How Sex Is Different, Part I

I’ve got time to kill while waiting in LAX, so I might as well try to clarify my position on prostitution by saying how I think sex is different from other kinds of human activity. Obviously, sex is central to reproduction, and reproduction is central to natural selection, and natural selection is central to why we have the kind of minds and the kinds of sentiments we have. In particular, it looks like sex has an important attachment function for humans, helping to cement pair-bond relationships. Partly because of this function, sex turns out to be a lot of fun for humans, and we do it recreationally in a way that most primates don’t.

People fixated on discreditably vulgar versions of evolutionary psychology (in addition to making the naturalistic fallacy as if making the naturalistic fallacy is a path to riches) tend to miss the cultural variety in sexual norms within the uniformity of evolutionary logic. You don’t need Margaret Mead blank slate-ism to show that there is a fair amount of play in human sexual norms and sexual psychology. Even incest taboos are more variable than most are inclined to think. That said, it is true that there are regularities in male and female sexual psychology. Men will generally tend to be more indiscriminate in partner choice and women will tend be more concerned with screening. And it is also true that lack of paternity confidence will tend to make men extremely jealous and disposed to coordinate to control the sexual behavior of women. Concerted slut-shaming is a classic male strategy to raise the cost of female extra-pair coupling. Shaming norms and even articulate ideologies that reinforce the shared belief that women’s sexual liberty is hugely dangerous to the social order, and to women themselves, are very common and I think are largely explained by a mix of paternity confidence issues and male dominance of social and cultural institutions, which may also have a partly biological explanation.

To reify or essentialize this pattern, and to unthinkingly endorse it, is to compound mistake upon mistake. These kinds of patriarchal sexual mores have relaxed immensely in the West in the last half century and the result is that people–especially women–are doing much better, not worse, in the places where sexual liberalization has occurred. The specialness of sexual psychology mostly helps us to understand the panic about and strenuous resistance to liberalizing norms of female sexual autonomy. And the history of moral panic contrasted with the good results of actual recent sexual liberalization  gives us reason to be especially skeptical about the special damage that will come of deregulating women’s sexual behavior.

I want to say something more about what’s special about sexual experience itself, but I have to catch a plane.  

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