Last week after writing about my favorite primate, the bonobo (sorry humans), I got thinking more about the biological basis for how our society is ordered. I also got thinking more about sex. Given the base level amount of thinking I do about that (which is quite a bit), this means I was thinking, really, quite a lot about it. And while this may have been a cause for concern to friends when I happily informed them that I’d been having sex dreams about them, it was nevertheless fairly welcome. There’s no greater freedom, I think, than sex. It wasn’t lasciviousness that moved George Orwell to focus so heavily on Winston and Julia’s sex life in 1984, to have The Party’s secret police working on a way to “abolish the orgasm.”There are a lot of psychological and emotional issues tied up with sex that can add dimensions to it; but in all-things-equal conditions, sex is the highest form of intimate interaction humans have one to another.
Socially, sex is tied to gender roles. Learning to be both an object and agent of lust and taking pleasure in both is not easy (which is very unfortunate). Thinking about sex got me thinking about gender roles, and in outlining this here piece I began to worry that it’d be taken as reducing women’s rights to a question of their sexuality. That’s a dangerous thing, and not at all my intent. But ultimately we are one species with two genders, and those genders are, equally, sexes. Who we are as men and women is derived to a great deal from our sexuality. Our biology determines that much at least. The strong impulse to sexual pleasure and gratification is one of our most animating human urges. It isn’t dirty, it isn’t unfortunate, it isn’t shameful or lewd. It’s beautiful. It’s comes as close to being a “gift” as anything we’ve developed over the course of millions of years of evolution. The combination of self-awareness and sexual pleasure make us so fortunate among all the animal kingdom that, ironically, I’m almost compelled to infer a designer. (Though, I’m totally not ever going to infer a designer).
I’ll never understand why “foodies” can flaunt their gluttony, taking digital pictures of their food at restaurants, shamelessly overpreparing meals they then catalog for the public, but discussing your affection for various kinds of sex play is lewd. Frankly foodies gross me out. Lustiness I adore. Fetishizing food is odd. Passion is inborn.
What biology has determined in us and in our sexuality doesn’t make the social institutions which, over the course of human history, have bonded women to inferior status, segregated them into caregiver labor, and otherwise shackled them to the “household,” natural or morally right.
Women represent 91% of graduates from nursing school. Ninety eight percent of preschool and elementary school teachers are women; 82% of elementary school teachers, too, are women. The majority of workers in elder care are women. Women have always been tasked as caregivers by the division of labor in human societies. At least now they’re getting paid for it–or are more likely to be getting paid for it. But why, in our supposedly egalitarian society, are the high-stress, high-burnout, low-pay, caregiver fields almost exclusively the wheelhouse of females?
I have made no bones about the fact that identity politics is deleterious to human progress. A proper material analysis of the systems of society lead inexorably to the conclusion that only class-based solutions can justly reorder society.
That said, it can’t be doubted that throughout human history, it has rained shit on one gender more than the other. That there has been essentially an uninterrupted chain of uneven exploitation of women since humanity’s social beginnings makes it almost silly to refer to the “plight” of women. At this point it isn’t a plight. It’s the way things are.
While Europeans were exploiting Black and brown people, Islamic expansionism was destroying indigenous cultures, various indigenous American empires were overrunning each other, and the poor were being exploited since…well, basically since the agricultural revolution, within each of those societies, women have been exploited in their labor, denied active liberty and self-determination, been controlled sexually, and otherwise made appendages of their fathers and husbands.
We needn’t even go so far back. According to Gordon Wood (or, as he was referred to in Good Will Hunting, Gwahdan Wood) in his seminal The Radicalism of the American Revolution, many of the court records found in pre-revolutionary America didn’t refer to women by their names, but by their relationship to men, referred only as “Wife to” “sister to” “daughter of.” Like slaves, a woman’s social and civic identity was defined wholly by her relationship to the patriarchal head of the household.
The Gamete Game
Well, the answer probably comes from human evolution–that isn’t a justification, just a fact. Homo sapiens sapiens evolved in small social groups, bands of a few dozen or so that interacted sporadically with other groups, facilitating gene flow. Given the low sexual dimorphism and sperm competition–and the circumstantial evidence of the behavior of our bonobo cousins, there is a case that homo sapiens were originally somewhat promiscuous–potentially to cement social bonds–and raised children communally, including care by males for all infants. Bonobo females encourage common sexual relations to cement social bonds between all members of the group. This would have required a spectrum of sexuality where “homosexual” couplings–male-male and female-female–occur with some frequency.
