Sex at Dawn

Exploring the evolutionary origins of modern sexuality

What Rick Santorum Doesn’t Know About Sex

Rick Santorum doesn't understand why people have sex.

Rick Santorum doesn’t know what sex is for.

In a recent appearance in New Hampshire, he summarized his thoughts on the subject, saying, “God made man and woman, and men and women come together to have a union to produce children, which keeps civilization going and provides the best environment for children to be raised.” While this may seem a common-sense understanding of the function and purpose of sexuality, it doesn’t apply to human beings.

What Santorum is missing can be expressed in simple math. The vast majority of species have sex only to reproduce—a function reflected in a very low ratio of sex-acts-to-births. Gorillas, for example, have intercourse at most about a dozen times per birth. And as with good Catholics, gorilla sex is all business: no oral, anal, manual, or any other kind of non-reproductive dilly-dallying. The female of most mammals only has sex when she is ovulating. Otherwise, no go. But the sexuality of human beings—and our closest primate relations, bonobos and chimps—is utterly different. We and our chimp and bonobo cousins typically have sex hundreds—if not thousands—of times per birth, with or without contraception.

See All Stories In

The Political Personality

Which traits get your vote on this Super Tuesday?

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Santorum has argued that contraception is morally wrong because, “It’s a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.” But human beings happily experience, witness, imagine, and lament a cornicopia of erotic encounters that couldn’t possibly result in conception. Leaving aside the many “perversions” happily practiced by humans the world over, the human female is available even for Vatican-approved missionary position intercourse—at least theoretically—when she’s menstruating, already pregnant, post-menopausal, or otherwise precluded from conceiving. Is this, too, an abomination? Even Santorum and his wife, who have had more children than most couples, have certainly had a lot more non-reproductive than reproductive sex over the years.

It’s the nature of the human beast. For Homo sapiens, sex is primarily about establishing and maintaining relationships—relationships often characterized by love, or at least affection. Reproduction is a by-product of human sexual behavior, not its primary purpose.

Another way in which we differ from most mammals is in our complex, multi-male social networks. The gorillas mentioned earlier are polygynous, with one dominant silverback mating with several females (perhaps more akin to Romney’s religious beliefs than to Santorum’s). The only monogamous ape, the gibbon, lives in isolated nuclear family units in the treetops of Southeast Asia, while humans, chimps, and bonobos all live in complex social groups with multiple males in attendance. Of the hundreds of species of primates, there are precisely no monogamous species living in multi-male groups—except humans, if you buy scientific or religious arguments for the naturalness of human monogamy.

Although the nuclear family has been promoted like a soft-drink in recent decades, it’s clear that we are the most social species on the planet, interacting with and depending upon each other in ways that extend far beyond Mom, Dad, and Junior. We intermingle in ways no other creature could imagine—or tolerate. We do not raise our children in isolated treetops. We drop them off at school, where they satisfy their instinctive hunger for community, under the protection of adults whose names we’ll never know. When sick, we take them to doctors we’ve never met in hospitals built and maintained by utter strangers.

If you still doubt that humans are deeply social creatures, consider that our greatest punishment is solitary confinement. Anyone who’s experienced it will tell you that any human companionship—even that of murderers, rapists, and Washington lobbyists—is better than isolation. Sartre got it wrong: Hell is the absence of other people.

Santorum is inadvertently correct that sex “keeps civilization going.” But he’s wrong to credit only heterosexual reproductive sex. Sex of all kinds comes naturally to our species, and most of it has little to do with reproduction, and a great deal to do with loving one another. Sex and love hold communities—not just families—together. And in the end, it is our communities, as much as our families, we ask to raise our children, protect us from disaster, and offer us some measure of comfort in our final days.

————————————
Twitter: @chrisryanphd
Facebook: Sex at Dawn

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

more...

Subscribe to Sex at Dawn

Current Issue

Love & Lust

Who says marriage is where desire goes to die?