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When evolution, human sexuality, and the Western world collide.
Posted Oct 06, 2019
Note: This guest post is co-authored by Marianne Brandon and James Simon, with an epilogue by Glenn Geher.
His wife had gone to bed early, so he locked the basement door to ensure privacy. He had planned this moment all day. Unlike his wife, who seemingly had lost interest in sex years ago, his lover was waiting downstairs, eager to please. Never critical or demanding, with such soft eyes and skin, sex had become such a pleasure. He had even come to love the way his lover pronounced his name. In spite of being a robot, she somehow managed to say it with such tenderness. . .
We have become a massive, unintended sexual experiment. Our understanding of sex and gender is evolving at astonishing rates. Paradoxically, as powerful, exhilarating, and necessary as this process is for our collective future, we are simultaneously at a perilous moment for the future of intimacy and intimate relationships.
Forcing sex into a politically correct paradigm annihilates it.
Sexual frequency today is less than all prior decades studied—at least, people are having less sex with their partners. Rates of sexual dissatisfaction and sexual dysfunction are astoundingly high. This is due to a variety of factors that are merging to create a perfect storm—technological advances, mobile lifestyles, increasing daily tasks, rising expectations for long-term relationships, and information overload.
Yet there is something even more fundamentally awry. The very empowering of women and the culturally valued softening of men has suddenly created a new way of engaging in the bedroom as much as in the boardroom, and our evolutionary psychology has not caught up. This is a serious social problem because intimacy is not an expendable aspect of humanity.
Our insistence that men and women are more alike than different is true in almost all aspects of living, except for sex. Human sexuality—the sexuality of all mammals in general and primates in particular—has primal, biological roots. And when people work with, rather than against, these instincts, their sex gets better. Gender equality does not imply gender equivalence—at least, not in the bedroom.
The extraordinary gains provided by the feminist movement have been a thrilling first in modern history. Women’s expectations about sex have appropriately changed: They demand more pleasure from sex and an equal romantic partnership; women are more comfortable engaging in sexually open behaviors, including hook-ups and sexual experimentation.
It is not just women who have benefited. In contrast to old-fashioned, male sexual stereotypes, many mature men today enjoy sexually assertive women. They appreciate a social climate that supports releasing restrictive pressures always to be ready and interested in sex: always having to be the sexual initiator, and being responsible for their partners’ sexual pleasure. These shifts are reflected in many men gravitating to sexual relationships with older women, their interest in being the primary caretaker of their children, and a decreased concern with being the primary breadwinner of a household.
Many men are pleased to have escaped the pressure of old-fashioned stereotypes of masculinity—being eternally dominant, carrying the financial burden of the household, having a reduced role in parenting, and avoiding emotional expression. And those who identify with a non-binary sexual identity may now live authentically, with freedom of self-expression.
In spite of these many hard-fought liberties for all genders, in some surprising and very significant ways, sex has become more complicated. In the privacy of our respective psychological medical practices, we regularly hear women say, “In the bedroom, he is passive. Almost meek. It’s hard to respect him, let alone have sex with him!” Or, “He’s so cautious and hesitant in the bedroom! It’s such a turnoff.”
Outside of sexual role play in certain fetishistic circles, for most women, there is no pleasure in sexually dominating a weaker partner. For women in long-term, committed relationships, the exquisite feeling of sexual surrender may paradoxically be more likely to unfold with men who express their sensuality in a more bold, self-assured style—literally, when she’s not the strongest force in the bedroom.
The truth is that modern women enjoy the more lusty, primal aspects of love-making. Polite sex holds little interest for them—they’d rather do the dishes. And what about men? Despite the valuable outing of abhorrent men via #MeToo, our culture is filled with men who respect women, and who long to share fulfilling sexual relationships with the women they love.
These men have learned that to show respect to their female partners, they should obtain verbal permission for sex, and to avoid at all costs any behavior in the bedroom that may be regarded as aggressive or dominant. This sounds right in theory. Yet behind the closed doors of our offices, wives and girlfriends experience these men as passive and uninteresting in the bedroom. And before long, sex ceases.
What we are failing to recognize is that exciting, primal sex in a trusting, respectful relationship requires the same elements we vilify in men today. We teach men to contain their sexual interest, resist assertive overtures, and hide their sexual longing. How confusing it must be for a man to develop a sensitive, responsive, polite sexual style, only to be ultimately told by the woman he marries that he is a boring and uninteresting lover. How depressing for a woman who is confident and secure in her sexuality to feel sexually unmet by the man who is to be her sexual playmate for a lifetime.
