The Truth About Female Orgasms

10 things you absolutely need to know.

Posted Sep 17, 2015

Will Vision/Flickr
Source: Will Vision/Flickr

I’m sure many people know that the clitoris is highly erogenous, with around 8,000 nerve endings (about twice as many as in the penis). Elisabeth Lloyd suggests that "The clitoris has the indispensable function of promoting sexual excitement, which induces the female to have intercourse and become pregnant," but female orgasm is not a prerequisite for conception. Although it has been described as better than “biting into a juicy cheeseburger when you are starving,” and even better than “getting your wallet back after losing it on vacation,” the female orgasm occurs with alarming infrequency. It has been estimated that as few as 25 percent of women routinely reach orgasm through penetrative sex (while that number is three times as high among men).

Here are 10 things about the female orgasm that everyone should know:

#1. An orgasm may increase the likelihood of conception.

It’s probably not something you want to discuss with your grandma on a Sunday afternoon, but evidence suggests that the powerful rhythmic contractions of the vagina during orgasm help to retain sperm and up-suck it into the cervix. This ultimately increases the likelihood of conception. The idea behind this is that female orgasm is another mechanism by which women can choose who they genetically combine with. An American study suggests cunnilingus-assisted orgasms may actually be another way to help with sperm retention. Apparently, female orgasms that occur within 45 minutes of ejaculation help with retaining sperm.

#2. Symmetry is sexy.

A physically symmetrical man is more likely than a non-symmetrical man to give a woman an orgasm. This follows on from the previous point. Although women can conceive without having an orgasm, it definitely helps. Symmetry indicates good genes. Men (and women) whose physical appearance is symmetrical (arms equal length, identical eyes, etc.) have proven that they are able to withstand insults from the environment. The environment influences our development, and often in harmful ways. How much depends, to an extent, on our genetics. Think of the environment as an attacking army, and of your genetics as the shield you use to defend yourself. Symmetrical individuals are basically saying "My shield is so big and strong that you can’t hurt me." Physically asymmetrical individuals don’t have such a big "shield." A child whose father had a big "shield" is probably going to have a bigger "shield" than someone whose father had a small "shield." Additionally, a study conducted in China found that female orgasm frequency increases when the male partner earns more.

#3. Women sometimes fake orgasms to win the devotion of their partners.

Everyone knows that women sometimes fake orgasms. Most of the time men don’t even know it (this might have something to do with the fact they are so caught up in their own experience). A recent American study suggests that the female orgasm-fake may be a mate retention strategy. The study found that women who thought their partners might be playing around were more likely to report faking an orgasm. So in order to hang on to their man they pandered to his ego ("Honey, you’re so good in bed…").

#4. Major physiological changes take place during the female orgasm.

Don’t worry, all of these are temporary. During orgasm, the female hormonal profile changes quite markedly. The key change is the release of the hormone prolactin (also released during male orgasm). Prolactin is secreted by the pituitary gland and has the primary function of helping with the production of milk. Additionally, the hormone oxytocin ("the love hormone") is released when orgasms are achieved through clitoral stimulation. This hormone serves to regulate hormone level impairments caused by stress and/or menstruation. It also helps with childbirth. A deficiency may contribute to stress, obesity, and cognitive malfunctioning. In short, oxytocin is really good.

#5. Orgasms relieve pain.

This might seem really obvious. There’s a reason that many doctors give out jelly beans to kids after they give them needles — in fact, there are several, but one of them is as basic as "something good cancels out something bad." Positive stimuli also help to misdirect the person’s attention, helping them to forget about the bad thing that just happened. The benefits of orgasm are also physiological. Oxytocin also helps with bonding, relaxation and other emotional states. So if you have a headache, you may actually be better off having an orgasm than not having sex.

#6. Women can achieve orgasm WITHOUT ANY DIRECT STIMULATION!

This is not a myth. I guess most of us are familiar with the old cliché that "the most powerful sexual organ in the body is the brain." A lot of people undoubtedly subscribe to this idea. There is certainly a lot of truth in the statement that a big part of sex is psychological. For many of us (male or female), if you’re not in the mood it’s just not going to happen. Physical activity, though, would seem to play a crucial role in the achievement of any kind of orgasm. Often vigorous physical activity is necessary for at least one partner. However, many women say they can ‘think themselves to orgasm’. Such claims have received scientific validation from researchers looking at the sexual responses of spinal-cord injury patients.

#7. Time is of the essence.

In keeping with the idea that women don’t always (or often?) achieve orgasm through sex, recent research conducted in Canada found that sex (excluding foreplay) on average lasts between three and seven minutes ("Canadian and American Sex Therapists' Perceptions of Normal and Abnormal Ejaculatory Latencies: How Long Should Intercourse Last?"), but both men and women report that they want it to be longer. Well-known sex therapist Barry McCarthy suggests that it's pretty rare for continuous penetrative intercourse to go for longer than about 12 minutes. This is unfortunate since some estimates say it takes between 10 and 20 minutes for women to climax. Many women report that when it does occur it can last for more than 20 seconds!

#8. Orgasms get better with age.

There are many reasons to want to maintain your youth. Medically, a number of things start to decline and/or decay as we get older. Orgasm frequency, however, is not one of them, at least for women. A study done in the United States found that among women, although older age was associated with lubrication problems, the likelihood of orgasm actually increased! This may or may not be due to the fact that the size of the clitoris increases as women age. Mixing things up in the bedroom also helps. Unfortunately, guys are more likely to suffer from pain, erectile dysfunction, and decreased orgasm frequency as they age.

#9. Orgasms aren’t the be-all and end-all, and that’s OK.

Women don’t always orgasm (see above). Intimacy and closeness are an important part of sex. Although on average women don't orgasm as frequently as men, women can achieve them in a number of ways. In addition to #6 above, women have reported experiencing an orgasm from stimulation of the breasts or mouth (and obviously the clitoris), and even during sleep. Evidence for the existence of the (strictly) vaginal orgasm, however, is questionable.

#10. No one knows for sure why women orgasm.

This statement might seem like privileged male propaganda, but the fact is that there is no well agreed-upon explanation for the female orgasm. Accounting for the male orgasm is fairly straightforward — ejaculation is necessary for reproduction — but conception can occur in the absence of the female orgasm. In addition to some of the explanations that have been discussed previously in this article, scientists have speculated that it might just be a by-product of the male and female anatomy being similar (men have nipples). Evidence from twin studies is inconsistent with this theory, however.

Evolutionary psychologists are interested in the adaptive purposes of things. Basically, how does this thing help us to survive or reproduce? Whatever the case, I’m confident that the overwhelming majority of people are incredibly thankful for the existence of this seismic event.