"Patriotism is good here, but not for people in other countries"
A valued congregant once complained that I talk about sex too much. I sympathize with her. It’s a “touchy” topic. It stirs our hurts and hopes, our anxieties and arousals, our loneliness and lovingness. Is it the best of life, or is it what Andy Warhol quipped, “the biggest nothing there is”?
Fair warning: I won’t settle these stirrings.
Because I get a weekly report from Mailchimp on how few or many open and read this site, I know hardly any do. It takes days to read, think, and write such essays as my last two on Barbie – only to have them sail into the void. (Between Barbie and Oppenheimer and Is Barbie the Answer? can be read here under Writings.) My main urge is to write and publish, not push and promote. It’s hard to keep trying if few care.
But you’re here, reading. Well, loyal readers, read on. I’ll say what I’ve been reading towards a mini-essay and make excuses, but mainly, I’m not intuitively impelled enough to try to churn out something that others might like. I may delete this halting attempt in a few days.
This month I read something so complex and challenging that I’m not ready to report on it. Matt Ridley’s The Red Queen – Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature is a romp through many related scientific disciplines. He tells which theorists at which universities tweak which slant as scientific but volatile subjects goe into and out of vogue.
He’s witty and dense, loading up his points of view with far-reaching facts and speculations. His reductionism can easily become expansionism. He doesn’t hide it, though, “… I make no apologies for mixing animals and human beings together in this book,” he admits. From sparrows to whales, we all share a nature born of sex.
Sex comes in far more varied forms and for more reasons than we tend to think. The tendency for crystals, life forms, and memes (the ideas that survive, the counterpart to genes ) to replicate provides stability but relies on variety. We’d all be single cells merely replacing ourselves were it not for sex. We’d long ago have succumbed to parasites were it not for the salvific newness sex contributes. Sex allows for both continuity and newness.
Ridley reaches into the incredible variety of forms of sex, from forms that barely involve both sexes to forms that generate genders galore. He tends to generalize from this vast laboratory of variation reasons why we humans are as we are. His conclusions rile many, for he finds reasons why boys like guns and girls like dolls, why monogamy is as common as sneaking around, why guys like certain shapes in their girls, why men tend to go for younger women, and why girls like guys who other girls like and who have one form of power or another. All these have reasons – despite being currently non-PC.
King Atahualpa kept 1,500 women in his “House of Virgins” chosen at age eight to ensure their virginity. Most of the six different forms of civilization from 1700 BC to 1500 AD had leaders holding thousands of women in their harams, breeding machines for the emperors. Lesser leaders had smaller harams. The remnants of Genghis Khan’s DNA are more common in humans than any other single source. In France, his wife and his mistress publicly attended the leader’s memorial. In our Puritan Culture, Gary Hart lost his bid for the presidency for having had an affair and got caught. Curiously, the ostensibly prudish evangelical Christians gave Donald Trump a pass, praising him despite his announced penchant for “grabbing them by the pussy.”
Even the supposed prohibition against incest turns out to be politically influenced. The early Christian church banned it within royal families to loosen up the entrenched power of such dynasties.
Men seek variety and quantity in women; women seek stability. Female homosexuals pair up in stable bonds; male homosexuals have hundreds or even thousands of hood-ups. In between these, heterosexual monogamy is praised but eluded. Men notoriously sneak. So do some women. Even loyal wives who pair up with stable husbands can have sudden flings with macho bad boys. Such genetic rule breakers are more common than realized. We’re made of this stuff.
Volatile though these ideas are, we inherit some sort of mix from the countless generations of fuckers who led to us as we are. “Come as you are” would be an honest invite to a nudist party, wouldn’t it? No one looks that perfect or bad. We are as we are, meaning we’re uneasy about it.
Christopher Ryan’s interesting book Sex at Dawn – the Prehistory of Modern Sexuality presents paradoxical extremes for humans: that we’re more sexual than most other animals (doing it round the clock and calendar), and we’re the only animals to do it in the bushes (hiding what we like and do). He highlights ancient and current cultures that affirm and enjoy the erotic, sharing their sexuality rather than constraining and punishing it.
Gorillas are monogamous, protecting territory. A female gorilla mates about ten times per birth. They’re nowhere as libertine as chimps, who mate over a thousand times per birth, and bonobos, who do so three times more than chimps! What would humans do if they weren’t morally and legally constrained? That question scares many.
I’m appreciative of Rabbi Marc Gafni of One Mountain, Many Paths for affirming our erotic nature as our piece of the cosmic erotic force built into everything from atoms to molecules to cells to animals to us to the cosmic whirl all about us. He, like me, is critical of the Barbie movie. We are here to awaken a renewed source of value, a new dawn of desire. We aren’t here to be doomers, deniers, or dominators. He calls on us to inconvenience ourselves by becoming cheerleaders, stepping into the Field of Play, our Joy.
(You might enjoy his initial take on the Barbie movie here: https://medium.com/office-for-the-future/363-reading-barbie-as-a-text-of-culture-the-tragic-rejection-of-the-universe-a-love-story-9e3918d3abb5 . Further elaborations are coming via that address.)
I was glad to see Ridley explore the prehistoric rapid development of our brain size coupled with our neoteny – the tendency to look younger and last longer. If we were to gestate as long as the other apes, we’d be born at twenty-one months. That we’re born at nine means we’re all that much more helpless and dependent. We can get our big brains out without wrecking the fetus or the mother, but that then means we need more care. This implies family and even culture. Language takes brain space, as does singing and dancing.
So, here we go with our big brains, our songs and stories, our yearnings, learnings, and churnings. Our culture seems to have wandered into titillation and alienation about sex. Gender discomfort is rife. I feel sorry for the young ones of breeding age. Bob Dylan warned “We’re afraid to bring children into this world” and all the former norms on how males should relate to females, now resented, uncertain, and unsettled, have young couples horny but lonely.
Sorry, readers, if you wanted a more conclusive essay. This hurried, choppy one only glances at the rich and controversial work of Matt Ridley. Comprehensive and penetrating though he is of such a vast subject, the subject is even more subtly vast in us. Why do we have preferences in our desires? Is it only arbitrary conditioning? What ancient and perhaps wise force is that? The woes and worries of the world challenge us to keep on trying. Despite shame and sorrow, big-brained babes need to be born. We only know a bit about who we were, are, and might be.