A few years ago, I ran a mommy-and-baby group once a month in Toronto. The number of participants ebbed and flowed, depending on the subject of the meeting—everything from sharing birth stories to returning to work after mat leave—but no theme got a better turnout than sex.
In one meeting, the conversation eventually turned to conception stories and one mom, who had her third baby in tow, said, “I know I have to orgasm to conceive. On the months that I didn’t, I knew the test would be negative.” Immediately, the women either vocally agreed or fervently disagreed, and the conversation dominated the next hour.
So, what’s the real story? Does reaching orgasm when trying to conceive actually improve your chances of a positive result? Science says, not exactly.
In the 1900s, some experts came up with the idea of the “upsuck theory,” which essentially hypothesized that the uterine contractions that occur during an orgasm propel semen into the vaginal canal. But many studies have since proven that an orgasm is unlikely to factor into conception. “That theory has been debunked,” says Katrina Sawatsky, a physician with a low-risk obstetrics practice in Calgary. In fact, American sex-education pioneers William Masters and Virginia Johnson conducted an experiment in the 1950s using dyed artificial semen in a cervical cap that was inserted into a subject’s vagina to determine if a woman retained more semen during orgasm. When the subject climaxed, Masters and Johnson used an X-ray to determine that there was no evidence of “upsuck.” “The sperm is going to swim as fast as it’s going to swim,” says Sawatsky. “It knows its job, and it’s fast.”
More recently, a 2013 study out of the University of Queensland in Australia and the Åbo Akademi University in Finland studied the effect of orgasms on the rate of fertility in more than 8,000 identical twins, non-identical female twins and non-twin sisters. They wanted to determine if genetics plays a role in the frequency of orgasms and, subsequently, if conception happens more or less often. While it was determined that how often a woman orgasms may have a genetic link, it has little to no bearing on the number of children she conceives. Instead, environment is more likely to affect both orgasms and the number of offspring a woman has.
But there is something to be said for the release of oxytocin—the happy hormone—that comes with orgasm. Masters and Johnson found that female orgasm increases feelings of intimacy and decreases stress, the latter of which has proven physiological benefits for getting a bun in the oven. (When your stress response is heightened for a prolonged period, flooding your body with cortisol and adrenaline, it can affect ovulation.)
Knowing this, Spenser Brassard, a fertility and life coach in Edmonton, says she encourages couples who are trying for a baby to be in the moment and to think more about connection and affection and less about the pressure of conceiving. “Sex can become a chore when you’re trying to conceive,” says Brassard. “I suggest that couples just be together, enjoy each other and try not to think about making a baby. The process of letting go can be very freeing and good for a couple.”
I think all of the women in my parents’ group would have agreed on one thing: Orgasms might help or they might not, but they definitely can’t hurt.