“Although anthropologists have identified few, if any, true human universals, taboos are widespread against exposure of the genitals, public displays of sexual behavior, and multiple consecutive partners. Having sex willingly in the presence of observers or with multiple participants crosses a line of social propriety in many societies. Where these lines are drawn is, of course, highly variable.”
– Katherine Frank, Plays Well in Groups: A Journey Through the World of Group Sex (2013: 3)
“Humans aren’t the only sex deviants in the animal kingdom. But we are the only ones to stigmatize each other as disgusting perverts.”
– Jesse Bering, Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us: (2013: 216).
Apes don’t have bedrooms.
This is relevant because privacy is sometimes hard to come by in the life of an ape, including for intimate sexual behavior. But for humans it’s different. Sexual privacy is important, yet privacy is never really absolute.
One of the more puzzling questions around human sexuality is why we invest so much energy into influencing the sexual and romantic lives of other people. Why does it matter to us whether celebrities get divorced, or gay people marry, or whether the sexual behavior of strangers somehow falls outside specific social norms?
This isn’t necessarily the case for our primate cousins. Certainly, monkeys and apes compete for mates and they keep track of each others’ social relationships. What they do not do is moralize about proper sexual practices. For chimpanzees and bonobos (outside of the occasional private tryst away from the group to avoid interference from a dominant male), sex usually takes place in view of fellow group members, with little fanfare. Among bonobos, sex is so common that it is almost mundane.
In one study, Zanna Clay and colleagues observed a group of fifty adult bonobos for about a thousand hours in a year (Clay et al 2011). In that time, they recorded 1,100 female–male copulations and 674 female–female genital contacts. Notably, females often made ‘copulation calls’ when they were with a partner of higher rank, regardless of whether their partner was male or female. Clay suggested that these calls were part of a female’s social strategy, announcing to other group members that they had powerful friends (“Hey, see who likes me!?”).
However, while apes jockey for social position when it comes to relationships, we can take this to another level. Not only do we try to improve our own prospects by climbing the social ladder, but we can also get quite judgmental about others’ erotic lives.
Here’s a familiar example: Peter Gray and Justin Garcia (2013) observed that “There does not appear to be any other species that so heavily relies on the opinion of kin in establishing long-term pair-bond relationships.” For humans, family approval is often a big part of the mate selection process (for arranged marriages, it may be the entire process). This is probably due to our intense social awareness, and because marriage has the power to transform strangers into kin. So it makes sense that we would want some input into who joins our families.
But we don’t limit our opinions on sex and relationships to family. We can also influence the lives of strangers in many ways: how we define normalcy and deviance, via attempts to control paternity and reproduction, by vocalizing our opinions on sexual permissiveness, and through gossip about whether others are following expected social norms. These things appear uniquely human.
As an example of the way we invest ourselves in others’ romantic lives, simply stroll past any magazine aisle. It is likely (at least in certain countries) that many of the tabloids feature stories related to celebrity weddings, divorces, infidelities, and so on. Bennifer is just one recent example. So, why do we care so much?
One writer suggested that “celebrities will always exist as templates onto which we can project our darker impulses.” In other words, perhaps we seek to make ourselves feel better by reading and talking about the shortcomings of public figures. However, I’m not sure that’s all there is to it.
Humans have a long history as an intensely social, biocultural species. Perhaps we simply care about relationships generally, and whether others are living up to cultural expectations. To some extent people in all cultures regulate social behavior in even the most trivial ways, such as what constitutes appropriate clothing, how acceptable it is to burp after eating, whether an appropriate greeting should be in the form of a wave, a bow, a wai, or a handshake. Quite often, these things act as badges of identity, to signify if you adhere to “our” way of doing things.
However, sexual matters draw extra scrutiny. What is considered acceptable sexual behavior occupies a special place in our social psychology, and is particularly susceptible to moralization. In a 2014 Gallup poll, 1,028 Americans were asked for their opinions on various moral issues. Interestingly, almost half of the questions (9 of 19) pertained to sex, reproduction, or romantic relationships.
To most Americans, contraception was morally acceptable, as is divorce, homosexuality, premarital sex, and having a baby outside of marriage. Abortion was ‘contentious,’ while pornography and sex between teenagers were less accepted. Least acceptable were polygamy (which some are calling the next frontier of marriage) and extramarital affairs.
Similarly, in a 2013 Pew poll conducted in forty different nations, 6 of 8 questions pertained to sex. With the exception of extramarital affairs – which, with the exception of France was almost universally condemned across nations – there was considerable variation among attitudes by country. In general, Western nations more tolerant toward a variety of sexual practices.
Though these weren’t specifically addressed, I imagine that Gallup or Pew could have asked about other sex-related subjects that would generate a diversity of opinions, such as:
- What is considered a socially acceptable number of sexual partners. Opinions do vary, with a double-standard favoring men (Vranglova et al., 2014). There is even a forgettable Hollywood movie about this.
