Senator Ben Sasse recently observed, apropos of Rousseau’s "Emile," that it “turned out sex was really similar most centuries.” Sex is the cornerstone of human evolution, and evolution is an inherently conservative institution, killing far more innovations than it allows to thrive. So it would hardly be surprising if we humans stayed with the same basic standbys in bed.
Hardly surprising, either, that this assumption is widespread in both speculative and historical fiction. Open a historical novel, and you’ll find characters who would, sexually speaking, not have much difficulty fitting into the 21st century dating scene. Authors usually pay lip service to the era’s taboos, and sometimes use them as plot devices. But even there, the assumption is that what is being suppressed, or happening on the sly, is pretty much the same as what 21st century Americans enjoy, or wish they were enjoying. Humans have been having sex for millions of years. How different could it have been?
Quite, argues sociologist Gabriel Rossman. (The link is frank, but not prurient.) Ask an anthropologist, or a classicist, just how different it can be. Even things that look superficially similar -- Greek tolerance toward homosexuality, for example -- turn out upon closer examination to have been quite different. It wasn't what we call “homosexuality”; neither the social nor the physical activity resemble a modern gay couple all that closely.
Since this is a family column, I will leave the frank discussion to Professor Rossman. But a couple of less … er … colorful examples may suffice to illustrate just how culturally and time specific sex actually is.
Take kissing. Pretty basic, yes? We might imagine that the cultural rules for when people kiss would vary, as indeed they do in our own culture, where very orthodox religious groups proscribe it before marriage, and libertines kiss strangers on national television. But it’s hard to imagine that the activity itself really varies all that much.
Except it does. For starters, a whole lot of cultures don’t kiss, at least romantically. It isn’t necessarily proscribed; they just don’t do it. The idea that kissing is a foundation for further sexual activity is to us so natural that it rarely occurs to any of us to question it, and yet, this is apparently a learned behavior, not an instinctive one, because in large cultural areas it is seen as weird and doesn’t happen.
(And so it is, if you think about it. If you enjoy kissing, I recommend not thinking about it very hard.)
Is sex the same, without the kiss? In some aspects, obviously. And yet try to imagine the West’s romantic literature, its poetry, its art and film, without the kiss. The result feels different not just in degree, but in kind.
Now consider extramarital sex. On first glance, that seems to be a steady though hardly ubiquitous activity. As Nicholas Wolfinger notes, over the last 30 years of the General Social Survey, attitudes toward extramarital sex seem to have held fairly steady, as has the amount of extramarital sex (with about 15 percent answering yes to the question ““Have you ever had sex with someone other than your husband or wife while you were married?”).
And yet, when you peer closer at the data, it turns out that extramarital sex is changing before our very eyes. While the overall rate of people reporting extramarital flings is the same, the demographics of the people who report the adultery are changing dramatically. And not necessarily in the direction you might think.
The millennials, with their Tinder and their sexting and their God-knows-what-they-get-up-to-on-those-interwebs, are not driving this trend. It’s the baby boomers, with their Jimi Hendrix box sets and their Viagra prescriptions and their dog-eared copy of "The Joy of Sex" that they thought they’d lost four moves ago. People under the age of 55 are actually having markedly less extramarital sex than people in that age group did in the 1990s. But people over the age of 55 are busy making up for their missed action.
This kind of survey data can’t tell us exactly why folks over the age of 55 are having more extramarital sex than ever, while those under that age are having less. Some of it is probably age effects: People get bored with their marriage, or the couple develops relationship problems or sexual problems. But Wolfinger notes that some of it also seems to be cohort effects. The boomers came of age in the era of peak sexual libertinism, and they are carrying that peak with them as they age through the demographic charts. Younger generations, meanwhile, marry later (which may explain some, though not all, of the skew), and when they get married, they seem to stay faithful. We don’t have to ask whether sex has changed over the centuries; we are watching it do so before our very eyes.
Some things about sex remain constant, of course. Mechanically -- well, like I said, this is a family column. Culturally, people have always used it for procreation, recreation, affection and a medium of exchange to fulfill other needs. They probably always will. But the details, it turns out, can differ wildly, and importantly -- limiting what relationships we have, and how those relationships progress. With sex, as with many things: the past really is another country, and the future a land unknown.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of “The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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