Questions on: Relationships/Sexuality
I enjoyed reading your chapter on relationships but one thing did leave a dark cloud over my head: I'm currently separated from my girlfriend whom I love b/c I'm a sex addict and that new thrill of sex with another partner is something I constantly crave. But you seem to send different messages: one on hand you say that this issue needs to be worked out with your partner and on the other hand you say this which leaves me little hope for myself:
- quoted excerpt from 'Relationships' chapter: "Undoubtedly, one should avoid becoming involved with people who have a history of questionable behaviour, such as violence or infidelity, unless this is what you desire in a mate: changing character traits such as these, is usually beyond the abilities of the average person, and even mental health professionals have a rather low rate of success"
There are two perspectives relevant to your query: behaviour and instinct.
Instinct plays a significant role in sexuality (Part 7 on my website covers some of this). We are programmed to pair-bond in order to ensure that our potential offspring will receive the care necessary to perpetuate our genetic legacy. However, this innate monogamy is primarily an illusion, for we are also encoded to diversify the gene pool, meaning that members of our species (as well as others like us) surreptitiously engage in sexual intercourse outside of our pair-bonds.
Although, from an innate perspective, it is perfectly natural to desire other partners, and most people are adulterous, it is an action that normally is discreet. When we observe the behaviour of other animals that practice the illusion of monogamy, we can see that discovery usually has deadly consequences, hence it is in the best interests of procreation that creatures are not blatant in their indiscretions.
We have created a situation where social sexual behaviour is now governed more by culture than instinct. Things have changed from our beginnings, where for millions of years only a couple of hundred thousand people lived spread across a vast area, to our modern world where over six billion individuals live in, by natural standards, densely packed conditions. Social structure supersedes primal instinct, because, in order for predators such as ourselves to live in our own “anthill”, there must be a minimum of disruption. These social rules become part of what we term ethics. Sexual competition is the most powerful force affecting living things, and therefore sexual indiscretion is a powerful disruptive force amongst social animals. Social ethics now demand that we at least appear to be faithful. We do not need to practice promiscuity in order to diversify our gene pool anymore; numbers alone now ensure that humans provide for enough variety through mere chance, and our earlier programming no longer serves a purpose.
Some people live by moral values that preclude promiscuity. We can refer to this as social evolution: an adaptation to our artificial overcrowded environment. This does not mean that such individuals are superior nor inferior to those that still follow baser drives, they are only different. The problem is that the two distinct perspectives are incompatible in a pair-bond.
Certain patterns of behaviour are rooted in the subconscious, present due to past experiences, and usually from childhood. The level of sexual desire is dependent upon hormone levels and self-image. Androgens provoke physical desire, while psychological factors can prompt sexual behaviour because one connects sexuality with social status. Hormones govern quantity of desire, while psychological influences are often behind the urge for different partners.
If a person perceives promiscuity in a man as a demonstration of masculinity, an individual may wish to identify with this image of the “alpha male”. If one connects sex with love, that person may subconsciously see intercourse with numerous partners as being symbolic of being loved by many. When it is a simple matter of being a “sex addict”, then one person can fulfil the physical need. When it is a matter of desiring different conquests, then it is a manifestation of a mental need.
The compulsion for varied sexual seductions is frequently due to subconscious feeling of inadequacy, in that they are needed to bolster one’s ego. The reason promiscuous behaviour is difficult to change is because people are usually trying to treat a symptom, rather than the cause. Level of desire itself is physiological, but a fixation on having different partners is actually not sexual at all, but rooted in the need for positive reinforcement.
For example, latent homosexuals sometimes have intercourse with numerous females, for they are trying to “prove” to themselves that they are heterosexual. They do not in fact desire women, but their actions are an attempt to escape a mental dilemma (the desire for males) that they find intolerable. The problem is sexual in nature, but the activity of mating with women is grounded in fear.
Wanting to be faithful to one person can be difficult for someone who has not done so before. Undoing a lifetime of following a pattern based on specific defence-mechanisms can be a daunting task, particularly when the cause may be totally unrelated to anything sexual. Likewise, convincing someone to accept your infidelity when it is not in their nature to behave in the same manner, will probably fail over the long term.
