Understanding the Female Orgasm

by Allie Hoff, The Chicago School of Professional Psychology


When thought of behaviorally, the human female orgasm is a difficult topic to wrap one’s head around. Why did it develop? What function(s) does it serve? How can we manipulate it?  And how many topographies of female orgasm are there?
In order to understand female orgasm from a behavioral perspective, one must return to the three-term contingency:  Antecedent – Behavior – Consequence


In the case of female orgasm, sexual arousal may serve as the antecedent.  The behavior following would be engaging in sexual intercourse and the consequence of this action would be female orgasm.  But what if the antecedent was genital stimulation and the behavior was orgasmic responding—what would be the reinforcing consequence?  Something must follow orgasmic responding in order to increase (or decrease) its future likelihood.  Current literature indicates there are two competing theories for how and why the female orgasm has persisted.
The first theory, the byproduct hypothesis, states the orgasm has no evolutionary function, “existing only because women share some early ontogeny with men“ (Puts et al., 2012).  Stated another way, the clitoris is nothing more than a mere homology of the penis.  An analogous structure for men would be the nipple.
The second theory postulates that the orgasm is an adaptation.  In order for any feature to qualify as an adaptation, it must be designed to solve a particular problem posed by selective pressures.  According to King and colleagues (2009), “female orgasm is sculpted by natural selection to increase reproductive fitness in some way.”  In their investigation of human female orgasm, Thornhill (1995) outlined five potential hypotheses.  The first conjecture suggests that female orgasm creates the foundation for a bond between partners.  In other words, sexual pleasure is the underpinning for intimacy.  The second hypothesis supports the claim that the female orgasm may selectively facilitate companionship with worthy males.  Third, it is claimed that female orgasm serves as a motivational mechanism for women to engage in sexual activity with multiple males, thus avoiding male infanticide of the offspring.  Additionally, by having sexual intercourse with many partners, a female may garnish a variety of material benefits.
The fourth hypothesis theorizes that the female orgasm is a catalyst for sleep and fatigue, creating conditions in a passive manner that will facilitate the retention of sperm.  Finally, there have been findings that support what is called the ‘upsuck’ hypothesis.  According to Fox and colleagues (1970), this conjecture “proposes that orgasm actively retains sperm by sucking sperm into the uterus.”
Why study the female orgasm at all?


According to Zietsch (2011), “understanding the evolutionary function(s), if any, of female orgasm would clarify whether difficult or absent orgasm constitutes a genuine biological dysfunction.”  Furthermore, female orgasm has been linked to better emotional well-being overall (Brody & Weiss, 2010).



Brody, S., & Weiss, P. (2010). Vaginal orgasm is associated with vaginal (not clitoral) sex education, focusing mental attention on vaginal sensations, intercourse duration, and a preference for a longer penis. The journal of sexual medicine, 7(8), 2774-2781.

Costa, R. M., & Brody, S. (2010). Immature defense mechanisms are associated with lesser vaginal orgasm consistency and greater alcohol consumption before sex. The journal of sexual medicine, 7(2.1), 775-786.

Goldstein, I., & Berman, J. R. (1998). Vasculogenic female sexual dysfunction: vaginal engorgement and clitoral erectile insufficiency syndromes. International Journal of Impotence Research, 10, S84.

Fox, C. A., Wolff, H.S. & Baker, J.A. 1970.  Measurement of intra-vaginal and intra-uterine pressures during human coitus by radio-telemetry.  J. Reprod. Fert., 22, 243-251.

Henson, D. E., Rubin, H. B., & Henson, C. (1979). Analysis of the consistency of objective measures of sexual arousal in women. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 12(4), 701-711.

King, R., Belsky, J., Mah, K., & Binik, Y. (2011). Are there different types of female orgasm?. Archives of sexual behavior, 40(5), 865-875.

Puts, D. A., Welling, L. L., Burriss, R. P., & Dawood, K. (2012). Men’s masculinity and attractiveness predict their female partners’ reported orgasm frequency and timing. Evolution and Human Behavior, 33(1), 1-9.

Robertiello, R. C. (1970). The “clitoral versus vaginal orgasm” controversy and some of its ramifications. Journal of Sex Research, 6(4), 307-311.








This piece was originally published as a part of the Summer 2013 STEP SIG Newsletter.

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