Sex, Back Rubs, and Socially Constructed Value

In a comment on my Purity Myth post, I said the following in response to comment:

As to the “deeply physical, emotional, and spiritual act” you say sex is, I would just point out that there are a LOT of people disagree with you. I personally don’t see anything spiritual about it at all, and I think the only emotional thing about it is what you choose to invest in it. As for it being “deeply physical,” so is a back rub or playing football or wrestling.

I have gotten a lot of flack for saying the part in bold. I have actually deleted some of the comments I have gotten in response because they were crude and offensive. But since so many people have found what I said above incomprehensible and itself offensive, I thought I would explain what I meant by it.

Stripped of all cultural connotations and constructed meaning, sex is simply a physical act like any other physical act. It is two people rubbing their genitals together to obtain physical pleasure. Bonobo monkeys, as an example, use sex as a social bonding tool just as other monkeys groom each other. Dolphins similarly engage in recreational sex (i.e., having sex purely for pleasure), and are not monogamous. When ducks have sex, it is nothing but an annoyance to the female, who either stays still to wait it out or struggles until it is over. At its heart, sex is simply this physical act.

The value we place on sex is socially constructed. The reason that so many people see sex as something incredibly intimate and emotional, something completely different from a back rub or wrestling, is not because sex naturally that has these characteristics but rather because that is the social construction our society has built up around it. As I said above, the only emotional thing about sex is what we choose to invest it with.

In our society, different people and subcultures invest sex with different meanings and value. In the circles in which I grew up, sex is invested with spiritual meaning and extreme intimacy and virginity is invested with incredible value and meaning. And yet, on the other hand, there are people who have casual sex who do not construct sex as something profoundly intimate or invest it with any sort of spiritual meaning. For them, sex is just something to do for fun. There are even people who have open relationships, in which they share an intimate and loving bond with their partner and yet have sex with other individuals. Because they do not see sex as something extremely intimate or spiritual, having sex with other individuals does not hurt their relationships with their partners.

Sex only has whatever meaning you invest in it.

I have a theory on why so many – though not all – cultures have constructed sex as something special, different, and to be highly guarded. Sex is linked to reproduction, and in the past this link could not be severed. Given that sex might lead to unplanned pregnancies, societies built up social and legal codes around sex, limited the sex of virtuous women to marriage (whatever that meant in that society), and carefully guarded the perimeters. It made sense to sanction premarital or extramarital sex if sex could not be separated from reproduction.

As for sex being especially intimate and emotional, that actually is probably a more recent invention. I’m not an expert on the history of sex and sexuality, but I do know that in Ancient Greece men had sex with boys in Ancient Rome men had sex with whoever they owned, whether it be their wives or their slaves, and in Ancient Israel men took multiple wives and had sex with concubines. Oh, and in all of these societies men had sex with female war captives as well. Sex wasn’t seen as something that should necessarily bring pleasure to the female involved, and it wasn’t something necessarily intimate or emotional. Rather, sex was something someone with power took from someone without power.

During the middle ages, women were seen as especially sexual and as therefore especially sinful. This changed in the early nineteenth century when women came to be seen as sexually passive, and therefore especially virtuous and moral. Women used their ascribed virtue to champion a variety of reform issues, and the church became overwhelmingly female as men gravitated toward work outside the home and a political life in the public sphere and women came seen as the keepers of the home, the nurturers of children, and the keeper of the family alter. Care for children’s spiritual state transferred from the father to the mother during this period as well. All of this, though, was predicated on women’s especial purity, which rested upon their sexual passivity. Close your eyes and think of England, anyone?

In her How Love Conquered Marriage, Stephanie Coontz reveals that until recently marriage was based more on economics and family ties than on any special intimacy or feeling between the spouses. The idea we have of marriage today, the “companionate marriage,” actually only rose to prominence in the early twentieth century. It was then that the idea that marriage should be built upon sexual satisfaction and emotional fulfillment and support, rather than on economic or social necessity, was born. During this same period, the first three decades of the twentieth century, a wealth of sex manuals advising couples on finding joint sexual satisfaction flooded the market and women cast off the idea that they should be sexually passive, replacing it with a new idea of mutual sexual satisfaction. I would posit that the prevailing view of sex as especially emotional and intimate, an almost spiritual bond between two equal partners, probably arose in concert with new ideas about marriage that developed during this time.

The first few decades of the twentieth century also saw further challenges to the gender hierarchy with the coming of the “new woman,” who worked outside of the home, cast aside her corsets and donned short skirts, dated, danced, and drank. I think it likely that the opening up of new options for women, which began to pick up speed in the late nineteenth century with the rise of job options for single women in new technologies such as secretarial work or telephone operating, was necessary for the development of the companionate marriage, which uncoupled marriage from economic necessity and instead coupled it to ideas of love between two (relatively) equal partners.

Today, now that sex has been decoupled from reproduction, it no longer needs to be carefully guarded or circumscribed as before. Sex no longer contains the potential threat to society that it used to, and it therefore no longer needs to be contained in the same way. This uncoupling of sex and reproduction also makes the act itself less different from other physical acts. The rise of casual sex should not be a surprise, because for those who don’t view sex with a special degree of intimacy it truly doesn’t have to be all that different from a massage or a playful wrestle. Now of course, plenty of people today continue to ascribe intimacy and emotional value to sex, still influenced by societal norms arising with the emergence of the companionate marriage, and it’s therefore not surprising that even as some people have casual sex most don’t have sex with those who aren’t their partners (whether dating or married).

This entire conversation might be boiled down to one point: In everything beyond the basic physical act itself, sex is a social construct. That social construction of sex has changed over time – and note that this entire post has been discussing constructions of sex in the West, ignoring the rest of the world which adds greater difference and diversity. Sex is not naturally imbued with meaning, with emotion or intimacy – those are things we give it.

But of course, evangelical and fundamentalist Christians do not see their ideas about sex as a social construction. I earlier pointed to bonobos, dolphins, and ducks by way of comparison, but Christians believe that God has set man apart from the animals, giving him a soul and making him special. Given this, evangelicals and fundamentalists hold that sex is naturally and always much, much more than just a physical act – it is, and always will be, a highly intimate, emotional, and spiritual act that should only take place within the bonds of matrimony. And, they contend, this isn’t a construct – it’s simply the natural way of things as set up by God.

This is why I was taught that people who have casual sex will be scarred by it, and that people who have sex with other partners before marriage will live with guilt and shame for the rest of their lives. What I didn’t realize is that this only happens if people act against the social constructions of sex that they have internalized. In other words, if someone who places great value on sex and sees it as something spiritual and intimate that should be saved for marriage has casual sex, they will only naturally be scarred by it. In contrast, if someone who doesn’t think sex is different from any other physical act done to achieve pleasure has casual sex, there will be no scarring at all. The scarring and guilt comes not from the sex or lack of it, but from the disconnect between internal beliefs and outward actions.

