Humanism and Sex

I have a pretty good imagination but I still find it difficult to understand why, in this age of enlightenment, some American women still cling to old values and attitudes about gender roles and sex. The “family values” our contemporary culture inherited from the Victorian era were designed to relegate women to a subordinate role in society, assigning them a status somewhere between men and slaves. Our society didn’t actually burn witches a century ago, but they did erect all kinds of visible and invisible barriers to “protect” what was known as “the fairer sex” from its presumed inability to cope with its own affairs, and from the designs of marauding men. Thus most women were effectively walled off and prevented from participating fully in the political, economic, and cultural life of the nation.

Most other societies were at least as dominated by males as ours, and in many of them it still hasn’t improved very much. In a couple of places, like Iran and especially Afghanistan, the situation has actually deteriorated. Meanwhile, female genital mutilation, or the excision of the clitoris to dampen female libido, is still a socially sanctioned custom in much of Africa. Saudi women still aren’t allowed to drive a car. And so on. There is no need to attempt a longer listing here, for it has been done, many times, by articulate, motivated women all over the world seeking to redress ancient wrongs.

That’s where we’re all coming from. In any male-dominated culture, taboos and other ethical do’s and don’ts regulating sexual activity have been directed primarily at controlling females. True, they include prescriptions for male behavior as well, but the limits are looser and the penalties for transgression are usually less severe. The underlying premise seems to be that a man has the right to be absolutely certain that the woman who bears his children has been faithful, and that the children are actually his, not the product of a secret union with a nocturnal interloper. Furthermore, if there should, despite the taboos, be such an unwanted fertilization, the blame lies mainly on the woman.

A modern observer needs to stand back at this point and ask, Why? What evolutionary purpose does (or did) this male-oriented preoccupation with paternity serve?

Let’s start with genetics and the “selfish gene” principle, increasingly accepted as basic to the whole process of biological evolution. According to this principle, every living organism’s genetic pattern is programmed to maximize its chances of replicating itself. So the human urge to have babies is a deep one, long antedating any specific ethical or moral code of behavior; it existed before there were any human beings at all; it comes close to being the essential principle of life. But there is a problem in the way it applies to human society: everybody knows who a child’s mother is, but who the father may be is not be nearly as obvious. Therefore, a husband has a strong vested interest in knowing that the child he is going to help support is genetically his–but he knows that other males are “programmed” to fertilize some of the eggs in his nest if they have a chance. Ergo, he is genetically disposed to “protect” his female (or females) from other males. This explains why powerful men used to assemble harems of wives and then guard them with castrated males. It helps explain the extraordinary fixation on virginity, among other things, as a requirement for the bride-to-be (see “The High Price of Virginity).” It explains a whole lot of other things, when you think about it.

Fixation on the paternity issue can also be explained in terms of the role culture has played in the evolution of complex human societies). Within each culture, distinctive manners and customs evolve that help insiders identify each other, distinguish themselves from outsiders, and feel superior to outsiders. Distinctive ways of regulating sexual activity are part of the totality of linguistic, religious, and other factors that solidify solidarity and enable the group to present a united face in competition with outside groups. But beyond that, a male-dominated culture that is powerfully fixated on the paternity issue is likely to fight harder to protect its integrity when challenged by another culture. The image of the losing side’s women being raped by soldiers of the conquering army is still a vivid and evocative one, even in modern times. And who can say that the opportunity to rape the losers’ women hasn’t been a powerful incentive to at least some warriors in at least some armies in the past? A successful culture spreads both its memes and its genes, at the expense of the neighboring culture that loses out.

One must conclude, therefore, that this fixation on guaranteeing the authenticity of one’s own paternity not only has deep biological roots, but has played a significant role in the cultural evolution of humanity. These two elements of human behavior–the selfish gene and the selfish meme–often work at cross purposes, but in this case they work in tandem, synergistically. No wonder it has taken women so long to break their bonds and demand gender equality!

I believe that male dominance in gender relations, cultural fixation with paternity, and the fact that in the past it was mostly males who fought the battles are not just closely related, they are different aspects of the same thing. (See “The Eternal Woman.)”

These are indeed deep waters; we are talking about primitive elements of human nature, glossed over by many generations of rationalization. But we have tried to cut to the core, as deeply as we could. Now it behooves us to look at where we are today.

