The misdeeds, or at least the mishaps, of our President are headline material these days. Paula Jones, Monica Lewinsky, and what’s-her-name Willey are right up front in the public eye, enjoying momentary notoriety because of claims they have been at least fondled by our national leader. Our nation is confused: What constitutes harassment? Where do you draw the line between an invitation to sex, and coercing someone to obtain sex? More generally, how do you define what men who are “turned on” by attractive women can do about it, and what they mustn’t.
At times like this, America’s national culture, for all its liberalism, reveals its blue-nosed, Puritan origins. Our culture is well and truly hung up on sex. We are more capable of talking about sex than our grandparents were, and our sexual mores are looser than they used to be, but most of us still avert our eyes and blush pruriently when confronted with the issue head on. The sex act itself is still as private as defecation; pictures of it are “hard porn”, and we avert our eyes when we see them (unless we’re sure we aren’t being observed). Sex is “dirty”. Sex is a form of sin. The only form of sex that is officially sanctioned is between married couples; other forms (except perhaps premarital sex between couples who intend to marry eventually) are considered sinful, shameful, and morally unacceptable.
A chimpanzee cousin who had evolved to sapient status through some evolutionary track different from ours would howl with laughter when he saw us behaving this way. Our hangup with sex, he might conclude, could not possibly have a rational explanation, and he would have to fall back on some simian form of theism to explain the inexplicable.
He would be wrong. I believe there is a rational explanation for all this foolishness, or perhaps a web of connected explanations. And I am brash enough to suggest what that rationale is, although I must rely on sheer conjecture for much of it.
The Evolutionary Role of Sex:
I consider it probable that human sexual behavior first began to differentiate itself from that of our simian cousins early in our evolution as a species. I further believe that the new behavior patterns our ancestors developed were functional, in the sense that they contributed to their prospects for survival.
First let us look at altruism within the in-group, the feeling that certain other individuals were on your “team”. While our hominid ancestors were slowly evolving into homo sapiens, the individual’s sense of who belonged to this in-group grew from a band of close relatives to a larger tribal community. (See “The Evolution of Altruism”). When the size of the group expanded in this way, the problem of maintaining harmonious relations within it became more complicated.
Second, let’s look at gender relationships, and how they were affected by the changes that were taking place in the physical structure of our remote ancestors. As I pointed out in “The Eternal Woman”, the ancestral female human paid a price for assuming an erect posture. The birth canal was reduced in size while the embryo’s head got bigger. These changes forced a reduction, relatively speaking, in the gestation period and meant that after birth, the infant required parental attention for years longer than a baby chimp. Therefore early humans formed pair bonds, because the child was more likely to survive if the father was still hanging around to help the mother provide food and protection. This added a new criterion for the female human to use in selecting which male she might mate with, a factor technically known as “male paternal investment”. Human females, unlike their chimpanzee cousins, looked for evidence of fidelity and commitment when they selected a mate.
It would seem that even at the beginning, when homo sapiens first appeared on the scene, he was acquiring or had just acquired not only an inborn capacity for language but also a tendency toward male-female pairing for purposes of raising offspring. Such pairing not only provided the newly required “male paternal investment”, but helped stabilize relations within the group, thereby contributing to group solidarity.
For countless generations this pattern of male-female pairing, frequently known as monogamy, has coexisted in uneasy equilibrium with an equally powerful and even more deeply-rooted urge, the sex drive, which in contemporary parlance is expressed by the concept of the “selfish gene”. Every individual organism, according to the selfish gene principle, exists primarily to transmit its genetic material on to succeeding generations; that is the basic impulse in all forms of organic life. It is the engine that drives natural selection which in turn is what has produced the wondrous variety of flora and fauna on our planet earth.
When humans first emerged, they were not automatically or miraculously exempted from this principle. The male inherited from his forebears an instinct to inseminate as many females as possible. The female was similarly impelled to mix her genes only with the most desirable males available, and not waste her limited opportunities to reproduce on males who had shown themselves to be losers. But how to square this primal need with the newer but equally impelling, distinctively human requirement for male-female bonding?