- Various paraphilias or fetishes (Bering, 2013).
- Masturbation (this is probably acceptable to most people, though be aware that may be a minor penalty of 25 cents per act in the afterlife).
- Consensual non-monogamy. One study by Conley et al.  suggested that this is stigmatized and most Americans disapprove).
- Yule et al (2013) reported that asexual people feel often stigmatized, and this may negatively affect their mental health.
I guess the question is why so many different aspects of sex are often moralized, even when they do not directly affect our own lives (even writing about the topic can bring a feelings of unease and judgment). Some people might offer that religion explains this – certain behaviors are acceptable by divine decree, others are not, and that’s just the way it is. For example, with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling that the Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex marriage, people fell into two camps. For most Americans, the decision was the right one. However, for many religious people the decision was very difficult to accept (though not all religious people felt this way, certainly).
But to anthropologists, divine explanations aren’t very satisfying. We’re still left asking: why do (or did) certain religions encourage or prohibit certain behaviors? It is also impossible to have an argument between sacred and secular planes, so this is a non-starter. And, while religious tenets may remain stable (particularly if they are codified in writing), the mores and behaviors of actual people change over time in any culture.
Perhaps if we zoom out and look across a wider range of humanity beyond any specific religious tradition we can find some patterns that help us explain why we care about the sexual lives of others. Here are some of the ideas I’ve encountered:
Emotional Regulation: You Lack Discipline!
In their book, Sexuality and the World’s Religions, David Machacek and Melissa Wilcox wrote that one thing sexual and religious experiences have in common is that they can both induce intense emotional responses. Both can create feelings of dread, ecstasy, fascination, an exploring of boundaries, and a sense of losing oneself. Because of this, sex is often “extremely powerful – both potentially productive and potentially dangerous. All sorts of harm may befall the one who misuses it, and if it is not treated with great care, the result is chaos.” (2003, p. xv).
According to this view, one reason why religions might regulate sexual behavior is to regulate people’s emotional states. After all, to the French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1925: 31), “the fundamental element of morality is the spirit of discipline.” Durkheim also felt that ‘discipline’ had two parts: a preference for ‘regularity’ in existence, rather than merely following one’s whimsical desires (don’t make any sudden moves!), and self-mastery (130-33).
As I wrote before, sex can be dangerous – at least under certain circumstances – in part because of its emotional side and the hold it sometimes has over people. Last month, one Greek citizen said after voting against the controversial European bailout plan: “people are controlled by three things… sex, money, and fear.” Perhaps one reason sex is so heavily moralized is that the idea that other people around us may not be in complete control of their own desires – that they are not masters of their domain – can be unnerving.
In societies where views of sex are generally negative, there is also a tendency to associate libido with an overall lack of virtue. This may be because sex is sometimes associated with a lack of self-discipline, which could have wider social consequences. There is a long history to this. In the anonymous book Onania; or, The Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution, And All its Frightful Consequences, in both Sexes, first published in London in 1723, the author railed against many sexual behaviors because of their possible wider consequences:
“For whether we commit Abomination with those of our own Sex, as the Scripture says, Men with Men, or with Beasts, or that we defile our own Bodies ourselves with this shameful Action, the Consequences are the same to the Society and our Species…That the Crime in itself is monstrous and unnatural, in its Practice filthy, and odious to Extremity; its Guilt is crying, and its Consequences ruinous: It destroys conjugal Affection, perverts natural Inclination, and tends to extinguish the Hopes of Posterity.” (p. 7)
The idea that ‘abominable’ sexual acts can “extinguish the Hopes of Posterity” is about as hyperbolic as it gets. Even today, there are still some people who equate acceptance of homosexuality and gay marriage with the end of the world (though one wonders why they let bestiality and “defiling our own bodies” off the hook). But the larger point is that people often see sexual behaviors (or even thoughts) as a proxy for a person’s overall morality, whether deserved or not. The roots of this go far back. Jesse Bering noted that originally the term “pervert” referred not to sexual deviance, but to a turning away from God. It was only later that the meaning shifted to the one we recognize today.
Even today, Dan Savage noted that very often, “the less sexual partner in a relationship – the partner with a lower libido, the partner with fewer sexual interests – is always seen as more virtuous (2013: 55).” However, it is interesting that asexual people are stigmatized as well. So, there exists some fuzzy ‘Goldilocks zone,’ where people are expected to have just the right amount of libido (not too hot, but not too cold).
Privacy and Gossip
Across most societies, sex is usually a private matter that takes place behind closed doors, or in the forest, and often after dark. For apes, copulation is usually in the open and during the day. Occasionally for people, sexual acts become public or as part of group activity in some cultures, either through ritual or by breaking sexual taboos, but this is typically a transgressive act (Frank 2013). It is hard to imagine such practices becoming acceptable in most societies. But why?
