Monday, April 27, 2015

Sex is special

Sex is essential to reproduction. It is no surprise that men and women are strongly motivated to have sex. Evolutionary psychology has a good story to tell about the finer points of human sexuality too.

Animals typically have a breeding season and mate in the moment based on instincts. Human sexuality is far more complicated. Many men are not that far from animals in basic outlook, being interested in sex just about any time, with just about any attractive female if society will not punish them.

Sex is ultimately just as vital to women, but they are far more discriminating. In most animal species, males provide nothing but sperm. Females are motivated to find males with the best genes, but it's a one-time decision. In contrast, human men in our environment of evolutionary adaptation provisioned their families. They still do today. When a marital bond is broken, the need is recognized and enforced by way of child support payments.

Pregnancy is more metabolically costly for women and risks death more than in other mammals. For a woman, mating with a man who stays around to provide for his children is success. Mating with a man who abandons her is failure -- sometimes catastrophic failure. It is no surprise that a desire to avoid abandonment is at the heart of female sexuality.

Most societies have solved this problem with the institution of marriage. Socially sanctioned commitment comes first, sex comes later.

But we live in more permissive times. Some women choose to have one-night stands and short-term relationships. But they choose it less often than men do. They also sometimes set out with that goal, but find that they care about their friends-with-benefits partner in a way they don't want to but can't help. Mostly they are looking for long-term relationships. A very common societal tale is the adult woman who has sex with a man on the assumption he wants a long-term relationship too. When she finds out in days or weeks that he never was, she feels deeply betrayed and hurt. In terms of costs today, there's no material harm to her in the common case where she used contraception or has access to abortion. But our psychology is shaped by the forces that were active in our evolution, not cost/benefit analysis today.

The importance of sex is also reflected in rape laws. Women must have sex to reproduce, of course. As noted before, sex with an inappropriate partner can have devastating consequences, so obviously they strongly want their judgments on the subject to be respected. They fear rape deeply and detest it.

Yet women have also faced selective pressure when they are partnered with a less desirable man to have sex secretly with a higher-status man. They have strong incentives to lie if such a liaison is discovered. If a woman was raped due to unfortunate circumstances, her established male partner can have a reasonable hope that it won't happen again. If she chose it, then he has far stronger grounds to doubt the paternity of past or future children and she risks abandonment. (This level of detail is speculation -- the role of genetics as opposed to culture is harder to judge.) This could support the counterintuitive findings that women who were overpowered and suffer physically during a rape are not clearly more traumatized than those who gave in to verbal coercion.

But even if you don't accept that explanation, for whatever complex of reasons, women have been known to lie or have faulty memories about just how willing or unwilling they were. Whether to convict a man of rape often depends on deciding who to believe on the subject of consent.

Let's return to adult-child sex.

To my mind, the single biggest benefit to age-of-consent laws is to resolve cases of indisputable rape. If it is agreed that sex took place, then a young teen girl does not need to prove lack of consent. Men know this and it deters rape. This restriction is workable because fewer underage girls do actually consent and because sex is not vital to their well-being.

But there are benefits to prohibiting sex between men and enthusiastic young teen girls as well. Adult-teen sex hardly ever leads to marriage today. For girls, the end of the relationship taps into their innate tendency to feel distress at abandonment. This explains how girls can be not traumatized but even enthusiastic about sex at the time and regret it later, but the change is not due to brainwashing by a prudish culture. The penalties for men who have sex with enthusiastic young teen girls should be less than if the girl says she was unwilling, but there are good reasons of social policy to deter a man from allowing such relationships to develop. (Of course some young teen girls agree to sex and never do come to regret it.)

How are things different for prepubescent children? The most dramatic difference is that they have no need for sex, and very few have any active desire for sex with another person.

Pro-contact pedophiles sometimes argue that since sexual stimulation feels good, people of any age ought to want it. In particular, if society wasn't so prudish, large numbers of prepubescents would be open to the advances of pedophiles. Since it's just a matter of what feels good, any long-term consequences are just vestiges of outdated restrictive morality. But it is plausible that the complicated adult female attitudes towards sex would already be in place during childhood instead of arising during puberty.

