Is the Human Species Sexually Omnivorous?

The Monolith, Vigeland Sculpture Park

The Vigeland monolith in Oslo (source). 

previously borrowed a phrase from the biologist Robert Sapolsky, who once referred to humans as “tragically confused” in terms of the way we mate. As he put it, we’re not quite a classically monogamous species, but neither are we a winner-take-all polygamous species. Instead, we seem to be a little from column A and a little from column B (and maybe something from columns C and D too). I’ve been trying to think of a way to explain why I think “tragically confused” is an apt description, where some of that confusion originates, and what are some of the potential pitfalls when thinking of human mating patterns. Analogies are imperfect, as some information is always lost in the transfer between concepts, so forgive me if this falls short. And it’s a sports analogy too, but bear with me; I’ll keep it brief.

During the first year I played Little League baseball as a kid, one of the coaches told us that when we played defense we should be ready to field the ball at all times (or at least, be ready to get out of the way or knock the ball down to defend yourself). A hard-hit baseball can really hurt, especially for a young kid who has stopped paying attention because they became distracted by the flock of geese flying overhead (true story). Anyway, he taught us that the best defensive position was to have your glove ready and stand crouched while facing the batter, with our toes pointed slightly inward, or “pigeon-toed.” That may not be textbook coaching, but he explained that by having both feet pointed inward we could quickly pivot and “push off” to our left or right, reacting to where the ball was hit. For whatever reason, I’ve remembered that for more than thirty years. The lesson stuck.

I think “pigeon-toed” is a decent metaphor for much of human behavior, including our sexuality. We are a highly adaptable species, capable of moving in a range of directions by reacting to, and in turn modifying, the world around us. That flexibility is one of our species’ greatest assets – along with other genetic and physiological adaptations – in that it allows us to live on every continent and adjust to a range of social and ecological conditions.

Of course, behavioral flexibility is not unique to humans. The very essence of behavior is that it allows organisms to respond to circumstances, whether it be plants growing towards sunlight or water, anemones swimming away from predators, enormous herds of wildebeest migrating in search of land to graze, or chimpanzees sizing up the complex political situation within their troop.

An anemone escaping a starfish. Flexibility – the ability to respond to circumstances – is the hallmark of behavior, even for anemones. 

This is pretty basic stuff. However, when thinking about sexual behavior, it may help to stop and remind ourselves that evolution did not design organisms to be static things, or genetically determined automatons. One of the potential pitfalls when describing a species’ behavior, particularly for a general audience, is the temptation to use single-word descriptions. For example, among our hominoid relatives, gorillas are said to be polygynous, gibbons are monogamous, and chimpanzees are polygynandrous (or multimale/multifemale). Certainly, behavioral patterns exist, and these are very reasonable assessments of these species’ mating patterns, but one word cannot be all-encompassing.

This matters because, although we like to think categorically, behaviors are complex, variable, and dynamic. Rigid definitions usually mean that some complexity must be shaved off in order to fit into a discrete category more cleanly. The problem is not that the above labels have no merit; it’s that they have a tendency to overshadow the variation that exists within a species. It’s also true that our vocabulary helps shape the way we think about a given species, especially for ourselves.

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Blank-ogamous, Polyamory, & NPR

Today, the Humans are Blank-ogamous series made an appearance on NPR’s Blog “13.7: Cosmos and Culture.” In her post “A Cultural Moment for Polyamory,” friend Barbara King (who has been very kind over the years by sharing my writing on social media), wondered why it is that polyamory and non-monogamy seems to have reached a critical mass.

She asks why is it being seen in so many different places recently? Have we crossed some threshold in society? I’m not sure. I think there is growing acceptance of different arrangements and relationship styles, at least in some corners of the country and the world.