Our “natural” or original social groups were small. Scientists have even developed a theory as to the maximum number of social bonds the human neocortex is capable of maintaining–the infamous Dunbar’s Number, between 100 and 230 (of course, this has social media types concerned). These hunter-gatherer societies were probably between hierarchical and egalitarian–depending, most likely, on their physical environment–and exclusively “hunter-gatherer.”
That we evolved in such groups doesn’t mean that current human society is “unnatural” in the literal sense, but it does mean that we need to consider some basic biology when trying to reform social organization. And the big reason for this goes back to more basic mammalian issues. No, not mammarian issues. We’ll get to those.
Like most mammals, females have the big gametes (ova) and males have the small ones (sperm). The human male gonads (i.e., balls) are allometrically large compared with harem-holding primates, and the shape of the penis and motility of the sperm indicate (but don’t prove) that our ancestors were promiscuous: competition between males occurred inside the womb between sperm, rather than exclusively between male individuals in the form of primacy combat (as with ungulates such as Capra ibex). Thus why sexual dimorphism is less pronounced in humans. On the savanna, the females probably did not belong to a single male or clique of male, but moved freely between them.
The upshot is that females have much more (biologically) invested in mating. If competition between males happens at the sperm level–inside the womb–then “casting a wide net” is an advantageous strategy for males. For women, successful mating means a long pregnancy and potentially difficult child birth of one, or rarely two, offspring–it doesn’t, it should be noted, mean that women have more invested subsequent to the birth. Assuming a tightly-knit social band, the child rearing would have been to some degree communal. Females could have counted on significant help in raising the child, both from other females and males. However much we’d like to deny our biology, there’s no getting around the fact that the result of successful mating is more biologically taxing on women then men. The gamete game creates an asymmetrical relationship to sex.
Promiscuity v. Monogamy
The likelihood of human promiscuity in our early evolutionary stages has excited many social theorists and commentators, particularly certain schools of feminists. It shouldn’t be misunderstood, however. What is biological isn’t the same as what is moral or even advantageous in current society. Our “natural” promiscuity didn’t evolve in a vacuum. Human social groups were just as biological as our promiscuity. In other words, promiscuity and sperm competition were likely tied to communal child rearing and some level of hierarchy–both among males and females–that was determined by a combination of grooming, food sharing, even combat (as with our wonderful cousins the bonobos). Besides, promiscuity and intrawomb gamete competition could also imply inter-group “forced copulation” (i.e., rape) societies, where marauding groups of males from competing groups would raid one another. We can’t cherry pick bits of our biological past and shoehorn them into contemporary human society.
Promiscuity was natural only in the context of the earliest human social groups. It doesn’t preclude the existence of monogamous relationships. The flipside of course is that monogamy is not necessarily “natural” either. And neither is it moral.
That said, throughout recorded human history, monogamy has been considered moral–kind of. Monogamy as a virtue in most human societies was based on pretty sleazy ideas about personhood. Monogamy was a virtue, for example, among the Romans–but Roman men were hardly expected not to “sleep with” (rape) their slavegirls (similarly, it wasn’t necessarily cheating for aristocratic Roman women to “have” their slaveboys). Temple prostitutes abounded in many human societies. These women weren’t really people, so sexual release with them wasn’t condemened as a practical matter. While monogamy was held up as a virtue, it was asymmetrically enforced. Women were meant to be monogamous. Male anxiety over sperm competition created an impulse to restrict their access to men.There is a morality to monogamy, though. But the morality is derived from a contract basis, not some objective standard or biological imperative. Promiscuity in conditions where monogamy has been agreed to is essentially a breach of contract–something else that has an evolutionary foundation. In primate social groups, failure to reciprocate when reciprocation is the norm is cause for an individual to be outcast from the social group. In fact, that is the primate origin for basic human morality–a sort of ape golden rule. One can choose to be promiscuous, but being promiscuous when that behavior is not agreed to is immoral on its face.
The mutual benefits of monogamy for ensuring gene survival into the next generation are evident: lacking our tightly knit social bands, females defray the biological cost of an offspring, and males guarantee the victory of their sperm in the womb. That doesn’t make monogamy more moral than promiscuity, but rather make it a potentially appealing strategy.
So “should” we be promiscuous or monogamous? It really is a matter of choice–and strategy. Our “natural” morality is more basic than that.
Of course, our hundreds of generations of ancestors weren’t privy to these basic facts. Instead, male anxiety over sperm competition pushed society to both shame women away from promiscuity and restrain them from self-determination that would naturally allow them to determine their own reproductive strategy. (Sound familiar?) It should be said that even quasi-matriarchal societies–societies where elder women could replace men as heads of household–women were still sexually controlled: specifically, women of child-rearing years. As an example, in traditional Indian society, matriarchs could place young wives married “into” their family into purdah. The development of “the household” had as one of its purposes sexual control of fertile women. This development since the agricultural revolution and the “transition to civilization” is no more natural than slavery, which arose concurrently.