* * * * *

Recent developments have knocked the stuffing out of the basic premises underlying traditional attitudes towards sex and sexual behavior. Let us briefly examine the most important ones:

Birth control: Contraception, as Dawkins puts it, allows us to “fool” our selfish genes every time we copulate. We get the pleasure that nature provides us as a bribe to induce us to make babies, but without the pain, hassle, and occasional embarrasment of actually having them. In the old days, copulation between consenting couples was countenanced only when they were married, because fornication between unmarried persons risked production of unwanted illegitimate offspring. By now that risk has been reduced to almost nothing, provided the fornicators are responsible enough to employ some form of contraception. And the old taboos against such intercourse are overlooked or ignored, like the speed limits on most interstate highways. If you are single, and want to go to bed with a single person of the opposite sex, few people outside the Christian Right would have any serious objection as long as the woman doesn’t get pregnant.

The situation gets a lot more complicated if one or both of the fornicators happens to be married, so that the liaison implicates the interests of one or two other spouses. Here there is a definite need for new moral standards. We shall come back to this matter shortly.

Overpopulation: Almost everybody but the Pope knows that there are now more people on the planet than we need. Far too many. The old biological urge to make babies has succeeded to the point where it threatens global catastrophe. So now we not only have the technical means to fool our selfish genes, we have excellent rational reasons to thwart it, except in the special case where two people want to make a baby in the expectation that they will provide it a warm and welcome family shelter until it matures.

Cultural Diffusion and Globalization: When cultures were internally cohesive and hostile to each other, sex taboos were useful, but now most cultures are melting around the edges. The future belongs to multicultural countries, like the USA, rather than to culturally defensive states like Serbia. Globalization is upon all of us, whether we like it or not. Intercultural exposure is a potent solvent for culturally imposed mores; the second generation Egyptian immigrant in New York is unlikely to insist on having his daughter’s clitoris excised.

Thus the traditional “selfish meme” rationale for cultural taboos about sex is evaporating like a puddle on hot pavement, except for backward areas like central Africa and the Balkans.

New Scientific Frontiers: A jealous husband no longer needs to lurk behind the curtains to expose his wife’s infidelity. If he doubts whether her baby is his, and feels strongly enough about it, he can run a DNA test. Meanwhile other scientific breakthroughs make it possible for a woman to have a baby from the sperm of an anonymous donor, or a dead one for that matter. Infertile women can carry and give birth to a child from another woman’s egg. Such developments make it harder and harder to maintain the old-fashioned paternity fixation which undergirded traditional family values. There are too many new variations on the age-old theme.

But what do our modern, technologically enfranchised, multicultural societies have in place by way of moral rules or precepts to replace the old taboos? Can we just “get by” without any? Should we indulge our sexual urges any old way that feels good? Or do we need some moral principles governing sexual relations that are more in tune with contemporary conditions than the old, paternity-fixated standards we have just looked at?

As I argued in “Humanist Ethics“, the question really answers itself. Moral principles exist for a reason: in any society, they operate as an essential lubricant allowing individuals to work together for the common good despite the many individual differences that crop up between them. We need them just as much now as our forebears did.

With some trepidation, I venture the following two generalizations as guidelines for modern men and women facing the issue of whether to have sex, and with whom:

1) Casual sex is acceptable when nobody is hurt as a result. But when there is a third party, a spouse or another loved one, who may be hurt more or less deeply, this factor must be carefully evaluated before any decision is taken to go ahead with the liaison. The Golden Rule applies: put yourself in the third party’s place, and think it through. If necessary, seek the advice of friends or professional counselors.

2) When children are involved, the risks of casual sex outside marriage go up considerably. Children need a stable parental environment, and can be psychically scarred by the kind of schism between parents that extramarital sex is likely to produce, particularly if divorce results.

These two precepts are only a beginning. The subject is far too complex to be treated thoroughly in a single essay. The institution of marriage, in particular, can raise an almost infinite number of issues requiring much more tact and judgment than these two precepts alone can provide. But I hope that what I have said this far will point the way for some readers in what is at best a murky, widely misunderstood but literally vital arena of human affairs.

And now that I have gone through this exercise, I think that maybe I do understand the motivations of those contemporary American women who cling to traditional Victorian values. And the male “Promise Seekers” too. They don’t want to lose the security the old system gave them–security for wives afraid of losing husbands, and for husbands afraid of being cuckolded. Some people, when they’ve been in jail long enough, just don’t seem to know what to do when they are let out.

CSCoon 4/28/99

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