There is nothing wrong with being promiscuous, provided it causes no harm to others. However, it is wrong when your actions cause emotional suffering in a person who is committed to you. I cannot give you a simple generic method for compromise in this matter, for every couple is different, and everyone sets their own standards as to what they are willing to concede in order to sustain a relationship. [back to FAQ index]
although numbers of partners was not addressed directly (in the 'Relationships' section), your arguments seemed to assume monogamy as the baseline of a healthy relationship
The “illusion” of monogamy is innate to creatures that produce offspring requiring extended care. Although insemination will, as frequently as not, be done by a male outside of the pair-bond; animals such as ourselves maintain a two-party relationship.
In many primates that form close family clans, we see a somewhat different behaviour: the females present a monogamous attitude, in that they give the appearance of mating with only the Alpha male (although DNA testing shows that they copulate with males outside of their troop), while the Alpha male controls all of the females. The offspring of these primates, however, develop much more rapidly than human infants, and are evolved to thrive in the somewhat generalised communal care environment (though offspring of questionable parentage are normally killed by the alpha male).
Some human cultures practice this form of primate partnering, and as such, is a natural option. However, based on the way this functions, it imposes a strong patriarchal system upon females, and re-establishes the male dominant/possessive order of nature: this has become unacceptable to much of society.
These points lead me to conclude that, from a mental perspective, monogamy fulfils the innate programming, as well as the demands of our culture. [back to FAQ index]
I wonder why you first say that monogamy is an ilusion, but later emphasize the importance of achieving a lasting monogamous relationship. "enlightement" seems quite paradoxical, because although it seems to consist of neglecting our basic animal instincts, it also seems to be realizing that the separation between the transcendental and ordinary is an illusion, a product of our minds.
You must keep in mind that my writing addresses the two types of humans: those who represent the gene pool, and those who are capable of truly independent reasoning. In most cases, I outline the typical behaviour of the vast majority, and the causes behind said behaviour, from an objective (or “outside”) perspective; I then go on to discuss the issues from the other perspective. Reasoned Spirituality is structured in such a way as to filter out readers who exist as blindly obedient members of the herd within the first few chapters - after all, it would be unethical to disturb the faith or mental well-being of such people by introducing the self-doubts that could arise from some of the later material.
Monogamy is an illusion, and the illusion is a very effective way for nature to ensure both the provision of care for creatures who produce highly dependent offspring, and genetic diversity. There are internal and external mechanisms in nature. A species simply functions with the intent to perpetuate, and this is done via efficient reproduction, even to the point of overpopulation - this is a mechanism internal to the species. An external mechanism controls the balance in the ecosystem, with predation, disease, and evolutionary factors controlling the population of a specific species relative to other life.
The majority will always follow their instinctive programming; males will be opportunistic breeders, simply looking for chances to distribute their genes; and females will be selective breeders, looking for better genetic sources. This system works fine in other animals that require the illusion of monogamy, provided they do not have the ability to realise it is an illusion. We, however, possess the ability to reason at a high level, and consequently problems arise. Even chimpanzees, who possess a rudimentary ability to reason in the abstract, have problems with their sexual programming, and many infant chimps are killed because the Alpha male is capable of comprehending that he has been “cheated on”.
Blind obedience to sexual instinct is appropriate for those who are able to live the illusion - consider that although most people are unfaithful, only a tiny percentage of these people believe that their partner would do the same. Being that most couples produce two children, statistics indicate that your typical male is unknowingly raising one child that is not his own. For people who are capable of allowing themselves to realise that their partner is being unfaithful, or for those who have no chance to repress the knowledge due to circumstances, serious social and personal difficulties can arise; hence for these people true monogamy is desirable.
Consider what effect this conflict between instinct and social ethics has had on society. People murder their spouse and their children. Divorce leads to single-parent families. Children raised by a single parent have a disproportionate rate of mental dysfunction and criminal activity. Promiscuity indirectly contributes to a high abortion rate. One in five people now have an incurable sexually-transmitted disease (primarily herpes and genital warts). In the Western countries, up to forty percent of people in the fifteen to twenty-four year old age group have a STD (primarily Chlamydia). Males experience severe depression after divorce, causing their suicide rate to double; children also suffer depression and other mental disorders.
