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The response to sluts v prudes: Is it our genes?

August 19, 2010

Girl Fight: Sluts vs. Prudes …. part two.

In addition to the Sexademist‘s blog, Sluts vs. Prudes, being interesting, the comments it generated were as well. I found this exchange particularly insightful….


Comment by lilech:

I agree that the patterns of behavior are influenced by social factors. We’ve been raised with an old set of values according to which increased sexual activity makes women ‘sluts’ (a strong insult coveying negative value) but makes men ‘studs’ (usually a compliment conferring positive value). It’s a value system that we should try and get rif of.

But can we? What if this ‘double-standard’ value system, with its resulting behavioral patterns, was hard-wired into us during evolution? I’d like to think we’re still free to change our thinking and values even if they were conditioned by natural selection, but after reading an interview in Salon I’m not so sure that we have this freedom. The interview is at http://www.salon.com/life/broadsheet/2010/08/05/booty_call/index.html . In it, a psychologist argues that until recently (when better birth control became available), sexual activity could be very costly for women since it would result in her having lots of kids without any assurance of a supporting male to help look after them. So it made more sense for women to withhold sex so they could use it as a bargaining chip via which to extract a commitment from men (so that the men would help support any resulting children).

While that strategy might not make as much sense now (since sex is much less likely to result in children if birth control’s used), it might be part of a set of attitudes towards sex that most people will always hold simply as a result of evolution. As the psychologist put it, it might turn out that we just don’t have the power/freedom to escape our biology (including our evolutionary history) and that, as a result, men and women will continue to have conflicting interests when it comes to sex. Men will aim at being studs (thereby spreading their genes around as much as possible) while women will aim at not being ‘sluts’ (since in the past that would result in having too many kids and not enough male support for them). The pessimistic upshot is that while it would now make more sense for us to do away with the old double standards (as you recommend), human nature makes it very unlikely that most people will make that change.

Reply, via Pepper:

Yeah, no.

If sex was primarily about reproduction, as it is for many other mammals, why is ovulation hidden, even from women? The scenario you describe would make more sense if we had distinct ‘heat’ periods, but we don’t.

Which leads me to believe, from a strictly biological standpoint, that sex is primarily about social bonding in humans, and the incredible range of sexual behavior and gender fluidity that we see across cultures kind of bears this out. Why? Well, evolution doesn’t really work on a small, individual personal, or even cultural level. It’s about the species. I think we tend to forget that, in all of these nature vs. nurture conversations.

And western values around sex are not universal. Patriarchy is near universal, but not completely so, and if there are exceptions, then it’s not biological.

So on a species wide scale, sex for social bonding may be more important than anything else in the survival of our actual offspring. And that is fitness, which is the essence of evolution.

So my point is that many mammals have a very very narrow range of sexual behaviors, but humans don’t. Most mammals have distinct and apparent periods of ovulation. Humans don’t. Sex doesn’t always result in pregnancy for us, and pregnancy doesn’t always result in offspring. That is a really profound statement about our biology that is often just swept aside when we want to get all defensive about preserving our sexual behavior and gender norms on the basis of the fallacy that its natural, and that whatever is natural is better.

Reply via Anton:

Asking whether we can escape our biology is a misleading question, I think. On the one level it’s almost certainly true: we *are* our biology, so “escaping our biology” would mean escaping ourselves. Which doesn’t even make sense.

But! Just by looking around it’s easy to see that people have a vast range of behaviors and attitudes and and values. For example, many people have in actual fact rejected the slut/stud double standard that you describe. So it’s obviously not impossible.

Maybe the answer is that our biology and our “hard-wiring” is actually pretty darn flexible and too complex to be captured by simple theories. Maybe there really is an evolutionary pressure for females to be more selective about sex than males–it stands to reason. But there are also a million other evolutionary pressures that have, in total, resulted in fantastically sophisticated organisms that are capable of adapting their behavior within broad parameters to suit the demands of their environment.

lilech responds:

Thanks, Pepper & Anton. You’ve convinced me that that psychologist’s pessimistic view isn’t well supported.


Interesting, yes? I did blog in this vein as well, but I find Pepper’s expansion on this topic quite insightful.

