The War Against Acknowledging and Embracing the Force of the Female Sex Drive (Love vs Sex 241)

In 1850, the New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal declared masturbation public enemy number one, warning: “Neither plague, nor war, nor smallpox, nor a crowd of similar evils, have resulted more disastrously for humanity than the habit of masturbation: it is the destroying element of civilized society.”

Children and adults were warned that masturbation was not only sinful, but very dangerous—sure to result in severe health consequences, including blindness, infertility, and insanity. Besides, these atrocities intoned, “normal” women has little sexual desire anyway.

In his Psychopathia Sexualis, published in 1886, German neurologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing declared what everyone already thought they knew: “If [a woman] is normally developed mentally and well-bred, her sexual desire is small. If this were not so, the whole world would become a brothel and marriage and a family impossible.” To have suggested that women enjoyed, indeed needed regular orgasmic release, would have been shocking to men and humiliating to most women. Perhaps it still is.

While the anti-masturbation frenzy has roots deep in Judeo-Christian history, it found unfortunate medical support in Simon André Tissot’s A Treatise on the Disease Produced by Onanism, published in 1758. Tissot apparently recognized the symptoms of syphilis and gonorrhea, which were considered a single disease at the time. But he misunderstood these symptoms as signs of semen depletion due to promiscuity, prostitution, and masturbation.

A century later, in 1858, a British gynecologist named Isaac Baker Brown (president of the Medical Society of London at the time) proposed that most women’s diseases were attributable to overexcitement of the nervous system, with the pudic nerve, which runs to the clitoris, being particularly culpable. He listed the eight stages of progressive disease triggered by female masturbation:

  1. Hysteria
  2. Spinal irritation
  3. Hysterical epilepsy
  4. Cataleptic fits
  5. Epileptic fits
  6. Idiocy
  7. Mania
  8. Death

Baker Brown argued that surgical removal of the clitoris was the best way to prevent this fatal slide from pleasure to idiocy to death. After gaining considerable celebrity and performing an unknown number of clitorectomies, Baker Brown’s methods fell out of favor and he was expelled from the London Obstetrical Society in disgrace. Baker Brown subsequently went insane, and clitorectomy was discredited in British medical circles.

Unfortunately, Baker Brown’s writing had already had a significant impact on medical practices across the Atlantic. Clitorectomies continued to be performed in the United States well into the twentieth century as a cure for hysteria, nymphomania, and female masturbation. As late as 1936, Holt’s Diseases of Infancy and Childhood, a respected medical- school text, recommended surgical removal or cauterization of the clitoris as a cure for masturbation in girls.

By the middle of the twentieth century, as the procedure was finally falling into disrepute in the United States it was revived with a new rationale. Now, rather than a way to stomp out masturbation, surgical removal of large clitorises was recommended for cosmetic purposes.

Recent estimates by the World Health Organization suggest that more than 100 million girls and women are living with the consequences of genital mutilation.

Before the war on drugs, the war on terror, or the war on cancer, there was the war on female sexual desire. It’s a war that has been raging far longer than any other, and its victims number well into the billions by now. Like the others, it’s a war that can never be won, as the declared enemy is a force of nature. We may as well declare war on the cycles of the moon.

If psychiatrist Mary Jane Sherfey was correct when she wrote, “The strength of the drive determines the force required to suppress it” (an observation downright Newtonian in its irrefutable simplicity), then what are we to make of the force brought to bear on the suppression of the female libido?

Sex at Dawn

Ryan and Jethá          2010

The History of Hysteria: Pathologizing the Female Libido (Love vs Sex 240)

Hysteria was one of the first diseases to be described formally. Hippocrates discussed it in the fourth century BCE, and you’ll find it in many medical text covering women’s health written from medieval times until it was removed from the list of recognized medical diagnoses in 1952 (twenty-one years before homosexuality was finally removed). Hysteria was still one of the most diagnosed diseases in the Unites States and Great Britain as recently as the early twentieth century. You might wonder how physicians treated this chronic condition over the centuries.

We’ll tell you. Doctors masturbated their female patients to orgasim. According to historian Rachel Maines, female patients were routinely massaged to orgasm from the time of Hippocrates until the 1920s. Have a seat; the doctor will be right with you. . . .

