensitivity (Lloyd, 2005), the arena of female orgasm through non-penetrating clitoral stimulation remains largely unexplored in reproductive biology. As an external experience that is non-instrumental in reproduction or conception, the clitoral orgasm seems irrelevant to evolutionary fitness. However, despite its seeming insignificance, the clitoral orgasm is a source of great pleasure for women and is often more easily attained than the coital orgasm (Singer, 1972). It is curious, then, that the clitoral orgasm would persist with such intense characteristics over time without providing some evolutionary benefit to the human individual or group; therefore, scientists are searching for an alternative explanation for the presence of the clitoral orgasm through benefits that do not physically and directly affect reproductive success.
Theories about the social, psychological, and physiological functions of the orgasm have been presented, but evolutionary biologists have given these theories little concern. Puts and Dawood (2006), in response to Lloyd’s book, have argued that more research focus should be directed toward the psychological and physiological benefits derived from the pleasurable sensations of female orgasm. For example, the orgasm may benefit females by relieving psychological stresses. One relevant study has discussed the increased desire to masturbate in females who are mentally depressed, indicating that there may be a positive correlation between achieving orgasm and emotional relief (Frohlich, 2002). Furthermore, experience of orgasm may aid females in sexual development and self-confidence (Urdy, 1986). Although such theories of the psychological or developmental benefits of orgasm may seem less biologically objective or concrete, they are still significant in understanding the importance of female orgasm in human sexuality, as they may explain the addition of indirect benefit to reproductive fitness. For example, an animal’s ability to cope with stresses may directly increase its survival chances while indirectly increasing its chances for reproduction. A heritable trait or behavior that evolutionarily benefits an individual or group, whether it directly or indirectly aids in reproductive fitness, will be passed on to the next generations.
In its attempts to explain the selection of the heightened female orgasm, the field of evolutionary biology has also been critiqued for ignoring orgasms that are unaffiliated with heterosexual intercourse. For example, another critique of Lloyd in New Scientist magazine (Vines, 2005), discussed the importance of the orgasm in homosexual relationships and masturbation. Although these activities do not directly relate to reproductive fitness, they obviously must provide some indirect benefits for the participant; it is possible that the female orgasm may be selected for among women for benefits additional to those experienced through reproductive-oriented sexual activities. This is further demonstrated in populations where birth control use is high and reproductive rates are low. In this case, women are becoming sexual selection agents who decide, with the help of modern technologies, whether or not they will conceive at all. These women, despite declining to procreate, still benefit from orgasms. Over successive generations worldwide, the prevalence of birth control has increased (WHO, 2006), while the importance of female orgasms has remained constant. The pursuits of orgasms in largely non-reproductive populations warrant an explanation within an evolutionary framework.
Masturbation provides an insightful avenue by which to explore the meaning of the female orgasm. Since one cannot conceive a child through solo sexual activities, the behavior of masturbation has no direct bearing on one’s reproductive success and therefore must provide some alternative benefits. Studies by Dawood and Dunn (2005) have demonstrated that orgasms achieved without penetration are the most heritable, proving that clitoral orgasms are evolutionarily significant. Also, the high amount of masturbation practiced in many human cultures over time (Abramson, 1995) suggests that it is an evolutionarily significant behavior. The following investigation considers self-reported benefits of female masturbation in order to infer psychological, social, and/or developmental advantages of orgasms achieved through the behavior, and by extension to better understand the evolutionary significance of the female orgasm.
The field site chosen for the study was the Pleasure Chest in West Hollywood, California. The Pleasure Chest is a large “sex-toy boutique” that opened in 1972 during the American sexual revolution and remains a popular destination for pleasure-seekers today (Pleasure Chest website, Nov 2008). Observations at the Pleasure Chest were intended to gauge the extent that women will work to achieve orgasm through a variety of means, including workshops and assistive technologies, such as vibrators, aphrodisiacs, and lubricants. Additionally, interviews were conducted with owners and/or employees of the shop to gain wisdom about common female masturbatory practices and explained benefits of orgasm. A survey, created specifically for this study, was distributed to women at the shop as a part of a larger survey group.
The survey asked participants to anonymously self-report about their motivations to engage in masturbation in order to determine the psychological and developmental benefits of the female orgasm. The survey began with an inquiry of general information about the participant including age, age at the time of first masturbation, frequency of masturbation, sexual orientation, and likelihood to use birth control to prevent pregnancy during sexual activities. Following the general information section, the survey presented a series of questions regarding miscellaneous benefits derived from masturbation. The questions consisted of statements that the participant would rank from 1 to 9, depending on how strongly she agreed with the statement. The questions were grouped into three categories: First, how does the practice of masturbation relate to or affect sexual activities with a partner? Second, what relationship does masturbation have with personal or sexual development? Finally, what are some personal functions of masturbation, and how is the behavior psychologically beneficial? A disclaimer on the survey indicated that if the participant felt uncomfortable with any question, she could refrain from answering.
