Sex at Dawn

Exploring the evolutionary origins of modern sexuality

What About Sexual Jealousy?

Is sexual jealousy really central to human nature?

When the subject of our book comes up at parties, as it tends to do (who doesn’t love to be scandalized after a few drinks?), the conversation tends to follow a familiar pattern. We explain that our book argues that sexual monogamy is far from the natural state of our species, maybe giving a few safely remote examples from the Amazon or Asia. Most people are willing to be convinced — sometimes extremely willing, in fact — but eventually someone will say something like, “Well, that makes sense, but what about jealousy? You can’t tell me jealousy isn’t part of human nature.” To which we respond, “When Michael Jordan entered the NBA, there was an immediate and dramatic increase in tongue surgery procedures across the United States.” To which they respond, “How many cocktails have you had, anyway?”

There’s no disputing that self-interest and possessiveness are part and parcel of human nature — of the nature of many animals, in fact. But it’s just as indisputable that human beings are supremely accepting of socially-defined norms. Even as we speak, girls’ necks are being elongated ring by brass ring in parts of Thailand and Burma, clitorises cut away with rusty blades and labia sewn together in North Africa. Elsewhere, the penises of boys are being circumcised and/or split open in ritualistic subincision (OK, enough of those images; you get our point).

A few native American tribes of the upper plains had an agreed-upon sense of beauty that led them to strap small planks of wood to their infants’ still-pliable foreheads. As the child grew, the straps would be tightened gradually, as an orthodontist realigns a bite, bit by bit. It’s unclear how much, if any brain damage resulted from this practice, but as the image suggests, they very probably scared the bejesus out of their neighbors.

And that may well have been the pay-off. If their cone-headedness gave them a protective advantage they wouldn’t otherwise have had, then it’s not hard to see how such a fashion statement could have taken hold. Verifiable or not; legitimate or not, every society is convinced that its members are the people and that the way they live is the way to live. There's nothing exceptional, in other words, about American exceptionalism.

Kids and wayward adults are this very moment walking down city streets with their pants hanging half-way down their asses because they think it makes them look cool. Most have no idea this asinine look first sprouted in overcrowded American prisons, where inmates were relieved of their potentially dangerous belts, thus leaving them with drooping trousers. If you give people the historical context of what they’re doing, they won’t care. It’s not relevant. They’ve seen someone they admired in this ridiculous get-up and that’s all it took; the hook was set. From savoring saliva beer to wearing socks with sandals to biting off our own tongues, there is little doubt that people are fully capable of thinking, feeling, wearing, doing, and believing pretty much anything if you can convince them it’s normal.

In light of all this, would anyone really argue that the social forces that lead people to elongate their necks, schmush the heads of their infants, or go up for a lay-up while licking their chin would be powerless against sexual jealousy, unable to render it ridiculous?

Those who claim sexual jealousy to be part of human nature aren’t necessarily wrong, but they are missing the crucial fact that human nature is made of highly reflective material. Human nature is a mirror — admittedly with unalterable scratches and cracks — but a mirror nonetheless. For most human beings, reality is what they say it is. No more, no less. Like practically everything else, sexual jealousy is highly reflective of social modification, becoming little more than a minor irritant if consensus deems it so.

Among the Siriono of the Amazon, jealousy tends to arise not because one’s spouse has lovers, but because he or she is spending too much time and energy with lovers and neglecting to keep the home fires burning. Anthropologist William Crocker is convinced that Canela husbands are not jealous, writing, “Whether or not Canela husbands are telling the truth about not minding, they join with other members in encouraging their wives to honor the custom … [of] ritual sex with twenty or more men during during all-community ceremonies….” Anyone who can successfully pretend not to be jealous as his wife has sex with a score or more of men is not someone you’d want to meet across a poker table.

Like any other expression of insecurity, jealousy feeds on fear. Perhaps this is why researchers from the Netherlands and Spain recently found that a man’s height has a strong correlation with his tendency to be jealous. Taller men, who on average enjoy greater success with women, would seem to have less reason to worry. One wonders how jealousy would be affected if the biggest  reasons to worry were minimized or removed completely by social convention, and if sexual access to females weren’t a highly-controlled commodity. What if guilt-free sexual pleasure were easily available to almost all men and women, as it is in the many societies we discuss in the book, as well as among our closest primate cousins (chimps and bonobos)? What if nobody had to worry that a ruptured relationship would have dire economic repercussions? What if all the secondary effects of the relationship were removed from the equation?

If you remove all the fear from sexual jealousy, what’s left?

Christopher Ryan, Ph.D., is co-author of Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality (HarperCollins 2010).

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