Monday, October 13, 2014

The Functions of Sex

Every so often, as I cover every subject I can think of in the belief that everything is connected--and everything is related to social change and community--I occasionally come to the subject of sex.  I've mentioned several times that I am pansexual (I used to use the term bisexual--but that implies that there are either only two sexes or that I'm only interested in two of them) and polyamorous.  These days I sometimes think of myself as panamorous--I'm learning to love everybody and everything.

I'm very aware that sex is only one way (out of perhaps zillions) of loving another person, but it's a very important one and one that's quite lovely to me and many other folks.  I'm also very aware that this isn't a useful way of loving for some people and actual talking about it upsets some folks, so I don't talk about it much.

I am also not surprised, and can understand it, when certain religious people claim that the only function of sex is for procreation.  I am much more surprised, and rather dismayed, when I hear that claim from more science-oriented folks.

In my last post (The Body's Wisdom), I reviewed Sherwin Nuland's book The Wisdom of the Body.  I really liked it, as I said in the review, and want to point out that he covers many of the body's systems in some detail: the circulatory system, lymphatic system, the nervous system, the hormonal system, the alimentary (gastrointestinal) system, and the reproductive system.  And I learned from and enjoyed almost everything he wrote, except when he was writing about the reproductive system.

Here is a condensed (and, I think, representative) sample of what he wrote:

"Our reproductive organs... contribute nothing to our survival.  ... they contribute everything to our ability to reproduce ourselves.
"...The entire female reproductive system exists to serve the needs of the ovary.  The whole complex of uterus, tubes, vagina, and external genitals has as its sole function to ensure that the ovary's primary product, the ovum, is properly cared for. ...
"The ovum's blind quest... is one of the most powerful primordial forces in the creation of what we call human nature. ... We know that the urge to reproduce is a prime mover in all other animals--why not ourselves?  Were it otherwise, our species would die out.
"... We seek a course toward  reproducing our own kind through the maze and morass of contradictory drives... The complex and uncertain journey is not made one iota easier by ... being directed toward what is ultimately, under its many-layered raiment of sexuality, the simple need that an ovum be fertilized."

There is no question that one of the main functions of sexuality is reproduction.  For many creatures, from earthworms to aardvarks, that may be the sole function.  (Although I strongly suspect that earthworms, not to mention aardvarks, enjoy the process.)  I don't believe that's true when we are talking about primates.  Sex has a whole bunch of functions for human beings and even for our closest relatives, the chimpanzees and the bonobos.  (For a bit more on this see my post Bonobos and Chimpanzees, 7/30/08.)   As primatologist Frans de Waal once pointed out, "Chimps use violence to get sex, while bonobos use sex to avoid violence." No one who studied bonobos would believe that their only use of sex was for reproduction.

I want to look at three of what I think are the main functions of sex for human beings.  (I suspect that there are others, but this is what I want to focus on.)

And, yes, the first is reproduction.  If we didn't have sex and reproduce, we would, as Sherwin Nuland pointed out, die out.  The Shakers are an interesting example of that.  On the other hand, what Dr Nuland and many other advocates of sex as reproduction fail to observe is that we are now in a situation of population overshoot. We don't need to always reproduce--in fact, increasing reproduction may also cause the human race to die off.  (For more on controlling population see my very early post Five Simple Things You Can Do to Reduce Population, 8/21/08.)

This also fails to observe how important sex is for same sex couples and even heterosexual couples that don't want children--or couples who have had children and don't want more or are beyond the age of child bearing.  (Not to mention for people who engage in non-couple sex like masturbation, threesomes, etc.)  This is one of the main reasons heterosexual people practice birth control--they want to have sex without reproducing.  And I've never heard even religious groups say that couples beyond their reproductive years have to stop having sex.  Sex must have a purpose beyond reproduction.

Here's one.  Pleasure.  Sex is pleasurable and there's nothing wrong with that.  In fact, I think that one of the nicest functions of sex is to give another person pleasure.  Yes, we ourselves get pleasure from sex, but what a gift it is to give pleasure to another person--hopefully making them very happy.  I think this is a wonderful function of sex.

And here's another.  Connection.  Sex is one way (but hardly the only way) to help people feel closer.  It literally can be a way to connect very closely with another human.

There are many, many people using sex for pleasure and connection, as a way of being loving with another person (or with themselves) who have no interest in using it to have children.  While reproduction is important (and problematic as well) it is hardly the only function of sex.

Quote of the Day:  "Sex is for pleasure, a complete and worthwhile goal in and of itself. People have sex because it feels very good, and then they feel good about themselves." -  Dossie Easton and Catherine Liszt

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