Writers from science fiction author Larry Niven to the late Dr. Jacob Bronowski have claimed “Female animals don’t have orgasms.” Even marine mammalogist Dr. Susie Shane told me this many years ago, when we were both undergraduate students at New College. I don’t know whether she has reversed her opinion in the intervening years; if so, she has not communicated it to me, although I asked her. (In fact, although we are Facebook friends, she hasn’t communicated with me at all.)
I’m not sure how they all can be so certain, since very little research has been done on this subject. In science this is known as an “unprovable negative hypothesis,” since one example to the contrary is sufficient to disprove it. I do know my dolphin partner had an orgasm when we made love, because she vocalized under water, and I could hear her. And because afterward she hugged me with her flippers and stared into my eyes in what I took to be gratitude. None of these observations is sufficient to convince a scientist, however.
But it must be asked: if female animals don’t experience some kind of pleasure from sexual penetration, what’s in it for them? Why is the cow in the above unaltered photo mounting the bull? Is this purely a functional evolutionary signal that she is in estrus, or does she derive some intrinsic pleasure from the experience? How can we tell? Furthermore, why does the bull apparently submit to it? Does he know she derives pleasure from it? Does he know it will lead to pleasure for him?
In other words, how does courtship in the animal kingdom proceed? And do female animals experience orgasm? I believe they do, but it depends as much on who’s mounting them as how. A study of some species of monkey showed the females were more likely to show features of orgasm when they were being mounted by a high status ranking male.
A female dog isn’t particularly demonstrative during sex, but she certainly has the capacity for orgasm under the right conditions. If you look at a lot of dog-on-dog sex video, as I do, you learn several things about the canine sex act. Dogs get stuck together because of their unique genitalia. When the male dog’s penis is fully inserted in the bitch’s vagina, the base of it, just inside the bitch’s outer labia, swells up in a matter of seconds into a huge, rock-hard spheroid called the bulbus glandis. This enormous bulb, which is three or four times the diameter of the shaft of the penis, causes the bitch’s outer labia to go into spasm, locking the penis bulb in place between the inner and outer labia, and locking the happy couple together for the duration of their affaire d’amour.
While waiting for the bulbus glandis to deflate, the male may try to remain on the female’s back, but this isn’t usually successful. What he must do, if he wants to be truly comfortable and secure (as comfortable and secure as he can be with his penis locked inside another independent organism), is swing one of his legs over her back as he dismounts and turns around, bringing them tail to tail and initiating that phase of mating known as the copulatory tie. As you would know if you viewed a lot of dog sex videos, it is at this point that the female frequently collapses for a few seconds, with the male’s penis still embedded in her, before rallying and regaining her footing. What has happened? She’s had an overwhelming orgasm! Why? Because the swollen bulbus glandis is pushing on her clitoris.
When I had sex with my late, beloved female dog Pixel, I could tell when she was having an orgasm because her vagina would gently squeeze me. It was usually simultaneous with my orgasm. A male dog, locked inside her, would experience this squeezing as a sensation of being milked. These involuntary contractions are what sex researchers Masters & Johnson defined as the female orgasm in humans. Of course, scientists don’t know this, because they aren’t having sex with their dogs, just philosophizing about it.
Or let’s look at cats. Female cats are supposed to experience pain during mating, because the male cat has small spines on his penis. (It’s a really tiny penis, BTW, maybe about a half-inch long fully erect.) When a female cat is penetrated, she emits a low growl that turns into a piercing scream, then turns and strikes at the male cat for “hurting” her. He pulls out abruptly and jumps off her back.
Supposedly the pain of intercourse causes the female cat to ovulate, making her what scientists have dubbed a “shock ovulator.” But female cats have had millions of years to adapt to this arrangement. If the spines actually penetrated the walls of her vagina, the resulting wounds could be a potential source for infection and would create scar tissue, which is less elastic than normal tissue. Since cat vaginas need to stretch to get kittens out, the spines don’t penetrate, they merely rake the walls in what I would describe as a scratchy feeling. It feels no different than having a cat lick you with its barbed tongue. The female cat’s clitoris is protected under a layer of skin.
A female cat in heat behaves very lasciviously. She rolls around in front of the male cat and mews. When the male cat pounces on her and bites her neck to get a grip, she raises her rump in the air in a position called “lordosis.” This aids the male cat in penetrating her. Furthermore, the slightest stimulation of the fur around her swollen vulva causes her to push backwards. The female cat actually impales herself on the male’s spiny penis, and she will do it over and over again every 15 minutes or so, for hours! Does this sound like the behavior of a creature that finds mating painful? If so, what masochistic drive could possibly impel her?
Many years ago I came across a book for cat owners entitled “Help, My Cat’s In Heat!” (I should have bought it, as I can no longer find a listing for it.) The author described the original scientific work, done in the 1930’s, that helped establish that cats are shock ovulators. To meet scientific requirements (and avoid a lot of unwanted kittens), the scientist (a man, btw) used a kitty dildo, a smooth glass rod. Inserting this rod into the female cat’s vagina provoked the same screaming response, and the same ovulatory behavior, as regular feline intercourse with a spiny penis! So the spines on the male cat’s penis are not what provoke the screaming response, nor are they necessary to induce ovulation. So why are they there?
Can I suggest it’s because female cats, in spite of what looks to us like a painful response, actually enjoy the sensation of being penetrated by a spiny penis? Can I suggest the spiny penis in male cats evolved because female cats selected for it by preferentially mating with male cats that had spinier and spinier penises? It’s known that the penis spines are directly related to the male cat’s level of testosterone, and a castrated male cat loses the spines after about two weeks. And judging from my viewing of cat mating videos, a lot of the female’s postcoital strikes at the male are feints made with the claws retracted.
Can I finally suggest that, if we think the female cat is screaming in pain, we are being anthropomorphic? Female cats enjoy the sex act, which explains why they will do it over and over and over. It takes at least four matings before a house cat in heat ovulates, and a female lion, who is subjected to the same kind of spiny male penis, may mate thousands of times over a month before she finally ovulates.
I would like to discuss the sex lives and orgasms of other animals, including dolphins, rams, bovines and birds, but for the sake of length I will take those up in another entry. Suffice to state my conclusion that female animals have orgasms, they just often lack what I would call an external orgasm display.