This reminds me of two posts I’ve written, one some time ago and one recently. First, I wrote in Sexpectations about how shocked I was when my husband-to-be told me that my saving my virginity as a present for him meant nothing, and that he’d actually prefer that I wasn’t a virgin if given the choice, and concluded that virginity is not naturally valuable. Second, in my recent post about Post Abortion Trauma, I wrote that women will face shame and guilt after their abortion if they believe they have killed a child, but will not face such feelings if they don’t think abortion is murder. I suggested that things like holding signs with bloody pictures of fetuses and forcing women to watch ultrasounds is a way of trying to induce guilt in women who would not otherwise feel it by convincing them that they are murdering their children.

I think sometimes the same thing happens with sex: Those who practice casual sex will only feel guilt or shame if they are convinced that sex is something intimate and emotional and that losing their virginity somehow makes them worth less, and that is just what many sex education programs in high schools across the country are busily trying to convince young people of. If conservatives can convince high schoolers that sex is naturally something intimate and emotional, those young people will be less likely to have premaritial or casual sex, or at least more likely to feel guilty when they do. If they feel guilty for having premarital or casual sex, well, that plays into the conservative agenda as evidence that they are right: sex is something that is naturally intimate and emotional, and having premarital or casual sex does bring about negative consequences including low self esteem and depression. But those feelings are not the natural result of having premarital or casual sex, but rather an induced result brought about by the constant drum of the message that sex is naturally intimate and emotional.

One thing I have found most fascinating about studying society, history, and comparative religion is this idea of social construction. Sex, gender, marriage, and even the family itself are all social constructions. Their constructions have changed over time and vary between societies. The family today is completely different from the family in the colonial period, or the family in Ancient Rome, or the family in Ancient Israel, just as it is completely different from the family in Saudi Arabia or the family in Papau New Guinea. Our constructions of sex and marriage have changed over time and differ between societies just as drastically. I could study these things endlessly and never cease to be fascinated.

But fundamentalists and evangelicals cannot see it this way. For them, sex, gender, marriage, and the family are not social constructions but rather natural orders laid down by God. Sex is intimate, emotional, spiritual, and only for within marriage; men and women are created with different roles to play, the male as protector and provider and the woman as nurturer and homemaker; marriage is a voluntary partnership between a man and a woman in which the two share an intimate emotional bond and the man leads while the woman submits; and the family is composed of a husband, a wife, and children, and has a natural hierarchical order in which the parents train the children in God’s truth and the children obey.

The really ironic thing is that the very social constructions fundamentalists and evangelicals argue are the natural order of sex, gender, marriage, and the family are themselves fairly new, and they are not laid out clearly in the Bible either, but rather read back into it. The Bible was written during a time when sex, gender, marriage, and the family were constructed quite differently from the way they are today, and also from the construction fundamentalists and evangelicals argue is natural. The companionate ideal of marriage, after all, is only about a hundred years old, and the idea that sex is an intimate and emotional thing is, unless I am very much mistaken, not much older. The nuclear ideal of the family is also new, a product of the last two hundred years. Even the idea that the man should provide while the woman should stay at home and nurture the children is only two hundred years old. Evangelicals and fundamentalists have grabbed onto these particular social constructions, constructions developed only in the past few hundred years, and declared them natural and god given.

To bring this post back full circle, if you see sex as especially intimate and emotional, that’s fine. I’m not telling you to change that. What I am telling you is that that is a social construction rather than a natural order, and that you therefore should not expect everyone else to view sex the same way you do. Sex is a physical act that is imbued with meaning by individuals and societies. Now that sex has been uncoupled from reproduction, sex doesn’t have to be different from a good back rub or a wrestle. The reason that, for most people, it is different is that they give it meaning that separates it from those other physical acts. That meaning is constructed, it changes over time, and it varies from person to person, from religion to religion, and from culture to culture. And personally, I find that fascinating.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • jemand

    Interestingly, I think in some times and cultures, the idea of marriage as something to organize property and legitimize children, for economic and social order, was only the realm of cultural elites. The poorer classes, with no property to dispose of, could more often marry for sentiment!Of course, their marriages could be broken up if they were so low class they were slaves, but it is an interesting nuance to the story, at least in some circumstances.

  • College At Thirty

    Sentimental marriage is totally new. Even a hundred years ago, husbands and wives rarely saw each other except for to make heirs. Both would tend to have their own lives. It was almost always a socio-economic arrangement to get married. The "porn" of the early 1800's was Jane Austen, who wrote about people getting married for love. That was the fantasy. Fairy tales of the 16 and 1700's also cater to this fantasy. According to evolutionary psychologists, women are hardwired to find strong, aggressive men attractive, and men are hardwired to find feminine, beautiful women with hourglass figures attractive. It's all intrinsic as "cavepeople" did have their own social constructs, mostly based around hunting and gathering. As for virginity, that was totally an ideal that was suddenly set up in France in the 1700's as being very desirable, and caught on in England some years later (in the middle and upper-classes, I should say). Before that, widows were actually of great value, particularly if they had given live birth at least once so as to produce an heir for the new husband. Not that virgin marriages weren't made, but no one looked down on a widow for being less than "pure." Many kings have married widows. (Sorry, I love history.)As for sex itself…sex actually does trigger certain hormones in women that give them a sense of euphoria and extreme connection to her sexual partner. It's possible to go into a FWB relationship only to have it blow up in your face because the basic act of sex makes you as a woman more atracted to your partner. As far as I have found, there is no correlation between men, sex, and a feeling of connection to a partner. This feeling for women probably goes back to evolutionary psychology, where a woman would need help and protection from a partner and have only him (and maybe some other women) while he would have several female sexual partners, and could not be sentimental about them due to high death rates, particularly in childbirth.