Think about the implication here. Our biological heritage doesn’t subject us to some confounding determinism, but frees us from the kludgish systems of society we’ve come up with over the last 12,000 or so years. It lends credibility to the desire of a dear friend of mine to “napalm everything” she saw around her: tradition is indeed merely the poor defense of bad habits. To fulfill our “biological determinism,” we’d have to return to mildly egalitarian social bands of 30-50 people. That gonna happen? No? Then stop fretting about what our evolutionary history says about how we should order society.
Instead, we can focus on how to erase the centuries of these kludge systems and break the rather unnatural obsession with controlling feminine sexuality and, in the process, free humanity from sexual shame.
Let’s Talk About Sex
Sex is great, isn’t it? Who wouldn’t be jealous of bonobo society, which features such things as social sex play, including genital rubbing and oral sex as a greeting? Granted, given our enormous sprawling societies, that in particular would probably be pretty gross. But the human body is equipped for very few naturally joyous things, and sex is central among them. We actually have physical equipment with the express purpose of bringing us unbound, inexpensive pleasure.At the Milwaukee Zoo, I watched a bonobo female react angrily to a male refusing to give her some sweet social sex play, grabbing him by the testicles and pulling him towards her. To quote some modern day social theorists, she wanted some yum-yum chocolate chip honey dip.
The shame associated with sex isn’t as old as human society, but the segregation of lust may well be. This is particularly the case with female sexuality. Even the modern feminist movement isn’t quite sure where to stand on aggressive female sexuality. It seems likely however that horniness is universal, and our sexual organs are the best indicator of that fact. Much like the way dog breeds reflect human preferences, the male body (and to some degree the male mind) was formed by female preference. This is basic sexual selection. And the size of male gonads, our penises designed for scraping out extant sperm (gross, but cool), and our year-round (as opposed to rutting season) horniness are designed by feminine sexual selection.
Lots of sex is the order of the day. Lust is wonderful.
Does that mean we should expect one another to want to have sex all the time? Certainly not. Nor should we expect that our biological origins would necessarily trump generations of social conditioning. We want to stay away from determining what is normal or abnormal. The important point is that just because successful mating may be more biologically taxing for females than males, the principle of sperm competition means that we shouldn’t accept that men are more sexual than women in any qualitative sense, at least biologically.
The biological cost does lend credence to the idea that women would be more risk averse when it comes to sex, but more as a result of the deconstruction of communal child rearing–and the assumption that all sex needs to be penetrative intercourse (which bonobos have emphatically taught us it needn’t).
As an aside, many people–men and women–are threatened by the thought of women being as sexually hungry as men. For those women who don’t feel that kind of lust, it can cause feelings of inadequacy. In men, I’d wager it stems from anxiety over sperm competition. Mental states–depression in particular, body image as a topper–can sporadically affect our appetites, sexual and otherwise. I’m a fan of a lusty lady. But sex is a complex thing. It can be exciting with a new partner, but is rarely more wonderful as with someone with whom we have a deep, trusting relationship. This ambivalence speaks to our hybrid monogamous/promiscuous origins.
So Explain the Judd Apatow Part
Stories abound. Women are starting to earn more than their mates. Men have been harder by the recession. The dating jungle is being prowled by single, high-earning cougars able to pull trophy lovers for pleasure.
At the same time, women are bombarded by mainstream media stories about “having it all,” about the challenges of “balancing” motherhood and pursuing a career. Knowing what we now know, however, it’s obvious that these are false problems that result from the legacy of centuries of the sexual control of women and the forcing of women into caregiver exclusivity.
The biological fact underlying this tension is that there is a ticking clock of much greater import for women than men. Men are able to successfully mate very late into life–though their likelihood of finding a new mate to do so with diminishes greatly with age (Cf., “dad dancing“). Women much less so, and the risks associated with pregnancy grow significantly by midlife. As it happens, the critical years of career development overlap with the tapering of safe fecundity–the late teens into the early thirties. As modern American society has pushed the entry into economic independence later and later, this clock intimidatingly speeds up for women.Judd Apatow has become a wealthy man writing movies about men delaying entry into adulthood, typically paired with that favorite of contemporary pop culture, the lopsidedly hot, infinitely patient and wise woman. The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Funny People, and Knocked Up, not to mention spiritual Apatow movies like Role Models and I Love You Man are packed to the brim with these inevitably pot-smoking, excessively comfortably dressed man-children. That’s well and good for us dudes (we can afford to slack off and grow up when the appropriately hot and patient lady comes along) but, again, it’s not symmetrical. The biological realities of pregnancy and motherhood are incompatible with the social institutions that determine economic and personal security.
