Recent debates about sex and sexuality, in the context of moral panics and attempts at censorship, have revealed a lack of understanding among “experts” of the core subject itself: human sexuality. Perhaps that’s not too surprising, given how taboo sex has been – and still is, for many.
Both left and right have found themselves equally drawn into the panic, each one imposing its own values on sexuality. Meanwhile, scientific understanding of the subject develops rapidly, and undermines the assumptions and dogma of both sides. The left rejoiced when it was discovered that homosexuality is ubiquitous in the animal kingdom. This demonstrated both that homosexuality is natural, evolved behaviour (rather than a modern-day “sin”) and that sex is about far more than procreation: it appears to have social and health purposes too.
But new research also undermines left-wing dogma. Many on the left are as keen to demonise prostitution as the right are to attack homosexuality. The existence of prostitution is blamed on “Capitalism” or the ethereal “Patriarchy”. And yet, we are discovering that the sex trade too has its origins deep back in nature. Conservatives on both sides of the political spectrum are keen to paint the animal kingdom as “innocent”, while we humans have somehow polluted and twisted our idea of sexuality in modern times. It is a deeply conservative view of the world – that somehow our ancestors were pure and unsullied, while modern society is dirty and tainted.
It becomes increasingly clear that all widespread sexual behaviours – including homosexuality, masturbation, prostitution and rape – are inheritances from our animal past. That we are still struggling to accept the first three, and eliminate the fourth, is a measure of how young our civilisation really is.
The evolution of gender created a massive imbalance in nature. Males (of any species) are designed to create vast numbers of offspring, while females can have relatively few. In humans, men have been known to father hundreds of children (and theoretically could father thousands), while a woman can manage – at great cost – a few dozen. The same imbalance exists across all sexual species, both plant and animal.
Economics take over. Such an imbalance of supply and demand will have consequences. A fertile human egg has huge value to a male, while sperm (as any young man or woman can tell you) are so common as to be almost worthless. Masturbation is one way in which the imbalance can be corrected, and this, too, is common in nature.
The anthropologist and author of some wonderful books, Jared Diamond, published a small book called Why Is Sex Fun, featuring a chapter titled Why Do Men Hunt? Here’s the spoiler: it’s not for nutrition. There are easier and safer ways to get good nutrition from plants and small animals. Men (in early societies) hunt because they can trade the meat for sex. Diamond shakes his head at the way in which successful hunters that he has studied, in tribal societies, use their catch to spread their seed around the village.
Diamond looked at the male perspective, but the corollary is: Why Don’t Women Hunt? I put a similar question to a “liberal” in a Twitter discussion, and they told me it was because The Patriarchy oppresses women, making them stay home and cook. And yet hunting is hard and dangerous. Cooking in the village is not. Similarly, in all modern societies, men take on the most dangerous jobs: soldier, fisherman, security, construction, late-night taxi driving, etc. Men have lower life expectancies than women, partly because they are far more likely to die from violence or accidents. Could The Patriarchy have its wires crossed? Why is it sending men off to do the nastiest, most dangerous jobs?
Just as the answer to Why Do Men Hunt? is: to increase their chances of having sex, so the answer to Why Don’t Women Hunt? is: because they don’t have to. Sex is the oldest commodity of them all, and female sex is far more valuable than male. The first commercial transaction between two humans was almost certainly a gift of food from a man to a woman in exchange for sex: people had nothing else to trade in pre-civilised times.
This isn’t human behaviour. It’s sexual behaviour. In an experiment in 2008, an economist introduced monkeys to the concept of currency, and they swiftly responded by inventing prostitution (to the great surprise of the researcher).
So how would men respond to this unfairness of nature? It’s obvious in hindsight: men would seize ownership of female sexuality and take it for themselves. The Bible is full of laws to enforce just this: laws which make a daughter the property of her father, to be sold in marriage to a man. Laws which punish rape as a property crime against a father, not a crime of violence against a girl. Female fertility, humankind’s most valuable possession, was stolen by men.
And now, beginning in the past couple of centuries, women are reclaiming their bodies. As women take back control of their own fertility – via their right to sleep with who they want, their right to contraception and abortion, and, still most contentiously, their right to sell sex – they have created a shock through a male-dominated economic order that is many centuries old.
Those who cling to the old order attack sluts, contraception, abortion and prostitution, not because they want to protect women, but because they want to restrain female economic power. They claim that these things weaken, rather than strengthen, women, and (in order to protect the poor, delicate things) they must be outlawed.
Progressives claimed the right to “sluttishness”, to contraception and abortion in the last great culture clashes of the 1960s. Today, front-line battles are being fought by sex workers against prejudice, hate and stigma. Conservatives are manning the barricades against them – and many of these conservatives have adopted liberal language, falsely linking prostitution to trafficking, and claiming to be saving, rather than attacking sex workers. This “saving fallen women” mantra is, of course, an old trick, often employed to keep women in their place.
This is the civil rights battle of the 21st century, and it demarcates the modern line between conservatism and progressivism.