  • Resophonic

    I am in complete agreement with you thorough out most of this post. I have been working on a couple of posts for my own new blog and one similar to this is in the works. :D The things I would add are more on the motivating power of sex, and more in the impact of birth control. Sex is motivating in a way that is distinct from any meaning that people invest in it. Smart people will do incredibly stupid things for sex (and for love, though as you note, they are distinct things that don't have to be coupled).I think that this is the reason why so many cultures and religions spend so much time on sex. The spiritual conotations and associated manuipluations ("sex is the only sin you make against your body, your body is the temple of God, you wouldn't sleep around in the temple of god, before the altar would you?") served the social function of helping to control the populace, and served to help manage unwanted pregnancies and disease in eras before both birth controll and modern medical abortions.Now that birth control has given individuals a large measure of control over their bodies, I think that we have the separation of morally neutral recreational sex from procreative sex. As a heterosexual male, I can enter into a sexual relationship with exceedingly small risk of getting the woman pregnant, getting a disease from her, or of giving her a disease. This is a power that really hasn't existed in any meaningful way prior to the past 50 years. This is a mind-blowing change (for the better, I think). Previous to this, the likely impact of pregnancy and of spreading disease would have made purely recreational sex more morally wrong due of its long-term impacts to your self, to your partner and to your likely child. A responsible guy just wouldn't take those risks. Now we can.It is no surprise to me that the existing religious power structures would react to it so poorly. The Catholic Church's reactions to birth control and abortion are just baffling to me when construed as a "pro-life" stance. Practically, if you want to reduce the latter, you should embrace the former. If you are concerned about life threatening diseases, you should embrace the former. Restricting both demonstrably hurts people in a way that the position "sex is something that god intended for between a single man and single woman within marriage" justify. To convince me of their position, they would need to show me some reason to believe that their axiom is true, and what the results are of breaking it (taking into considerations the social conditioning that you talk about where people expect harm because that is what they have been taught). I just don't see it happening.I was a virgin when I got married, got divorced after 17 years of struggle. The divorce was the single most painful experience in my life–but it wasn't because of sex. It was painful because of the severing of the intimate relationship. The sex was mostly missing and was (if anything) a reason to get divorced. I wish I hadn't been a virgin when I got married. I think a lot of the stuff that went into making that happen really messed me up.I spend a lot of time thinking about this. I feel that in leaving Christianity, I have gained a lot of freedom. But I also feel the need to use that freedom responsibly. This means I spend a lot of time trying to get down to the "whys" of moral questions. Often times I come to the conclusion that they are either not moral questions, or that the moral reasoning is flawed.

  • jemand

    I find this interesting: think, because usually history is written about elites, it is easy to say things like "marriage for love is a new invention…"When in reality pair bonding is really quite common in both humans and other animals, and seems to be the natural state of a good number (perhaps majority) of humans. It is only in the elite social structure on top of an unequal society where property becomes all powerful and people become pawns… remember, agriculture and the excesses of property and people associated with this pattern as opposed to hunter gathering, is the "innovation" from a species perspective. Yeah, 10,000 years of elites marrying for money seems like a long time, but as far as humans as a species goes, that's a tiny fraction of our history… and only affected primarily the people who history cared to write about, anyway.

  • Alison Cummins

    Some people become very attached to their lovers; others do not. I would love to be able to enjoy a FWB arrangement or a non-monogamous partnership. I’ve tried, and I can sort of hack it, but sexual bonding makes it difficult. When I have a partner I simply don’t want to have sex with anyone else. I don’t want to and feel bad about it, I just don’t want to. I wasn’t brought up with any particular teachings around sexuality beyond that it was mine and that I needed to be responsible for not becoming pregnant or contracting an incurable infection.I suspect that susceptibility to sexual bonding is a trait that different people have to different degrees, and that is independent of teaching. Modesty is I think a similar trait. Some people are naturally completely unselfconscious when naked, others are exhibitionist, some are painfully modest. This is obviously strongly modifiable by culture in that the culture will tell you what is modest. In a society where everyone is naked except for a piece of string, some people will be more attached to their string than others. I wish I were an exhibitionist, but though context allows me to undress in front of others without too much discomfort (for a doctor, when modelling for an art class) in a sexual context I choke. Sexual jealousy is another one. It’s a very common trait that I (blessedly) do not have. Culture can modify this one — in strongly patriarchal cultures, men are not taught to moderate their reactions when they feel jealous — but it seems pretty clear that for some people it’s a purely irrational response.I’d modify what you say a little. Whether or not sex *feels* especially intimate and emotional to you, respect your feelings and respect that not everyone naturally responds the way you do, just as not everyone is naturally tall or athletic or musical. (Almost everyone can be taught music, but those who cry listening to an opera singer are a special group.) Also, not all feelings need to be acted on. A sex advice columnist I respect says she has to choose a polyamorous lifestyle despite the suffering that jealousy causes her because a coupled one would be even worse (for her) for other reasons. So she feels jealousy where others might not, but she owns it and manages it herself. Anyway. Culture and teaching construct the meanings to go with our experiences, but we bring our own authentic experiences to the world as well.

  • Libby Anne

    "Whether or not sex *feels* especially intimate and emotional to you, respect your feelings and respect that not everyone naturally responds the way you do, just as not everyone is naturally tall or athletic or musical." I totally agree. I wasn't trying to create some sort of one-size-fits-all model or anything, but to point out the diversity of constructions, the diversity of imputed value, the diversity of views. It's that complexity I find fascinating, but that complexity also makes long-term sexual relationships something you have to work at, communicate about, etc. "I suspect that susceptibility to sexual bonding is a trait that different people have to different degrees, and that is independent of teaching."This is another excellent point! I think you're absolutely right. Even if we could somehow erase all of our cultural programming, not everyone would want to have casual sex. People have preferences, just as some people are shy and some outgoing, or as you point, some people naturally more modest and some more exhibitionist. But it's that variety that makes life so interesting!

  • Libby Anne

    "Sex is motivating in a way that is distinct from any meaning that people invest in it."Ah yes! Good point! A back rub may feel good, but we don't have this inborn palpable desire for back rubs the way we do for sex. That's evolutionary programming there, because the genes for seriously desiring sex will naturally be the genes that are most passed down, and over the generations that builds up. So it's a physical act that we have a strong motivating desire for – but how we handle that, view that, and construct our understandings of it is what varies.

  • Libby Anne

    "As for sex itself…sex actually does trigger certain hormones in women that give them a sense of euphoria and extreme connection to her sexual partner."I find the exploration of the sex drive from an evolutionary perspective fascinating. I do think though that there is probably variation from individual to individual – some women seem to have no problem having casual sex, and other women can't seem to have sexual partners without immediately bonding to them. I'd also like to see more research done on those hormonal responses, just to be sure that we're not making more of them than what is there. Regardless, I don't think the message for young people coming of age should be "have sex!" or "don't have sex!" but rather "don't let anyone pressure you or tell you how it has to be, and figure out what works for you."

  • Libby Anne

    Good point! I don't know as much about how sex and marriage worked in the middle ages as I would like to, but my impression is that the upper class married for money and connections without much say in the matter while the lower classes had much more leeway in choosing spouses. Even so, I'd imagine that economic factors were still at play. I read a book about a woman in the early nineteenth century, I know, much later, but I feel like it applies, where she basically married the first guy who could support her because, well, her father's family was short of money and she needed a place of her own. Love wasn't a factor, whether or not the families got along and whether or not it worked out economically was what mattered. But that said, if she'd wanted, she could have run off and married someone else, so yes, there was more leeway. It's hard to narrow something so complex down to a blog post!

  • College At Thirty

    Oh, I totally agree on the fact that everyone is different. I know there are men who have a one-night-stand and then stalk a girl because they're sure she's "the one", and women who are total players. I do think that each individual should know where they fall on the spectrum, and I don't think that just telling someone not to have sex is the answer. And I hope it's clear that I don't feel that "purity" is a quantifiable state of being. The pressure to or not to have sex reminds me of the post you made about whether you're "done" having children…like it's anyone's business but the person in question.