All that said, it is clear that the finer points of women's attitudes towards sex are shaped by culture rather than genetics. But there are grounds to suspect a genetic component -- that any effort to transform society so that sex is just something that feels good in the moment might ultimately be very difficult. The whole question is assuming that people came to feel such a change was desirable, which is of course a huge assumption.

Sex is special.



9 comments:

  1. How do you think this would work if it is a 13 year old boy instead of a 13 year old girl. I keep coming back to the point that the child may still come to regret it later--whether due to a feeling that he was used for the adult's pleasure, or because he internalizes societal attitudes.

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    1. My speculation is that it would be easier to change societal attitudes so that straight 13-year-old boys wouldn't mind sex with women, and gay 13-year-old boys wouldn't mind sex with men. Straight boys with men? It seems like it runs into the counter to the basic difficulty of why gay men don't just decide to be straight.

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  2. SierraWhiskey posted this comment on GirlChat, saying he was unable to post it here (I wish I knew how to fix that technical problem!). The quoted text here is stuff I (Ethan) wrote, the other stuff his replies:

    "Sex is ultimately just as vital to women, but they are far more discriminating. In most animal species, males provide nothing but sperm. Females are motivated to find males with the best genes, but it's a one-time decision. In contrast, human men in our environment of evolutionary adaptation provisioned their families. They still do today. When a marital bond is broken, the need is recognized and enforced by way of child support payments."

    What you write in your third paragraph (quoted) is questioned in the book Sex at Dawn, in which the idea of hunter-gatherer societies (our main environment of evolutionary adaptation) as places where paternity is not an issue, and where a trade between the sexes of resources for paternity isn't the foundation for sexual beaviour.

    A lot of the usual explanations of sexual behaviour are weakened if the evolutionary environment was generally one in which children and aduults were cared for by the rest of the community instead of just relying on the resources provided by their father; or if kids are cared for by their mother's family. For an example of the latter, look up the Musuo people.

    You may excuse me, if the presentation you've linked to confirms and proves the standard narrative of the importance of paternity, as I haven't had a chance to see it.

    "But we live in more permissive times. Some women choose to have one-night stands and short-term relationships. But they choose it less often than men do. They also sometimes set out with that goal, but find that they care about their friends-with-benefits partner in a way they don't want to but can't help. [...]"

    In your 6th paragraph (quoted above), you seem to contradict the theory, 'cause otherwise, why would some women choose to have one-night stands?

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  3. More from SierraWhiskey (there's a 4096-character limit on comments here...):

    "Yet women have also faced selective pressure when they are partnered with a less desirable man to have sex secretly with a higher-status man. They have strong incentives to lie if such a liaison is discovered. If a woman was raped due to unfortunate circumstances, her established male partner can have a reasonable hope that it won't happen again. If she chose it, then he has far stronger grounds to doubt the paternity of past or future children and she risks abandonment. (This level of detail is speculation -- the role of genetics as opposed to culture is harder to judge.) This could support the counterintuitive findings that women who were overpowered and suffer physically during a rape are not clearly more traumatized than those who gave in to verbal coercion."

    The way I understand your 8th paragraph (quoted), it almost seems like your saying that women have evolved to not like rape, because then they'll be honest when they tell their husband that they didn't want to have that other handsome man. How about, if women just evolved to be better liars?

    It could also be that society and, perhaps, a female tendency to worry about what society thinks, will leave room for the woman who didn't resist, to be ashamed. Those who gave into verbal coercion or didn't say no strongly enough, can go around thinking that they were (partly) to blame.

    Some years ago, I was introduced to the idea that a particularly troubling part of a rape experience for women could be the fact that their bodies responded with an arousal that they didn't want. It seems to fit into my puzzle, though it might fit elsewhere, as well.

    I don't understand this "This restriction is workable because fewer underage girls do actually consent [...]". Fewer how? And not just fewer in absolute numbers, I assume.

    The rest seems to conclude the logic that goes: evolution happened with men providing in exchange for paternity => women evolved to select a special longtime sexual partner carefully* => since it's not going to last, they're going to be hurt => regret.