It will be interesting to see how readers will respond to the post. NPR disabled the “comments” feature on their site some time ago because, as seems to be happening everywhere, comments became full of not-very-constructive, angry criticism about virtually everything. From monitoring social media, however, there doesn’t seem to be the reaction I thought there would be. Sometimes these things are crap shoots. Timing matters when a post is published, and maybe we’re all overwhelmed by news from the political world. Perhaps it’s Trump fatigue. Or, maybe polyamory has become mundane, and people aren’t reacting with the same degree disapproval they once did. It’s hard to say.

For my part, I didn’t argue in favor or against non-monogamy. I think it’s probably true that all types of relationships have their own pros and cons. Barbara quoted from a couple of places in the series, where I was basically saying that people are complex. 

In a blog post (one of a series) about humans’ flexible sexual behavior, Clarkin writes:

“In my readings, I noticed that different researchers seemed to arrive at a fairly similar model of erotic relationships, which is that they have three main components: sexual desire, passionate love (aka romantic love or infatuation), and companionate love (aka comfort love or attachment). One model included a fourth piece: mania or obsessive love.

These are among the more powerful of human motivations, but they do not always overlap perfectly, setting up the potential for flexibility as well as for conflict. One reason for this is that the different parts, whatever we want to call them — lust, romance, limerence, companionate love, friendship, commitment — are somewhat biologically distinct, and these can be arranged into different combinations and felt toward different people.”

Finally, although I finished the Blank-ogamous series a while ago, I never got the chance to blog specifically about polyamory and other forms of non-monogamy. Maybe I should. 

Testosterone Rex & “Humans Are (Blank)-ogamous”

Two friends and colleagues of mine, Barbara King and Meredith Reiches, separately notified me that the “Humans Are (Blank)-ogamous” series from this site was cited (positively) in Cordelia Fine’s new book “Testosterone Rex: Myths  of Sex, Science, and Society.” I’ve not yet seen the book, though I will have to soon.

Barbara was kind enough to take a photo of the relevant passage and send it to me. It looks like Fine cited Part 1 of the series, and I will have to see where it fits in the context of the book (not to mention learning from Fine’s other insights as well). In any case, I’m grateful — for friends who keep an eye out for me, and that Fine thought the series was worth something. 

cordelia-fine

For those who are interested, and don’t want to read the entire (Blank)-ogamous series, a summary can be found here.

Also, this is a publisher-produced video and synopsis of Cordelia Fine’s new book.

Is the Human Species Sexually Omnivorous?

I wrote a new post for the “Evolution Institute” website. I had wrapped up the Humans are (Blank)-ogamous series, but a friend asked if I would write something for the site. So, this is what I came up with. It has a few snippets from the series, but the majority of it is new. I’m always tentative after writing, not knowing if it’s any good or not. Now that I’ve re-read it a few more times, I think it’s not too shabby. Anyway…

Is the Human Species Sexually Omnivorous?

Wrapping up the (Blank)-ogamous Series

 

“We have both a moral and ethical responsibility to protect all children and adolescents in our community. We cannot withhold information from children, adolescents, or adults, live in silence about this taboo subject and expect everything to turn out all right. We have tried ignorance and it does not work.”

– Jocelyn Elders, former Surgeon General, writing about human sexuality (2010: 249)

 

A few years ago, I began the “Humans are (Blank)-ogamous” series. I originally intended it to be only a few posts that would explore the roles that evolution and culture play in human sexual behavior. The inspiration for it was that several theorists over time had proposed that humans had evolved to be a number of things – monogamous, polygynous, serially monogamous, promiscuous, etc. I wondered how people could look at the same species and reach such different conclusions. Perhaps if I could read enough I might be able to find “the answer.”

From there, the series grew, blossoming into 20+ posts, citing over 200+ references (yes, I counted). I probably could have gotten at least a Master’s Thesis out of this. Anyway, those posts easily have been among the most read things on this site. That’s not because they are particularly brilliant. Rather, I think it’s because people are hungry for credible information and – despite how important the topic of human sexuality is – that can be hard to come by. Having those three magic letters “Ph.D.” after one’s name can help with internet search engine results, but a Ph.D. is no guarantee of being right. Far from it. All that means is that I went to school for a long time. I’m still in school, actually, so there’s always more to learn…

The series has been pretty well received by a number of people I admire, which feels pretty good I have to admit. They’ve been shared on social media, and some posts were even included on different university syllabi. In fact, I taught my own class on the subject last semester, and I think it went very well. When I re-read some of the earlier posts, there isn’t too much that I regret, (which is a good sign – sometimes when I reading my old stuff I sound like Sideshow Bob stepping on a rake).  