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    I know it's very trendy right now, especially in conservative circles, to talk about the hormones, especially oxytocin that are triggered by sex for a woman but, the truth is, those hormones are not unique to either sex or to women. Men produce those hormones too, and other types of intimate acts trigger their release also, even, I've heard, singing together in a choir! (As a musician and singer, I completely believe this, btw. Making music with someone can be a pretty intense bonding experience.) Oxytocin plays a complex role that is still not totally understood in the emotions of both men and women. It's not just there to flood women's brains after sex and fill them fuzzy-wuzzy girly emotions, although fundies have latched on to this idea because it legitimizes the view they already have of women.Which, honestly, is usually the purpose of evolutionary psychology. I'm sorry, but given the sloppiness of so many evo psych studies and analysis of results, and the well-founded criticism lodged at the field by about a gajillion other fields, including evolutionary biology, anthropology, sociology, philosophy etc., I have a hard time taking anything an evolutionary psychologist says seriously. As far as I'm concerned, it's basically a pseudo-science that exists to reassure people that the status quo as it exists now is natural and innate and therefore we should just shut up about it.

  • ScottInOH

    I was going to say something here, but Petticoat Philosopher (2/2, 9:20am) has said it better than I could have. Evolutionary psych is a secular way to justify hierarchies and the status quo. It's something to be very, very skeptical of, to say the least.

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    Wow, lots of good stuff in this post, Libby. I completely agree about sex being all about the meaning you imbue it with. I'd like to point out though, that people in open relationships don't necessarily imbue sex with less intimacy and meaning than monogamous people, they may just not imbue it with that meaning with everybody they have sex with. I was in an open relationship for several years, with a man I still love and consider a best friend. I don't know if it's an arrangement that I would want for a lifetime (still deciding, I think I could kind of go both ways) but it was exactly the right thing for me at the time. When we got together I was quite young, relatively inexperienced, and the experience that I did have had been not so great. So it was a really nice thing for me to have this loving, trusting, mutually supportive relationship where I was still allowed a degree of fun (and safe!) sexual exploration that I'd missed out on.But sex with other people meant something different than sex with my main partner. I never had "casual sex"–I'm too inclined to be picky in my attractions and the guys that I did have sex with were guys that I liked and had spent some time cultivating regular friendship with. I just wasn't in love with them. So sex with my partner WAS often all lovey-dovey and intimate and intense, whereas sex with other people was more just about exploratory fun and friendship but not love. It was two different things and it was my actual relationship to the person that determined what the sex meant or how it felt emotionally. I think this pretty much jibes with what you are saying, I just wanted to point out that when two people in a loving but non-monogamous relationship have sex with each other, it CAN be an intense bonding experience–we're just able to have sex with others without that happening. I don't think people are just one or the other–EITHER sex is just a casual physical act, OR an incredibly intense bonding experience. Lots of people can do both, just depending on the circumstances.And yeah, I definitely think the control of sex has a lot to do with consequences of reproduction. Especially in a property-based, patriarchal society, where you're dealing with things like inheritance and male heirs, you need to be able to assure paternity, so controlling sexuality, especially women's sexuality makes sense (practical if not moral sense). From what I can gather from my anthro-degree-having sister, societies that don't have such strict ideas of property, ownership, and inheritance have much more relaxed attitudes towards sex.One thing though–I don't know if I'd say that the romantic, companionate ideal was totally invented at the turn of the 20th century. It's all over literature from the 19th century and even before. (Dickens, the Brontes, going all the way back to Petrarch, really). But, yeah, it probably is true that regular people actually being able to base their marital decisions on love only became really common in the early 20th century. After all, Dickens was always going out of his way to show the tragic outcomes of marriages of convenience or loveless marriages, so he was obviously fighting against something very powerful and pervasive.

  • ScottInOH

    I agree with the many commenters and with you that socialization isn't the only force shaping our attitudes about sex and that plenty of people would not sleep around even if they hadn't been taught it was a sin from the time they were kids. I'm sure some people are "naturally" (always hard to separate from socialization) more monogamous, some are naturally less sexual, etc.I don't want to let the "sex-is-impure" side off the hook, though. First, that approach screws people up. They spend a great deal of time and energy feeling guilty about their feelings and about their actions, even when those actions don't hurt anyone. Then, as you've pointed out, they've been led to believe that sex in marriage is supposed to be a blessed event with angels singing and all the rest, so they feel guilty and confused if that doesn't happen. (Your own story a few posts ago was seconded by several people. Many others just feel a bit let down.) They also haven't explored whether they and their partners have similar sex drives or interests–it's fine for a chaste man and woman to spend months or years learning whether they have similar interests, goals, beliefs, etc., but not whether they fit sexually; that's just supposed to happen magically after marriage.Second, the "sex-is-impure" crowd tends to hold a corollary belief, which is also wrong. That is, they believe the opposite of their approach is to advocate having as much sex as you can, consequences be damned. They believe you are either "pure" or a "slut" (and can't, for example, complain about acquaintance rape if you've had sex with the person–or maybe anyone–before). This is also a toxic view. The opposite of the "sex-is-impure" view is to see sex as something fun and exciting that is part of building and sustaining a relationship, quite similar to other activities. That vision of sex very clearly rules out taking advantage of someone else, seeing sex as a victory, or otherwise engaging in hurtful actions. It's part of a friendship, albeit one that's not necessarily enshrined in marriage. In other words, being sex-positive isn't a license for immorality; it's quite the opposite.Obviously, these are ideas I'm still working out. Thanks for having the conversation.

  • Joy

    Hm, I wouldn't put it so starkly as to say our approaches to sexuality are social constructs, so much as I would say that our social constructs of sexuality are built to reflect one or some of the many ways people can (and do) approach sexuality, in a way that benefits both the power structure and underlying needs of the society. A very egalitarian society where paternity determination is not an issue is going to have very different sexual mores than a hierarchic society where paternity needs to be fairly sure (without benefit of DNA testing) to ensure inheritance. BUT–and simultaneously–an individual's perception of sexuality (spiritual and intimate, friendly/casual, power-play, reproductive, pleasure/stress-reliever, something to be endured, revenge, your day's work, etc.) can vary from encounter to encounter, relationship to relationship, or at the very least phase of life, in any society. Note that in societies where men have a lot of power and sexuality appears to be very constrained, prostitution flourishes– Victorian culture, with its upper/middle class ideal of the chaste domestic angel, was simultaneously awash in prostitution (much, much more prevalent than today). Sexuality will find a way to express itself, and forcing it into an idealized mold seems to produce a particularly dark underbelly.

