Monday, May 24, 2010


My mother was a sexually repressed Catholic with effervescent sexuality bubbling off of her at all times and in everything she expressed. She informed my thoughts about women and she assured me men and women were as different as dogs and cats. She also made it very clear that outside of the marital bed, sex was a sin and terribly destructive for the woman. Sex without marriage condemned any woman to a life of prostitution or worse. Even if I hadn’t already been interested in women for purely hormonal reasons, my mother’s perspective on gender would have been enough to stimulate a lifetime of curiosity.

In The Female Thing, an examination of the state of women in the early 21st Century Laura Kipnis informs us: “Whether men and women are more sexually alike or sexually different remains the fundamental question. The answer? It depends on how you tell the story” (67). That being the case, why has our culture, utilizing legal statute and social constraint, beginning at birth, and at great cost to the individual, constructed a dishonest and asymmetrical view of human sexuality? Why does society work so diligently to separate the expectations and functions of our genders? Why is human sexuality so culturally, socially, and personally freighted as a topic of interest and exploration? Could it be that the distorted social-sexual construct that motivates these questions about gender and sexuality is driven by an attempt to control the reproductive process? Kipnis affirms this: “Women’s power inheres in our bodies, our child bearing capabilities, our female sensuality — all of which terrify men and society” (4). By subverting the power of female sexuality, under threat of violence, males attempt to wrest control away from women regarding the creation their progeny.

Male or female, the measure of a successful life is determined by the progeny we leave behind. In the “Natural Selection in Action” chapter of Essentials of Physical Anthropology, we are given a primal biological definition: “Fitness is simply differential reproductive success” (31). Similarly, in Genesis, the first book of the Pentateuch, the founding text of Judeo-Christian-Islamic mythology, God instructs the believer: “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it.” Thus the measure of success, sacred, secular or scientific, is strictly biological: Have you left progeny capable of reproducing? Without progeny, our greatest accomplishments have no enduring value and are soon forgotten.

Who remembers Ogg-the-Neandertal’s life-altering discovery of how to control fire? Who still sings the epic songs of Nogg, the celebrated Homo heidelbergensian? Similarly, who, but our heirs, will recall most of us? The unique works we labored so arduously to accomplish within our own lifetimes will most likely vanish into landfills, dusty attics and second-hand shops, often while we’re still here on Earth. In the midst of this 21st Century Information Age few of us know much about our great grandparents’ lives. Nonetheless, they still live as long as their ‘blood’ courses through our blood, their genetic heritage fills our cells. They were ‘fit,’ and we tell their stories in our biology. If we are ‘fit,’ our offspring will tell our stories in their genes. Matt Ridley explains in the Red Queen, Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature, “Life is a Sisyphean race, run ever faster toward a finish line that is merely the start of the next race.” (174). Our progeny are our entry tickets into the next race, the race for the future.

Like Australopithecus before us, and like the cockroach that hides underneath our kitchen sink, we live to procreate. Everything we do is means to further those reproductive efforts. Whether we are crafting complex computer programs or carving out empires in the wilderness, we do this to increase our progeny, and our progeny’s chances of survival. When working in our own self-interest, the goal is simple and obvious no matter how emotionally complicated we make it: find a mate, make a child, do your best to see that it survives. We don’t typically think about it in this way, but even when we are working for someone, or something else, we’re still engaged in furthering procreative efforts, simply not our own. Whether the ‘other’ we are working for is local, national or industrial entity, whether we do so voluntarily or are conscripted, we are furthering their power and authority and thus their procreative efforts. Ridley reminds us, “The connection between sex and power is a long one” (174). Throughout most of history, “[if] a man could grow ten times as rich as his neighbor … he could acquire more wives” (194).

Today we substitute mistresses and serial monogamy for wives, but the game remains the same. The mistress who becomes the wife is usually quick to provide her new mate with offspring. She’s more than a little familiar with the shackles of progeny, and she typically wastes little time in staking her genetic claim to the man she’s wooed away from another woman. That said, her goal is the same as the last wife’s goal: Have children, and do her best to see that her genetic contribution survives to have children of its own. If you’re a man, the math is simple, the more wives you have the more progeny you have; the more women you impregnate, the more progeny you leave for destiny. For women, the situation is both similar and more complex; her procreative efforts are restricted by the number of children she, herself, can bear. The more safety, comfort, and nourishment her mate provides, the more likely her offspring will thrive to procreate in turn.

