The female orgasm is a tricky thing. For decades, psychologists, sexual behaviorists, and evolutionary biologists have tried to determine exactly what purpose—besides, you know, pleasure—it serves. Today, researchers are confident that it has (or had) some evolutionary advantage. The “good gene” hypothesis, perhaps the most widely accepted theory, figures that a female orgasm is a form of sexual selection: Women have orgasms when mating with someone who they subconsciously think exhibits indicators of good genes, which spells increased health in potential offspring.
The most efficient identifier of good genes is attractiveness, and scientists in the past have tried through surveys to sketch an objective composite of this “good gene” guy—the optimal orgasm inducer, if you will—to better understand the traits that woman are unconsciously looking for.
But researchers at Michigan’s Oakland University have recently discovered that, actually, the likelihood of a woman having an orgasm during sex has less to do with how closely their partner resembles this attractive “good gene” archetype, and more to do with how attractive they think their partner is. This may sound obvious, but it’s an important caveat in sexual psychology.
Lead researcher Yael Sela is calling this hypothesis—that the female orgasm functions less to select traits for survival purposes and more for reproductive success—the “sexy son” theory.
“By choosing a sire for offspring that is sexy,” she says, “the female can pass along whatever that trait is that females in general find sexy to the son, and then the son will be attractive to others in turn.” The best example in nature is the peacock: Female peacocks are not subconsciously drawn to big, colorful tails because of their survival benefits—they’re actually a hindrance—but instead for their sexual appeal. By reproducing with someone who they find sexy, they are increasing the likelihood that her son(s) will be sexy, and thus attractive to other females.
To reach this conclusion, Sela and her colleagues looked at the relationship between female orgasms and a woman’s perceived attractiveness of her partner. They asked women who were in long term (six months or more) heterosexual relationships if they had reached an orgasm during last copulation. What they found is that the women who experienced orgasms during their last sexual experience were both more likely to think that their partner is attractive, and to think that other women find their partner attractive.
“The information that’s most relevant to the sexy son hypothesis is what women think other women think about her partner,” Sela says. “It’s not enough that just one woman finds her guy attractive, because that wouldn’t increase the likelihood of her son being attractive to a lot of women. It’s the social information about the perceptions of other women.”
Sela says her research actually supports the “good genes” theory, but adds an important asterisk: It has less to do with an objective male archetype, and more—perhaps all—to do with the woman’s own perception.