  • Paula G V aka Yukimi

    About other societies that are quite different I remember when my philosophy teacher told us about an antropological research in Samoa (It's been a while since I heard about it so perhaps I have some data wrong).There, when women want to have sex, they go to the beach and sit by a palm tree. Then men come and have sex with the women who are there (it doesn't matter if they are their wives or not, no jealousy involved, divorces are also quite straightforward, if they can't stand each other, they just decide to return to their families houses). The kids that are born are brought up by the whole village.Btw, very nice post, I completely agree with you Libby Anne and the rest of the comments have been very enlightening too :)

  • villemezbrown

    I found this post very interesting and not at all what I expected. A little background: I am an agnostic who was raised an atheist and now attends a UU church, but I find I relate more in some ways to the values and perspectives of some fundamentalist Christian bloggers, which is the circuitous route that led me to your blog.So, coming from a completely different background and never being taught to wait for marriage, I believe you are mistaken about your assessment of sex as a purely physical act and everything else just a social construct. You speak about sex being decoupled from reproduction fairly recently, but the idea that the only (valid) purpose of sex is to reproduce is actually the social (religious) construct. The vast majority of mammals come into season and the female's fertility is abundantly obvious to her and every other member of her species around. Humans, on the other hand, had only the vaguest idea of when a woman was fertile before modern tracking methods were developed. You mention that Bonobo monkees use sex as a social bonding tool, and humans do too – but a much more powerful one than grooming. Evolutionarily speaking, sex creates a bond between the male and female(s) to encourage the male to hang around and protect and provide for the female(s) and her children. Biologically speaking, having sex produces chemicals in the brains of the participants that are intended to have very specific effects – effects that encourage attachments to form. You are probably aware that breastfeeding helps the mother bond to her newborn. That's not just a pretty idea; the hormones produced when breastfeeding have a demonstrated impact on the brain that promotes feelings of "love" and attachment. Sex works the same way. Ideas about romantic love and faithfulness and purity are social constructs, but having sex is highly likely to have an impact on a person beyond the obvious physical pleasure (or lack thereof) in the moment. The emotions we associate with sex are not 100% chosen. Our brains have evolved to strongly tend in that direction. I think it is important that when we teach our kids about sex they understand all the potential consequences, including the likely emotional impact. I don't think it is something a person should take as lightly as a wrestling match or a football game, and not just because of the risk of disease and pregnancy.I am enjoying following your blog and I wish you the best.Peace,Adele

  • Anonymous

    Adele,I appreciated your input. Your comment "The emotions we associate with sex are not 100% chosen" agrees with the reading I have done of our human anatomy and physiology, as well. Beverly

  • boomSLANG

    I think it's worth noting that even if those emotions "are not 100% chosen", that this doesn't therefore mean that said emotions are 1%, 10% or [insert percentage] "spiritual".

  • ScottInOH

    These, though, are the types of sweeping statements ("our brains have evolved" in a certain way) that Petticoat Philosopher (2/2, 9:20am) rightly cautioned against. It is true that sex releases hormones and affects the participants. It is not true that it (a) causes fathers to stay with mothers & children (infidelity and desertion are as old as history) or (b) causes couples who have had sex to stay together.Your point that sex often triggers or deepens or otherwise affects feelings of attachment is clearly right. So–very importantly–is your point that emotions are likely to be tied up with sex, and no one should treat it like nobody can get hurt doing it. It's the statements about evolution and the purpose of various phenomena that make me uneasy. Such functionalist claims are rarely amenable to testing, and they are frequently used to justify very unequal power relationships.

  • kisekileia

    Personally, I abandoned the idea of waiting until marriage for sex in part because I came to the conclusion that in a society where we have good birth control and STI preventative measures, and where marriage is frequently a decade or more after puberty, restricting sex to marriage harms people enough that it's not really loving your neighbour as yourself. I feel that the circumstances and consequences of sex are sufficiently different from Biblical times that it is reasonable to discount the Biblical regulations as no longer applicable. I lost my virginity to a guy who I liked and respected as a person, but wasn't truly in love with. Throughout my relationship with him, I felt like I was settling for him, and I realized that feeling was correct once I started dating my current boyfriend, who I'm very much in love with. My ex-boyfriend is a good guy, and the relationship wasn't terrible, but we had very little in common and I'm much happier with my current boyfriend.But, contrary to what most evangelicals would expect (and what I would once have expected, since I'm an ex-evangelical), I don't really regret losing my virginity to my ex-boyfriend. I'm actually kind of glad I lost it in a situation that was lower-stakes than my current relationship. If I'd lost my virginity to my current boyfriend, I'd be terrified of what would happen if the relationship were to ever end. (Even as it is, I'm kind of scared about that, because I really love being with this guy!) I'd quite likely be emotionally invested in the relationship to an unhealthy and dangerous extent. So, it's not always better to lose your virginity in a situation where the emotional stakes are high.

  • Psyence

    Wow, that's a lot of social construction; I guess you want to make sure your readers add this new word to their vocabulary… :) Good post, once again. Keep it up!

  • Psyence

    "The scarring and guilt comes [...] from the disconnect between internal beliefs and outward actions."By the way, I find that this was beautifully worded. If you put together these words yourself, congratulations. Definitely worthy of being quoted, imho.

  • Melissa

    Thank you for explaining that Petticoat Philosopher!

  • Anonymous

    Hmmm….what about safety? Having sex with someone exposes you to risks beyond pregnancy or STDs. What if your partner is cruel, a stalker, or simply self-centered? I would want to get to know someone for awhile before I went on a long walk with them, let alone getting naked with them.It's possible that I am simply paranoid due to living in a sex=negative culture, but I wouldn't be relaxed enough to enjoy sex with a total stranger. It's not a question of avoiding evil, but in taking what I consider to be reasonable precautions.I guess it is a matter of defining what is 'casual' sex. Is it any relationship outside of holy wedlock? Sex between friends? Or sex with someone whose name you don't know?

  • Anonymous

    This is such a well written post. Your insights into how expectations fuel guilt and shame continue to give me insight into my own past and current experience. It's a comfort and a relief to hear it described in such a logical way. Thanks.

  • Emmsie

    Your posts are always so insightful! I definitely agree. Personal feelings and social teachings about sex have a lot to do with how someone turns out. I spent high school and middle school believing that sex before marriage was wrong. Then, senior year, I met my first boyfriend whom I got physically intimate with. We dated for several months before having sex, and eventually broke up a couple months later. I'm now dating a great guy, we've been dating for 2 years and sexually intimate for 1.5 of those years, and I feel absolutely no remorse about losing my virginity to someone else. Our expectations and feelings about sex can change so rapidly and span such a wide range, that I really don't think there is any sexual practice that is inherently good or bad, other than taking it againts someone's will. I love your blog so much!Also, I really like the new pink layout.

