Female Orgasm as Screening

I talk often about "signaling," i.e., acting to show observers one's desirable qualities.  "Screening" is matching actions by observers, who can go out of their way to encourage signaling.  For example, you might insult someone to see how they react to insults.  Similarly, it seems evolution designed orgasms to help human females screen mates:

First suggested by David P. Barash nearly three decades ago, the idea is that orgasm might be a way a woman’s body speaks to her brain, “telling herself” that she has been having sex with a suitable partner—that is, one who is not worried about being displaced by a competitor, who is self-confident and unhurried enough to be satisfying to her.  When Barash was a graduate student more than ten years earlier, he observed that when subordinate male grizzly bears copulate, their heads are constantly swiveling about on the lookout for a dominant male, who, should he encounter a couple in flagrante, will likely dislodge his lesser rival and take its place. Not surprisingly, subordinate males ejaculate very quickly, whereas dominants take their time. …

Research on a large captive group of Japanese macaque monkeys is also suggestive. … During 238 hours of observations in which 240 copulations were observed, female orgasmic responses occurred in 80 (33 percent). Of these orgasms, the highest frequency took place when high-ranking males were copulating with low-ranking females, and the lowest between low-ranking males and high-ranking females.  … Maybe, [female orgasm] is designed to be more than a little hard to get, adaptive precisely because it can’t be too readily summoned, so that when it arrives, it means something. …

What about faking orgasm? … Orgasmic pretense might increase the man’s confidence regarding paternity of any offspring, building on his likely assumption that a sexually satisfied woman wouldn’t have sought to mate with someone else. … [This] would diminish the likelihood that the man will engage in “mate guarding,” thereby facilitating a woman’s ability to engage in extrapair copulations. …

Rates of extrapair paternity are about 2 percent in many human populations and about 10 percent in traditional societies. … One study has found that women are significantly more orgasmic when paired with men who are more symmetric. … [and] are more likely to experience ostensibly “high sperm retention orgasms” – that is, climaxes that occurred in close temporal proximity to the man’s.

We are often uncomfortable with acknowledging signaling theories of our behavior; signaling is often not our conscious motivation and we expect others would think less of us if signaling were our conscious motivation.  We are similarly uncomfortable with screening theories of our behavior, and for similar reasons. Yet the truth is that we are built to signal and screen much more than we realize. 

While the chapter above discusses women faking more desire than they feel, we should also expect them to sometimes fake less desire than they feel.  After all, if the strongest desires come when low status women mate with high status men, then strong desires tend to mark one as low status.  And while one typically wants to overstate desire for a relation before lockin, one typically wants to understate desire after lockin; those who want to threaten to leave if they are not treated better can prefer to understate their desire to appear more willing to leave.

HT to Tyler.

GD Star Rating
Tagged as: ,
Trackback URL:
  • A fascinating hypothesis! But let’s not discount the purely biological factors: female orgasm has a documented impact on fertility, as well.

  • Santeri Itälinna

    Effect of SSRIs in delaying ejaculation in males may support this hypothesis. In Buss’ Evolutionary Psychology there was an idea that serotonin might be an internal signal for status, the level of which is set quite early in life. This might help the individual not to risk too much in trying to up his status.

  • Ricardo Cruz

    Matt writes “A fascinating hypothesis! But let’s not discount the purely biological factors: female orgasm has a documented impact on fertility, as well.”

    That’s perfectly compatible with the hypothesis. Besides the orgasmic response to copulation, the status perception could also influence fertility, further reducing the chance of being successfully fertilized by a low status male.

  • Anonymous

    Whoops, I constantly scan for competitors when I’m having sex.

  • Matt Osborne: let’s not discount the purely biological factors: female orgasm has a documented impact on fertility, as well..

    See this comment in an earlier OB post regarding this topic: http://www.overcomingbias.com/2007/12/the-best-exerci.html?cid=126712336#comment-126712336
    If the “documented impact” you mention is “enhanced fertility”, the majority of us in the field of sexual medicine find no valid evidence to support this popular belief.

    As to bears preferring “better” male lovers, I would hope that Barash had his tongue firmly implanted in his cheek. Ursal sows are among the mammals who experience induced ovulation by being in the presence of mature boars. They also are in the group that experience estrus, and are unreceptive to boars in all ways at other times. Confirming the wide disparity in occupational interests, researchers have taken the time to document that there is no correlation between bear body mass and size of the os penis nor testicular size/sperm density. The only relationship to procreation in the story is that there is a correlation between increased time of sexual arousal/ejaculation latency and increased sperm density in mammals. All in all, there seems to be no insight to be gained about humans from Barash’s bear story. The observations about the macaque primates are more relevant, since they have non-estral sexual relations.

    @Effect of SSRIs in delaying ejaculation in males may support this hypothesis.

    SSRI’s delay ejaculation by acting on the the peripheral synapses of the sympathetic nervous system, over the S2-S4 roots. not centrally in the brain.

  • Will

    Here is another thought with regards to these findings: if you’re a male and not looking to commit to the particular female you are having sex with, you would deliberately try not to give her an orgasm. This can help explain why high-status males who have promiscuous sex are often considered inattentive lovers – it keeps any one female from getting too attached, which causes unwanted complications.

    (Unfortunately, this is based on anecdotal evidence, I don’t know of any quantification on this matter myself.)

