Sexual Positions

Tangents on the science of sexuality

Only Humans Have Sex for Pleasure?

Birds do it, bees do it, but why?

Common Knowledge

The notion that humans have sex for pleasure, whereas (the other) animals do it for reproduction, holds a revered position in the halls of common knowledge. To put it plainly, however, it is a lie. Every sexually reproducing species on earth that possesses the capacity for pleasure has sex because it feels good. Each of us is descended from a long line of horny ancestors, and this tendency was sufficient to get the genes passed down right up until we developed effective means of birth control. 

Take that, genes!
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Plaquettes_de_pilule.jpg

Genetic Effects

Our genes influence all manner of adaptive responses to our environments: perceiving spoiled food as disgusting but heights as frightening, as opposed to vice versa, for example.  The genetic benefits of not ingesting a large colony of infectious microorganisms or of not plunging headlong into a canyon, however, are not so much that we remain alive per se as that in so doing we have bought ourselves more time to reproduce. If one were to identify the most essential function of our genes, that function would be to influence the development of an organism in such a way that it pursues sex.  If everyone would appreciate this point, there would be a marked decline in repressive attitudes towards sexual fantasies, pornography, and masturbation (and perhaps some even naughtier things, concerning which I direct the reader back to the beginning of the list).

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The Crux of the Argument

What is the source of the idea that only humans do it for pleasure? I submit it arises from a failure to see proximate and ultimate causal explanations of a behavior as different events in a causal sequence and from the tendency to treat an answer at one point in the sequence as evidence against the causal necessity of the other links in the same chain. One never hears, “No, he didn’t throw the punch because he was angry; he threw the punch because of a particular sequence of muscular contractions in his right arm and shoulder.”  But when the links span thousands or millions of generations rather than a few seconds, the fallacy is commonplace. “Well it’s obvious why I don’t like eating rotten food. It smells terrible, and it tastes terrible.” (Yes, but why? After all, the flies disagree.) And the same problem is at the center of the fallacy that if an animal has been shaped by selection to reproduce then that animal's immediate motivation for sex must be the desire to produce offspring. Since we deduce from introspection that people copulate for pleasure, well, it follows that this makes us unique. Balderdash and codswallop.

bonobo sex position #46
Bonobos don't know where babies come from.
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bonobo_sexual_behavior_1.jpg

Defending the Assumption

One might object that we can’t know that other animals experience pleasure or pain.  I respond to this anticipated objection in the following paragraph. (If you aren’t skeptical of the position or interested in its justification, feel free to skip it.)

Strictly speaking, the objection is valid, but outside of a debate on epistemology it is a trivial claim.  Neither can you be certain that any other of your fellow humans experiences pleasure or pain, but we would rightly imprison anyone whose actions followed from assuming that they do not.  And it is nothing specific to the lineage of Homo sapiens that makes us capable of pleasure or pain. Approach and avoidance tendencies evolve, necessarily, along with bodily control. It is a safe bet that an organism capable of voluntary movement is also an organism capable of experiencing pleasure and pain. There is, otherwise, scant benefit to the motility. (Read Diana Flesichman here for the flipside of the same point.) The sea snail Aplysia californica only marginally possesses anything worthy of being called a brain, yet Eric Kandel’s Nobel Prize-winning research demonstrates it to be capable not only of avoiding aversive stimuli but of shrinking away in anticipation when a conditioned stimulus is presented. Pavlov ring a bell? 

Conclusion

In order to maintain that animals, as individual organisms, are engaging in copulation for procreation rather than for pleasure, one must grant them both a general ability to make long-term plans and a specific knowledge of reproductive biology that, even at its most rudimentary, is probably unique to humans.  It would be genuinely astonishing, however, if sexual desire and sexual pleasure were unique to humans, given the clear genetic benefit and the near-certainty that capacity for pleasure exists in many other animals.

So yes, for the most part, people engage in coitus because it feels good, but people also have sex for money, for protection, for a job, for alliance formation, for making babies, for revenge, for espionage, etc. Cats don't do any of these things. Not a one. They have sex because it feels good, period. There is no such thing as a cat that wants to make kittens, let alone a feline porn actor or football hostess. What truly distinguishes humans is that we have sex for so many reasons other than pleasure.

Take that, halls of common knowledge!
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kendo_EM_2005_-_kote.jpg

 

 

 

 

 

 

Naturally, this doesn’t apply to asexually reproducing species or to sexually reproducing species in which consensual mate choice does not occur, but it does apply to humans and to Animalia in general.

Dr. Scheyd can be followed on Twitter. @GlennScheyd

Glenn J. Scheyd, Jr., Ph.D., is the assistant director, Division of Social and Behavioral Sciences and associate professor of psychology at Nova Southeastern University.

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