  • Taxidriver42

    Amen! Man Libby, love you for getting these perspectives out there. :)

  • Paula G V aka Yukimi

    EAting chocolate, doing physical exercise, … all produce hormones that give us pleasure and nobody has anything against them. Some people get excessively attached to chocolate (me XP) but nobody thinks it's an emotional attachment or prevents people from running unless it's perjudicial for that concrete person.Also, there are plenty of mums who have oxictocin and don't get any bond with their kids. People just try to blame everything on hormones and other biological drives so as to not feel guilty about something (I had to rape that woman because… NO, you didn't), to blame people about stuff or support their theories. It's true biology makes us who we are but there are plenty other stuff that affects us (nurture, social constructs, gender roles, …) and we certainly don't behave the same than medival age people even if biologically we are incredibly similar./End rant

  • JeseC

    I'm not actually sure how strong the correlation between safety and how well you know your partner is. On one hand, you are taking more risks from not knowing your partner as well. On the other hand, if there are problems it's a lot easier to handle. As someone who dealt with all that behavior from a long-term boyfriend, it can be both very hard to spot up front and a lot of problems trying to actually disentangle from that kind of person. Not just in terms of long-term relationships, but in terms of handling mutual friends, dealing with someone who knows your schedule and habits…the level of involvement is much deeper, so it's harder to cut a toxic person out.

  • College At Thirty

    Evolutionary psychology is popular in conservative circles? Really? I mean that, I'm not being sarcastic. Evolutionary psychology has a lot of detractors, and a lot of people call it un-feminist, but the world of the past was anti-feminist. I don't actually ascribe to it as complete Truth, but there is a lot there to suggest how our species has evolved to this point right now. I'm sure there are a lot of people who use it to say, "See, why all the feminism?" but I look at it and say, "Okay, so that's what we need to evolve from." Different strokes. As for singing in a choir…I've read that any act of organized activity strengthens bonds, even if it's just marching in formation around a block. The fact that people are doing it together bonds them in a familial way. It's amazing how something that sounds so small…singing…can create a community feel, but I think it's cool that it does. I just come from the direction of wanting to know "Why?" and if that means reading through psychology of any kind, even evolutionary, I'll do it.

  • Ashton

    What you said about the hourglass figure is incorrect. This is one reason why I'm suspicious anytime people cite evolutionary psychology – laypeople get it wrong more often than right! Men are hardwired to find women with a low hip to waist ratio attractive. There doesn't seem to be, however, any constant in what men find attractive when it comes to breast to waist ratio.

  • LoreleiHI

    THIS THIS THIS!I'm personally monogamous. Great. I made sure my partners knew about it, and laid it all out for my now-spouse before we got married. If you're with me, you're just with me, and no hard feelings if that isn't for you.But most of my good friends are polyamorous, or in open to semi-open relationships. Everyone involved knows what's going on, they're all happy with it, so why the fuck should it bother me? They certainly aren't trying to force me into a relationship like theirs!So why should I try to force them into one like mine? It makes no sense. >


    I think you've left something out, Libby Anne. In both men and women, orgasm releases a flood of oxytocin — a hormone that causes pair-bonding. The expression "make love" really does have a biological basis!This is true whether the sex is casual or not. I'm not sure it's possible for sex to be as casual and consequence-free as people claim … unless neither partner enjoys it. ;)

  • Paula G V aka Yukimi

    I think that if you just consider it as a pleasurable recreative activity like for example masturbation, you don't have to create any kind of bond with the other person. Women don't usually create bonds with vibrators even when they get orgasms from them. I have only have one sexual partner (my boyfrined of 9 and a half years) so I don't feel qualified to really talk about this but I do believe casual pleasurable sex can and do exists.

  • Ada-Jean

    Just another point to consider – in most societal groups where marriage wasn't associated with love, mistresses/courtesans/geisha were common. Upper-class men were forming sexual relationships with affection and love, just not (usually) with their wives.

  • Libby Anne

    I'm not qualified on this subject, but I would suggest you read some of the comments above. They suggest that the "oxytocin" bit isn't as clear cut as conservatives would have it. It's something to look into, though.

  • Libby Anne

    Also, just a little bit of googling reveals that breastfeeding, back rubs, and even hugs release oxytocin as well. Some links suggest eating also releases oxytocin, but I wasn't able to find that on any main sites. Anyway, point is oxytocin isn't a sex thing, it's a touching/being close to thing.

  • Anonymous

    You're a fucking moron. I grew up in a family that believed as you do. I jumped right on into the expected sexual activity. I was devastated when the attachment that I formed due to that sexual activity was not reciprocated. Whenever I would try to discuss this with any of the charmingly "enlightened" people that I knew and had grown up with, the only explanation that they had for why I responded was that there was something wrong with me. Yah, I nearly committed suicide many times over this little "philosophy". I didn't get why it wasn't working for me yet appeared to be working for so many others. Of course, years later, having caught up with some of those other women, it didn't really work so well for them after all. They were simply better fakers than I and had much better abilities to deny their pain. I find it rather interesting that an awful lot of people who make some loud noises about the "legalism" of saving sex for marriage do, still, in fact wind up saving it for marriage like relationships. All that tells me is that sex is really far more special to them than they are willing to admit for the sake of their political agenda.

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    Um, didn't you troll this blog a few months ago?Predictable troll is predictable. *yawn*

  • Rosanna

    Jane Austen is not equivelent to porn, her novels are not even equivilent to today's trashy romance. Her wonderfully witty writing is so much more than that, especially in the delightful Northanger Abbey.Her heroines may fall in love, but they still fall in love with someone suitable. Money and class are vitally important to everyone in her novels. Emma is portrayed as foolish for wanting her friend Harriet to marry out of her class.(Sorry, going off on a tangent here; but I feel today's obsession with Mr Darcy really misinterprets Austen).

  • Brawne Lamia

    Wow, angry much? Different people react differently to sex situations. No one is arguing that. Also, sounds like you needed better friends.And…. done feeding troll.

  • Ron Amundson

    The oxytocin thing seems to be on pretty shakey ground. Most abstinence folks like to cite the following paper. Eric J. Keroack, M.D., and John R. Diggs, Jr., M.D., "Bonding Imperative," A Special Report from the Abstinence Medical Council (Abstinence Clearinghouse, April 30, 2001)Please note, the above paper is not published in a scholarly journal, nor is it even readily available… I wonder if it was even peer reviewed. However, it does appear to be based on some prior research from: Psychiatry. 1999 Summer;62(2):97-113. Preliminary research on plasma oxytocin in normal cycling women: investigating emotion and interpersonal distress. appears the pro-abstinence authors desire to promote abstinence was of greater weight than was the data… so much so, the author of the original research is quoted as having some very strong feelings against such a conclusion.

  • Anonymous

    I don't know, I think we have an inherent need for physical touch, especially as children. In fact, I think the fact that we live in a pretty low-touch culture in North America is one reason why people get into sexual relationships – many couples spend a lot more time in physical contact then they do actually copulating.

