“I maintain that sex is regarded as dangerous by the savage, that it is tabooed and ritualized, surrounded by moral and legal norms – not because of any superstition of primitive man, or emotional view of or instinct about strangeness, but for the simple reason that sex really is dangerous.” – Bronislaw Malinowski, anthropologist (1928)
“Young or old, don’t delude yourself. You don’t have sex. Sex has you. Buckle up.” – Dan Savage, author, giver of advice, Twitter friend (2013: 52)
“According to Irish folk belief, there are two ways of achieving certain salvation. The first is through a red martyrdom, or dying for one’s faith in the tradition of the early Christians and the great missionary saints. The second path to sainthood, and the one chosen by most ordinary people, is the white martyrdom (ban-martra), a slow ‘death to self’ through acts of self-denial – fasting, penance – and, above all, a life characterized by sexual purity.” – Nancy Scheper-Hughes, anthropologist (2001: 206)
“You can’t just let nature run wild.” – Walter Hickel, former Governor of Alaska (1992)
Quote #1 suggests that sex is potentially dangerous for all people, regardless of cultural background. Note that Malinowski’s use of the word ‘savage’ was acceptable at the time. Today, it obviously isn’t. (#2) However, despite that danger, sex is powerful and has a hold over people. (#3) They can assert control over sexual impulses, but to suppress them entirely is difficult enough to be considered equivalent to martyrdom. (#4) All societies need regulation, including for sexuality. (I took some license with this last quote, one of my favorites. The actual context was that Hickel was defending the state’s controversial aerial wolf control program, apparently said without irony).
The young wife, Isakapu, put on her best jewelry and climbed to the top of a coconut tree near her village. From there she shouted down to her husband, Kabwaynaka, and to any other witnesses below that his accusations of adultery against her were false, and that she resented that he had beaten and insulted her out of jealousy a few days earlier. Kabwaynaka climbed up after her to bring her down, but before he could reach the top she jumped, throwing herself to her own death (Malinowski 1929: 120).
In Bronislaw Malinowski’s classic ethnography The Sexual Lives of Savages, suicide in the Trobriand Islands was an acceptable means of escape from the shame of breaking various sexual taboos (even if the accusations were false). This was the case not only for adultery, but also for bestiality, or for having sex within the clan. Consuming the poisonous gallbladder of a pufferfish was one method for taking one’s own life, but the option chosen by Isakapu, jumping from a tree (known as lo’u), was also common at the time. Malinowski wrote that while the sexual lives of Trobrianders might seem “easy and carnal” to an outsider, in reality they were often marked by “strong passions and complex sentiments” and sometimes filled with strife (p. 119-21).
A look at the ethnographic record reveals that strong and complex emotions surrounding sex are not unique to the Trobianders, or to any single culture. Some historical narratives of human sexuality have wondered whether non-Western cultures, or perhaps our distant ancestors, have had a less stressful time with this part of life, placing the blame for any modern sexual malaise at the feet of various culprits. These include (1) religion, particularly the monotheistic Abrahamic faiths (Ray 2012); or (2) capitalism and ‘the Protestant ethic,’ with its emphasis on guilt, self-control, and the frustration of delayed marriage before sufficient resources could be accumulated (Albee 1977); or (3) agriculture, with its emphasis on fixed settlements, the accumulation of private property, and a more intense guarding of paternity and property rights (Ryan and Jethá 2010).
It’s more likely that any grand narrative must overlook some complexity. While some customs and institutions may do different levels of harm or good, the idea that there was ever a perfectly well-adjusted era for human sexuality – some “wanton world without lament” – is probably what the biologist Marlene Zuk would call a ‘paleo-fantasy’ (Zuk 2013).
In his ‘History of Sexuality,’ Michel Foucault (1978) argued that many people have a vague notion that at some point in the past (he points to the beginning of the 17th century), sex in European societies was fairly open. However, in their minds, this was later surpassed by the repression of the ‘imperial prudery’ of the Victorian bourgeoisie (p. 3). Foucault’s point wasn’t that there was no repression in the Victorian era or in the more recent past. Rather, he noted that by framing our recent past and perhaps even the present as a time of repression, there is an unspoken subtext, a pining for an alternate future more in line with some idyllic past:
“Something that smacks of revolt, of promised freedom, of the coming age of a different law, slips easily into this discourse of sexual oppression. Some of the ancient functions of prophecy are reactivated therein. Tomorrow sex will be good again.” (p. 7).