While some passed the job off to nurses, most physicians performed the therapy themselves, though apparently not without some difficulty. Nathaniel Highmore, writing in 1660, noted that it was not an easy technique to learn, being “not unlike that game of boys in which they try to rub their stomachs with one hand and pat their heads with the other.”

Whatever challenges male physicians faced in mastering the technique, it seems to have been worth the effort. The Health and Diseases of Women, published in 1873, estimates that about 75 percent of American women were in need of these treatments and that they constituted the single largest market for therapeutic services.

Much of this information comes from The Technology of Orgasm, Maines’s wonderful book on this “disease” and its treatment through the centuries. And what were the symptoms of this “disease”? Unsurprisingly, they were identical to those of sexual frustration and chronic (unsatiated) arousal: “anxiety, sleeplessness, irritability, nervousness, erotic fantasy, sensations of heaviness in the abdomen, lower pelvic edema, and vaginal lubrication.”

This supposed medical treatment for horny, frustrated women was not an isolated aberration confined to ancient history, but just one element in an ancient crusade to pathologize the demands of the female libido—a libido that experts have long insisted hardly existed.

The men who provided this lucrative therapy didn’t write about “orgasm” in the medical articles they published on hysteria and its treatment. Rather, they published serious, sober discussion of “vulvular massage” leading to “nervous paroxysm” that brought temporary relief to the patient.

Maines found “no evidence that male physicians enjoyed providing pelvic massage treatments. On the contrary, this male elite sought every opportunity to substitute other devices for their fingers.”

(The Hamilton Beach Company of Racine, Wisconsin, patented the first home-use vibrator in 1902, making it {only} the fifth electrical appliance approved for domestic use. By 1917, there were more vibrators than toasters in American homes.)

Sex at Dawn

Ryan and Jethá          2010

 

 

 

Cojones Grandes (Love vs Sex 239)

Moderate body-size dimorphism isn’t the only anatomical suggestion of promiscuity in our species. The ratio of testicular volume to overall body mass can be used to read the degree of sperm competition in any species. Jared Diamond considers the theory of testis size to be “one of the triumphs of modern physical anthropology.” Like most great ideas, the theory of testis size is simple: species that copulate more often need larger testes, and species in which several males routinely copulate with one ovulating female need even bigger testes.

If a species has cojones grandes, you can bet that males have frequent ejaculations with females that sleep around. Where the females save it for Mr. Right, the males have smaller testes, relative to their overall body mass. The correlation of slutty females with big balled males appears to apply not only to humans and other primates, but to many other mammals, as well as to birds, butterflies, reptiles, and fish.

In gorillas’, winner-take-all approach to mating, males compete to see who gets all the booty, as it were. So, although an adult silverback gorilla weighs in at about four hundred pounds, his penis is just over an inch long, at full mast, and his testicles are the size of kidney beans, though you’d have trouble finding them, as they’re safely tucked up inside his body. A one-hundred-pound bonobo has a penis three times as long as the gorilla’s and testicles the size of chicken eggs. The extra-large, AAA type. In bonobos, since everybody gets some sugar, the competition takes place on the level of the sperm cell, not at the level of the individual male. Still, although almost all bonobos are having sex, given the realities of biological reproduction, each baby bonobo, still has only one biological father.

So the game’s still the same—getting one’s genes into the future—but the field of play is different. With harem-based polygynous systems like the gorilla’s, individual males fight it out before any sex takes place. In sperm competition, the cells fight in there so males don’t have to fight out here. Instead, males can relax around one another, allowing larger group sizes, enhancing cooperation, and avoiding disruption of the social dynamic. This helps explain why no primate living in multimale social groups is monogamous. It just would not work.

As always, natural selection targets the relevant organs and systems for adaptation. Through the generations, male gorillas evolved impressive muscles for their reproductive struggle, while their relatively unimportant genitals dwindled down to the bare minimum needed for uncontested fertilization. Conversely, male chimps, bonobos, and humans had less need for oversized muscles for fighting but evolved larger, more powerful testicles and, in the case of humans, a much more interesting penis.

