The Sex Lives of Others

“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.

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Sex Really Is Dangerous (and Other Adjectives)

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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)

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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). 

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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 Harvest Scene (Malinowski 1929, plate 57).

A Harvest Scene in the Trobriands (Malinowski 1929, plate 57).

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). Continue reading

Sapiosexuality & Our Behavioral Complexity

You know, animals have sex. It’s biology, it’s natural instinct. We are the only ones who have an erotic life, which means that it’s sexuality transformed by the human imagination.”  — Esther Perel

One of the reasons some cultural elitists – political pundits, novelists, intellectuals – tend to be so unsettled by the Internet is that it has revealed how oceanically broad are the interests of the public in general. Before the Internet, with no way of observing the obsessions of the masses, it was a lot easier to pretend that these obsessions simply didn’t exist; that the nation was “united” around caring about the same small number of movies, weekly magazines, novels, political issues, or personalities. This was probably always a self-flattering illusion for the folks who ran things. The Internet destroyed it. When you gaze …upon the Pacific of strangeness online, you confront the astonishing diversity of human passion.”  — Clive Thompson (2013) Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better

Kissing, by Alex Grey.

Kissing, by Alex Grey. (alexgrey.com)

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Please bear with me as I try to connect two not very obviously connected ideas: romantic love and our species’ behavioral flexibility. I don’t have it all worked out. Perhaps I’m going down the wrong path altogether.

I started thinking about these things after several friends on social media shared this Mandy Len Catron essay: “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This”. Catron describes a time that she and a male acquaintance intentionally tried to induce feelings of romantic love. To do this, they followed two steps, borrowed from a study done by the psychologist Arthur Aron. First, they asked each other a series of 36 increasingly intimate questions. Next, they stared into each other’s eyes for four uninterrupted minutes.

My first reaction when I went through the questions was that I can see how they could elicit feelings of intimacy under the right circumstances and with the right person. To work through all 36 of them would take some time, as they are not typical of everyday conversation. Time itself is could be a factor in bonding. To answer each question would require some thought, as they do not have prepared, canned responses. Some examples from Aron’s list:

  • Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common.
  • Take four minutes and tell your partner your life story in as much detail as possible.
  • Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
  • What is your most treasured memory? Continue reading

Desire and Celibacy

“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.”       — William Gass

 

With the World Cup in full swing, several light-hearted stories have circulated about which countries have restrictions against sex while their teams are still in contention. Elizabeth Abbott, in her 1999 book “A History of Celibacy” noted that there are several reasons that people have engaged in celibacy over time — including for asceticism, as clergy, to preserve virginity, as a result of coercion (ex. eunuchs), etc. She spent much of the book on several interesting historical figures, including the life of Gandhi and his own views on desire and celibacy.

He wedded very young (age 13), the result of an arranged childhood marriage. At 19 he left India, alone, to study law in England for three years, and he vowed to his wife and mother to shun alcohol, women, and meat (he was a strict vegetarian) while he was away. According to Elizabeth Abbott (1999), one source of strength for Gandhi was the following passage from the ancient Bhagavad Gita.

 

Bhagavad Gita:

If one ponders on objects of the senses there springs
Attraction; from attraction grows desire
Desire flames to fierce passion, passion breeds 
Recklessness; then the memory – all betrayed –
Lets noble purpose go, and saps the mind,
Till purpose, mind, and man are all undone.

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Part 15: Humans Are (Blank)-ogamous: Lessons from Models of Sex and Love

Part 15: Humans Are (Blank)-ogamous: Lessons from Models of Sex and Love

The introduction to this series can be found here.

Summary: There are many ways to put a human life together, including for sex and love. Each path has tradeoffs.

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I thought I knew what love was. What did I know?Don Henley, “Boys of Summer”

There are all kinds of love in this world, but never the same love twice. – F. Scott Fitzgerald

 

“Mom, love is love, whatever you are.” These words of wisdom came from Jackson, the 12 year-old son of actress Maria Bello, after she revealed to him that she had fallen in love with a woman. Bello’s essay, Coming Out as a Modern Family, appeared in last November’s New York Times, where she bravely reflected on her handful of past romantic relationships (mostly with men), her trepidation in revealing her evolving feelings on love, and the variety of meaningful relationships – platonic, familial, romantic – she had in her life.