After the baby is conceived, the man’s work it done. Or is it? Culturalists, especially male culturalists, like to promulgate the idea that motherhood is a special task only females are genetically and instinctively equipped to handle. ‘Men hunt. Women take care of babies. That’s nature’s way.’ The evidence does not support this conclusion. Gestation and lactation are restrictive female capabilities, but that is not to say the role we call ‘mothering’ is a strictly for the girls. Men are more than adequately equipped to provide all the nurturing a baby or child requires, sans breastfeeding. Ironically, in modern American culture, the average new mother breastfeeds for less than six months, and a substantial number never breastfeed at all.

Once the baby exits the vagina, in many cases men could provide exactly everything women provide. “What we now like to call an instinct is a culturally specific development … there’s no reason it can’t be invented differently — or invented in men as well — when social priorities dictate” (73) Kipnis tells us. When we object and claim that these roles are fixed in biological amber, she corrects this common misconception: “Over the course of history, cultures have endlessly vacillated when it comes to describing the differences between the sexes… a male characteristic in one society is a female characteristic in another,” (3). Kipnis continues “it’s no use trying to derive the solution from the body, since the body is forever being creatively reimagined in ways that ratify existing social premises about gender, including premises about whether men and women are more alike or different” (67). We each have our fixed roles in procreation but the so-called nurturing mother’s role is a learned and socially dictated response. In concept Ridley agrees: “In humans, everything about behavior is learned, and nothing inherited.” (174).

That said, a woman who is regularly nursing (for up to four years in a traditional culture) and constantly tending to a small and relatively helpless human being is less likely to ovulate, less likely to copulate on a regular basis, and less likely to start the next cycle of procreation. Her mate, on the other hand, has been capable and ready to sire his next offspring the entire time she’s been gravid, and will continue to be capable of creating new progeny for the entire five-year period (including gestation) she’s been ‘mothering.’

To achieve the goal of fruitfully multiplying, women and men have similar approaches, although slightly different equipment. In The Nature of Sex: Architecture & Design of Man & Woman we are informed that women are endowed with as few as 450 viable eggs to devote to reproduction over the course of their limited reproductive life cycle, whereas men produce millions of sperm every hour. Ideally “men can father a child just about every time they copulate with a different woman, whereas women can bear the child of only one man at a time” (179), Ridley claims.

I would suggest this is an irrelevant comparison. Neither men nor women alone are capable (at this moment in the early 21st Century) of turning their solitary gametes into human offspring. No woman has yet converted more than a small fraction of her 450 eggs into babies (Octomom, notwithstanding). No man in recent history has managed to impregnate millions, or even hundreds of women. The former basketball star Wilt Chamberlin claims to have consensually bedded 20,000 women — perhaps it’s telling that he did not impregnate any of them.

On the other hand Ridley informs us, “the sun-king Atahualpa kept fifteen hundred women in each of many ‘houses of virgins’ throughout his kingdom …. Atahualpa and his nobles had, shall we say, a majority holding in the paternity of the next generation. They systematically dispossessed less privileged men of their genetic share of posterity” (173). Remember Atahualpa next time you’re trudging off to ‘work’ for ‘the man.’ One might think that providing a stud service for that many women would wear a fellow out, that there be a lot of ‘down’ time. Not so says Helen Fisher, PhD, Biological Anthropologist, Research Professor and member of the Center for Human Evolution Studies in the Department of Anthropology, Rutgers University. In The Nature of Sex: Science of the Sexes Fisher tells us “men and women are in a permanent state of arousal, it’s the brain that acts as a break.” Apparently the brain break is ineffective. “Human beings of both sexes are interested in sex at all times of the menstrual cycle,” Ridley states, “compared with many animals, we are astonishingly hooked on copulation.”

We learn in The Female Thing that the alleged difference between the genders regarding ‘sexual appetite’ is a recent invention. Previous to the late 18th Century (i.e., the Victorian Era) men and women were presumed to have equivalent voracious sexual appetites and responses, hence the bawdy dames of the Georgian Era and earlier. As the Victorian Era began, with its widely discussed ‘Victorian morality,’ so did questions about female sexual desire (68). This change in expectation arose in response to the recognition of our different anatomies. Previously it was assumed that women, and especially their genitals, were simply inverted forms of the more visible male genitalia, thus women must be like men in these regards. When this was discovered not to be strictly true, social expectations changed as well. If women aren’t the mirrors of men, they must be the opposite. If men sought and desired sex, a good woman must find it abhorrent and avoid it at all costs, hence the well-trodden phrase: “Just lie back and think of England.” While the origins of this phrase are unclear, Wikipedia, and other sources tell us this “was an instruction given to brides and women in general in the Victorian Era regarding how to cope with the sexual demands of their husbands. While childbearing was considered a patriotic duty, women were not supposed to enjoy sexual intercourse.” The origin of the phrase is less important than the cultural expectation it represents. Kipnis explains that this is an on-going phenomena, “New cultural narratives about women and their place in the world invariably get mapped back onto the female body and female genitals” (69). Culture is powerful enough to create shame and guilt, but biology always trumps social expectations. Humans are obsessively sexual animals.

Historically men have tended to operate in the external world while women have operated in the familial world of hearth and home. While the men are away, it’s hard to know where the women play. Whether men are hunter-gathers — well-muscled, half-naked fellows wandering the bush looking for wild beasts to kill and bring home for feasting (and occasionally stumbling onto a tasty bit of ‘strange’ to ravish), or Mad Men of the 1950s — well-dressed guys in expensive suits cutting killer deals to put dinner on the table (and occasionally playing hide the salami with their secretaries and clients), men worry about what their lonely wives are up to back at home. Mostly men wonder if their wives are ‘fiddling about’ with other men. Could these concerns about female infidelity, concerns about the parentage of their progeny, motivate the construction of a social order that denies women’s sexuality? Is this just ‘typical male paranoia’ or do men actually have something to worry about?

In “Inside Out: A DNA Diary” published in Discover Magazine, Boonsri Dickinson tells us of the boilerplate warnings disclosed to every participant who seeks DNA analysis: “You may learn information about yourself that you may not anticipate … you may discover your father is not genetically your father” (37). Suddenly, “Who’s Your Daddy?” is more than a song, television show, movie, or sexually suggestive, comedic punch line (although the phrase has been use as all these and much, much more). Paul Farhi tell us in the Washington Post that the question dates to at least 1681.

Robin Baker and Mark Bellis of Liverpool University inform us that it’s more than a rhetorical question: “Roughly one in three of the babies born in Western Europe is the product of an adulterous affair” (The Red Queen, 226). This percentage is based on studies they did in the late 1980s and the percentage held steady in additional studies done in the US and Canada. Such rates of female infidelity are independent and irrespective of education or economic status. Other studies have shown ‘false-paternity’ rates ranging between ten percent and thirty percent. In fact such female adultery is a bane of the medical genealogy field, where it makes all long-term findings suspect.

“Adultery is common wherever it has been looked for,” (229) agrees Ridley. Interestingly enough “roughly one in three” offspring not being fathered by the nominal father seems to be a constant figure across species lines as well. ‘Birds do it, bees do it, even so-called monogamous non-human primates do it. Let’s do it. Let’s fool around with someone other than dad’ could be the theme song of sex.

Some social scientists have suggested the remarkably high percentages of false-paternity progeny could be responsive to the limited availability of ‘quality’ mating choices. Ridley tells us “married females chose to have affairs with males who are dominant, older, more physically attractive, more symmetrical in appearance, and married” (211). Presumably ‘married’ is an incidental quality rather than a selected attribute. When the female ends up mated to a handsome male, Ridley informs us, she gets his genes but not much lot more: “He works less hard and she works harder at bringing up the young. … This increases her incentive to find a mediocre but hardworking husband and cuckold him with the stud next door” (224).

Thus the archetype of the typical morally superior, chaste female is very much an incomplete picture. “It is foolish even to talk of humans having a mating system at all. They do what they want, adapting their behavior to the prevailing opportunity” (177), Ridley states. Kipnis concurs, “femininity was never about being some kind of delicate flower; it was tactical: a way of securing resources and positioning women as advantageously as possible” (5).

From a purely biological perspective, Ridley proposes “cuckoldry is an asymmetrical fate. A woman loses no genetic investment if her husband is unfaithful, but a man risks unwittingly raising a bastard” (237). Perhaps the genetic reality of infidelity is exactly the reverse of the perceived social construct of human sexuality. At the very least, a substantial number of women are predatory philanders while their mates, inadvertently, are dutiful dads. Clearly the issue is more complex than most people are willing to acknowledge.

Making matters more interesting, biology has tipped the deck solidly in women’s favor by creating the orgasm. Is it really all that surprising that so many women complain about not having orgasms with their partners when nature has contrived to directly link female orgasms to conception? Kipnis tells us “92% of British women admit to faking an orgasm at least once in their lives” and “75% of women don’t orgasm through penetration” (both 40). Similarly Shere Hite in Women and Love found proportional percentages in her studies of American women: “research extending from 1971 to 1976, and including 3,500 women, found that two-thirds of women do not orgasm through intercourse,” (215), or at least they do not have orgasms through intercourse with their routine partners.

This is a huge problem for conception as Baker and Bellis discovered “the amount of sperm that is retained in a woman’s vagina after sex varies according to whether she had an orgasm … in faithful women about 55 percent of the orgasms were of the high-retention (that is most fertile) type. In unfaithful women, only 40 percent of the copulations with her partner were of this type, but 70 percent of their copulations with her lover were of this fertile type. Moreover, whether deliberate or not, the unfaithful women were having sex with their lovers at times of the month when they were most fertile” (225). The net result of this is that an unfaithful women is much more likely to conceive a child with her lover than her husband.

Human females not having a visible estrus period of obvious fertility gives them an additional leg up, vis-à-vis adultery Ridley informs us, quoting research by L. Benshoof and Randy Thornhill which suggests “concealed ovulation allows a woman to mate with a superior man by stealth without deserting or alerting her husband … she is more likely to know [on an unconscious level] when to have sex with her lover, whereas her husband does not know when she is fertile. … Silent ovulation is a weapon in the adultery game” (232).

Indeed, if it seems as that the typical male-female relationship is more adversarial than cooperative that’s not unexpected. Despite romantic love, on a purely biological level each partner is more motivated to work at enhancing their own genetic contributions over their partner‘s genetic contributions.

In an interview published in the San Francisco Examiner, Candace Bushnell, author of Sex in the City and other novels on modern sexual relations agrees. “It makes more sense for a woman to have children with five different sex partners instead of five children with the same man. It’s exactly the same argument [men have], but tell it to a man, oooooooooh … that’s the secret nature of women and that’s what’s wonderful but you can’t say that.”

To answer Kipnis original question, it appears that sexually men and women are profoundly similar rather than different. In fact it appears that sexually men and women have very similar strategies for perpetuation of their individual lineages and similar motivations and expectations.

Men, through society, attempt to moderate female sexuality (i.e., infidelity) by social censure and the creation of false ideals, but these efforts have limited success despite the horrendous psychological and social burden they place on women.

The marriage bed remains the foundation of shared reproductive efforts but not the limit. Both genders use adultery to enhance the success of their individual reproductive strategies. Men seek quantity, hoping to impregnate as many women as possible and leave a diverse genetic sample in the world. Women seek quality, hoping to improve their own genetic contribution.

We keep our sexuality and our sexual practices private because knowing the actual facts of procreation (especially who’s zooming who) is not necessarily mutually beneficial and the risks of disclosure too high. Distorting the social-sexual construct to assert a more passive, de-sexualize role for women allows women to work in the silence to achieve their own goals and agendas, while similarly allowing men the opportunity to pursue covert sexual liaisons outside the marriage bed without further destabilizing the marital relationship.

As long as there is economic disparity between the genders, marriage allows a women and her offspring limited financial security. Even when men and women achieve economic parity, marriage is likely to remain the standard as raising children is expensive, labor intensive and emotionally and physically taxing. But I would suggest that the explicit current contract of marriage — between one man and one woman, for life — is not a stable platform on which we will build coming generations, but that marriage — the coming together of different people for affection, comfort, sharing, and procreation is an enduring institution.

* In The Question of Lay Analysis, Freud wrote: “We know less about the sexual life of little girls than of boys. But we need not feel ashamed of this distinction; after all, the sexual life of adult women is a ‘dark continent’ for psychology” (p. 212).

©May 24, 2010 Fred Dodsworth

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