One possibility is that, because sex has the potential to stir up powerful emotions, we usually give it a proper time and place, away from other observers. However, discretion has consequences:
(1) A byproduct of discretion (or secrecy) is a degree of salaciousness, or voyeurism, when sexual matters cross between private and public spheres. Discretion can also empower gossip and rumor. Among the Hadza hunter-gatherers of Tanzania, premarital sex among older teenagers is discreet, where young couples sneak off beyond camp borders. However, “it may not be such a well-kept secret,” and many people in camp know, even though it remains unacknowledged (Marlowe 2010: 169). Adultery, however, is kept to a higher level of secrecy because of the potential for people to get emotionally or even physically hurt. The point is that secrecy or privacy cannot be maintained indefinitely. Once breached, there are consequences, including facing judgment by peers.
(2) Privacy can also create ignorance, if young people are never properly taught about this important part of life. Among the Kaguru horticulturalists (incidentally, also from Tanzania), adolescents learn about sexual practices through various songs when they are initiated into adulthood. This part of education is considered integral to become an adult, with the benefit of allaying teen anxieties about the next stage of life (Beidelman 1997). Without education there is a vacuum, where ‘normal’ sexuality becomes a matter of individual imagination.
(3) This creates a potential scenario for conflict. In his book Perv, Jesse Bering wrote that once humans first evolved a higher form of social cognition and understood that others’ desires (sexual or otherwise) weren’t necessarily aligned with our own, it set conditions for conflict between thoughts. Our own desires may seem normal or natural, but potentially anyone with different desires could be seen as deviant. As Bering put it, humans are born psychologists, able to step into the minds of others, but that ability is severely limited and biased toward our own point of view.
This can have tragic consequences, such as persecution or ostracizing of sexual minorities. On a less severe level, there are other psychological effects. The sex therapist Laura Berman wrote that two of the most common question she receives are “am I normal?” and “how often do most people have sex”? These questions suggest that when it comes to sex, there is often a sense of fear, shame, or vulnerability that we may not measure up.
The Proximity of Sex and Death
At one level, we know that people are animals who must follow basic desires to survive: breathing, eating, drinking, etc. However, Jamie Goldenberg and colleagues (1999) suggested that the reason sex is especially powerful – and thus should be controlled – is that more than any other desire or behavior it reminds us of our “creaturely” nature (this was their word).
To them, “one of the most important and unique aspects of human experience is the awareness of our own mortality” (p.1175). Once humans became aware that sex was tied to reproduction, it reminded us of our “core animal nature” and that – like every other lifeform – “we are just temporary cogs in an ongoing process.” As an added bonus, they also note that the French expression le petit mort (‘the little death’) is sometimes a synonym for an orgasm. They suggested that people compensate by building cultural rules and taboos around sex, and create concepts like ‘eternal love’ as a way to shield ourselves from the idea that maybe sex is just an attempt to hold the grim reaper at bay.
Being aware of our own mortality may be humanity’s curse, and it’s possible that this proximity of sex and death is another reason sex has a tendency to make so many people uneasy. Maybe. It’s an interesting idea, but I’m not sure I’m completely sold on this being the root of sexual discomfort, perhaps because I’m not sure where this resides in a person’s psychology. However, Goldenberg et al. provided some evidence. They found that after being primed with questions about mortality (‘mortality salience’), people who scored high on neuroticism reported that they found the physical aspects of sex less appealing. The converse was also true, at least for neurotic individuals: thoughts of sex reminded them of death. So, maybe there is something to this idea after all.
Evolutionary Explanations: Reproduction and Jealousy
To go one step further, our awareness of the overlap between sex, reproduction, and death has obvious ties with evolution. Most evolutionary explanations for why certain emotional responses around sex are so potentially explosive (ex. jealousy, romantic love) is that they play a role in controlling paternity and reproduction. For example, in an interview with psychologist Sarah Rose Cavanagh, the ecologist Kimberly Russell said “who controls paternity controls the world!” It’s true that, evolutionarily speaking, the way to pass along our genes is through having (hetero) sex with someone of reproductive age. Otherwise, those genes die with us, and that notion can produce some anxiety. Matt Ridley once put it this way: “None of your ancestors died celibate.”
Furthermore, Russell added that cultural values are often used to control female sexual behavior, and are even more effectively than constant mate-guarding or physical violence. Ideas have power, and if women internalized cultural expectations that their level of sexual desire should be low (whether they actually felt that way or not), it could be another way for men to increase female fidelity and confidence in paternity. One example of this is in the harassment of women via what is commonly called slut-shaming.
