Philosopher of science, Elisabeth Lloyd has made a strong case that female orgasm has no evolutionary significance (i.e., for promoting the continuation or flourishing of the species), and that it is a happy accident of evolution. The claim is that there are no data correlating female orgasm with any aspect of fertility or reproductive success. Others, such as anthropologist Donald Symons, in 1979, have made this contention, but Lloyd is considered to have made the strongest case, or given the most scientific evidence, for the claim to date. Symons is said to have argued that orgasm is possible in women because it is evolutionary crucial for the continuation of the species that men have orgasm and that women's orgasms are a byproduct of the necessity of male orgasm. The theory is that because embryos of both sexes have a common early development, that when male orgasm is "selected for" by evolution, female orgasm is coincidentally selected for as well, and thus that it is a "byproduct" of male orgasm's role in evolution.
I want to suggest here that male orgasm is not necessary for evolutionary success either, and that it too is an evolutionary coincidence, rather than an adaptive feature that natural selection favors.
The first point is that there is a difference between ejaculation of sperm/semen, and the intense or explosive pleasure accompanying that ejaculation. There are ejaculations that occur without much pleasure or intensity, even during sex sometimes. Premature ejaculations are sometimes not accompanied by the intensity of pleasure that accompanies an orgasm built up with a certain amount of labor or stimulation. While some form of ejaculation, or at least emission of sperm, is necessary for intercourse to result in pregnancy and thus the perpetuation of the species (in nature, as opposed to a medical laboratory), there is nothing that says the explosive or intense pleasure of orgasm has to accompany it in order to make sex enticing for men. I will argue that men do not generally have sex for orgasm but for a different kind of pleasure. If men did not have orgasms, I doubt that the species would die out or that men would have much less, if any less, sex or interest in it.
The second point is that sex is sufficiently pleasurable even without the intense explosive burst of pleasure of orgasm, that men would have sex for that pleasure alone. A good massage or a backrub is something most people enjoy and seek, even though great backrubs in themselves do not result in some sort of orgasmic climax. They just feel real good in themselves. Sex feels good in itself from the beginning, not just in climax.
Third, the desire for sex in many cases is something akin to an appetite, urge, or itch. And as I wrote in "Itches Without Scratches", not everything we do is done for some intense pleasure. We scratch because we have an itch, but we don't normally cultivate itches so that we can have the pleasure of scratching them. No one purposefully seeks poison ivy for the purpose of having satisfactory scratches of itches. Sometimes we even avoid "final" pleasures because we are not driven enough by the initial or prior desire to have them -- as when students procrastinate writing term papers and fret over them all term instead of writing them early and getting them done with, and having the pleasure of being through. Results do not often serve as sufficient motivating factors if there is not sufficient initial interest, inclination, or pressure to begin the activity. Sex is something for which men have initial interest, inclination, or desire to begin the activity, regardless of where it might lead.
Moreover, there are many things we do because of the urge to do them, but not because they give us explosive pleasure. For example, we eat when we are just slightly or moderately hungry, even though if we waited in order to build up our appetite, we might enjoy the food more. Once in a while, we have a terrible craving for something like pizza or chocolate, and the pleasure of taking the first or second or even last bite is extremely pleasurable and satisfying, but for the most part, eating food or drinking water is something we do because we are somewhat hungry or thirsty, not something we do in order to have an intensely pleasurable experience that is explosive.
Even sexual seduction is not normally accomplished by promising someone a great orgasm. Seduction is about arousing desire, not about the pleasure of its being over or being fulfilled. For the most part pleasure accompanies acting satisfactorily on a desire; but the anticipation of pleasure seldom causes the desire. Just as in the term paper case above, it is not generally seductive enough to make someone want sex by just promising them how good it will be -- particularly if they have other things on their mind or they are not interested or in the mood. Even men will sometimes not be in a mood where the promise of sex holds out no particular initial allure. If a man is worried about something or if he is really not interested in a woman he finds very unattractive or if the person who offers him sex is not of the gender he is interested in, the promise of pleasure will be hollow and will not encourage or invite or cause arousal. Similarly if a man has just had an orgasm, unless he is most unusual, a woman's saying "That was great. Let's do it again right now," will not help him be able or willing or interested in doing it again right that moment.
On the other hand, a man interested in sex, and fully aroused, who knows he cannot climax (again) is not necessarily put off from trying or continuing. I doubt any guy who cannot climax on, say, the third "time" in a given love-making session is going to believe that the attempt was somehow a waste of his time. And those of us males who grew up in an era when intercourse was forbidden and terrifying, nevertheless were always trying to get to first or second or third "base." And we seldom said it wasn't interesting to do that because we didn't have an orgasm.
Moreover, orgasm for a man generally ends the act of having sex. And there are times men do not want it to end quickly because it feels good just to have sex while one is doing so. "Going there (as opposed to being there) is half the fun." Sometimes it is even the best part. Many people say one of the best parts of intercourse is the moment just after full insertion. If women said they would have sex with a guy who was interested in them, but only on the condition that he didn't climax, only a small proportion of men would turn that down and say there would be no point in it. Sex feels good in itself, apart from the pleasure of orgasm. Even when ejaculation just sort of happens without the explosive aspect of it, it may be disappointing to a guy, but he seldom says it was a waste of time and energy to have been having intercourse. And sometimes for a man, just as it sometimes happens for women, the pleasure and desire for (continuing) sex at a given time can suddenly or slowly disappear, not to be easily revived at the time, if revived at all during that time together. Men can just sort of lose interest or desire in the middle of intercourse or foreplay in the same way women can. It is not necessarily frustrating on his own account for the man to lose interest part way through (if his partner has already been sufficiently pleasured and satisfied). But a man who loses interest in the middle doesn't usually feel the beginning was not worth doing.