And just so I actually write something in this post, here’s my response – as the final thoughts on this topic:

This is actually something my girlfriends and I are struggling with. We believe that we are sexually empowered women who LOVE sex. It’s not that we’re interested in random sex and not a long-term relationship. It’s more that we typically know very early on (with most people) that we want to have sex with them. After making that decision, we want to be able to have sex when we want it (as long as the other person is into it too, which they typically are) – whether that is after three dates, or three hours. We feel like, as two consenting adults, this shouldn’t be a problem. This shouldn’t result in disrespect (as once commenter put it) and this shouldn’t mean we can’t continue to date someone and get to know them – i.e. pursue a relationship.

One night stands are also fine. Whatever. It’s about wanting to have our sex when we want it, and not waiting because of societal views we don’t believe in. Or evolutionary behavior that surely we’ve outgrown (we have rational brains – although I also love the discussion in the comments here on that subject).

The unfortunate thing we’ve come up against is that boys (I use the term on purpose) aren’t very good at understanding this. They tend to be very into us and we’re into them so… sex happens. If they think it’s too soon, they pull the disappearing act. I sweat it’s not us, it’s them.

I don’t care if it’s a societal value that these DBs are buying into. I don’t care if there is a evolutionary basis for this behavior (I get it). The bottom line is… haven’t we moved past this? Why can’t we be strong, confident, sexual beings… and fuck like men?

I guess the bottom line is… I don’t really want to pursue a relationship with a man who isn’t fucking me because he likes me, or wants to hide behind either a societal standard or an evolutionary explanation that leaves him off the hook for rational thought. I can still want to fuck him… and if he bails, just another indicator of who he is.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Sarah or François permalink
    August 19, 2010 2:57 pm

    “If they think it’s too soon, they pull the disappearing act.”

    You use the expressions “they think…”, “they pull…”. The man stays the subject of the sentence. The point is that acting like this,he desperately tries to keep control of the situation. You described it in some of your older posts, and it didn’t leave my mind since.
    If a man agrees with you to start a relationship you are proposing, he will implicitly renounce his male privilege, because it is primarily his prerogative to propose. Plus, we are talking about a sexual proposal, and he is supposed to be the sexual being. This reversal of the gender roles is unbearable for a man who has spent his life (fighting) to enforce his status amongst the other men. In this vein, I heard more than one story where the victim of a rape scared the rapist to death by acting all sex-hungry, even blaming him for his lack of manliness and thus reverting the gender roles.

    About us moving past the gender roles, may be that the ones privileged by those social constructs want to keep the privileges – privileges they are anyway too busy to defend to really benefit from. I don’t know if I should laugh or cry…
    Another way of seeing it would be that most humans are in a prison made of sex stereotypes, whose door is wide open, and that they don’t want to leave, because freedom leads to the Unknown…

    • August 20, 2010 11:06 am

      Thank you again for reading and commenting! It is really great to get some feedback from you – and it’s very insightful. My girlfriends and I have worried about this, the challenge changing roles and “control” present to men, especially given the way they are “supposed” to be according to society and popular culture. It is good to get some confirmation of this, as it does make sense.

      In addition, your point about people staying within the confines (“prisons”) of societal constructs of their own free will because it is scary to leave, also makes a lot of sense. Things that are unknown are scary, things that are new are scary. Confusion is scary. Things that are predictable might not be what’s best, but at least they’re not scary and we know what to expect.

      I guess the thing to do is just continue to educate, continue to discuss these things, continue to argue and challenge one another. And continue to try new things, to “walk the walk” if you will – and just see who it is that keeps up, and who gets left behind.

      Thank you again for reading! Your comments are much appreciated!

      • Sarah permalink
        August 21, 2010 5:19 pm

        Yes, confusion is scary, and in a way, so is life. But I prefer confusion to overconfidence in half truths. It is way much rewarding to be out in the raw world than in a warm and comforting house made of lies.
        In fact, I think I was becoming an extreme case of the sort of man we are talking about, something I decided to be out of fear, a long time ago. I turned into a sort of Peter Pan’s syndrom poster child (I may exaggerate a little…), and at some point, found it to be unbearable. So I came out (twice: from my shell, and also about me being trangendered). This may explain the insight I have about the “True Manliness”(tm). And the fact that I was raised by two almost wonderful parents: a Real Man for a father and a pure mouse for a mother probably helped too.
        Btw, did you know that in french, the term “souris”, which translate into “mouse”, was used to designate a woman for at least 3/4 of the 20th century? What a really strange coincidence !