A great deal of what has happened in the general area of sexual mores over the vast span of human history can be explained on the basis of the continuing conflict between these two opposing instincts. Here as in other aspects of human evolution, the newer need formed a kind of overlay over the more primal instinct. The upper layer is what people believe and consider right, while the lower layer is frequently what they want to do, and sometimes do in practice, especially when they think they can get away with it.
In accordance with this principle, the rules governing sexual behavior that have been formally adopted by most societies have been framed by the monogamists, but in very few societies have those rules been universally honored. Women throughout the ages have sought ways to make themselves “attractive”, while men compete to show who is the more powerful or successful. Is this just art for art’s sake, or can we detect the selfish gene principle at work here? Do you really believe that women want to be attractive only to please themselves and other women? Do you believe that men don’t have women in the backs of their minds when they joust for dominance, or prominence, or power, or money? Certainly there are many other explanations for these behavior patterns, many of them valid, but underneath, buried most often in the subconscious, lurks that primeval sex drive.
The Evolution of Moral Codes and Practices Governing Sexual Behavior:
Throughout human history, one society after another has erected elaborate social constraints to control and channel the human sex drive. When gender relations have been characterized by male dominance, the impact of these constraints usually falls most heavily on the female. Some systems go about this by erecting strict moral codes aimed at preventing females from copulating at all until they are properly married, and then doing so only with their spouses. (Cf. “The High Price of Virginity”). The same systems will usually try to keep the male libido in bounds, but the strictures opposing male profligacy tend to be looser than for females and are generally less well observed. Any society where female prostitution is fairly common, while male prostitution is rare, is a society that implicitly tolerates philandering by males but not by lawfully married females.
This is the sexual environment that still characterizes much of the world; it is the environment from which our own modern society is still struggling to emerge. Female circumcision in Africa is an extreme example of a male-driven urge to control the female sex drive. Suttee in Hindu India, which expects a widow to immolate herself on the husband’s funeral pyre, is a different but equally extreme example. Dowries and bride prices are less extreme examples. Some societies formally recognize the principle of polygamy, which in effect decrees that successful males can spread their sperm through multiple wives, the corollary of course being that less successful males will often have no women at all to call their own. Where male dominance is accompanied by an extremely rigid hierarchy among males, the dominant leader or alpha male in the social group may even have a harem, or clutch of wives that can in extreme cases run into the hundreds. In the past these harems were often guarded by male eunuchs, who were incapable of competing with the alpha male in passing on genetic material to the females they guarded.
These practices are dying out in the more advanced societies, but the old attitudes are hard to kill. The modern feminist movement opposes the prevailing gender bias in favor of the male, and wants to modernize prevailing customs governing sexual relations. The problem, both for the feminists and for their progressive male supporters, is the lack of any clear consensus as to a destination or goal. Yes, the old sexual practices were biased and abhorrent, but what should be installed in their place?
Fooling the Selfish Gene:
In its raw and basic form, the sex drive has become increasingly dysfunctional. We no longer need to produce as many babies as we can, in fact we do not want to. But humanity has come up with a decisive answer. As Richard Dawkins has pointed out, we “fool” our selfish genes every time we use contraceptives
The Pope is wrong in opposing the use of contraceptives, but he is correct in interpreting them as spelling the end of human society as we have known it in the past. Contraceptives have decisively destroyed the link between copulation and reproduction. In so doing they have undercut the foundation of all the old male-dominated systems for controlling human sexuality. The handwriting is on the wall for all these practices. Dowries, bride prices, unequal legal status for women, all are on a slippery slope, and will eventually fall into the oblivion that has already claimed the thousand-houri harem and the practice of suttee.
