Scientists break new ground on female orgasm

August 2, 2016 GMT

Though many may assume they already know the answer to the question, a pair of evolutionary scientists released a study Monday explaining the point of the female orgasm.

Scientists at Yale and the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital have provided fresh insights on the subject by examining the evolving trait across different species. Their study appears Monday in the journal JEZ-Molecular and Developmental Evolution.

“The female orgasm, unlike the male orgasm, is not necessary for conceiving, so why is it still there?” said Dr. Mihaela Pavlicev, an assistant professor at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, and one of two authors of the the study, “The Evolutionary Origin of Female Orgasm.”

Dr. Pavlicev and Gunter Wagner, an Alison Richard professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Yale University, started last fall and took three to four months to complete the study.

“We wanted to try to understand the ovarian cycle and spontaneous evolution, because this concept is relatively new,” Pavlicev said. “While doing other things, we stumbled across this observation that the ancestral trait that evolved into the human female orgasm had an ancestral function during ovulation.”

Pavlicev has been on the job for the last three years, but has focused on reproductive biology for the past 13, while Wagner has spent 35 years studying evolutionary biology, a quarter of a century teaching at Yale, and a decade researching biological reproduction.

Since there is no apparent association between orgasm and number of offspring or successful reproduction in humans, the scientists singled out one physiological trait that goes together with the human female orgasm, the neuro-endocrine discharge of prolactin and oxytocin, and searched for this activity in other placental mammals.

“Although the effects of the female orgasm in humans may not be clear, however if present, the extant effects of the trait are not necessarily the functions for which the traits originated in the first place,” wrote Pavlicev and Wagner in their publication. “Instead, they can be new functions, for example, as is well established for feathers, hair, or swim bladder, etc.”

Pavlicev and Wagner saw this reflex plays a part in ovulation for a large number of mammals.

“For animals other than the human, the female orgasm can be seen as a mechanism to cause ovulation in response to copulation, as the egg and sperm must simultaneously be in the right place,” Pavlicev said.

“We must ask the question: Is there still a function for the female orgasm, and how will ovulation be affected? Many aspects of reproductive biology are still yet to be answered,” Wagner said.

While the study affects the science community in a positive manner, the general implications for the average individual should not be overlooked.

“People want to understand themselves and why things are the way that they are,” Wagner said.

The scientists suggest that female orgasm may have evolved as an adaptation for a direct reproductive role — the reflex that, ancestrally, induced ovulation. This reflex became superfluous for reproduction later in evolution, freeing female orgasm for secondary roles.