Sex February 24, 2012

All of the recent discussion by Christian theocratic types about contraception should serve as a reminder that these people are absolutely sex-obsessed, and not in a good way.  While not every Christian is as psychologically tormented as Rick Santorum, conservative Christians and most of our society still cling to some very unhealthy hang-ups about the whole subject.

My own hesitancy to write about sex and sexuality (beyond political defenses of homosexuality) stems from the same kind of inhibitions.  Like many people who express opinions on a range of topics, I seem to always shy away from that one.  But that was all before I read “Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality” by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha.

Drawing upon hundreds of pieces of evidence ranging from sociological analyses to evolutionary biology, the authors explore our sexual heritage over time.  What becomes very clear is that the sexual mores of our world are neither universal nor biologically inherited.  They developed over time and, I would submit, are largely products of the agricultural revolution.

Most researchers do not buy into this.  They persist in looking at how things are now in the western world to provide their conceptual model.  The standard narrative of human sexuality views men as inherently tending toward polygamy and women to monogamy.  Or as the authors describe it on their website:

Mainstream science—as well as religious and cultural institutions—has long maintained that men and women evolved in nuclear families where a man’s possessions and protection were exchanged for a woman’s fertility and fidelity.

The authors dismantle this approach.  And while much of their evidence comes from academic research, some of it simply references what any normal person knows to be true.  For example, one of their pieces of evidence is drawn from a simple survey of pornography.  (I assume that if you are on the internet, you might have been exposed to some pornography in your life.)  Like any business, it reflects its consumers.  The authors ask why, if men evolved to be so “worried” about paternity, there are so many adult movies that feature multiple men with one woman and so few with depictions that go the other way around?  Why would men find that stimulating if they have a built-in aversion to it?  (Hint:  It’s called sperm competition.)  This is just one of the sacred cows that the authors skewer.

One of the main components of their thesis is that pre-modern humans, much like bonobos, “lived in egalitarian groups that shared food, child care, and often, sexual partners.”  If you know anything about bonobos, you know that sexual activities fill a lot of their time.  They use sex for social bonding.  And so do we.  This idea, by the way, also contributes to their reasoning for the evolutionary survival of homosexuality and bisexuality.

The book does not make an argument for or against monogamy or any other modern arrangement.  It does, however, ground them in their proper place as cultural inventions, not a product of biological evolution.  And this has profound implications for our definitions of sexual ethics.

Humanists have an obligation to take on this subject in a serious and meaningful way.  We must be the ones who ask these questions outside of the theological, spiritual context in which they are usually framed.

Should people be monogamous?  Are there better definitions of what it means for a couple to remain faithful?  What, if any, are the red lines and who decides?  How should humanists relate to the sex industry?  To “kinky” lifestyles?

In recent years many people have been attracted to the “sex-positive” movement.  While this is a laudable attempt to de-stigmatize human sexuality, it is also fraught with all kinds of silliness (see the provocative article by Chris Hall in “SF Weekly,” “Why Sex Is Not Spiritual”).

Secular humanism, as an all-encompassing life-stance, must be willing to take on these issues.  And without sufficient information we will not be able to offer suggestions that make sense.

I will try to address some of these issues on this blog, particularly those that involve ethical sexual behavior.  And for anyone who is curious about the real history of human sexuality, I highly recommend the Ryan-Jetha book.

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