With all that said, I think I think I’d like to wrap this up by taking the utilitarian approach. If I’m confident about anything that I wrote, and willing to put my money where my mouth is, then what would I emphasize to my students, friends, or (most importantly) to my own children?  I’ll keep some of the lessons I’ve learned private, but here are a few:

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Alcohol, Coffee & Sex: Keeping the Revolution at Bay

To alcohol… the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.” – Homer J. Simpson

 

I read this essay by Adam Cole on NPR yesterday, titled: “Drink Coffee? Off With Your Head!” Cole explained that in the past some societies viewed the widespread acceptance of coffee drinking as a threat to social order. This was true of England and the Ottoman Empire during the 17th century, as well as in 18th century Prussia.  

The threats came in different forms – in terms of health, spirituality, and political upheaval. Cole reiterated that sometimes coffee was blamed for draining a person’s vigor, at other times painted as “poison for the bodies and souls.” And it was also seen as a sort of lubricant for revolution, since it was consumed in coffee houses where people could discuss a range of subjects, including possibly getting rid of the current social and political status quo.

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Sex and Love in the Long Run

 

[I hope you like graphs … ]

♪ Now everyone dreams of a love lasting and true, / But you and I know what this world can do. / So let’s make our steps clear, so the other may see./ I’ll wait for you, and should I fall behind, will you wait for me? 

— Bruce Springsteen & Patti Scialfa (“If I Should Fall Behind”)

 

“Contrary to what has been widely believed, long-term romantic love (with intensity, sexual interest, and engagement, but without the obsessive element common in new relationships), appears to be a real phenomenon that may be enhancing to individuals’ lives—positively associated with marital satisfaction, mental health, and overall well-being.”

— Bianca Acevedo and Arthur Aron (2009: 64)

 

In the 2013 film “Before Midnight,” we caught up with Celine and Jesse (played by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke) who had fallen in love during a chance, whirlwind evening in Vienna eighteen years earlier. After nine years apart between the first and second parts of the trilogy, they have been together for the last nine and are now in their early forties, and have twin girls together as well as a son from Jesse’s first marriage.

The first part of the trilogy, “Before Sunrise,” focused on Celine and Jesse’s incipient romantic connection as they explored the city, talking all night about a variety of topics before ultimately having to separate. In part two they reconnected. By the third film we see that there is still love, but with more complexity within their long-term relationship. We see themes of restlessness, resentments over suspected past infidelities, and the struggles that come with balancing parenting, career, sexual desire, domestic life, and having family spread out over long distances. They lament that passion (for all things) came easier to them when they were younger, and Jesse suggests that maybe “this is the natural human state – always a little dissatisfied, perpetually discontented.” We are left wondering if their relationship will survive.

The New York Times critic A.O. Scott reviewed “Before Midnight” jointly with the European film “Amour,” released the previous year. In that movie, we saw an elderly couple struggling with failing health. Scott pondered why such films, with their focus on a couple already-in-progress, were less common than ones centered around early romance. In his view, the reason is that unlike romantic comedies, marriage “has no story arc.”

“A marriage plot, which is to say a comedy, is a story with a wedding at the end. The exchange of vows provides a satisfying and efficient exit from an intricate story. After the chaos of misbehavior, misunderstanding and missed connection, order is restored, the curtain falls, and love’s essential labor is done. But if the story starts in the middle, sometime after the honeymoon, at the breakfast table or the parent-teacher conference, where then does it conclude? There are only two logical possibilities, both of them sad.”

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