There are some conversations you never forget, especially those in the early hours of the morning when you’re walking down a Boston street with a friend who says she’s pretty sure both times she got pregnant were due to two very memorable orgasms.
I can still hear the slight shriek in her voice when she asked, “What if that’s how you get pregnant? What if that’s how I get pregnant?”
We were in our early 20s at the time, and more than a few drinks in. I can assure you that we knew how babies enter the world, but we also wondered, Might there be some more, er, “fun” ways that can raise your odds of conceiving? After all, getting pregnant can be difficult, and ensuring you’re having sex while you’re ovulating isn’t always a guarantee. What if orgasm could speed the process along?
Turns out, it’s not that wild of a thought.
In fact, it even has a name — the Upsuck Theory, which dates back to the early 1900s and hypothesizes that when a woman orgasms, the contractions of her uterus help to usher the ejaculated sperm into the reproductive tract like a safety cop monitoring incoming traffic during rush hour. Consider it a vaginal vacuum of sorts, one that makes an egg-sperm meet-cute way more likely.
As aptly named as this theory is, it’s also a controversial one. There isn’t a whole lot of research backing up the link between orgasm and fertility — at least not conclusively — and physiologist Roy Levin has even called it a “zombie hypothesis” because it refuses to die, seemingly destined to live on in a sort of incoherent stupor.
It was first resuscitated when renowned sex educators William Masters and Virginia Johnson researched the theory in the 1950s. Their experiments didn’t involve sex, however. Instead, they had participants masturbate after they inserted artificial semen into their vaginal canals. They then X-rayed the results, ultimately finding “no evidence of sperm insuck in their pioneering research.”
Other studies have led to similar findings. But aside from only mimicking sex, here’s another catch in a lot of these studies: When we orgasm, the hormone oxytocin is released, which stimulates uterine contractions. And in many of these experiments, the women are given oxytocin to help see how those sperm-ish fluids have moved. While in some cases those doses have led to greater retention of said fluid, they also happen to be at much higher doses than what someone would actually experience post-orgasm.
“It’s not proven whether a woman is more likely to get pregnant if she has an orgasm, and certainly not in a statistically significant way,” says Laura Spencer, a Toronto-based fertility coach. Besides, she adds, skeptically, “What would busting that myth provide us in terms of actions we should take? Namely, if it were true, would it be helpful for a couple trying to conceive to always try and have the woman reach an orgasm?”
(Writer’s note: Yes.)
Spencer says it’s much more important to focus on other ways to get pregnant (e.g., the time of intercourse, improved diet, fertility testing, blah, blah, blah). But, she adds, if we’re talking about a couple who is sexually active and trying to avoid getting pregnant, “then I would say that avoiding the woman’s orgasm isn’t effective birth control and that they should look for more medically appropriate options. Both for effectiveness and for the sheer enjoyment’s sake!”
(Writer’s note: Yes.)
Now, let’s jump back to that whole oxytocin thing. The trusty Masters and Johnson also discovered that when women orgasm and oxytocin is released, stress levels dip, which does, in fact, help fertility. (Though, it’s worth noting that oxytocin levels can rise during any kind of sexual stimulation, whether you orgasm or not.) This means there is a lot to be said for sexual chemistry and having some kind of connection to the person you’re getting off with in hopes of conceiving a spawn.
There’s yet more hope as well — in a recent 2016 experiment conducted by University College Cork researcher Robert King and published in the journal Socioaffective Neuroscience & Psychology, six women were instructed to record the number of orgasms they achieved throughout a single month while using a vibrator. King then measured the artificial semen in their wombs when they had orgasmed and when they hadn’t. He discovered that when the women orgasmed, they retained 15 percent more of the liquid.
King explained his findings in a press release: “The consensus in the field was that the female orgasm didn’t actually do anything, other than being a byproduct of male arousal. Some argued that female orgasms mustn’t do anything, not even forge closer bonds between partners, because it’s hard to bring about. But the fact that it’s sometimes tricky to achieve doesn’t mean that it’s not a vital evolutionary function. And my research builds on growing evidence that female orgasm is intrinsically linked to fertility.” (That said, while the female orgasm has left scientists in a confused panic since time immemorial, that doesn’t necessitate an evolutionary connection between orgasm and fertility. Sometimes, women just want to feel pleasure whether we’re raring to give birth or not, and that’s the end of the story.)
Although King used a small sample size and his press release is full of infuriating statements that warrant a separate examination about the near-constant misunderstanding of female orgasm in science, his general argument is compelling, and one that continues to elude many researchers and scientists who have taken opposing stances on upsuckability for decades.
Either way, whether you’re hoping to get knocked up or not, there’s no harm in aiming for an orgasm. It certainly worked for my old Boston friend — maybe? I think?