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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Ten Lessons on Love, from the Wise

I started teaching a new class this semester on patterns of human mating. One of our assignments was what we called “Interviews with the Wise.” I asked students to speak informally with older people, asking them what they had learned about sex, love, marriage, and relationships, and what lessons they would like to pass along to young people. We collectively came up with the questionnaire as a class. 

The interviewees ranged in age from their late 50s to their early 90s (‘older’ is always a relative term, I suppose). Most would probably be described as traditional, most were married once, but some were married a few times or none at all. Several were raised Catholic (it is New England), and we had a range of people from different ethnicities.I was very impressed with how seriously the students took the assignment, and how open their interviewees were. 

Below are some of the patterns I noticed from the interviews:

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New Class on Human Mating

This semester, I started teaching a ‘special topics’ class in biological anthropology related to human mating. Special topics classes can shift subject matter from semester to semester, depending on the instructor, but I decided to try to put together some of what I learned from the “Humans Are Blank-ogamous” series into a classroom setting.

The two books I decided to use are  “Evolution and Human Sexual Behavior by Peter Gray and Justin Garcia and William Jankowiak’s edited book “Intimacies: Love and Sex Across Cultures”.  We’ll also read a number of articles by authors from a range of perspectives and disciplines. The thinking is that different authors each have a piece of the puzzle, akin to the parable of the blind men and the elephant. Our goal is to try to describe the elephant.

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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)


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 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. (


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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