In a recent interview at Salon, Cacilda Jetha and Christopher Ryan, authors of the new book Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, conveniently tell us what sex is really like. They start with gay couples as their reference point, which is an interesting move, but then their theorizing goes straight down the Mars/Venus rabbit hole:
First of all, they’re both men, so they both know what it’s like to be a man. They both know from experience that love and sex are two very different things, and it seems that for women the experience of sexuality is much more embedded in narrative, in emotion, in emotional intimacy. But also it’s really hard to judge what women would be like if they hadn’t been persecuted for the last five or six thousand or ten thousand years for any hint of infidelity.
Nothing wrong with reversing the usual assumption that heterosexual couples are the norm and all other combinations deviant. This can help normalize same-sex relations, as well as shining a new light on heterosexuality. But Jetha and Ryan’s statement doesn’t do this. Instead, it’s swimming in oppositional sexism – the idea that men and women are opposites. It’s also traditionally sexist, in that it sets up a norm rooted in male experience, “know[ing] from experience that love and sex are two very different things.” Note that this compartmentalization is presented as knowledge, not as emotion, opinion, or preference.
It may well be true than on average, more men than women can easily separate love and sex. What to make, then, of the many women I’ve known who quite handily compartmentalize them? I know it’s possible, because I’ve done it (though I also couldn’t do it easily at this stage of my life). How are we to understand the men for whom sex is unthinkable, or at least quite hollow, ouside a context of caring and intimacy? I’ve known quite a few of those, too – more than enough to explode the dichotomy that Jetha and Ryan describe.
There’s a whiff of traditional sexism, too, in their last sentence, which positions men as a biological norm and women as different only due to the distortions of society. Yes, women have been persecuted and their sexuality brutally controlled by patriarchal forces. However, men’s sexuality is also molded by social and cultural forces, some of them highly repressive and cruel (see for instance the latest post in Richard Jeffrey Newman’s series on men’s bodies). It’s just silly to imply that men’s sexual desires and behavior simply reflect their biological drives, while women’s have been warped by culture.
At least in this interview (I can’t speak to the book), Jetha and Ryan appear to think that infidelity is mainly a male behavior. But how much do we really know about women’s capacity and propensity to be unfaithful? As I’ve argued here in the past, all those cheatin’ men have to be doing it with someone. Unless you accept the theory that there’s a huge pool of single women just panting after married dudes, it’s more logical to conclude that married/committed women systematically underreport their infidelity. In other words, women already engage in plenty of infidelity. By now, the impact of millennia of persecution is much reduced, in the Western world, anyway. We don’t stone women anymore for adultery. History casts a shadow of greater stigma on women who cheat, compared to men – and thus greater pressure to lie about it, even to researchers. Infidelity is no longer the province of men.
Regardless of whether monogamy is hard (it is), and regardless of whether women are naturally angels (we aren’t): Do we really want to work toward a new norm of keeping sex and love separate? Jetha and Ryan appear to be saying that since humans aren’t hard-wired for monogamy, the desire for sex-with-intimacy is not only confined to women, it’s also somehow aberrant. I’m not convinced. While I see nothing morally wrong with casual sex between two honest, enthusiastic partners, I recognize that getting to know a partner can enable wider arcs of pleasure. I’ve observed that casual sex with even a semi-regular partner tends to become less casual over time. Non-committed sex also has some built-in pitfalls that Lynn Gazis-Sax evocatively describes:
I also think that there are some drawbacks to having sex with people you don’t know well, that are worth talking about, and not brushing aside with “anything is fine as long as your both consenting.” Anything is not good if your consenting, and it’s fair to talk about why some initially consenting experiences turn out badly, as well as some turning out splendidly. Sometimes, the reasons those experiences turn out badly involve not knowing things about your lover that you might have found out if you’d waited a bit, or not realizing just how badly the two of you communicated, or overestimating your ability to be happy with more casual connections.
On the other hand … Sometimes it’s the relationship itself that’s bad, and those aren’t problems that are improved by making the sex more committed.
In other words, sex can be toxic inside or outside of relationships. If “love” signifies manipulation, emotional indifference, or just a joyless shell of a marriage, of course sex won’t be any good either. And yet, we lose an awful lot if we assume that love always decays. Jetha and Ryan may well be correct that monogamy and decades-long love are not “natural,” but how much of our sexuality is merely “natural”? Isn’t it always shaped deeply by our culture? And even though we’re all creatures of biology and culture, don’t we all make choices – to be faithful, to tend the fires of lust over time, to value love – or not?
We lose even more if we replace the old imperative of sex-with-love with a new rule that’s simply its opposite. Because even if there’s nothing ethically wrong in principle with casual sex, in practice sex has the potential to be more rewarding with a partner who cares. If we don’t let it become humdrum, the rewards needn’t just be emotional either. Sex with a loving partner can be hotter – sexier – when we dare to be to be our most naked selves. That’s not just a girly thing.
(Just because any post about sex and love deserves a flower. This one was blooming in my garden a few weeks ago. Photo by me, Sungold.)