But what if that idyllic past never existed? Marjorie Shostak noted that among the !Kung San foragers of Botswana (and who were not Victorians, agriculturalists, monotheists, or capitalists): “Sex is also recognized as tapping some of the most intense and potentially explosive of human emotions” (1981: 238). This particular passage was focused on extramarital affairs, which Shostak affirmed could be “outright dangerous,” sometimes leading to violence and even homicide. But explosive emotions were not limited to adultery; many other parts of her book revealed instances where sexual rejection, dissolved relationships, heartache, spousal abuse, or jealousy reared their heads.
Similarly, in a cross-cultural look at how people manage romantic love, companionate love, and sexual desire across various societies, William Jankowiak and Thomas Paladino (2008: 27) noted that these are “three of the more powerful human sentiments,” but also that they are not always in alignment with each other. This occasional disharmony, along with their potential for emotional volatility, necessitates regulation. To that point, Warren Johansson (1990) wrote that:
“In truth, all cultures regulate sexual behavior in one way or another. No human society allows its members, whatever their age, sex, or social status, to interact sexually with one another without restriction.”
Sex Ambivalence: Between Positive and Negative
But how much regulation is the ‘right’ amount? And, who makes the rules? How each society views sexual behavior is a perennial question revisited by each generation, which continually inherits and reinterprets norms surrounding acceptable sexual behavior. In August 2012, a Moroccan newspaper editor, Moktar el-Ghzioui, argued on local television that pre-marital sex should no longer be illegal. He was later supported by a professor of sociology in Rabat, who stated that young Moroccan adults should have the right to sex, even if they are not married. On the other side, an imam in Casablanca worried that “If the code (that prohibits any sex outside of marriage) is removed, we will become wild savages. Our society will become a disaster.”
The point here is not to say who’s correct about whether sex outside of marriage is a ‘right’ or a ‘potential disaster,’ for Morocco or for any country. Rather, what this example encapsulates is that, first, all people recognize a duality to sex, and second, that there is a wide range of attitudes on the subject. Rather than being entirely ‘sex positive’ or ‘sex negative,’ most societies, and most individuals, are to some degree sex ambivalent. For example, Dan Savage (not exactly a promoter of sex negativity), once said, “I don’t believe all sexual expression is good. Sex is powerful, and you must approach it thoughtfully, because it can destroy you… (via) sexually transmitted infections, unplanned pregnancy, partner violence.”
That dualism can be found in a wide range of sources. As one Haredi rabbi in the U.S. put it, sex is comparable to “nuclear energy” – it can bring disaster, or it can “connect a couple to God and beckon ‘transcendent experience,'” provided that it is carefully regulated. Among the Kaguru agriculturalists of Tanzania, sex is said to create ‘heat (moto).’ It might not be nuclear hot, but sex is compared to fire because they both have both positive, generative qualities (cooking, reproduction), but also potentially negative, disruptive ones (destruction of property, emotionally distracting). For the Kaguru, sex is powerful enough that it is compartmentalized, and considered as if one was stepping outside of everyday life. After sex, ritualistic cleansing is needed to return to normalcy.
“Sexual relations are said to be hot because they are potentially disruptive, especially if they befuddle or distract from these other doings (such as preparing food, or other important rituals). Sex is so powerful because it obscures other activities. Like fire or pain, it prevails over a multitude of cultural fabrications. After copulation the actors must be cooled (kuhoswa) through washing. In the case of prohibited sex acts, this cooling also involves cleansing rituals. The tenor of ordinary, quotidian existence is antipathetic to blatant sexual behavior, for the proper order of everyday life is repeatedly described as cool (mheho).” (Beidelman, 1997: 128-9)
In short, sex is powerful, and as Malinowski wrote, it can be dangerous. But it is not only that.
Across all societies, people have recognized these two sides to human sexuality – the good and the bad – emphasizing one over the other. The ethnographic record shows that, on one hand, people portray sex as a potential source of intimacy, love, pleasure, self-esteem, connection, a means of acquiring resources, and of course reproduction. On the other, sex also has the potential to lead to shame, tension, rejection, dishonor, frustration, jealousy, and even violence. Sex is a mixed bag of emotions, which depend on circumstances. To only focus on the good or the bad ones is to oversimplify things.