Of course, a difference between men and women is that a man can not continue intercourse for long once he has lost interest, whereas women sometimes feel that if the man is still aroused they need to keep having intercourse. Having intercourse when you really don't feel like it and are not in the mood, is not very pleasant, and unfortunately it is a fate that befalls women in a way it is not likely to men. A woman can have intercourse when she has no desire, but a man cannot generally or easily do that. In that regard women can have sex that is so bad it overrides some of their future desires to have it, even when those desires arise, whereas that does not happen as easily or as frequently to men.
There are times a man can have sufficient erection without any real desire, but that is different from having absolutely no desire or actively wanting to stop. A man going through the motions of intercourse without any real desire to continue, but who, perhaps is just trying to please his partner, usually prefers to stop, even if there might be an orgasm if he were to continue. But when the desire or pleasure of intercourse disappears, it has nothing to do with desire or lack of desire for orgasm. The idea of orgasm is not part of the equation at all at that point. The main thing is that it does not feel all that good to be having intercourse, or to be having his penis manipulated.)
It is my view that orgasm is normally just one stage of sex, and it is not normally the initiating stage. I think men love to be touched or to have intercourse because it feels good, and that they seek orgasm after only a certain point in the continuing pleasure that feels like a "build-up" to orgasm. But that when a man interested in something other than just a "quickie" has intercourse, then when he first begins, he is not seeking to have a quick build-up and release. The feeling that is considered "build-up" or "tension" that needs release is something that arises after a while, not at the beginning. At the beginning the man is content to have intercourse because the intercourse itself feels good, not because it is "going somewhere" or because it has reached some kind of intensity that demands release.
There are, of course, as women often complain, men who are only interested in having an orgasm, and the sooner the better. And there are times that even an otherwise loving, slower, sexually pleasing man will want "a quickie" just because the pressure for an orgasm has already built up in him through hormones or fantasy or imaginary foreplay or something that happened at work, or pornography that aroused him, or something. But for the most part, men seek sex for its initial pleasure, and then they seek orgasm somewhere in the middle of sex. They don't start out seeking mere orgasm.
If sex were like food, we would still have sex the way we have food, seeking it and enjoying it because we were hungry or horny or interested, not because we were looking for that intense explosion of pleasure to accompany each bite or swallow. No one eschews aspirin for a headache because the pain doesn't go away in an explosive burst of pleasure, but just sort of disappears; and no one refused to use an anti-itch salve because it takes the itch away in a less intense and momentously noticeable way than scratching does. And no one refuses food or drink when they are hungry or thirsty because food does not give them a gastronomic orgasm. No one who enjoys a backrub will refuse one just because it does not end explosively.
It is not only the intense, explosive, sudden, momentary burst of pleasure that makes sex worthwhile or makes it feel good enough to do it. Most people are not even thinking about orgasm when they begin foreplay or even intercourse. They are simply either in the mood or willing to be in the mood (in the same way that someone not hungry may be willing to go ahead and have dinner), and only become interested in the intense release of orgasm once the "pressure" has built up seeking release. But if that pressure did not build up that way, or if release came without intensity or explosiveness, but just sort of subsided the way a headache or itch subsides with medication, people -- men and women -- would still enjoy having sex and would still have sex sufficient to keep the species flourishing because sex itself, generally feels real good, long before orgasm becomes part of what one is seeking and starting to work expressly toward.
Of course, there are some conclusions to sex that are so bad it tends to put a damper on acting on future sexual impulses. One of these is where there is a buildup to a very strong desire for a climax that cannot be achieved, and that does not even subside happily, but is sort of physically painful (sometimes referred to in men as "blue balls") or terribly frustrating. If sex were of that sort all the time, it probably would diminish the amount of sex and have a negative evolutionary influence on the survival of the species. Similarly for people (including men) who like emotional closeness with their sex, if sex were never emotionally satisfying even if it were physically satisfying, that would probably tend to diminish sexual activity to the point of negatively affecting reproduction and jeopardizing the survival of the species. So even though sex does not have to come to an explosively great climax in order to keep occurring, it cannot come to such a bad end so often that it overrides the desire for it, in the same way that getting food poisoning from some favorite food might put you off that food for quite a while, even if you had a craving for it. The conclusion of sex each time does not have to be great in order for sexual desire to be acted upon; it only has to not be terrible.
But generally humans are pretty resilient or forgetful (or unable to keep a potential or previous bad ending sufficiently in mind) so that a few bad experiences do not tend to override their acting on the next occurrence of their desires. We are people who continually overindulge in food or alcohol despite frequent indigestion or hangover that makes us repent until the next desire to eat or drink to excess.
It may be that even generally bad endings to sex would not lessen most people's engaging in it when they are aroused or in the mood. But I am arguing that even if bad endings would seriously lessen the amount of sexual activity based on giving in to sexual desire, merely non-climactic sex would not diminish the amount of sexual activity, as long as sex is at all pleasurable and as long as it ends in a way that is not totally painful or physically or emotionally frustrating. Sex is good enough and desirable enough in itself, and in its initial arousal stages, that it does not require an intensely, explosive burst of pleasure at the end, to make it occur. I doubt men would abandon sex in any noticeable frequency if each act of intercourse simply gently subsided or petered out, instead of exploding with intensity. And all that is necessary for evolutionary success of the species is that sufficient numbers of sex acts end in ejaculation, whether that ejaculation is accompanied by orgasm -- the intense sort of explosive burst of pleasure -- or not. Some pleasure in sex that ends in ejaculation is all that is necessary. Orgasm is not -- for the male or the female. We engage in plenty of activities for pleasure or urge even though the activities do not end in an explosive burst of intense pleasure.