    • Frog

      I tottaly agree with this. Having travelled the world extensively and had numerous lovers. I can attest that when you want to impress a woman who you do want to see more of, you make her orgasm, you dont let her, you make her. If on the other hand its just a one night stand, the last thing you want to do is make her orgasm or let her orgasm. Typically, this is a good time for the man to orgasm as fast as possible, and move on to new conquests.
      But when you’re locked in with a woman you love , then let her orgasm the way she wants every now and then, otherwise I tend to make women orgasm to kind of guarantee their loyalty. It works. But a real, full blown orgasm, also tends to leave most women without sexual appetite for days……….as opposed to the stories of full blown multiple orgasms. I beg to differ from experience. One real good one and all women I know were OOC. Out Of Commission, quite similar to what I feel after ejaculation. But men are ready to go again in 20 minutes or so, the women, that is all 250 or so, never recovered and didnt want to continue. Once, because the first orgasm was weak, I was asked to do it again. Once in 25+ years. So called mutiple orgasms are just a string of weak pleasurable moments that feel like a woman has orgasmed. Thats why most men are seriously confused that a woman getting wet is a woman having an orgasm. Comical. Because when they really do have an orgasm they never want to go back to their former partners. Ditto that about 100 times.;)

  • Santeri Itälinna

    @ retired urologist

    I don’t think it’s that simple. See for example: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16844284

  • josh

    certainly the most interesting thing I’ve read all day.

  • @Santeri

    The company who published the article you cite (Pelvipharm) is in the business of developing new drugs to sell for manipulating ejaculatory latency, among other things. Their study reflects that. They are not trying to “overcome bias”. If you wish to discuss the issue of ejaculatory latency, please contact me by email: there is a contact box on my blog, retiredurologist.com.

  • SortingItOut

    One thing seems a little confusing to me here, and you have probably explained earlier, but, what are we defining “high status men” as? In the animal kingdom status seems a little more objective. In the kingdom of man perception of status is very subjective and based on the interests of those evaluating. So should I generalize status and success as accumulation of wealth and fame with regard to this argument?

  • Anonymous

    SortingItOut: No, you should treat it as a remnant of our primitive past, just like many other biases! But yeah being great in bed is probably “high status” 🙂

  • This is a great way to look at things. Humans are, after all, animals. Killer stuff here.


  • Mikko

    Baker (Sperm Wars) posits that orgasm is a way for the female body to help her sexual partner in sperm swimming competition. If female orgasms immediately after male ejaculation, it helps this partner’s sperm to reach uterus, and also prevents later partner’s sperm from doing the same.

    This is useful for example if she first has extra-pair copulation with a mate with superior genes, and later copulates with her own mate with inferior genes. I don’t think Baker’s idea conflicts with the idea here. Orgasm serves multiple purposes.

    Baker also makes the distinction between clitoral, G-spot and vaginal orgasms, and claims that they may serve different evolutiory purposes. Many people have conflicting meaning for the term female orgasm, so I think one should clarify the terminology. This may be difficult, because peculiarly, many western women seem to consider even the concept of vaginal orgasm offensive.

  • yogi bear

    once again we see evolutionary arguments used to justify pretty much anything one wants. i thought it was in bears’ (humans?) interest to ejaculate quickly? make up your minds will ya?

  • Drath

    Here’s a thought, mostly anecdotal.

    If a female is with a higher status male I would expect her to be more excited about it, thus easier to aroused and orgasm. I would believe the reverse of this to be true as well.

    To take into a human example, take a rich high society New York house wife and tell her that she had to have sex with the bum that lives off her trash. I would suspect she would be anything but interested, and I would doubt she would orgasm without alot of effort from the male.

    In the Monkey study could they measure if the monkey female was faking an orgasm to show off who she was mating with? After which did her status change?

  • that why i dont date ghetto girls

  • Dom Camus

    Isn’t during sex a little late to be screening partners?

  • Pingback: Female orgasm as quality control « The Official Early to Bed Blog!()

  • kevin

    after reading this… i understand something that has been bothering me for 20 years.

    there was one girl…..just one….. that i couldnt control my ejaculation with. it was 3 minutes and done….every time…. (how depressing it was). and i have had sex for HOURS with other girls….girls that were every bit as attractive and sexy as this one… but this one, shook my self confidence……. i always thought it was just because her vagina must just have felt better than any other female i had been with…… but looking back, she was a female that was totally a player. she had a group of males sniffing around her always. she was the kind of girl other girls hated… cause their boyfriends would WANT her. now i see that with her, i must have felt as if there would be other males to compete with…… how interesting.

  • Pingback: Latest orgasm news – Overcoming Bias: Female Orgasm()

  • Pingback: Female Orgasm as Mate Screening » Lone Gunman()

  • Hi Robin, my interpretation of what was observed with the monkeys, is that the female orgasm is designed to pudh the male to orgasm. The rush of energy into the pelvic area as well as the contractions of the vagina, signals the end of the session and brings the male to climax. The time the woman takes is related to the build-up time for the sperm she is allowing for.

    Woman will often fake orgasms to bring the male to climax.

    In the case of less dominant males they do not require the encouragement and therefore climax before the womans climax becomes triggered.

    The more attractive the man finds the woman, the faster he comes to orgasm.

    So in my view, the female orgasm was created to support the male orgasm.

  • Mannminehorn

    Hello, I know a very interesting web resource about this topic. This is the link <a href="http://www.cooltip.org/r.php?i=1150

  • Mannminehorn

    Hello, I know a very interesting web resource about this topic. This is the link <a href=""http://www.cooltip.org/r.php?i=1150

  • hencelinedemo

    Hello, I know a very interesting web resource about this topic. This is the link<a href='http://www.cooltip.org/r.php?i=1150

  • hencelinedemo

    Hello, I know a very interesting web resource about this topic. This is the link<a href='http://www.cooltip.org/r.php?i=1150

  • hencelinedemo

    Hello, I know a very interesting web resource about this topic. This is the linkPremature Ejaculation program It really helped a lot

  • hencelinedemo