For people who are not ruled by simple desire, monogamy is the ideal because it is difficult to comprehend why a person would jeopardise so much just for sex, so those driven by desire should partner with their kind, and those governed by reason should partner with their own kind. Separate paths, not contradiction.
Most people cannot ignore our sexual instincts, which is why I stress compromise, not “neglect”. Logically, billions of people will continue to breed indiscriminately, creating more than enough genetic diversity. Therefore, those who do not wish to participate are not affecting the intent of our programming: nature’s goals are being fulfilled. Some can choose to have relationships that are far deeper than the “breeding mechanism” put in place by nature - others can take care of the genetic aspect. [back to FAQ index]
Our closest relative in the animal kingdom use sex for many different reasons. I'm speaking of the Bonobo. Their motto seems to be "make love, not war" ... 'cause they resolve every conflict with sexual intercourse. Not just male with females - but between members of their own sex. I believe that goes to show that homosexuality isn't "abnormal" in nature, and that sexuality was ALSO created for social reasons, even between the members of the same sex, as it is with Bonobo chimps.
A social variation in sexual behaviour is not the core genetic programming, but rather the consequence of the innate reproductive drive. Whereas creatures with only rudimentary abstract reasoning skills follow a set of behaviours and mating rituals that are fairly easily interpreted, those with the ability to reason in a complex way create cultural patterns that are frequently empirical.
The Bonobo’s culture is unique. Their sexual behaviour is not so much indiscriminate-to-gender as it is indiscriminate: they will rub their genitals against anything in order to provide a pleasurable sensation. As Pavlov demonstrated, conditioning, either externally caused or via experience, can yield abstract manifestations. The Bonobo equates anything pleasurable to sex; males become erect at the sight of food. Their interaction is often a “pleasure token”, in that sexual contact lasts only a few seconds, and is meant to relate physical pleasure to the specific situation, rather than a complete sexual act. When they are, for lack of a more appropriate term, bored, they tend to engage in sex acts. Male to female intercourse is preferred, but all will engage in rubbing their genitalia against that of another, including same-sex partners; anal intercourse does not occur. What we term pedophilia is common, as is incestuous contact.
It is impossible to conclude whether this is a learned tradition, or part of their instinctive pattern of behaviour. All wild Bonobos in existence live within a relatively small territory, so due to the constant interaction between groups, cultural exchanges are possible (we have observed this in complex tool usage amongst Chimpanzees). The only way to verify Bonobo behaviour would be to create a troop made up of infants removed at birth, prior to socialisation. This cannot be done: Bonobos are emotionally-fragile animals, and even adults will die of loneliness or fright - they are both physically and psychologically dependent upon group support.
There are clues that could suggest their behaviour is learned. Although Bonobos possess an ability to reason in the abstract that is closer to our own than any other known animal, they do not make tools in the wild. When removed from their society, they demonstrate a remarkable ability to problem-solve and design tools. Unlike their closest relatives, man and the Chimpanzee, there is little support for infants beyond that of the mother. From a practical perspective, it would appear that their sexually-obsessive nature is counterproductive to survival; it distracts them from other things. Although they mate incessantly, their lack of interest in using tools to improve their situation and the neglect of their offspring seems to have an impact on the success of their species. Man has gone to great lengths to protect the Bonobo, yet they continue to be considered at risk for extinction.
Regardless of whether Bonobo behaviour is programmed or learned, sexuality amongst gregarious creatures certainly involves a social element. Once again, it is a matter of simple conditioning, in that there is a physical pleasure reward for physical contact, and a psychological reward for conforming to the behaviour of the group - that is, acceptance. Either way, these are consequences of innate mating drives.
There must be psycho-sexual bonds in order to ensure reproduction. Herd animals, such as man and his close primate relatives, form social groups because it is necessary for the survival of the species. Being that the sexual drive is such a powerful force, it is also an extremely efficient way to hold these herds together. Even pair-bonding is chemistry: the rush of specific hormones we define as romantic love compels creatures, who produce offspring requiring extended care, to form bonds. The brain shuts down this process after four to five years, which corresponds to the time when humans usually "fall out of” love. [back to FAQ index]
Copyright 1998 - 2004 B.W.Holmes - all rights reserved (unless noted otherwise). Quotes from ancient literary works do not carry a copyright.