Contraceptives supply the technology we need if we are to continue to enjoy sex without the hassle and problems of unlimited reproduction. But they only provide a technique, not a direction. You can’t knock the foundation out from under a structure without putting something else in its place. The sex drive is basic. It antedates our human experience, and even our hominid and primate experiences. It goes right back to the origin of life. It is first and foremost the quintessential expression of the individual organism’s will to survive through passing on its own essence to future generations. It is how organisms make a difference, and leave their imprint on a future when they themselves will no longer exist. It is how they achieve immortality. How can you relegate sex to just another form of recreational activity, and still maintain humanity as a living, vital branch of the great tree of life which this favored planet of ours has produced?
There is an answer to that question, and its manifestations have been visible in one form or another for a long time. People are more complicated than other animals, and many of them have figured out ways to achieve a measure of immortality by means other than producing children. There are indeed many ways to “make a difference” that are available to humans of both sexes. Teaching is one, where the “difference” can be seen in the influence one has on emerging young individuals. Another very basic way of making a difference is through creative and original thinking, in any of many fields in the arts, science, philosophy and religion. Such creativity can affect a wide group, perhaps for many generations to come; it can change the way everybody lives and works; it can change the way people think, the way people view society and the world around them. Creative thinking cuts far closer to the essence of the way human society evolves these days than does the mere process of producing a few more children, however important and satisfying the latter can be. Accordingly, for many, creativity supplies a sense of purpose and direction that can replace the sex drive itself as the prime motivator.
A variation of the same principle applies to the drive for wealth and power. Here the end is not so much an end in itself as it is a means to an enhanced ability to “make a difference”. Rockefeller, Guggenheim, and Carnegie accumulated great wealth but that was just a stepping stone. They are remembered today for the philanthropic foundations that bear their names and continue to make an enormous difference throughout many sectors of our society. Ataturk is remembered less for his achievement of national leadership than he is for the fact that he used that position to transform the nature of Turkish society. (He also was an inveterate womanizer, but that is not how he “made a difference” in the major sense we are considering here).
But can this creative impulse really replace the sex drive, or does it use it and build on it and translate it as it were into a different, peculiarly human form? This is the crux of the philosophical and moral issue we are grappling with in today’s confused times. Is President Clinton’s alleged randiness something that ought never to have been, because it should have been replaced in toto by his other talents, the ones that propelled him into the Presidency? Or is it rather the taproot of the strength that made him what he is, and which he perhaps ought to have sublimated more thoroughly; but in making such a judgement, shouldn’t we be restrained by the thought that but for that randiness, he might never have achieved a position of leadership in the first place?
The Sex Drive and Creativity:
Everything else I have learned leads me to believe that human nature is a composite, layered phenomenon, with older and more primitive layers covered but not eliminated by ones acquired more recently. We are a complicated species not just because we talk and think and have cultures, but because each of us is a walking museum, with our behavior reflecting the experiences of ancestors going back eons as well as the rules taught us by our contemporaries.
So it is with the sex drive. The desire to be creative, whether expressed in music or philosophy or through a lust for money and power, coexists with the primal urge to commit the sex act, and other layers in between. Men who achieve great power and fame do not thereby lessen their primal sex drive. Our national leader provides cogent evidence to that effect. Here he is at the pinnacle of power, and all the evidence suggests that his success has not reduced his amorous instincts in the least.
But does the opposite hold true? If your libido is weak, does it mean you have less creative talent? This is a tricky question, and my answer must needs be even more speculative than the rest of this essay. My hunch is that creative talent springs from a variety of sources, and the sex drive is only one of them. An otherwise gifted individual can still be creative despite a weak sex drive, but perhaps he will lack some of the drive and determination to succeed that powers the individual who is driven by stronger selfish genes.
In any case, it is probable that some people enter puberty with stronger sex drives than others. I simply do not know whether these differences are genetic or a matter of nurturing during infancy and childhood, or both.