As a potentially high-risk, high-reward activity, societies have generally responded to sex somewhere between two extremes: obeyed, explored, enjoyed, and celebrated. Or tamed, sublimated, repressed, and denigrated. Even in a single society, both are possible at different times.
This past Valentine’s Day in East Java, Al Jazeera reported that police confiscated chocolates, beer, and condoms, out of fear they might lead to “free” extramarital sex. On the other hand, surveys revealed that premarital sex in Indonesia was fairly common. Also on East Java, thousands of people (including those who consider themselves devout Muslims) make a pilgrimage each year to Mount Kemukus, also known as “Sex Mountain,” to have sex with strangers – a ritual thought to bring good fortune (Utomo 1999).
The Collective Thermostat
Across cultures, people attempt to build consensus in order to find some happy middle ground, or at least an uneasy truce. From nomadic hunter-gatherers to industrialized urbanites, people set their collective thermostat somewhere between two endpoints of prudery and licentiousness. However, as in any office or home, the individuals within each culture may vary as to where they think the thermostat should be set, and cultures can shift over time as people challenge the established norms. Some prefer things a bit cooler, but some like it hot.
Some individuals will be more content with the consensus than others. In the words of cultural anthropologist Thomas Beidelman, “No culture reflects an entirely happy view of sex for everyone in it” (personal communication). Similarly, William Jankowiak wrote that “failure to integrate sex and love is the name of the game…to some degree dissatisfaction is everywhere: its dissonance sounds in all spheres of culture” (Jankowiak and Paladino 2008: 2). In sum, he said, “No culture ever gets it right.”
Jankowiak’s point wasn’t that we lost our way from some forgotten utopia that at one point had “gotten it right.” Instead, I think he was arguing that the tensions are perennial, and human emotions and desires are messy and ever-changing.
Is Sex a Luxury or a Need?
An essential question is why is that sex can be potentially dangerous. I don’t think there is a single answer to this – context is essential. For those who promote an ‘abstinence-only’ approach to sexual education, the most commonly cited pitfalls of sexual activity are unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections (Santelli et al 2006). However, others such as Malinowski emphasized the emotional side, including jealousy, shame, rejection, frustration, runaway desire, and unwanted romantic attachments. Therefore, at least one of the reasons societies regulate sexual behaviors is to try to maintain social order by curtailing emotional volatility and erratic behavior.
But who are the targets of control? Describing her own experience with taking a pledge of abstinence before even reaching puberty, Samantha Pugsley wrote “I’m now thoroughly convinced that the entire concept of virginity is used to control female sexuality.” On the other hand, Joseph Henrich and colleagues (2012) argued that the spread of monogamous marriage around the globe had the effect of reducing male-male competition and reducing the number of unmarried men. In turn, they wrote, fewer unattached bachelors is correlated with lower crime rates, including rape, murder, assault, and theft. Their bottom line was that by accepting normative monogamy, wealthier men traded off the potential for having multiple wives, but gained the opportunity to live in a more stable society in part fostered by having fewer aimless male bachelors around.
This is hardly a complete history, but the larger lesson is that at different times and for different reasons, both men and women have been pressured to limit sexual behavior to within certain boundaries, often – but not always – within the context of marriage.
To what extent sexual desire and behavior needs controlling depends in part on how it is viewed. Is it a ‘right,’ a need, a luxury, a drive, overrated, a sin and a path to Hell, or “a gift from the gods” (according to the !Kung San)?
In a legal case that got a lot of attention last year, the attorney David Boyle, argued that his client Hobby Lobby should not have to subsidize contraception for its employees. To bolster his case, he described sex as not a need but as an optional luxury, a voluntary ‘want’:
contraceptives may be considered no true necessity under certain circumstances, since sexual relations are basically a voluntary activity. If sexual relations were a true human need like breathing or food, then Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama, and many of the popes, would have all dropped dead within a few weeks (or days) of becoming celibate. But they didn’t, since sex is only a human want (like bowling or stamp collecting), not an actual need. So sex is merely optional—a sort of luxury good, especially when not making any babies, and contraception is meant to prevent babies—, and can be treated as such, at least for the sake of forcing other people to subsidize it (or subsidize related matters like contraception) besides the ones who are actually having sex. Link
Analogies almost always fall short when comparing one thing to another, but I cannot help but snicker at equating sex to bowling or stamp collecting (it’s not like that at all). It’s also ironic that an attorney for a business called Hobby Lobby essentially described non-procreative sex as an unnecessary hobby. Still, we can take these arguments with a grain of salt because legal arguments are not scientific ones, but are designed to persuade.