It needn’t be so.
The solution won’t come from the contemporary phenomenon of “house husbands” staying home to raise the children and “keep house” while women go off to work. First of all, this is a class-insensitive solution. Secondly, it merely substitutes one gender for the other rather than actually pursuing an equitable system. When, once upon a time, child rearing was done communally, it is likely that the females of the group, because of the nature of placental mammal infancy (staying close to mama, who has the milk), did most of the hands-on rearing, males certainly played a role in playing with infants, teaching them various skills, protecting them, and otherwise attending to their safety.
No, the answer has to come from more fundamental changes, that consider both the joy of sex and the duty to raise children.
“Desirable, Provided It Does No Harm”
Contrary to what you may imagine Epicureanism is, Epicurus for a long time was considered as having a negative attitude towards sex, life’s greatest physical pleasure. This was likely due to an early mistranslation.
In fact, as befits one of my favorite philosophers, Epicurus was a fan.“[Knockin’ boots] is desirable,” Epicurus said, “Provided it does no harm.” Now what he meant by “harm” is open to debate. For our purposes, “harm” is a disproportionate personal cost (besides, obviously, VD).
We obviously don’t want to, nor could we, return to the primitive era of small social bands comprised of kin groups. What we want is to unravel the centuries of householded feminine sexuality and asymmetrical distribution of caregiving. These are facially unnatural, harmful, and unfair. But the status quo institutions enforce these conditions. We all want to enjoy sex–to encourage the social bonds open sexuality seem to encourage in, for example, bonobos–without the attendant social cost that has fallen disproportionately on women.
Happily, there are class-focused solutions here. First and foremost though, is reproductive rights. That’s critical. Yes, there obviously was no barrier or hormonal contraception on the savanna. But, again, the purpose here isn’t some hippie dream of communal pre-modernism, but a return to the natural expression of biological desires. Abstention is obviously an option. “Abstinence-before-marriage” as a way to shift the disproportionate costs of having children away from women either substitutes men for women as household workers, or reinforces what already exists. It is unrealistic and backward looking. Reproductive rights includes education on contraception.
Take for example the strange phenomenon of the “No Wedding No Womb” “movement.” Blaming women for having children “outside of wedlock” rather than taking a moment to consider why childcare is still segregated to women is shockingly reactionary. This also brings us to the matter of communal childcare.
No, this isn’t some Leninist scheme to take children away from their families and have them raised by the state. Rather, it is merely acknowledging as a fact something that already exists: women in kin groups (extended families) in working class communities pool their labor to raise children. That labor is essentially subsidizing labor not being provided by men, degrading productivity, reciprocal morality, and the quality of life in those communities.
Because society in general has a clear interest in raising children able to compete somewhat equally–and able to participate civically–it goes without saying that the labor being put into childcare is required by society and that, in turn, one group–women, particularly though not exclusively working class and middle class women–are disproportionately carrying this burden. But this isn’t merely an issue for women from lower social classes. Even professional women, because of the overlap of educational and career development with their “biological clock” experience a pressure from the propagation of the species that men do not. There is therefore a built-in structural disadvantage, economically, for women in modern capitalist society.
What would communal child care look like? It can be as simple as expanding the TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) and Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) programs that provide money to states to pay for child care by neighborhood providers, often family members; but also redirecting local tax dollars (such as, in Chicago, tax increment financing districts) into child care centers and, very importantly, mandating child care facilities at employers of a certain size.
Then there’s collective bargaining. We were never going to make it out of this without talking about that. Health care, elder care, and child care are three of the areas where unionization is exploding. Nurses in particular have been ruggedly pursuing unionization across the country and have become increasingly radical in their pursuit of regulated work hours and nurse-to-patient ratios in order to prevent burnout and professionalize the fields.
By reinforcing reproductive rights (including access to and education about contraception) and expanding communal child care as a right and a socially necessary institution, we would also break down the anxiety about sex that, again, asymmetrically affects women, and hopefully end the cyclical “slut shaming” that “movements” like No Wedding No Womb represent.There is joy in sex, friendship in sex, solidarity in sex. It isn’t about encouraging promiscuity, it’s about ending thousands of years of institutionalizing sex as something women risk and men enjoy. The imprisoning of women outside of that joy, friendship, and solidarity serves neither gender and survives only on the tepid argument of “tradition.”