Another question: When the sex drive is suppressed, as in the Victorian era, does this in effect force the libido up into “higher” forms or channels, and thereby enhance creativity? Is there a justification here for imposing the strictest possible moral codes on society, enforced both by custom and by law? This is in fact what many of our recent ancestors had to put up with. And some of the ecclesiastical justifications for such strict moral codes seem to have at their heart an aversion to sex that can only be rationalized by the assumption that the less there is of it, the better for the good of the whole. St. Augustine comes to mind.
Let’s look at this proposition before we dismiss it out of hand. If Byron and Keats had lived in California in the late 1960’s they quite possibly would have gone to Berkeley, quit, and become hippies. The ready accessibility of willing and attractive females would, according to this theory, have prevented them from writing great poetry, by keeping their libidos satisfied. But wait a minute, didn’t some of the California hippies produce some of the most interesting prose and poetry of the period? Furthermore, is there anything in the historical record that suggests that in real life Byron and Keats were forced by the prevailing moral code to renounce sex? On the contrary, there were many nubile ladies of the day more than willing to oblige them. It seems that even when the moral codes are as astringently anti-sex as possible, love and the selfish gene will find a way…
Why Sex Fuels Ambition in Men, and Vice Versa:
Other factors being equal, a female of our species is more likely to be impressed by a successful male than by an unsuccessful one. This is primate nature, not just human nature. The selfish gene is busy sending signals from her ovaries to her brain, saying look, my eggs will more likely amount to something later in life if you can arrange for them to mix it up with the sperm of that lovely, rich, powerful hunk of man over there. But the brain, which is where awareness of the human factor of male permanent investment is lodged, is saying yes, he’s an attractive hunk all right, but he doesn’t look very reliable, and in any case do you really think I can get him to marry me and settle down and change diapers later on? So we have another example of how the selfish gene principle is constantly at war with the MPI factor.
Some males achieve hunk status by being handsome and well muscled, in short, the kind of physical types a mother wants her boy to grow up to be. With an outstanding display of physical charms they can persuade at least some women to forget about whether they have any brains, or capacity to partner a family. Elvis Presley, for example. But Elvis is not a good example, because he became fabulously rich by singing and carrying on in a way that made young ladies swoon, and once he reached the upper income brackets a lot of the MPI-based reservations of his claque were answered. If she could marry the guy he could surely support her, (or at least she could live on the alimony). Of course most of his fans realized that the odds were heavily against their personally capturing such a notable prize, in fact they were considerably worse than their chance of winning a national lottery. But they could dream, and dream they did, while their ovaries screamed.
For the man interested primarily in settling down in a monogamous mode, power and wealth definitely improves his prospects. The same is true for a man who is pushed by his sex drive to spread his genes as widely as possible. And it isn’t just power and wealth: outstanding status in other fields, like music or art or science, will do the trick just about as well.
With Women, the Situation Is a Bit Different:
Most females, especially after they have passed their adolescence, have gotten their ovaries under control and approach the business of deciding which male they want to favor on a basis that is at least partly rational. Desirability is balanced against availability and particularly the prospects that the chosen male will stick by her and not, after a couple of nights of rapture, run off with some other female. This is not, of course, a fixed equation. As noted above, the desirability of the target male goes up sharply as his power and prestige and wealth increases. But this is not the whole story. A woman’s freedom of choice has been limited by cultural constraints in the past, and while those constraints are weakening in our society, they still exist. And they continue in force in many other parts of the world.
In some societies, like Hindu India, a woman had little or no choice in the selection of a spouse; their marriages were arranged. Even in Western societies, until relatively recently the theory prevailed that it was the male that did the selecting, while the little woman sat demurely and batted her eyes and waited for “Mr. Right”. That theory, of course, was about 90% malarkey. Men married for what they thought were female charms, which usually emphasized pulchritude more than brains. The females with better brains turned them toward becoming more charming than they might otherwise have been. To the extent they succeeded, they could pick and choose between male suitors while giving the appearance of being properly submissive. If they failed, either because they weren’t as charming as the competition, or were just plain unlucky, they took whatever they got. If they were thoroughly dissatisfied with their lot they could, if they were willing to deceive the spouse, enrich the genes of their offspring by having a clandestine affair with a more promising male–but that was usually a perilous measure.
