Why Is Human Sexuality Beset by Complications?

[One version of this will be an op/ed in newspapers in the district where I was the Democratic nominee for Congress in 2011-12. A slightly longer version will be appearing on Daily Kos soon.]

Anyone following the news of our society in our times, or familiar with various historical cultures, should know that human sexuality – in addition to all the good it brings into people’s lives – has been beset by social tensions, cultural taboos, and personal troubles.

Why is that?

Here are some pieces of an answer.

1) Sex originated to achieve an indispensable task for all living things: perpetuating one’s kind. Some organisms achieve that differently, but humans are one of a huge number of organisms – plants as well as animals – who reproduce sexually. The next generation of each of those species is created by combining two packets of DNA, each containing half a blueprint for that lifeform.

2) We humans are mammals, whose reproductive strategy involves the young developing inside the body of the mother-to-be, then being born when they are sufficiently fully formed. Mammalian sexual reproduction, therefore, requires one of those two packets of DNA to get inside the body of a different mature animal to meet up with its counterpart.

That requires behavior that is unique because nowhere else in our human behavioral repertoire do different humans make the boundaries of their bodies overlap.

(A pregnancy does involve mixed boundaries, but neither the mother nor the growing child need to make any choice to create that situation. Pregnancy happens to the mother, as a result of sex. And life just happens to the offspring. So neither requires motivation to get that merging to happen.)

To make mammals do something so unique, the motivational force behind sexual behavior has to be exceptionally powerful. The great power of that motivational force, crafted into our species (because that’s what it took to perpetuate one’s kind) means the task of managing that force will be challenging.

3) More than with other mammals, we human beings have had reason to complicate sexuality by putting it to additional important uses. We developed into creatures that had need for that reproductive sexual bond to carry a lot more freight for the sake of survival.

We developed into a creature whose success in perpetuating its kind required that the young be given more support for a longer time than with our mammalian cousins.

  • Our babies are born “premature” (compared, say, with newborn chimpanzees). That prematurity reflects an evolutionary compromise: as the size of our ancestors’ brains tripled over several million years, the newborns had to be born less fully developed to enable the females to bear such big-brained offspring. A cost of our becoming more intelligent has been that mothers and children have been more vulnerable for longer, and therefore have needed more protection.
  • Then, after infancy, human children need many more years – compared to other mammalian and primate young —  to emerge into full adulthood.

Both those factors creature the need for the human young, and their mothers, to have an environment that is more reliably protective for longer. And a major way of meeting that need is for the fathers to remain in the picture, more committed to their mates and their children.

One important way of keeping the father in the picture is fortifying the sexual connection between mother and father.

Which may explain why the human female is (I believe) unique in being sexually receptive throughout her cycle, not only – as with mammals generally – when conception is possible. The powerful motivation of sexuality becomes a force to keep fathers and mothers together, fortifying a bond that helps the family unit to remain stable enough for the young to flourish.

The building of that bond was advanced by making human sexuality more complex—adding some powerful emotional elements. The connection that keeps the family adaptively intact goes beyond the basic animal fire of the sexual impulse by using things in the realm of “love” to make the bond stronger and longer-lasting.

(We are not the only primates who can love, but I believe we’re the only ones that have combined love with reproduction.)

This task of melding two different dimensions of sexuality – the ancient animal and the more newly human – has complicated human sexuality. Humans have to integrate

  • that primitive dimension of human sexuality (the dimension we share with stallions and mares, with bulls and cows, the dimension of animal desire and passion).
  • with a more recent dimension, making family connection more enduring, bringing in a heart-based set of emotions.

(Some psychologists have talked about the challenge of bring “heart” and “genitals” together into a unified way of being.)

All these complications of human sexuality, with the changing requirements for the perpetuation of our species, are connected with humankind’s most important distinguishing characteristic: culture. These are all consequences of our being the creatures who put culture at the center of our strategy for survival.

  • It is the increasing use of culture that has made bigger brains so valuable; having more to learn rewards having better equipment for learning.
  • It is culture, too – by giving our young more to learn — that has made it advantageous for our young to stay longer in their formative stage, as adulthood requires a longer training period.

Thus it is humankind’s specialization in culture that required the development of a more multidimensional sexual bond — to stabilize family relationships to better protect our vulnerable offspring.

Culture made sexuality complicated, but it was when culture took off into “Civilization” that human sexuality became downright problematic. Civilization, which has itself been so problematic because – to meet altogether new requirements for social survival – it has demanded the rechanneling of human energies, including that powerful motivational force of sexuality that — for eons – had been allowed to express itself  relatively freely because it worked to perform the essential task of perpetuating our kind.

But that problematic aspect of civilization is “a whole nother story.”


For more about that deeper sexual bond – explored in a more heartful spirit – see “The Sacred Space of Lovers.”

Anyone interested in more about how Civilization has demanded the “rechanneling of human energies” can find other dimensions of that explored in Chapter 5 – “Power and the Psychological Evolution of Civilized Man” – of my book, The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution.

Finally, I will soon be posting here a series that presents an integrated way of understanding the Human Story, founded on seeing that story in an evolutionary perspective, i.e. on some major but hitherto unrecognized consequences of human culture taking off into Civilization (defined as “societies created by a creature that extricates itself from the niche in which it evolved biologically by inventing its own way of life”).

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