We can almost hear some of our readers thinking, “But my testicles aren’t the size of chicken eggs!” No, they’re not. But we’re guessing they’re not tiny kidney beans tucked up inside your abdomen, either. Humans fall in the middle ground between gorillas and bonobos on the testicular volume/body-mass scale. Those who argue that our species has been sexually monogamous for millions of years point out that human testicles are smaller than those of chimps and bonobos. Those who challenge this narrative (like us, for example) note that human testicular ratios are far beyond those of the polygynous gorilla or the monogamous gibbon.

So, is the scrotum half-empty or half-full?

Sex at Dawn

Ryan and Jethá          2010

 

 

What If’s of Erotic Love (Love vs Sex 238)

First-born children often feel jealous when a younger sibling is born. Wise parents make a special point of reassuring the child that she’ll always be special, that the baby doesn’t represent any kind of threat to her status, and that there’s plenty of love for everyone. Why is it so easy to believe that a mother’s love isn’t a zero-sum proposition, but that sexual love is a finite source? Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins asks the pertinent question with  characteristic elegance: “Is it so very obvious that you can’t love more than one person? We seem to manage it with parental love (parents are reproached if they don’t at least pretend to love all their children equally), love of books, of food, of wine (love of Château Margaux does not preclude love of a fine Hock, and we don’t feel unfaithful to the red when we dally with the white), love of composers, poets, holiday beaches, friends…why is erotic love the one exception that everybody instantly acknowledges without even thinking about it?”

Why indeed? How would the prevalence and experience of jealousy be affected in Western societies if the economic dependence trapping most women and their children didn’t exist, leading female sexual access to be a tightly controlled commodity? What if economic security and guilt-free sexual friendships were easily available to almost all men and women, as they are in many of the societies we’ve discussed, as well as among our closest primate cousins? What if no woman had to worry that a ruptured relationship would leave her and her children destitute and vulnerable? What if average guys knew they’d never have to worry about finding someone to love? What if we didn’t all grow up hearing that true love is obsessive and possessive? What if, like the Mosuo, we revered the dignity and autonomy of those we loved? What if, in other words, sex, love, and economic security were as available to us as they were to our ancestors?

If fear is removed from jealousy, what’s left?

Human beings will be happier—not when they cure cancer or get to Mars or eliminate racial prejudice or flush Lake Erie but when they find ways to inhabit primitive communities again. That’s my utopia.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

According to E. O. Wilson, “all that we can surmise of humankind’s genetic history argues for a more liberal sexual morality, in which sexual practices are to be regarded first as bonding devices and only second as a means of procreation.” We couldn’t have said it better. But if human sexuality developed primarily as a bonding mechanism in interdependent bands where paternity certainly was a nonissue, then the standard narrative of human sexual evolution is toast.

Sex at Dawn

Ryan and Jethá          2010

 

 

Rendering the Normal and the Abnormal against our Natural State (Love vs Sex 236)

It bears repeating that we are not attributing any particular nobility or, for that matter, ignobility to foragers. Some behaviors that seem normal to contemporary people would quickly destroy many small-scale foraging societies, rendering them dysfunctional. Unrestrained self-interest in particular, whether expressed as food-hoarding or excessive sexual possessiveness, is a direct threat to group cohesion and is therefore considered shameful and ridiculous.

Is there any doubt that societies can reshape such impulses?

Right now, girl’s necks are being elongated ring by brass ring in parts of Thailand and Burma to make them more appealing to men. Clitorises are being cut away and labia sewn together in villages all over North Africa to dampen female desire, while in glamorous California, reduction labioplasty and other cosmetic vaginal surgeries have recently become a booming business. Elsewhere, the penises of boys are being circumcised or split open in ritualistic subincision. You get the point.

From savoring saliva beer or cow blood milkshakes to wearing socks with sandals, there is little doubt that people are willing to think, feel, wear, do, and believe pretty much anything if their society assures them it’s normal.

Social forces that convince people to stretch their necks beyond the breaking point, schmush the heads of their infants, or sell their daughters into sacred prostitution are quite capable of reshaping or neutralizing sexual jealousy by rendering it silly and ridiculous. By rendering it abnormal.