    My take on it: I doubt the evolutionary-theory explanation, first of all. If the adult and the child/teen treated each other well and had a good time, then that's fine. If regret is certain and strong, that can be taken into consideration, however too much regard for the feelings of lifetime identity at the expense of the respect for the here-and-now should not always be given. Not all things should be judged by their final state. And hurt is going to be felt at some point, as good things don't last.

    A question you may want to ponder and answer in relation to later regret (it may be a bit OT): What if a former child has no regrets at ages 20-50, but at later ages thinks of childhood sexual experiences in a negative way? What if they only begin feeling regret after age 80?

    * And to be honest when telling their husband they didn't want the sex with another man.

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  4. My replies to SierraWhiskey. Here the quotes are what he wrote, and I'm replying to them...

    "...the book Sex at Dawn, in which the idea of hunter-gatherer societies (our main environment of evolutionary adaptation) as places where paternity is not an issue"

    These issues are complicated, but the idea of paternity not being an issue is going to be a hard sell to evolutionary biologists everywhere. Like climate change deniers, you can always find someone who will argue the other side, but it doesn't mean it's all a matter of opinion. In this case there is some tension too between scientists on the one hand and feminists on the other who don't like some of the findings of the scientists.

    "You may excuse me, if the presentation you've linked to confirms and proves the standard narrative of the importance of paternity"

    I'd never say you have to view/read all the references to offer an opinion. But that video is well worth a look on its own merits even if you disagree with me on age of consent issues.

    "a particularly troubling part of a rape experience for women could be the fact that their bodies responded with an arousal that they didn't want."

    Right. In brief, women's sexual arousal is to a large extent a self-protection mechanism -- lubricate to minimize tissue damage. Alas, it implies that in our environment of adaptation, rape was common enough to make that evolve.

    " "This restriction is workable because fewer underage girls do actually consent" "

    Yes, I meant a smaller proportion of 13-year-olds (not absolute numbers), and I'm asserting that fewer of them decide they really want sex because considering all factors they want it.

    "hurt is going to be felt at some point, as good things don't last."

    We can draw a line between the guy who croaks after the kids are grown up and the one who walks away when his girlfriend is pregnant.

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    1. LOL Sex at Dawn. I wouldn't advise anyone to take that book too seriously, it's full of distorted and cherry-picked facts used to promote a view of prehistoric societies as free love hippy communes.

      The picture of prehistoric life we get from studying ancient societies and HG societies that have had little contact with civilisation isn't too pretty. Men fiercely guard and control their wives. Wife beating is regularly used as a form of control (the women themselves often see the beating as an act of love). Women and girls are generally treated like property and don't have much say in who they get married to at a young age (usually puberty or some time before). Girls are often abducted by raiders from other tribes and forced into marriage with them (it's revealing that anthropologists call this phenomenon women THEFT not kidnap). The murder of men and the rape of women and girls without male protectors is also common. So in general, pretty savage and male dominated.

      I'm really not sure what all this means for the evolution of female sexual preferences and emotions. If girls didn't have much say in what men became their husband shouldn't we expect girls to have evolved to more passively accept whatever man took her? Or raped her? Have girls evolved to try to position themselves to be picked by the highest quality men rather than actively pursue them? Have they evolved to fall in love with men who sexually abuse them since it would have been safer to accept the marriage she's in than trying to escape it?

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    2. My take on it is that evolution works with small differences. Perhaps a girl didn't have a lot of choice in our environment of adaptation, but she had some choice, some of the time. And we would expect her behavior to optimize for whatever difference she can make, whether it is large or small.

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    3. Yeah, definitely. You could even argue that it would have MORE important for girls to have strong preferences than men since they would have had to try harder to fulfill them. Somebody smarter than me could come up with clever analogy like having to push a car harder to make it move if the handbrake is on or something.

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  5. "Straight boys with men?...young boys gay or straight are very 'sexual' sometimes girls just don't notice them, cos they have ultimate choice; Therefore the attention from a male, who lusts after them is not always unwelcome, Look at the studies from the old gay magazine 'men loving boys' many who engaged with older men were not homosexual for the long term.

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