Sex at Dawn

Exploring the evolutionary origins of modern sexuality

On Gay Jealousy

How to explain jealousy in same-sex couples?

The greatest terror a child can have is that he is not loved, and rejection is the hell he fears. I think everyone in the world to a large or small extent has felt rejection. And with rejection comes anger, and with anger some kind of crime in revenge for the rejection, and with the crime guilt—and there is the story of mankind.

John Steinbeck—East of Eden

 

Research psychologist Jesse Bering recently wrote a typically insightful and entertaining blog piece in which he explores the possible evolutionary origins of sexual jealousy. He begins by asserting that, "Heartbreak is every bit as much a psychological adaptation as is the compulsion to have sex with those other than our partners, and it throws a monster of a monkey wrench into the evolutionists' otherwise practical polyamory."

He goes on to dramatically buttress his case that our evolved capacity for empathy, a signature feature of our species, makes us very sensitive to the suffering our sexual indiscretions may cause our primary partner:

We may not be a sexually exclusive species, but we do form deep romantic attachments, and the emotional scaffolding on which these attachments are built is extraordinarily sensitive to our partners' sexual indiscretions. I also say this as a gay man who, according to mainstream evolutionary thinking, shouldn't be terribly concerned about his partner having sex with strangers. After all, it isn't as though he's going to get pregnant and cuckold me into raising another man's offspring. But if you'd explained that to me as I was screaming invectives at one of my partners following my discovery that he was cheating on me, curled up in the fetal position in the corner of my kitchen and rocking myself into self-pitying oblivion, or as I was vomiting my guts out over the toilet for much of the next two weeks, I would have nodded in rational Darwinian ascension while still trembling like a wounded animal.

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Weeks of puking aside, Bering argues that while this emotional/psychological response may have originally been related to biological concerns (paternity assurance for men, resource flow for women), its ubiquity among homosexuals shows that the response is now deeply embedded in the human psyche, concluding that, "sexual jealousy in gay men can only be explained by some sort of pseudo-heterosexuality mindset simulating straight men's hypervigilance to being cuckolded by their female partners."

I'm not buying that.

Where's the proof that sexual jealousy (experienced as heartbreak) is an unavoidable response to a partner's extra-pair sexual activity? If it were a genetically encoded behavioral response, there would be very few, if any exceptions to this pattern. Yet every major city (and plenty of small towns) have sex clubs where couples have sex with extra-pair partners with no discernible emotional consequences at all—at least not negative ones. These clubs exist all over the world—absent only in countries where they are illegal. Most surveys of these so-called "swingers" indicate that they are more satisfied with their marriages than couples in more conventional arrangments. Add to this the large number of men who actually find the notion of being cuckholded very appealing (described by fellow PT blogger, David Ley in his fascinating book, Insatiable Wives). Then add the societies we describe in Sex at Dawn in which a party without extra-pair sex is like breakfast without coffee, and the genetic argument starts looking very wobbly indeed.

Let's consider the possibility that much, if not all, of this heartbreak is a learned response.

The separation anxiety Bering describes bears striking similarities to that experienced by a baby who feels abandoned by its mother. We live in a society that greatly amplifies that innate fear of abandonment by ignoring the baby's need for 24/7 maternal contact in the first few years of life, forcing the infant into psychologically-scarring isolation almost immediately. (For decades, doctors convinced of the superiority of sterile isolation inadvertantly killed tens of thousands of babies who literally died from the lack of human contact.) The association between mother-love and lover-love is enhanced through a constant media onslaught ("Oooh baby, baby") and a freakishly childish understanding of mature sexual love. Remember, we live in a society where this pathetic drivel is considered one of the all-time great love songs:

 

Got that? If you really loved her (or him) you'd show it not only by puking your guts out, but spending all your money and sleeping in the rain.

Love hurts.

So, in light of all this indoctrination being force-fed into young minds hetero and gay alike, why should we be surprised that jilted lovers often respond with childish outrage and terror?

There are many ways to explain sexual jealousy in gay men without resorting to half-baked evolutionary theories of prehistoric cuckolding. Loss is loss, regardless of sexual orientation. We all fear rejection and abandonment. It's a harsh and lonely world out there, and we're a tender, vulnerable species. So it's not surprising that gay men cherish their deepest connections and fear losing them just as much as anyone else does. It's not really about sex at all, at the deepest levels. It's about intimacy and love. We just find this fear often expressed in the sexual arena because that's where we've relegated so much of our intimacy in our fractured, conflicted world.

With Jesse Bering last week on Las Ramblas

 

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

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