Sex at Dawn

Ryan and Jethá          2010

  

Animalistic Sexuality (Love vs Sex 234)

Our unique brains result from our chatty sociability. Though debate rages concerning precisely why the human brain grew so quickly, most would agree with the anthropologist Terrence W. Deacon when he writes, “The human brain has been shaped by evolutionary processes that elaborated the capacities needed for language, and not just by a general demand for greater intelligence.”

In a classic feedback loop, our big brains both serve our need for complex, subtle communication and result from it. Language, in turn, enables our deepest, most human feature: the ability to form and maintain a flexible, multidimensional, adaptive social network. Before and beyond anything else, human beings are the most social of all creatures.

We have another quality that is especially human in addition to our disproportionately large brains and associated capacity for language. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is also something woven into our all-important social fabric: our exaggerated sexuality.

No animal spends more of its allotted time on Earth fussing over sex than Homo sapiens—not even the famously libidinous bonobo. Although we and the bonobo both average well into the hundreds , if not thousands, of acts of intercourse per birth—way ahead of any other primate—their “acts” are far briefer than ours. Pair-bonded “monogamous” animals are almost always hyposexual, having sex as the Vatican recommends: infrequently, quietly, and for reproduction only. Human beings, regardless of religion, are at the other end of the libidinal spectrum: hypersexuality personified.

Human beings and bonobos use eroticism for pleasure, for solidifying friendship, and for cementing a deal (recall that historically, marriage is more akin to a corporate merger than a declaration of eternal love). For these two species (and apparently only these two species), nonreproductive sex is “natural,” a defining characteristic.

Does all of this frivolous sex make our species sound “animalistic”? It shouldn’t. The animal world is full of species that have sex only during widely spaced intervals when the female is ovulating. Only two species can do it week in and week out for nonreproductive reasons: one human, the other very human like. Sex for pleasure with various partners is therefore more “human” than animal. Strictly reproductive, once-in-a-blue-moon sex is more “animal” than human. In other words, an excessively horny monkey is acting “human,” while a man or woman uninterested in sex more than once or twice a year would be, strictly speaking, “acting like an animal.”

Sex at Dawn

Ryan and Jethá          2010

How Women and Paternity Became Private Property along with Everything Else (Love vs Sex 233)

Clearly, the biggest loser (aside from slaves, perhaps) in the agricultural revolution was the human female, who went from occupying a central, respected role in foraging societies to becoming another possession for a man to earn and defend, along with his house, slaves, and livestock.

“The origins of farming,” says archeologist Steven Mithen, “is the defining event of human history—the one turning point that has resulted in modern humans having a quite different type of lifestyle and cognition to all other animals and past types of humans.” The most important pivot point in the story of our species, the shift to agriculture redirected the trajectory of human life more fundamentally than the control of fire, the Magna Carta, the printing press, the steam engine, nuclear fission, or anything else has or, perhaps, ever will. With agriculture virtually everything changed: the nature of status and power, social and family structures, how humans interacted with the natural world, the gods they worshipped, the likelihood and nature of warfare between groups, quality of life, longevity, and certainly, the rules governing sexuality. His survey of the relevant archaeological evidence led archaeologist Timothy Taylor, author of The Prehistory of Sex, to state, “While hunter-gatherer sex had been modeled on an idea of sharing and complementarity, early agriculturalist sex was voyeuristic, repressive, homophobic, and focused on reproduction.” “Afraid of the wild,” he concludes, “farmers set out to destroy it.”

Land could now be possessed, owned, and passed won the generations. Food that had been hunted and gathered now had to be sowed, tended, harvested, stored, defended, bought, and sold. Fences, walls, and irrigation systems had to be built and reinforced; armies to defend it all had to be raised, fed, and controlled. Because of private property, for the first time in the history of our species, paternity became a crucial concern.

But the standard narrative insists that paternity certainly has always been of utmost importance to our species, that our very genes dictate we organize our sexual lives around it. Why, then, is the anthropological record so rich with examples of societies where biological paternity is of so little or no importance? Where paternity is unimportant, men tend to be relatively unconcerned about women’s sexual fidelity.

Sex at Dawn

Ryan and Jethá          2010