  2. August 21, 2010 1:25 am

    😀 I feel so special! Thanks!

    I so identify with your and your friends. I always refused to wait to have sex, on the principle that if a guy had sex with me and then got freaked out about it or me, fuck’em. He had too many issues for me to deal with anyway.

    Before I got married (like I said I never would! Damned South African accents amirite?), I was a slutty mcslutpants, (depending on your definition), and so the piece on owning it by Jacquelyn really resonated with me, because I was so there for about four years.

    Interestingly enough, it was my experience that hetero-men (I’m strictly straight, but I don’t want to erase the identities of dudes with other masculinities and orientations) would fall prey to this sort of romantic fog (ten to one you and your girl friends have seen it too).

    They would start out performing their masculine role of “OMG NSA Sex YES!” and then get confused because my ladybrain and magic oxytocin glands didn’t compel me to chase them down like a slavering leopardess and drag them to the nearest wedding registry.

    They got hurt feelings even. I mean, weren’t they great guys? Didn’t they have magic dicks? Wasn’t I attracted to them? Ladies can’t be attracted without falling in love, twue love right!? RIGHT!? There is this implied social contract, in a lot of hetero guys’ heads, it seems, that women must play beauty and the beast with them, and ohmygawd have the drunk the womens hearts and vaginas are one and the same kool-aid.

    I really wish that we could round up all the women who have had the same kind of experience and like, shout it off the roofs of the world.

    Sarah really hit the nail on the head about how much bullshit men perform for other men. they say women dress for women, but my god at least we don’t street harass innocent passersby to get approval from each other. Challenging the narrative of proving yourself by fucking over women needs to happen. Challenging the idea that being dishonestly non-monogamous is manly, inevitably manly, needs to happen. Challenging the idea that being honestly openly poly/open is weird or wrong–oh my fucking soul, that needs to happen.

    As for the evo-psych malarky, well, someone get me a Vole shaped pinata with oxytocin flavored candies in it. I’ve decided that oxytocin exists to compel people to bond with their sociopathic newborns rather than each other. Because dogs.

    • Sarah or François permalink
      August 21, 2010 3:43 pm

      Pepper, you say: “Interestingly enough, it was my experience that hetero-men (I’m strictly straight, but I don’t want to erase the identities of dudes with other masculinities and orientations) would fall prey to this sort of romantic fog (ten to one you and your girl friends have seen it too).”

      In fact, it reminds me of the old “boys don’t cry” thing. Boys don’t express their emotions. They learn not to acknowledge their emotions and as a consequence don’t grow emotionally. An old saying in french, could roughly translate to: “All of them are bitches, except for Mum”. Lots of men seem to look for their mum to marry her, like if they had stayed focused on the last emotions they were allowed to feel. Besides, all the others being sluts, the men don’t really feel they’re non-monogamous. They are just real men that have fun like a Real Man(tm) should. It is of course almost completely subconscious. Well, I don’t remember where, I once saw a MRA (or maybe just a DB) saying that the man was like an irresponsible toddler…

      Yeah, let’s go to the roof of the world and make the sky fall down on their head !

      I totally agree with you in that all these things must be challenged. I’d really, really, like to challenge the gender roles, as I feel those may be responsible for my being transgender. Anyway, those may also be too close to the roots of the personality for me to do anything, so I don’t really count on it to change soon or ever.

      When you talk about the social contract, I’d say it may be more of a mix beetween a social contract and a totally fucked-up program for the social computer. I read some time ago a book which developed the idea that the bible was such a program, it was one by Greg Bear, I think…
      You talked in this recent post: http://ppbloggers.wordpress.com/2010/08/18/pepper-wants-to-talk-to-you-about-sex/ about eusocial insects and their genetic weirdness, well we may have our own socio-psychological weirdness, with two “programmed” generic types of behaviors, which do not even always end on the appropriate recipients.

      Those behaviors are forced onto the children as soon as their sex is revealed to the world. This is sometimes a traumatic experience, one that most adults consider as normal. Indeed it is the norm. Freud himself said children were evil, and that they needed to be corrected. But it is not what makes happy and free persons.