In addition, Michael Price and colleagues (2014) found that attitudes toward sexual permissiveness correlated with how economically dependent women were on men. Where women had more economic independence, and therefore were less reliant on men as providers for offspring, attitudes toward promiscuity were more lax. They concluded that “these results were consistent with the view that anti-promiscuity beliefs may function to promote paternity certainty in circumstances where male parental investment is particularly important.”
This is one avenue for moralizing. If we also consider that human infants take a lot of parental care and that people are cooperative breeders who usually depend on other “alloparents” for help in raising children (Hrdy 2009), then perhaps societies apply pressure to restrict sexuality to specific circumstances (when an alloparent was secured).
Vulnerability, Connection, Rejection
However, I don’t think paternity and reproduction are the whole story either. Not all sexual behaviors are related to reproduction (paraphilias, homosexuality, etc), but they are still susceptible to social scrutiny. Take kissing, for example. In a cross-cultural review, Jankowiak et al (in press) found that only 46% of 168 cultures surveyed showed evidence for kissing in a romantic–sexual context.
This suggests that kissing is likely not an ancient part of human behavior. Nor is it, obviously, essential for reproduction. Yet, in many parts of the world, passionate kissing between ‘inappropriate’ partners (outside of a relationship, or for whatever reason) is often considered taboo and can arouse jealousy. Why? Perhaps it’s the idea that kissing suggests there is affection, the potential for a bond, and then maybe reproduction down the road.
Or, maybe such ultimate, evolutionary explanations are a bridge too far. Rather than fear of investing in offspring who aren’t one’s own, or a loss of a co-parent, jealousy also acts as one mechanism to maintain a relationship. Not just the potentially reproductive part of the relationship, but the whole shabang.
After all, sexual bonds are usually social bonds. Even the meaning of the word ‘mate’ is muddled. Sometimes it is a verb; other times it’s a noun. It can mean ‘to copulate.’ Other times, it means ‘to bond.’ The two aren’t perfectly synonymous, but they’re close. When we face rejection, or when a bond is dissolved, the experience is wholesale, not just the reproductive part. Something about us is not quite good enough in the eyes of someone we admire. Divorce and infidelity among older people, or among people who don’t wish to or can’t have children, are often just as traumatic. As William Gass once wrote:
“Because of the values we place on sexuality in life, because of the terrible taboos which surround it, the endless lies, the forlorn wishes, the sad fantasies we wind around it like gauze about a wound (whether these things are due to the way we are brought up, or are the result of something graver – an unalterable quality in our nature), everyone’s likeliest area of psychological weakness is somewhere in the sexual.”
That vulnerability comes across in many societies. Richard Lee noted that among the San foragers, sexual insults were considered the most offensive: “may death pull back your foreskin” or “death to your vagina” (Lee 1979: 372-3). In the right context and the right relationship, these can act as jokes. But when used in anger, they tap into something deeper, arousing shame and sometimes violence. For the Kaguru, adults are sometimes publicly mocked for being inadequate lovers, exposing insecurity (Beidelman 1997: 197).
Altogether, these things tap into emotional centers of vulnerability. This could be another reason that we keep a close eye on socio-sexual behavior.
We care about the sex lives of others for a number of reasons. Still, it’s not clear how much, if at all, we should intervene into those lives. Jesse Bering wrote that “modern sex crime laws are based on the better-safe-than-sorry principle” (2013: 30), so many societies have placed their bets on the idea that perhaps it’s better to condemn ‘perversions’ to keep the most vulnerable people safe from harm (children, elderly, the disabled).
However, Bering also added that too often our focus is inappropriately fixated on our own subjective aversions on what is ‘natural’ or ‘normal’ regarding sex, when it should be on whether a given behavior is intrinsically harmful. Those harms often come in emotional form, through shame, rejection, diminished self-esteem, jealousy, violated autonomy. However, emotions aren’t trivial. They can stop the sun from shining.
The problem is that many people condemn various sexual acts or relationships even if they are shown to be consensual and harmless. Here, Bering cited the case of two gay identical-twin brothers who appear in pornography films having sex together, and refer to each other as ‘boyfriend.’ Many people, Bering argued, would have a deep-seated aversion to this idea, but would nonetheless have a hard time articulating their reasons. In this case, the twins are adults, their behavior is consensual, and there is no risk of genetic harms stemming from incest. So where does the condemnation fit in? In Bering’s words, we should “judge others for the demonstrable harm they’ve caused others—for anything else, it’s pure bigotry.”
To Bering, “disgust is the visceral engine of hate” (2013: 34). Yet at the same time, subjective disgust is not a rational argument. With regard to others, what matters more than our personal tastes is whether there is consent (preferably enthusiastic consent) between the people involved. Perhaps this is a twist on the old adage: “your liberty to swing your fist ends just where my nose begins.” Perhaps we should think twice about interjecting our opinions into the lives of others if they aren’t swinging their fists at our noses, or whatever body parts are involved.
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