Sex and Society – part 1

By October 20, 2012History, Other, Society

Someone pointed out that in the 90 or so essays I have written here, there was not one about sex. So here is the first of an initial two-part series, that might later become larger. Once you start on a subject like this, where do you stop? Be warned, it is not at all sexy.

The urge to have sex is built into us. All living things are programmed to reproduce, but with human beings the process is a complicated one, since our cognitive or thinking processes are involved as well as our physiological ones. The latter have evolved over a few million years. Men are attracted to the way women walk, the way they are shaped and the way they act. Women are attracted to what they see as men of strength, men of power and men of skill, and make the most of their beauty both to attract them and to maintain the attraction. Such attractions, it seems, are code for reproductive possibilities: a woman will want her baby to have a good chance of surviving, so men who are powerful, strong or skilled seem more likely to be able to provide protection for the infant. Men notice women who have plainly ‘female’ attributes, the code being that such women are likely to have strong and healthy babies. To use a familiar metaphor from computing, these urges are ‘hard-wired‘ in us to a greater or lesser degree. In every generation, in every society, children mature into adolescents and then into adults, meet a special person, fall in love, and have kids. Our species is built that way, which is why it is all so important. Sex is a most powerful drive, exclusive and sometimes obsessive in the way it affects us. Its social consequences, in the making of new human beings and the linking of families hitherto unconnected, are also powerful.

Of course, we are talking here about the multitude. There are people who don’t find the special person, people who move quickly from one ‘special’ person to another, people whose interest in sex is relatively small, people whose interest is focussed on someone of the same sex as themselves, people who choose sexually non-reproductive lives (like priests and nuns in the Roman Catholic church), and people who are badly injured or in other ways handicapped for the generation of new human beings. But the general rule obtains, everywhere. And just as we are individually programmed for this purpose, every society has developed mechanisms and rules to manage this vital process in a reasonably harmonious way. Societies do this because sex is at the basis of our identity, and strong passions are involved that can be socially destructive unless they are managed well. Moreover, children are not always a blessing. Where food is scarce and societies are struggling for survival every extra mouth is a burden, and the production of babies will be discouraged, at least for a while. China’s ‘one-child’ family rule is an example.

Complex rules develop in every society about who can make babies with whom. These rules and customs are complex because the hard-wiring is not identical for both sexes. Put very simply, whereas men are (almost constantly) interested in having sex, a woman is at least as interested in the possibility of forming a long-term bond with an interesting man who wants to have sex with her. Her caution is straightforwardly linked to the possibility of becoming pregnant as a result of sex. How much of this caution is nature, and how much social conditioning, is not clear. Pregnancy greatly affects the autonomy and the vulnerability of the woman, not to mention of the child that will issue. Even in the best of marriages, pregnancy is ultimately the woman’s concern, not the man’s. A common custom, therefore, has been that men seeking women for marriage must be able to provide for them, and for the children who follow. A further example: all societies seem to have discovered that marriage between close family members can produce damaged infants, so the prohibition of incest is almost universal. A third: an age is usually set before which children are not legally able to engage in sex; for the most part the law is there to protect children from sexually interested adults who might otherwise take advantage of them.  A fourth: all societies worry about homosexuality, if only because babies don’t naturally arise from homosexual relationships, and babies are important. There are many rules, and many customs, and they are built into the religions of any society: all religions take a keen interest in sexual matters.

These rules, customs and conventions then become built in to the way we think about the world, especially we the way that we think we should think about the world. Of course, not everyone follows these customs and conventions. Rapes and sexual assaults occur; pregnant women are abandoned by the men responsible; some women get themselves pregnant in order to have someone, the baby, to love; marriages fail; and so on. No human system is ever perfect. And the way we are brought up by our parents with respect to sex can also be important. My generation had very little discussion with our parents about these matters, partly because our parents, in turn, had very little discussion with their parents. There was a rule: ‘Don’t!’ We picked it up, wondered what was so important about it all and why it could not be discussed, and then found out ourselves, in due time. Most of us married young, in our early 20s.

Sexual matters are vastly more obvious, open and discussable in 2012 than they were in the 1950s, for two reasons. One is that our present society is much better educated, and educated people are equipped and trained to discuss things. The other is that technology, in the form of a reliable contraceptive taken orally by the woman, has given women control over their fertility, for the first time in human history. Pregnancy is no longer necessarily an outcome of regular sex, and that fact is changing some basic patterns in our culture, overwhelmingly, in my view, for the better. The oral contraceptive has been the principal instrument through which women have moved to attain some sort of equality with men, though the sexes are by no means equal. A third factor is that, for both previous reasons, sex is openly used as an inducement in advertising, and as a desirable personal attribute: to be ‘sexy’ is a good thing. It was not always so.

Not everybody, by any means, feels that these changes have been a good thing. It may be true that most men, at least those over a certain age — say 50 — don’t agree that women are or ought to be equal to men, and doubtless there are women of the same view. The Catholic Church still retains the position that contraception is simply wrong, despite the evidence that Catholic women in large measure take no notice of the veto. This is presumably one reason why the Church has lost much of its power over the last fifty years, at least in Australia. Built into much religious thinking, Christian as well as Muslim, is the notion that somehow women are responsible for sex. If they wear clothing that draws attention to their beauty or sexuality they are exciting men to do bad things. Here we can see the recognition of sexual hard-wiring but with what I would regard as an old-fashioned, irrelevant and pernicious social response. Each of us has to accept responsibility for his or her own behaviour. Not to do so is simply a cop-out. If all human beings have a fundamental equality, then women have to be accorded equality with men. If they are not, then there is no large step to seeing women as possessions, and seeing husbands as being superior to wives and fathers being superior to mothers and daughters. That has been the rule in our own culture for hundreds of years: among God’s punishments to Eve, for having lured Adam away from the straight and narrow, was that ‘he shall rule over thee’ (Genesis 3:16, King James Version, The Bible). This perspective on the proper relationship of men to women has only recently begun to change, and there is plainly resistance to that change. (more tomorrow)

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