But the argument is still instructive. He is correct that religious figures did not drop dead soon after taking vows of celibacy. However, it’s also true that Gandhi (who he didn’t mention) described his own struggles with vows of celibacy. And I’m not sure that “it didn’t kill them” is the best way to define what constitutes a legitimate need. Quality of life also counts, not just years alive. After all, you won’t die – at least not right away – if you quit exercising, or stop talking to other human beings, or lose all your money, but we still consider those things to be legitimate needs. In fact, just as an aside, having strong social relationships among the elderly is one of the best predictors of their longevity (Holt-Lunstad et al. 2010). So friendship might not be the same type of need as food, drink, or oxygen, but it seems safe to call it a need nonetheless.
Anyway, I may be sorry that I opened this can of worms about whether sex is more of a need or a luxury, but the examples are compelling. Perhaps the one thing we can be certain about is that opinions vary widely. There is also lots of individual variation in sexual desire and behavior by gender, culture, age, or simply because all individuals are unique. Therefore, it is inevitable that sex will mean different things to different people. While we can certainly find patterns, variation is essential in biology, which is why it is known as the science of exceptions. Trying to describe the human sex drive is like trying to explain the human hair style. One size does not fit all.
At one end, there are asexual adults, who have no sexual attraction to other people and no sexual fantasies, but they seem to suffer no distress from this (Brotto et al. 2015). At the other end is Dennis Hopper’s character in Blue Velvet who wanted to “fuck anything that moves.” (That’s the first time I’ve ever used the f-bomb on this blog. Sorry. I held out as long as I could).
This is an old debate. In his book “Lucretius on Love and Sex,” Robert Brown (1987: 108-11) summarized the views of several ancient philosophers (all men). Hobby Lobby might be dismayed to learn that Aristotle considered sex akin to eating or drinking. To Porphyry of Tyre, sex was more of a luxury, comparing it to eating meat or drinking foreign wine. Lucretius felt that Venus (i.e., passion) was “the epitome of pleasure,” but it was also a desire that could be “easily dispelled.”
Epicurus had a more nuanced view. Sexual desire was “natural but unnecessary,” exaggerated in importance, but “worth pursuing in the right circumstances.” However, sex was also potentially dangerous for the young and unmarried, physically, socially, and psychologically, such as when it became an irrational craving. Occasionally, sex can “(ruin) everything through stinging desires.”
According to Brown, Epicurus and Lucretius were not against passion per se, but what they objected to was an “obsessive focusing of desire on one person, which we call falling in love.” That type of passionate desire was “intrinsically unsettling and destructive.” In other words, sex and love require prudence.
I can cite people with various perspectives, and as interesting as they are, I don’t think they’ll bring us much closer to any resolution. As the saying goes, the plural of ‘anecdotes’ is not ‘data.’ But I want to return to one last quote – the one from Nancy Scheper-Hughes (2001) at the top of this essay – because I think it’s instructive. She wrote that in traditional Irish folk belief, including in her own field research in rural Ireland in the 1970s, there were two possible roads to eternal salvation. The first was a red martyrdom by dying for the faith, while the other was a white martyrdom of self-denial via fasting, penance, and – above all – sexual purity.
I think it is revealing that in this period of Irish history, a person could achieve martyrdom by sacrificing either their life, their health, or their sexuality. It’s rather clear that sexual purity could only be considered a path to martyrdom if self-denial was difficult. After all, one does not earn martyrdom from doing something easy, like giving up licorice or watching parades. This strongly suggests that sex is not merely a luxury.
Furthermore, Scheper-Hughes argued that the high rate of schizophrenia in rural Ireland in the 1970s was correlated with celibacy and a lack of sexual and emotional intimacy. In her endnotes, Scheper-Hughes cautioned that “I do not suggest that celibacy necessarily causes schizophrenia” (2001: 353), but at the time over 90% of schizophrenic patients in Ireland were unmarried.