Experiencing her partner’s sexual confidence and longing is a fundamental aspect of good sex for a majority of women. Stripping men of their sexual assertiveness diffuses women’s sexual pleasure. Women are not experiencing this shift in their relationship and sexual dynamics as empowering. They are grief-stricken over what their lives are missing.
In our noble efforts to make sex politically correct, we are ignoring a fundamental aspect of sexuality. Exciting sex—primal sex—emanates from the more ancient biology we share with other mammals. Our biological nature has instilled in all male and female mammals some basic, unique instincts that make them want sex. Human bodies continue to respond to sexual triggers as our ancestors did, thousands of years ago.
Our combination of an evolved cerebral cortex coupled with our primitive sexual biology presents interesting and often challenging scenarios for us all. While our minds have matured and evolved to think in very different ways than our primate ancestors, our bodies continue to receive sexual marching orders from our more primitive brain regions. Herein lies the potential for infinite difficulty. Without comfort with our most basic sexual instincts as male or female, it is challenging to build a creative sexual repertoire with a beloved long-term partner.
Without sex, couples describe themselves as best friends. Proud as such couples may be of feeling close and connected, they lack the desire to make love. What’s at stake here is something very basic to our humanity—our deepest connection to our chosen other, and to our own sexual selves.
We are heading down a dangerous path, yet we also have before us an extraordinary opportunity. For the first time in history, because of the equality and respect prompted by the feminist movement, we have the capacity to manifest extraordinary sex in long-term, committed relationships. Triumphantly, a woman can now choose to feel vulnerable during sex, because it feels good—not because she is forced into that role.
Exploring sex and relationships from an evolutionary perspective does not imply that men and women are destined to return to fixed sexual roles. An immutable sexual style would be unappealing for most modern couples. But comfort in our most basic instincts enables couples to manifest potent sexual reflexes that have more recently been denied.
Our next undertaking as feminists, male and female, is to return to our core and collect what is precious that we have lost in these last decades of battle. Our efforts to make sex less about the primal brain and, instead, more politically correct, are forcing exciting sex onto a darker playground. Increasingly, men and women are seeking outlets for their primal sexual energy that can be damaging to their intimate relationships, such as overuse of porn and extramarital affairs.
Sex robots will soon offer non-critical, always-available alternatives for those who find sexual relationships uncomfortably complex, anxiety-provoking, or just too much hassle. Technology can accomplish what sex used to—procreation and sexual satisfaction.
This future is not simply a sci-fi story. It is the next logical step from where we are. However, we can choose a different path. Passionate love-making and intimacy do not have to be a casualty of our social growth. Harnessing sexual instincts within a trusting, mutually respectful, intimate relationship can offer the glue that keeps intimacy strong and desirable. It feeds more than our sexual needs; it feeds the soul of our humanity.
Epilogue, by Glenn Geher
Understanding our sexuality is foundational to understanding the human experience. The nature of human sexuality evolved over millennia. Reproduction is as basic as any process when it comes to the living world.
Cultural evolution, which is ultimately a product of our biological evolution, progresses at a rapid pace compared with the pace of organic evolution. Cultural evolution is exciting and profound. As Drs. Brandon and Simon have articulated so clearly here, norms surrounding relationships and sexuality, resulting from cultural evolution, have been advancing at breakneck speed over the past several decades, leading to all kinds of novel attitudes, beliefs, and technologies.
While our brave new world has lots of amazing new opportunities and affordances for all of us, we need to always keep in mind that the modern world is deeply mismatched from ancestral human conditions in many important ways. (For more, see, Positive Evolutionary Psychology, by Geher & Wedberg.) And evolutionary mismatch often leads to problems.
When modern technology and human mating meet head-on, as is the case with sex robots and pornography, we need to look before we leap. Our evolved relationship psychology is the result of thousands of generations of organic evolution. As Drs. Brandon and Simon warn, we ignore our evolved sexual psychology to our own peril.
Marianne Brandon is a clinical psychologist and Diplomat in sex therapy. She is the author of Monogamy: The Untold Story, co-author of Reclaiming Desire: 4 Keys to Finding Your Lost Libido, and author of the ebook Unlocking the Sexy In Surrender: Using the Neuroscience of Power to Recharge Your Sex Life, as well as professional articles exploring evolutionary theory and sexuality, the challenges of monogamy, gender differences in sexual expression, and aging and sex.
James Simon is a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the George Washington University School of Medicine, and he is the current President of the International Society for Study of Women’s Sexual Health. Simon served as principal investigator on more than 300 clinical trials, research grants, and scholarships in the area of women’s health. He has consistently been ranked as a top doctor nationally and internationally.
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