  • Anonymous

    I think it's worth considering how many good Victorian women in church-sanctioned marriages died of syphilis their husbands brought home from a brothel. We know condoms, testing, and in many cases medication can resolve STDs. We have a lot of evidence that having sex only with your spouse is not necessarily effective; I'm sorry that people get taken in by jerks, but it happens, it's happened to me. I am so glad I wasn't married to him and could just break up with him, block his phone number, and put my life back together.

  • Rosa

    You can get stalkers just by, like, existing; I had a stalker when I was younger (he went to jail for stalking another women; when I knew him, he stole my bras & underwear from my backpack one day when I was swimming). I am not sure I'd ever spoken to him, we went to the same high school.The other risks don't have a lot to do with the casualness of sex, or even if you're having sex with someone. Spouses can certainly be cruel, or self-centered – so can friends, coworkers, or random other people you're not having sex with.

  • Christine Hughes

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • kisekileia

    Libby's made the point elsewhere that casual sex is not for everyone. It obviously wasn't for you, and that's okay. The thing is, trying to restrict sex to marriage causes just as much harm to some people as casual sex caused for you. Everyone's different, so it's best to just let people do what works for them.

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    "You can get stalkers just by, like, existing."Thank you, Rosa. I'm glad you made this point because you can apply it to the big picture: You can have bad things happen to you just by, like, existing. People who want to harm you can find ways no matter how many precautions you are taking. This is why putting the onus of preventing these bad things on women, or anybody but the perpetrator of the bad things, is a fundamentally flawed idea that can lead to victim-blaming very easily.I've thought long and hard about bringing this up apropos of this topic but I'm going to. So: TRIGGER WARNING FOR RAPE.A few months ago, a guy who I thought of as a friend, and who had become a friend-with-benefits raped me. I won't go into the details but suffice to say that I had made clear my feelings, I even said "no, don't" when he started but he did not stop. I suppose I could have tried to physically fight him off, but I didn't. I was in shock because this was a guy who I'd considered a friend and I guess my brain can't switch gears from "sexy time with friend!" to "defend yourself against enemy!" that quickly, especially when the friend and the enemy are the same person.I'd known the guy for almost 2 years. I know his friends. I know his coworkers. I know his fucking brother. We'd had a non-sexual friendship based on shared interests and hobbies for quite some time before we ever slept together. I generally have good judgment about people–I'm not only quite good at avoiding creeps, I'm also tragically good at identifying (correctly) when my female friends' new boyfriends are creeps. My creepdar is about as good as it gets.So what other "reasonable precautions" should I have taken? Believe me, this question crossed my mind. After all, when something bad happens to you, it's natural to want to try to find something that you can change or do better next time since, after all, you don't have control over others' behavior but you do have control over your own. Should I know a man for MANY years before I ever touch him? Should I know his entire family? Should I only sleep with a man who is a committed, loving partner? Would that even matter? Intimate partner rape happens all the time. This guy in question now HAS a committed girlfriend. He is living his life as a committed, loving partner (whether or not he is actually committed or loving is another question…) but he was still capable of doing what he did. Perhaps (and this I strongly suspect) he does not mistreat his girlfriend, but only feels license to mistreat non-girlfriends that he has sex with. After all, a woman who would open her legs for any other man but the love of her life is obviously just a whore and a whore is always asking for it, a whore is unrapable. (yes, that's irony.)

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    But I don't want to take these "precautions." I think they are UNREASONABLE precautions. They don't actually prevent anything and they disrupt the way I want to live my life, to which I have a right. How is this guy's Madonna/whore complex and disrespect for women my fault? How is it my responsibility? The truth is, there isn't anything I could have done, no precaution I could have taken to prevent this from happening, and there is none I can take now to prevent it from ever happening again, except maybe spend my life in a double-locked padded room. There is only one thing anybody could have done to prevent this guy from raping me, and that was for him to choose to not rape me. He chose differently. It was his choice, not mine, his fault, not mine. The only people that can prevent rape, stalking, abuse etc. are would-be rapists, stalkers and abusers.So meanwhile we just have to live our lives as we see fit. I don't think it's a very good idea to have sex with strangers and I don't know too many truly well-adjusted people who do this, honestly. But if one of those people were to raped during an anonymous encounter, it STILL would not be the fault of the victim. "Safety tips" have their place. Like any good big sister, when my little sister went to college, I gave her the spiel about not taking drinks from strangers at parties and yada yada yada. I don't go running on my local bike path at night etc. But we can't let the fact that there are threats out there distract us from the fact that the onus of prevention falls upon the people who cause harm, not the people who are harmed. It's frustrating and scary to me to know that, after all the drinks I took into the bathroom with me at parties, after all the convoluted ways in which I avoided walking home late at night alone whenever I could, after all the special attention I took to make sure that I only allowed trustworthy people into my life, let alone into my bed, I still got raped. But that's the way it is. There's no such thing as safety. But you can't let all your choices be ruled by fear of danger. It's just not a way to live. So I'm not planning on changing the way I live my life, or the way I choose to have sex. Because that's not the problem.

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    lol, kisekeleia (and others), trust me, you do NOT want to go down this rabbit hole. If I'm not mistaken (and I'm pretty damn sure I'm not) this same "anonymous" dumped her crazy all over another one of Libby's posts on sexuality a while back. Same exact tone, style, and anecdotes. I'm now wondering if she lies in wait, just waiting for Libby to post about this stuff so she can flame her and her commenters. The fact that there are strangers out there in the world who disagree with her and that some of them have blogs seems to upset her very much and, trust me, engaging her will only get very, very nasty. Seriously, troll to the Xtreme.

  • Kristen

    I agree… I have read Coontz's book and I think that although she makes very good points, this is a big problem with her analysis of 17th-19th century Europe. She is accurate when she talks about the very elite, but among the lower and middle class, and even the lower gentility, people mostly had sex and married the people they were attracted to, just like today.

  • Kristen

    I hate to nitpick, but I have to chime in that your Austen metaphor doesn't hold. Her novels were really astonishingly accurate. I had to do a lot of research on Georgian social structures and behavior for my master's thesis, and I read a wide spectrum of material from the same time period–newspapers, advice and gossip columns (hilarious), moral guides for young women (also hilarious). The higher a person's class, the more wealth and family connection mattered. The elite rarely married for love, although they often made a show of it. Austen wasn't writing romantic fantasy–she was giving a pretty authentic picture of the lower gentility, where some people attempted to "marry up," some (irresponsibly, in her opinion) married without either person having enough to live in the style to which they were accustomed, but most people looked for a marriage among others with similar wealth and status. They weren't looking for "The One" who would make their life complete, but they did place value on love and companionship. I think the modern take on Austen as "romance" stories is more about us than Austen. She does write about love, but she intended to write social satire and advice on how not to fuck up your life. Since most readers today don't read as a form of self-improvement, and even if they did, wouldn't understand the nuances and social rules of her time period, all modern audiences get is the love story.