Of course, correlation is not causation. In her opinion, the pressures of a strict, Jansenist Catholic tradition on restraint and sexual repression, combined with shifting economic trends that made finding a spouse more difficult, took their toll on many Irish. Her suggestion was that these factors played some role in many social problems, including alcoholism, shame, marital desertion, depression, and possibly schizophrenia. So, if sex is sometimes dangerous, then so may be its absence.
In a recent, large study of more than 34,000 U.S. adults over age 40 (Chou et al 2014), the prevalence of lifetime abstinence from sexual intercourse was relatively low (0.88 % for males; 1.00 % for females), demonstrating that most people consider sex a worthwhile pursuit at least once in their lives. Lifetime abstinence was associated with lower history of substance use/abuse (alcohol, nicotine, other narcotics), but was also correlated with obesity, any lifetime diagnosis of avoidant or dependent personality disorders, and dysthymic disorder (chronic depression).
Again, correlation is not causation. It’s certainly plausible that something like chronic depression could impair one’s ability to find a sex partner, or even want to find one. But it’s just as plausible that being unlucky in sex and love could lead to chronic depression. If we know that social rejection is often a painful experience (Lieberman 2013), then it is not too difficult to understand why constant sexual rejection – given its level of intimacy – would also be painful. The journalist Michael Castleman wrote that for many older adults who have never had sex with a partner, “It’s a world of shame and isolation, a world where people feel seriously stuck, handicapped, and not part of the adult world.”
Of course, this depends on the individual. Sexual abstinence need not be automatically distressing. Upon turning 80, Gloria Steinem said that her fading libido was actually liberating in the sense that “the brain cells that used to be obsessed are now free for all kinds of great things.” In Guangdong, China one option for young women of poorer families was to become zishunü (‘self-combed’), which required a vow of celibacy. This brought economic benefits to her parents, and her devotion and virginal status brought honor to her and her family (Ye 2008). The tradition mostly expired by the 1940s, but in Ye’s interviews with older zishunü they expressed few regrets, adding that chastity was better than a bad marriage. One woman stated: “It’s still hard to find a good man. If a man is poor, his wife will have to struggle; if a man is rich, he may take a mistress.”
Several popular media stories have been written about “herbivore men” in Japan, referring to the trend of young adult males challenging traditional Japanese ideas of heterosexual masculinity by opting out of sexual and romantic relationships. A 2010 government survey found that roughly one-third of males aged 16 to 19 surveyed described themselves as “indifferent or averse” to sex. For women of the same age group, the figure was 59%, so this pattern is not limited to males. However, academic studies are hard to find, and popular media accounts are often sensationalistic, focusing on how a disinterest in sex in young people could exacerbate the low fertility rates and the ‘demographic crisis’ in Japan. In these reports, young women and older people alternate between criticizing herbivore men for their passiveness and lack of romantic (and economic) ambition, while others praise them for their sensitivity.
Attitudes among young Japanese adults surely vary, with some “herbivore men” unhappy with economic and social pressures placed on them. Others seem content to follow their own path, with one 22 year-old man saying, “We don’t care at all what people think about how we live.” Osaka University Professor of philosophy Masahiro Morioka felt that, ultimately, the trend could be positive, as Japan embraces greater diversity in standards of adulthood. He added that “Men should diversify,” he said. “It’s good for both men and the society if more men are freed from fixed values.”
Sex and Happiness
There is no single way to be human. This is also true for sex and love. For some people, an absence of sex poses no problem. For others, it can be extremely distressing. If suffering stems from attachment to desires (said the Buddha), then an absence of desire should alleviate suffering. But quashing desire entirely seems like a superhuman achievement if it can earn a person martyrdom status, at least in Ireland.
As is probably true of most things, the danger lies at the extremes, for either excessive licentiousness or repression. All things in moderation. But most people don’t live in the extremes of zero sex over a lifetime or fucking anything that moves (a la Dennis Hopper), and the middle is fuzzier.