      • August 25, 2010 2:21 am

        Sarah- Yes, so much! Thank you for reading also! I absolutely think that there is a vicious social program carried out to enforce binary gender roles, at everyone’s expense.

        Eusocial insects do have wacky genetics in the sense that all females are more related to each-other than to any of the males, so their altruism is skewed towards the closer female relatives, rather than the more distant male ones. Fortunately humans are equally related, so we have better chances of achieving equality, biologically/altruistically speaking.

        I really feel (backed up by lots of science) that genetically we are extraordinarily plastic, and that our behaviors are tremendously environmentally responsive, perhaps more than any other animal, which is why we have been so successful (that and the fact that women/women identifying people are tough as god damned nails. It’s really breathtaking, the amount of abuse that we have thrived with, and overcome).

        So essentially I think that we aren’t “programmed” or hardwired in any way except “survive!” and for so long “survive!” has meant adapting to the patriarchy. It’s a classic chicken and egg scenario. But there is lots of evidence that matriarchies and fairly equal societies have existed, enough times and in enough places to suspect that there is no genetic basis for the patriarchy other than a moderate but highly visible sexual dimorphism, which has, and continues to be exaggerated and used as an explicit and implicit threat/control mechanism. I have hope though, because the last bastions of institutionalized homophobia are falling down. Maybe the revolution will be bloodless after all.

        I think you make an interesting point about socio-psych modes of behavior/labor divisions. Wanting things to be super binary is so western, and frustrating. In some Polynesian cultures there were traditionally up to six different specific genders linguistically and culturally, but for us, it’s extremely hard to break free of the binary mode, because even our language is constrained, and spills over into our cultural experiences, and shapes the boundaries of how we think about what is possible and normal. On that I note, and in re what you said about these things not being forced on children, I often feel the need to shout that feminism isn’t about creating a world of androgyny, but rather about legitimatizing the feelings, experiences and identities of everyone on the gender spectrum, emphasizing consent, equality and self awareness, of course.

        You really hit it on the head with the “boys don’t cry” trope. Boys don’t feel anything but anger. I can only imagine that the patriarchal masculine identity is really uncomfortable and constricting. It sure as hell looks like it from here. I have a rather involved marxist-ish theory about men, women and emotional labor along the same lines about which I intend to post sometime.

        Your connection between the oedipal complex and the last acceptable emotion that boys are allowed is really brilliant and spot on in many ways!

        Anyways, my comments are unforgivably long, but it’s great fun 🙂

  3. August 22, 2010 12:30 pm

    Oh my! SO much to respond to! I think I need to write a new post for Tuesday!

    No time to respond in full right now, I just want to say – YES! Some validation/confirmation is great – I am loving this dialogue… Pepper, Sarah – you have really provided some great feedback and thoughts.

    PS Sarah – I just have to say congrats on coming out and being who you are. So many people are not who they want to be (in a plethora of different ways). You are brave and you are helping to change the world. Serious. Have you seen this blog: http://tranifesto.com/? He’s awesome.

  4. Dave permalink
    September 13, 2010 7:30 pm

    Gene wise I think we vary in our capacity to enjoy sex, just as some women can produce far more milk than others, and some men are far stronger than others. But the delicate subject of ahem, digital sex, is avoided, and I suspect that prudes do actually enjoy sex, if not as much as sluts, then more than people think. Especially straight women with inconsiderate or ignorant male partners. It is just that they are more introverted and shy about it, unlike the extroverted and bold sluts.

    Some of my girl friends have had an astonishingly limited sex life with their husbands, although they have had children by them. It is just roll on and roll off, with no petting or organisms at all. No wonder they got divorced!!!

    Just a few thoughts from me. 🙂

    • September 14, 2010 4:04 pm

      I couldn’t agree more with both the idea that we have varying sex drives – both men and women. We’re told so often that women don’t have a sex drive and men have an overzealous one – but I think the reality is far more blurred.

      The idea of the closeted porn-watcher is the point: you should be able to either 1) watch porn in private, 2) never watch porn ever or 3) watch porn with your partner (or whatever, whenever – but maybe not on your computer at the library/coffee shop). Both men and women should be able to embrace their sexuality in the way they want to – without hurting anyone else. We just haven’t achieved that – we’re stereotyped to be one way or another. To change this, we should support each other in our choices and break down those boundaries.

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