Increasingly in our western societies, the situation is turning around. During the Victorian era and for perhaps a generation afterwards, some women became prominent when they inherited great wealth. Others achieved prominence in their own right, but only in a few fields. Such women were few; the rest stood in the shadow of their husbands. By now the situation has progressed at least halfway towards a complete change. Many women occupy positions of power in fields that used to be monopolized by men, including not only business and government, but professions where creativity is the watchword. How are these powerful females regarded by men?
There is a generational shift at work here, a fairly massive one. An older man working for a dynamic, successful female boss is still likely to have trouble working out a satisfactory relationship with her, while a younger one will normally find fewer problems. The older man grew up in a culture still dominated by males, while the younger one’s attitudes were formed in a more egalitarian atmosphere. The older woman executive is a lonely figure, since there are not many of her kind, and she is still regarded as a bit of an anomaly by her male peers. The younger power woman by contrast has more of her kind in whatever milieu she works in, and can network effectively; she is not regarded as an anomaly by the males around her. So the future in this small respect at least is clear: we can expect that in the fairly near future there will be something approaching a fifty-fifty division in the upper ranks of the major institutions that manage our national affairs, as well as in the creative arts.
What could we say about this whole issue if we postulated that Hillary, not Bill, was the President of the United States of America? Certainly there would be a very large number of males, in America and indeed throughout the world, who would profess to be infatuated with her. And her range of choices, if she chose to philander, would certainly be no less than Bill’s is at present. But as a female she would not feel the same kind of primal urge to philander that the male does, and the chances are she would not. It seems more likely that she would aim to establish herself in the public eye as a kind of an asexual mother goddess, enjoying a mystique that removed her from the hurly-burly of everyday sex, thus enhancing her leadership.
Perhaps, therefore, Bill Clinton’s present problems point the way to a solution: elect females for the Presidency in the future. A note of caution, however: not all women are alike. There will be others, less encumbered by a sense of public responsibility, who will achieve positions of power and prominence. Some of them may not be interested in the mother goddess role; they may incline more to the philandering model of Catherine the Great of Russia. Will such lusty female powerhouses use their power and influence to attract and perhaps even coerce the favors of males to whom they feel attracted? Will the subject of female sexual harrassment of males vault into the public consciousness? We shall find out in due course; it is still too early to be certain which way these matters are heading.
Toward A Sexually Sensible Society:
In the near term, we can expect common sense guidelines to evolve that govern the question of sexual harassment in the workplace. We may already have them: when Justice Wright threw out the Paula Jones case, she gave us a fairly explicit statement to the effect that overtures without coercion do not constitute legally actionable harassment, even if they are boorish and in bad taste. When persuasion segues into suasion, that is the time to blow the whistle. If the woman says no, I’m not interested, please cut it out, then the man should desist, and if he must, look elsewhere for satisfaction. If he doesn’t, and presses his case, he’s actionable.
I see no reason why much the same principle should not apply when female sexual harrassment of males takes its place among our fair nation’s list of significant problems. I look forward to reading the books and plays that our writers will have when they get their teeth into this issue.
Somewhat later, other common-sense agreements will emerge regarding gender roles in marriage, procreation, divorce, out-of-wedlock unions, homosexual marriages, and related issues. The family will remain the basic social unit, the one dedicated primarily to procreation and the rearing of the young, but it will be redefined along lines more compatible with contemporary realities than the Victorian guidelines we have inherited. I am neither foolish nor brave enough to predict exactly what these new family guidelines will look like. I can only say that the contemporary striving for gender equality, coming on top of public acceptance of contraceptives, is bound to produce some pretty basic changes. Take a look at where we’ve been, and where we are now, and make your own predictions.
CSCoon April 6, 1998