There is good evidence that sexual satisfaction and relationship satisfaction are correlated with each other, but how to quantify satisfaction is not so straightforward. A recently published paper from China with the simple title of “Sex and happiness” confirmed this relationship (Cheng and Smyth 2015). In their sample of 3,800 heterosexual, partnered adults (avg. 37.8 years old), those who had higher frequency of sex, and better quality of sex (estimated by emotional and physical satisfaction with one’s partner) were happier overall.
The opposite was also true: people who had sex less frequently were less happy. Those who had sex with their partners on a daily basis (only 1.8% of the sample) were the happiest, followed by those with a frequency of 3-6 times a week, then 1-2 times a week (this was the most common response at 42%), then 2-3 times a month. The lowest happiness scores were for those who said they had sex once or less per month.
There were some gendered differences. Women who had lower frequency of sex had lower self-reported happiness, but the drop-off in happiness was much steeper for men. For example, compared to those who had sex daily, men who had sex once or less a month lost 0.26 happiness ‘points’ (on a 4-point scale), while women lost 0.13 points. The difference was only statistically significant for men.
This is not trivial. Sex may not be a need on par with food or water, but it doesn’t seem to be a mere luxury either. It is in its own category, given its association with happiness. Overall, both Chinese men and women who said they had “just the right frequency” of sex were happiest compared to those who felt their frequency was too high or low. However, what the “right” amount will be is hard to say, and this will vary by person.
I want to tread carefully here (but it may be too late for that). Averages matter, and they don’t. They matter in the sense that it looks like the average man and the average woman will, on average, differ in what frequency of sex will make them happy. On the other hand, they also don’t matter because individuals are not averages. Whether gay, straight, or bi-sexual, there are high-libido women and low-libido men, and everything in between. In a completely unrelated story in Salon, one woman in sexless marriage wrote, achingly, that:
“I feel … like I die more everyday. I have so much love and real passion to give and it’s not wanted, appreciated, or returned. …The man that loved me is dead. He is like a zombie.”
So, in terms of happiness, what matters more than averages – at least in partnered relationships – is compatibility between mates, negotiation and compromise.
Finally, one interesting finding from the Cheng and Smyth study was that people who had just one sexual partner were the happiest, but this trend was stronger for women. Overall, 17.7% of men and 5.3% of women reported having extramarital sex. Women who had sex outside of marriage lost 0.26 happiness points, while men lost only 0.08 points. Both drop-offs were statistically significant. So there is danger here too – sexual frequency is related to happiness, but having sex outside of marriage may also cost some happiness, but this probably depends on circumstances, marital quality, social expectations, individual temperament, etc. So, it’s complicated.
William Jankowiak and Laura Mixson (2008) conducted an ethnographic study on American swingers in Las Vegas. Participants had spousal permission and encouragement to pursue sexual novelty, which makes swinging a form of ethical nonmonogamy. They noted that “the swingers’ dilemma arises from trying to serve often-competing desires: erotic satisfaction through pursuing sexual variety, and emotional fulfillment through pair-bond exclusivity.” To maintain the specialness of the primary bond, Jankowiak and Mixson argued that couples ‘ritualized’ extramarital sex to keep it in a separate sphere of activity, such as through explicitly describing swinging as “fun and exciting,” but “sex without a heart,” while simultaneously reminding themselves of “anchor memories” about the origins of their primary relationship.
The problem – or the danger – was that maintaining distance was not always possible. Of the 80 swingers they surveyed, 20 (25%) acknowledged that swinging had threatened their marriage because their spouse had become overly interested in one specific swinging partner. One woman “burst into tears” after seeing her husband linger too long in bed with another woman after having sex. For her jealousy was not sexual, but fear of her husband forming an emotional bond (falling in love). On the other hand, 75% reported there was no threat to their relationship, so – again – variation is important.
Sex is a mixed bag of powerful, potentially dangerous, emotions. At the extremes, there is the potential for danger via jealousy, rejection, or depression. But as Marnie Goldenberg reminded: “When we focus on what’s troubling about sexuality, we’re missing all the good things. It’s a little like telling young people about world travel, by reinforcing that they need to be wary of pickpockets and thieves.” Sex is also linked with happiness, but it is not quite a need in the same sense that food is. Nor is sex merely a luxury, if its absence is often distressing. Rather, it is in its own category. Finally, societies have come up with different formulas to regulate the individual variation in sexual desires and behaviors, all of which come with trade-offs.
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