The survey was distributed to women at the Pleasure Chest, students who attend the University of Southern California, and their non-student friends and relatives. These women filled out the survey independent of the researcher and turned in the surveys folded in half to ensure anonymity. No special concern was taken to ensure a certain age or occupational demographic in participants, but care was taken to give the survey to women who were both hetero- and homosexual, in relationships and single, and with different family backgrounds. Surveys were collected and evaluated on two separate occasions. Results were analyzed and compiled based on the 1-9 number responses of the participants.
In total, 30 women completed the survey within a period of 10 days. The age range of participants was 20 to 65, with an average age of 25.6 years old. The majority of surveyed women identified as heterosexual, while five women identified themselves as gay or bisexual. Frequency of masturbation varied from never having masturbated to masturbating every day, with the average frequency of masturbation between three and four times per month. All women of reproductive age reported an 8 or 9 on a 9-point scale of their likelihood to use birth control to prevent pregnancy during sexual activities, indicating that no female participants were attempting to reproduce at or around the time that the survey was administered. During data analysis, surveys belonging to two women who had never masturbated were discounted, since they could not provide accurate input on masturbatory benefits.
Responses relating to the motivations for and benefits of masturbation varied in the three subcategories of the survey. Percentage categories were based on the amount of people agreeing with the statement with a level between 1 to 3, 4 to 6, and 7 to 9. The statements with which over 70% of participants agreed with a strength of 7 to 9 were: “Masturbation has helped me to reach sexual maturity,” “One reason I masturbate is to alleviate stress,” and “One reason I masturbate is to relieve sexual frustration.” Statements with which less than 50% of participants agreed with a strength of 7 to 9 were “I am more likely to have an orgasm from masturbation than from sex with a partner,” “I am more pleased by orgasms achieved through masturbation than through orgasms achieved through the help of a partner,” and “Masturbation has helped me to have a healthier body image.”
The information gathered at the Pleasure Chest provides valuable insight into the scope of human sexuality, especially with respect to female masturbation behaviors. Female patrons of the Pleasure Chest have the opportunity to purchase endless varieties of assistive tools to encourage or facilitate orgasm, and the Pleasure Shop prides itself on its large and advanced selection of vibrators and dildos, showing their commitment to helping women on their “quest for pleasure” (personal communication, 11/29/2008). The store manager, who wishes to remain anonymous, described the intense need for orgasm that female customers experience. Women frequently ask for advice from and discuss sexual frustrations with the store manager. She commented that orgasms are like “the holy grail” in human sexuality, insisting that they are the most important experience a woman can have. These observations and conversations conducted at the Pleasure Chest illustrate the large market for orgasm-assistive tools and confirm the notion that the female orgasm is a culturally coveted and widely sought-after experience.
The survey results indicate that masturbatory orgasms are not a substitute for coital orgasms, as the women were not likelier to orgasm from masturbation than from sex, nor were there more pleased by orgasms achieved through masturbation. It seems that masturbatory orgasms should be examined independently from orgasms achieved through sexual intercourse. The practice of masturbation offers women an external arena where, although it does not substitute for sexual intercourse, they can achieve orgasm for purposes not related to reproduction. The evidence suggests that the evolutionary benefits of masturbatory orgasms may be more psychological and developmental than sexual or reproductive.
In the survey, 86% of women strongly agree with the statement “Masturbation has helped me to reach sexual maturity.” Masturbation can be seen as an outlet through which women begin to explore their sexuality and experience orgasm. In a developmental study of adolescent women, Urdy, Talbert, and Morris have determined that the behavior of masturbation functions as a socially acceptable outlet for sexual drive in developing females (1986). Females are likely to practice masturbatory orgasms before attempting to orgasm with the help of a partner. Thus, the experience of independent, clitoral orgasm assists with sexual maturation and therefore provides some benefit to reproductive fitness. The more a woman prepares herself for sexual activity, the easier it will be for her to function with a healthy and productive sex life, increasing the possibility of reproduction.
Masturbation, in addition to helping adolescent females develop, could also be used later in life by mature females to relieve sexual frustration. From the survey, 79% of women strongly agree with the statement “One reason I masturbate is to relieve sexual frustration,” illustrating that release of tension is an important benefit of achieving orgasm. If the orgasm functions to release stress or tension of any sort, it would benefit the individual female and her group. For example, elevating the emotional state of an individual assists with basic survival, and an individual’s release of tension helps to avoid group conflicts. The correlation between the high sexual activity levels of bonobos, primates that are the closest genetic relatives of humans, and the low rates of conflict, when compared to chimpanzees, may provide a valuable comparison for the relationship between the human female orgasm and emotional relief. Often in bonobos sex is used to diffuse group tensions and avoid conflict (de Waal, 1995). Similarly, women who achieve clitoral orgasms could gain benefits on a group level. The physiological capability of human females to achieve orgasm, then, could persist for reasons supplemental to its ability to directly and physically increase reproductive success.
The academic responses to Lloyd’s “happy accident” have been vital in creating an interest in the evolutionary perpetuation of the female orgasm, and as Vines, Put, and Dawood have all suggested, more research needs to be conducted on the psychological and social benefits of the female clitoral orgasm. Further studies that correlate orgasm with emotional- or stress relief and explanations for the intensity, prevalence, and importance of the female clitoral orgasm—in addition to research on the male G-spot, the prostate—are needed in order to better describe and understand the evolutionary progression of human sexuality.