  • Kristen

    Adele, I think your point about how human females don't have an obvious fertile period actually reinforces the social constructs of sex that Libby was talking about. In a society where men are in control, they want to make sure that they are only spending their economic resources on children that are actually theirs. Since women can become pregnant any time, men must keep their women inaccessible to other men at all times. I believe that's why so many cultures put such a high value on female virginity and fidelity, but are willing to overlook male infidelity. A 16th century Italian man doesn't care if he impregnates a prostitute or somebody else's wife because he isn't on the hook for raising it, but he'll be damned if he's going to let somebody else impregnate his wife.

  • Anonymous

    @ Kristen and Adele, what's interesting is I read a study within the last year that actually says that during a woman's ovulation, she is more likely to attract men. The study was done by charting strippers' tips over a long period, as well as their cycles, and it noted that there was a trend towards attracting more men and more tips during ovulation, less during menstruation, and that women on the pill (essentially a control group) retained level amounts. Assuming the study is properly done, it kinda makes the whole "men keep their women close" thing less biological and more social, even if it's unconscious reasonings for doing the biological things. I've also read a postulation that things like virginity and purity only became important once people started cultivating land because that is the point when people began to realize the connection between sex at a certain time and birth, and also the point when property began to matter. Food for thought.

  • Rosa

    I didn't read back through here til today, but Petticoat, I'm so sorry that happened and so glad it didn't make you live in fear. Because you're absolutely right; there are no precautions that would have worked.I have the exact opposite experience – I go out alone at night. I have slept with strangers and people I just met. I went to foreign countries alone as a teenager – once, being young and naive, I left my backpack with all my worldly possessions with a cab driver while I tried to pick up money at a wire service that wouldn't let me bring my big bag in. I have hung out at bus stops and parks with homeless people, many of them addicts.And nothing bad has ever happened to me. The taxi driver didn't steal my backpack. None of the one night stands raped or murdered me or gave me an STD. I've never been mugged in the park at night (tho I did get mugged once, on a busy sidewalk in the middle of the afternoon.) There's no rhyme or reason to it, on the victim's side; the reason and pattern comes from the person who commits the crime. And you're not that person.

  • Another Halocene Human

    "Oh, and in all of these societies men had sex with female war captives as well. Sex wasn't seen as something that should necessarily bring pleasure to the female involved, and it wasn't something necessarily intimate or emotional. Rather, sex was something someone with power took from someone without power."With all due respect, I must completely disagree. Sexually intimacy was not invented by the moderns… rather, most of the moderns got their first lessons in such concepts by reading authors of Classical Antiquity such as Ovid and Catullus. Creative people in the time of classical antiquity were very clear on the connection between sex and emotional intimacy, nor was that connection entirely erased by the Christian era, although female sexuality was ruthlessly suppressed, as well as evidence of female agency or accomplishment. Homer's work was preserved, for example, while Sappho's was suppressed. Sappho, like Catullus, basically wrote love poetry, while Homer and Virgil's work contains both war porn and a healthy dose of moral scolding–favorites of uptight conservatives even today. (Just check out right wing political blogs to see what I am talking about.) Homer is, of course, more complex than that. (Not so sure about Virgil, hehe.)Humans are mammals, just like the Bonobo chimpanzees you reference above. Bonobos use sex to cement social ties–humans, like the more warlike chimps, use grooming of one sort or another. It seems like just about every human society has sexual strictures or taboos. That's probably because of the powerful emotions unleashed and the potential for interpersonal violence. I'm not excusing intimate partner violence here. I think society should discourage that in the strongest way possible. What I'm doing is acknowledging that you are always going to have the social 'losers', the butthurt wannabes who unleash narcissistic rage when they are inevitably rejected. That, and other reasons, make universal free love an unlikely sustainable outcome for human societies.

  • Mad Gastronomer

    Good post, and I agree with most of it, but I really must take exception (two weeks after the fact, since I just found your blog on FtB, and came over to flip through your archives) to a couple of things:It is two people rubbing their genitals together to obtain physical pleasure.This is an extremely limited and heterosexist view of sex, I'm afraid. I understand that you were trying for a brief, light-hearted phrase to use, but maybe you could find one that doesn't exclude most or all of the sex that a lot of people have?I'm a bi woman, and my primary partner is also a woman. Very, very little of the sex we have involved rubbing our genitals together, and yet we have a lot of very pleasurable sex, thanks. And when I have sex with men, quite a bit of it still doesn't involve rubbing genitals together. There are lots of other things included in "sex," and simply because we do place so much cultural weight on sex, excluding things other than PIV or scissoring or whatever from the term sex devalues those things — besides, of course, excluding them being simply factually incorrect.And yet, on the other hand, there are people who have casual sex who do not construct sex as something profoundly intimate or invest it with any sort of spiritual meaning. For them, sex is just something to do for fun. There are even people who have open relationships, in which they share an intimate and loving bond with their partner and yet have sex with other individuals. Because they do not see sex as something extremely intimate or spiritual, having sex with other individuals does not hurt their relationships with their partners. As someone in a polyamorous relationship — my partner and I, by the terms of our relationship agreement, can each have sex and/or relationships outside of our mutual one — I have to say that you've set up a false dichotomy. Certainly some nonmonogamous people don't see sex as extremely intimate or spiritual, but many of us do. We just don't think that it being intimate or spiritual means one should only share it with only one other person.And, in fact, there are people for whom having sex with multiple partners, even with partners unknown to them, is deeply intimate or spiritual. One of my exes had six or eight (I forget, although she detailed them all for me at the time) different ongoing sexual relationships at the time I dated her, and had sex outside of all of those. She's a pagan, and a devotee of both Aphrodite and Dionysos. She sees it as part of her worship to have sex with many people. (I bring her up merely to point out that such people exist, as further evidence that nonmonogamy and not attaching intimacy or spirituality to sex are not mutually exclusive.)So maybe I'm being a little nitpicky. It really was an excellent post overall. But those two things bothered me.At any rate, nice blog, glad I found it, and congratulations on the spot at FtB.

  • Purposefully Anonymous

    I’ve kept up with your writing on Love, Joy, Feminism almost since you started it back in June. I empathize with many of the issues you write about, as I was homeschooled for a couple years myself, spent most of my life deeply believing in a near-cultic version of Christianity (the independent fundamental Baptist sect, to be precise), and share many of the knee-kerk reactions to societal norms that I was raised to despise.

    I became an atheist two years ago, and have spent much of the time since then making up for lost time by reading the bejeezus out of all the things I was curious about but wasn’t “supposed to read” to keep my faith pure.

    A blog I’ve stumbled upon has a fascinating take on why sexuality raises everyone’s hackles, even stripped of religious taboos: “Embarrasment by Sexual Ecstasy”. The author detailed the philosophical underpinnings for his assertions in “Embarrassment” in “Happiness is Unbecoming” (probably better read first).

    This post has raised some lively discussion and opinion-sharing, but I thought that these two articles may be of use to you as you try to reason out the world after faith.

    All the best to you!

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