In the most important sense, which is of course the sense that Jackson meant, love is love, irrespective of one’s sexuality, gender, or ethnicity. Studies from neurobiology reveal that people in the early stages of romantic love show consistent activation in specific brain regions (the ventral tegmental area and caudate) when viewing a photo of one’s partner. This was true for (1) men and women, (2) hetero- and homo-sexuals, and (3) American, British, and Chinese adults (Zeki and Romaya 2010; Xu et al. 2011). Not that Jackson needed it, because a person’s choices in love should be respected regardless of what neurobiology tells us, but he has science on his side.

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Did Pairbonds Evolve to Be Asymmetrical?

“I know you belong to somebody new, but tonight you belong to me.” Rose and David 

“I wanted love, I needed love. Most of all, most of all.” Auerbach and Carney (1)

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Several researchers have attempted to reconstruct the very difficult problem of why pairbonding may have evolved in humans (I wrote about this here, but a decent guess is that this began around 2 million years ago. Maybe). Those reconstructions often come with an addendum, which predict that pair-bonds would not be completely symmetrical. Instead, either males or females would have more of an incentive to initiate or maintain a long-term bond, and this would depend on the reasons that pairbonding evolved in the first place.

For example, here is David Buss, explaining why males are more likely to fall in love first:

“Because love is an emotion tethered to long-term mating; because fecundity and reproductive value is so critical to men in selecting a long-term mate; and because physical appearance provides an abundance of cues to a woman’s fecundity and reproductive value, we can predict that men will experience “love at first sight” more often than women. The empirical evidence supports this prediction.” (Buss, 2006: 69)

Australopithecus afarensis ("Lucy"), out with her date. Source.

Australopithecus afarensis (“Lucy”), out with her date around 3.6 mya. This portrayal of an early pairbond is speculative, but it ‘s probably not accurate. Source: AMNH.

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Part 14: Humans Are (Blank)-ogamous: Paleo Hookups & Archaic Lovers

The introduction to this series can be found here.

Summary: Genetic evidence shows that various Pleistocene populations interbred, including humans, Neanderthals and Denisovans. Is it possible to know whether these could have occurred in pair-bonded relationships? What were the evolutionary origins of pair-bonds in hominins, or are single explanations too simple? 

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Paleoanthropologist John Hawks created this great infographic that summarizes what we know about ancient human interbreeding, based on recent genetic discoveries (this link to his site has a larger version). The graphic shows that several archaic populations mated with each other, although likely at low rates, including modern humans with Neanderthals and Denisovans. There are also a couple of mystery populations in the mix, whose existence is known solely based on the DNA they left behind. Very cool stuff.

Who Interbred with Whom in the Pleistocene. (Figure by John Hawks).

Who Interbred with Whom in the Pleistocene. (Figure by John Hawks).

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Flexible Love, at Any Age

The New York Times runs a series of short videos titled “Modern Love” (does David Bowie know about this?). The latest installation is narrated by a 71 year-old woman who describes the experience of falling in love at her age, comparing it to her younger days. She talks about differences in preparing for dates, perceptions of the concept of ‘soulmates,’ the sense of urgency, jealousy, ephemerality of life and relationships, and the pain of loss. Pretty thorough for a 2 minute video.   

To me, the most interesting part is that love really can strike at any age, illustrating the gap between proximate and evolutionary levels. Evolutionary hypotheses for the origin of pair-bonding (and love) often highlight some function related to reproduction. Robin Dunbar  summarized four possibilities: 

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Part 13: Humans are (Blank)-ogamous: Is Monogamy ‘Natural?’

This is part of a series on the evolution of human mating behavior, comparing evidence for promiscuity and pair-bonding in our species. Please see the Introduction here.

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(Left) My paternal grandparents with my father as a toddler. (Right) Their 50th anniversary.

Left: My paternal grandparents with my father as a toddler. Right: their 50th wedding anniversary (it’s the best picture I could find).

Are humans naturally monogamous? Oprah Winfrey says ‘no.’That settles it, then. Maybe.

Oprah (she needs no last name) was a guest on a morning talk show, and the topic of discussion was two recent articles on the origins of monogamy in mammals (Lukas & Clutton-Brock, 2013) and another specifically on primates (Opie et al, 2013). Both articles are impressive for their large databases and attention to detail. The first looked at 2545 species of mammals while the Opie article examined 230 primate species.[1]

Both studies focused specifically on social, rather than sexual, monogamy. This distinction is important because sexual exclusivity was not what was being measured here. Rather, social monogamy was defined by both studies as simply living in breeding pairs. The Lukas & Clutton-Brock paper added that in social monogamy the pair shared a common territory, and “associate with each other for more than one breeding season” (p. 526).

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