Abramson, P. R., & Pinkerton, S. D. (1995) With Pleasure : Thoughts on the Nature of Human Sexuality. London: Oxford University Press, Incorporated.
Baker, R. R., & M. A. Bellis. (1993). Human sperm competition: Ejaculate manipulation by females and a function for the female orgasm. Animal Behaviour, 46, 887-909.
Baker, R., & Bellis, M. A. (1996). Human Sperm Competition: Copulation, Masturbation and Infidelity. New York: Chapman & Hal.
Darling, Davidson, & Cox (1991). Female sexual response and the timing of partner orgasm. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 17, 3-21.
Dawood, K., Kirk, K. M., Bailey, J. M., Andrews, P. W., & Martin, N. G. (2005). Genetic and environmental influences on the frequency of orgasm in women. Twin Research and Human Genetics, 8, 27–33.
de Waal, F., (Mar 1995). Bonobo sex and society. Scientific American, 82-88.
Dunn, K. M., Cherkas, L. F., & Spector, T. D. (2005). Genetic influences on variation in female orgasmic function: A twin study. Biology Letters.
Eschler, L. (2004). The physiology of the female orgasm as a proximate mechanism. Sexualities, Evolution & Gender, 6, 171–194.
Frohlich, P., & Meston, C. (Nov., 2002). Sexual functioning and self-reported depressive symptoms among college women. The Journal of Sex Research, 39.4, 321-325.
Greenberg, J.S., & Archambault, F. X. (Feb., 1973). Masturbation, self-esteem and other variables. The Journal of Sex Research, 9.1, 41-51.
Levin, R. J. (2002). The physiology of sexual arousal in the human female: A recreational and procreational synthesis. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 31, 405–411.
Lloyd, E. A. (2005). The Case of the Female Orgasm: Bias in the Science of Evolution. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press.
The Pleasure Chest Home Website. Retrieved Nov 15, 2008.
Puts, D., & Dawood, K. (2006). The evolution of female orgasm: adaptation or byproduct? Twin Research and Human Genetics, 9.3, 467-472.
Rice, W.R. (1996). Sexually antagonistic male adaptation. Nature, 381, 232-234.
Shackelford, T., Weekes-Shackelford, V., LeBlanc, G., Bleske, A., Euler, H., & Hoier, S. (2000). Female coital orgasm and male attractiveness. Human Nature, 11.3, 299-306.
Singer, J., & Singer, I. (Nov., 1972). Types of female orgasm. The Journal of Sex Research, 8.4, 255-267.
Thornhill, R., Gangestad, S. W., & Comer, R. (1995). Human female orgasm and mate fluctuating asymmetry. Animal Behaviour, 50, 1601–1615.
Udry, R.J., Talbert, L.M., & Morris, N.M. (May, 1986). Biosocial foundations for adolescent female sexuality. Demography, 23.2, 217-230.
Van Wyk, P. (Feb., 1982). Relationship of Time Spent on Masturbation Assignments with Orgasmic Outcome in Preorgasmic Women’s Groups. The Journal of Sex Research, 18.1, 33-40.
Vines, Gail. (May 14, 2005) The accidental orgasm: so what if it has no biological purpose.” New Scientist, 186.2499, 52.
World Health Organization (2006). Reproductive Health Indicators : Guidelines for their Generation, Interpretation and Analysis for Global Monitoring. World Health Organization.
Zuk, M. (Spring 2006). The case of the female orgasm. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 49.2, 294-299.
Female Masturbation Survey
Thank you for your participation in the survey. This survey is completely anonymous and will be used for the purposes of writing an anthropological paper about the social and evolutionary benefits of female masturbation. If any question causes you to feel uncomfortable, you can refrain from answering the question. Please answer as honestly and accurately as possible.
What is your age? What was your age at first masturbation?
Approximately how often do you masturbate per month?
When you have sex with a partner, is that person usually the same sex as you, the opposite sex as you, or do have comparable amounts of sex with members of the same sex and the opposite sex as you?
When you have sex with a partner, how likely are you to use a form of birth control in order to prevent pregnancy? (Please answer from 1 to 9, 1=very unlikely and 9=very likely)
**For the following questions, please answer with a number from 1 to 9, 1 indicating that you do not agree at all with the statement and 9 indicating that you strongly agree with the statement**
Masturbation vs. Sex (of any kind) with a Partner
I am more likely to have an orgasm from masturbation than from sex with a partner:
I am more pleased by orgasms achieved through masturbation than through orgasms achieved with the help of a partner:
It has become easier for me to achieve orgasm during sex with a partner as I have masturbated more:
Masturbation and Development
Masturbation helped me to reach sexual maturity:
Masturbation has helped me to raise my self-confidence:
Masturbation has helped me to have a healthier body image:
Personal Functions of Masturbation
One reason I masturbate is to alleviate stress:
One reason I masturbate is to relieve sexual frustration: