Saturday, February 14, 2009

Sex, Human Nature and Morality.

It's Valentine's Day and this week saw the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth, so I thought I would write a post with some rude words in it (and way too many parentheses).

You saw her bathing on the roof... Bathsheba!Unreasoning folk who don't have a religious text to refer to, often use nature as the measure of all things that are good and proper. All manner of human behaviours are condemned as being unnatural, but most especially sexual ones. For example, I was brought up with the idea that only sexual partnerships are between a man and a woman are okay because only this particular combination of naughty bits can possibly produce a baby and that's what sex and love are basically about. Men and women must play very particular roles because nature has endowed them with difference.

Nature has equipped us with many things but no code by which to live. It does not provide any purpose in life nor does it dictate our social priorities. Evolution doesn't mean we were put here to reproduce – there is no consciousness behind our being here at all. The instincts we have do not, in themselves, justify any behaviour. We are plenty smart enough to work out what is right and wrong without pretending it has anything to do with our genetic heritage.

People who get very upset about other people's sex lives are generally quite insecure with themselves, but you can see how our culture has lead them to this place. Generations were taught that sex was a sin, that even thinking about sex was worthy of the red-hot-poker treatment and yet most people must have done it or else none of us would be here. So in order to feel okay about our own desires and dirty doings, we imagine degrees of sinfulness.

Perhaps I'm okay because I only perform unspeakable acts within marriage – people who perform the same unspeakable acts without the certificate must burn for all eternity. If not that, then people who get hot and sticky with the wrong sort of people – or more than one person - in the wrong place or wearing inaccurate historical costume (a bona fide Highwayman wears a frock coat not a tailcoat). The Victorian moralists were particularly good at this, condemning everyone and everything but themselves and their own peccadillos (which is like an armadillo but kinkier).

Hylas meets some nymphs (Waterhouse)And yeah, I know it is a bit daft to talk of nature and marriage, but people do. It is the only objection to same-sex marriage from the non-religious. People imagine that a life-long state-certified sexual union between a man and a woman who have children together is the most natural state of things and therefore superior to every other kind of relationship. Of course, what is considered natural has skidded all over the place throughout our history. So, a little about our prehistory...

Our closest living genetic relatives are the Common Chimpanzee and the Bonobo Chimpanzee. Both of these, but particularly the Bonobos, are promiscuous. Bonobos are sex-mad! Sex is recreation, bonding, celebration and conflict-resolution. The gentleman-chimps frot and they all do all manner of filthy things which have absolutely nothing to do with reproduction.

We are not Bonobos; sex tends to matter quite a bit more to us. We only want to have sex with people we're attracted to and most of us are picky. We do however share some of this heritage. We are physically equipped to enjoy sex immensely and our reproductive setup is such that most of the sex we have is not reproductive. A human female is vaguely fertile for less than two weeks out of a month, only very fertile for a few days in a month - and then only for about half her adult life - whereas her desire for sex, and others' desire to have sex with her is continuous (whether people are less attractive as they age is beside the point – older people do have sex, many creatures out of season get none at all).

Venus from The Birth of Venus by Botticelli (naked lady)So even the baby-making business cannot be said to be entirely about baby-making, let alone all the other revolting practices that come to mind when presented with all the bits and pieces we have available to us. Human beings do use sex for purposes other than pleasure and bonding – demonstrated most disturbingly in the sexual violence that occurs in power struggles both domestic and international. Power is often in the mix even without coercion. And whilst most humans are attracted to members of the opposite sex, in a same-sex environments (boarding school, prisons and the military) well, any two people have the capacity to assist one another and they frequently do. *

And we have promiscuous minds. I imagine if you were a swan or some animal that mated for life, there would be some sort of mental block when it came to eying up swans who were not your mate. Rather as most human beings have complete blocks when it comes to the family members we grew up with; we can't see any of them as sexual beings and find it rather gruesome to be reminded that they are. But otherwise, however attractive you may find one person, there are always other people who are also attractive.

Yet we have big brains and since ladies stood up (in our high-heeled shoes) we find ourselves with a relatively narrow pelvis through which to give birth. Babies are born very small and helpless and remain extremely vulnerable for a period of years. At this point in our evolutionary history, it became highly beneficial for sexual partners to bond with one another on a long-term basis so that there were two caregivers and the offspring might better survive its early years.

Meanwhile, good reproductive strategies – getting the best genes to combine with your own whilst still ensuring that offspring are brought up and cared for – began to involve deception. This occurs in many organisms, and it means we can be both very crafty and immensely jealous. It is in our gene's best interests for us to deceive but not be deceived (not that our genes have interests exactly, but you get my point).

So it is natural to want to have sex with different people, it is also natural to bond with one partner for a period of years. It is natural to deceive our partners, and to be jealous. We haven't lost any of this - if we had, then these behaviours would not have remained commonplace.

Adam from the Creation of Adam on the Sistine Chapel CeilingBut then language and love came along of course, which complicates things further. It means that some people really can mate for life and be very happy together. And this is where homosexuality shows up. Like I say, we've all got plenty of bits and pieces to play with, so homosexuality doesn't matter a great deal until you start falling in love with people. I imagine that most exclusively gay people have had heterosexual sex at some point. But with love, we can't be so flexible. Nor should we be.

There are lots of theories about a biological cause for homosexuality, including genetics - it probably is a genetic mutation, whether entirely spontaneous or to do with the womb environment. Some people are really desperate for a reason, preferably an evolutionary reason, a purpose, a justification. But it really doesn't matter. Homosexuality involves a fairly subtle deviation in the midst of our complex make-up, a single crossed-wire and its effects are completely and utterly benign. And in terms of our ungrateful culture, it has been extremely useful; gay and bisexual people are over-represented among the great men and women of our history because it is always the oddballs, often those without family responsibilities, who do all the interesting stuff. I've said it before, but just as mutation is necessary for biological evolution, it is the mutants carry society forward. Whether or not they reproduce.

So anyway, this is how we are. Various and conflicted. And very much complicated by other people. Our variations seem significant only because we're not Bonobos and the prospect of sexual behaviour which don't happen to turn us on often seems disgusting. A lot of kinky stuff that people get up to would make my stomach turn, but the stomach isn't any kind of moral compass or else cake would be one of the seven cardinal virtues.

A lot of misery is caused by a failure to recognise this mix, by magic ideas around sex and love. If I believed that being in love would blind me to all others, then my first new crush would seem like falling out of love. If I believed that true love lasted forever by default, I might not be such a good lover (I mean good as in decent and faithful). And if I believed that one set of my entirely natural feelings were virtuous and another sinful, I would loath myself – which of course, I did.

What matters in life is what we do, not what we feel. None of us are compelled by our instincts, we must reason with ourselves. But I guess there are really only three things that matter in all sexual relationships:
  1. That we don't harm others. This includes not taking advantage of people who are vulnerable or much less powerful than ourselves – obviously leaving children and disinterested parties alone, but also being wary of more subtle forms of exploitation.
  2. That we are honest. Being honest with one another doesn't avoid hurting feelings but it helps a great deal. This includes making our promises very carefully and sticking to them.
  3. That we take responsibility for our reproductive potential. We should avoid making babies which we don't want or can't provide for. When we do have babies, we must give them the best possible chances.
We make our own codes to fit our own choices, lovers write their own rules together. But little else is of universal importance.

* I made this point to my mother during a very round and about conversation in which I first told her explicitly that I was bisexual. Anyway, it had all started with Boudica (I don't think she was queer, the conversation took an unplanned route) and I made this point about pragmatic sexuality, that ultimately any two people could get one another off, which in itself was a shocking thing to have said in front of my mother and she was silent for a while.

Then she said "You mean, like Edwina Curry and John Major?"

I thought about this for a moment. "I suppose."

"Well," she said, "I think there ought to be a law against it!"


Anonymous said...

I think your three rules are good, sound ones. Although maybe your mother has a point re: Major and Currie.

And I heard Lenny Henry once explain the difference between erotic and kinky. If you stroke your partners breasts with a feather to achieve pleasure, that's erotic. If you use the whole chicken, that's kinky.

Anonymous said...

If cake were a cardinal virtue I would be a very good catholic indeed :)

That was a very thought-provoking post - thank you! If I were ever going to tell my mother that I'm bisexual I think I might make her read it.

One Sick Mother said...

Your mother definitely has a point about Major and Currie. I don't have a problem with most things consenting adults do together in privacy, but that particular thought almost made me lose me breakfast.

Anonymous said...


I'd definitely bang it!


FridaWrites said...

I enjoyed reading this and have come back to it a couple of times--the art also complements the post well.

Anonymous said...

Good sound rules. Thanks for this blog, which I discovered while ruminating on morality, sexuality and relationships, wanting some guidance. Of course, if you agree with someone you think they're wise!

I was surprised to learn how young you are. And rather ashamed - was I so wise at your age? Certainly not! Nor had I achieved a satisfying monogamous relationship - many assorted relationships/marriages (2) later, and I still haven't.