The lovely people of Limerick invited me to talk to them about my research last week. Now, I know what you are thinking. A sex-researcher, in Limerick. Sounds like an excuse for a….well, I’m not going to pander to your puerile expectations—and shame on you for having them! Limerick is a lovely town—it used to have a bit of a tough reputation in Ireland—but a clear program of civic renewal has revealed a beautiful and richly historic place. They also have a very friendly psychology department housed in their preposterously scenic university. At the end of my talk on our research into female orgasm there are usually some questions. There are always unexpected ones—which I enjoy—but also some old favourites. Of these, “Are you just a pervert?” is a common one. “Can I have your job?” is a related question—and sometimes coming from the same person. One of the more common questions I get asked, and Limerick was no exception, is “Do any animals have sex for fun?” I always give the same answer, namely, “Well, I always try to".
The “any animals” question reveals a lot about how humans see themselves and their relationship to sex. Humans are, of course, animals. We have more instincts than any other animal, not fewer. Lots of these instincts are for the rapid and efficient acquisition of the social skills that make us such a successful animal. However, I have been making a small collection of the often bizarre denials of this fact over the years. These quotes come, not from religious believers, by the way—but from prominent self-described scientists and champions of science. Some are quite well-known, but because some were said to me in person, and I don’t want to deal in hearsay, I shall leave the names out. Maybe one or other will read the blog and either confirm what they said in print or decide they didn’t mean it? Stranger things have happened. In which case, their secret will go with me to the grave. Rest assured that if you are at all interested in science you would have heard of those responsible for the following inanities:
1) “Back in the past when we were animals” (What are we, now? Vegetables?)
2) “I would only believe what those evolutionists said about human beings if they came and shat in my garden at a party”. (Tempting)
3) “Humans are the only animals that have no nature.” (Did we misplace it somewhere? That was careless).
4) “Humans have transcended their biology”. (Did this happen instantly—e.g., by magic? Or was it by slow degrees—e.g., by evolution?)
5) "Evolution has stopped for humans". (Oh really? Mate randomly, do you? On second thoughts--I don't want to come to your party after all).
Nowhere does human unease about our kinship with the rest of creation show itself more keenly than in our attitudes to sex. And, our ambivalent attitude to fun.
Why is sex fun? Roughly for the same reason that babies are cute, honey is sweet, and taking risks is exciting. There is nothing intrinsic to these things that they had to be that way. Examine the chemical structure of glucose all you want—there is no sweetness there. However, caring for babies, hunting for high energy food, and occasionally taking a plunge are all potentially high cost activities that needed to be rewarded to be performed. This is so that our ancestors would do what was necessary to pass on their genes. Note: this has nothing much to do with what is necessary for the sake of the species. A species does not have a sake—many of the members of a species are in more or less open competition with each other for resources. For example, I would be perfectly happy if all the heterosexual males out there would see their way clear to dropping dead tomorrow, please. Angelina Jolie might start returning my calls.
Talk of evolution usually brings to mind this iconic picture
If language can influence the way we think, and a picture is worth a thousand words then the effect of iconic pictures on patterns of thought is probably considerable. The adjacent picture of evolution has lots that is misleading or just plain wrong about it.
What is just plain wrong is that it suggests a linear progression of steady improvement to the apex—us, the reason it’s all here. However, the more prosaic reality is that we come at the end of a contingent, multiply branching tree of lots of critters. Several different types of humans co-existed until fairly recently. The iconic picture is always men (sans genitals) striding, stern, and purposeful, carrying some sort of weapon. This all misses something very important. Women. Men and women have co-evolved for millions of years. To a large extent we have constructed each others' bodies and minds in a never-ending dance of adaption, counter-adaptation and mutual signalling. This is why I prefer this excellent evolutionary picture by artist Tom Rhodes
In this one men and women are depicted together—and actually having fun in one anothers' company. Earlier members of our phylogenetic tree are not depicted as shambling proto-humans, but as creatures that did just fine in their environments for millions of years—thank you very much. Neanderthals also make an appearance—not as our intellectually challenged and brutish ancestors but as our interesting larger-brained co-humans. And we are depicted with genitals—after all, we are critters. But, we also have clothes—because sometimes we are a bit shy about our being critters.
Lots of other animals have sex in ways that suggest that they are enjoying themselves rather than just answering the call for procreation. Bonobos—our closest relatives—have sex up to fifteen times a day. Often they do this while gazing into one another’s eyes. Dolphins also mate face to face—although “face to face” is something of a misnomer as when they mate they are cruising through the water at 30 knots, clasped tightly together and facing outwards. Both dolphins and bonobos—like ourselves—mate at times when females are not fertile and both species—like ourselves—show lots of homosexual behaviours. However, bonobos and dolphins have one crucial advantage over us. They also benefit from not having anyone else tell them how not to do it.
Humans are not so lucky. There is literally not a single sexual position or activity that at some time or another has not been condemned as being (pick your favourite ideology) either unmanly, anti-female, contrary to national security, or an abomination in the eyes of some god. Don’t believe me? Go and read Jesse Bering’s latest book Perv—where he documents a great deal of frowning, tutting, and guilt at sexual activities at one end of the spectrum through to outright torture for breaking the rules at the other end.
By way of example: In 1215 the cleric Johannes Teutonicus offered the opinion that only the face-to-face (with the man on top) position was acceptable for sex. He reserved especial ire for the rear entry position—sometimes known as doggy style. Too stimulating, he thought. Too animal. He didn’t like the woman on top position either, and recommended a three year jail sentence for those caught doing it.
Are we so very different in the 21 century? What, with our modern morals and licentiousness? Don’t you believe it. A recent study showed that 53% of women asked about their first coital experience reported it as being painful. In another study, 20% of young women reported vaginal pain at least 75% of the time over six months. To someone who used to be involved in sex education, these figures are not a big surprise. The sex Ed. curriculum is very big on pregnancy, STDs and the crucial importance of ensuring rather than assuming consent—and quite right too. However, some time might also be given over to the idea that sex is meant to be fun. If it’s painful then something is going wrong. Maybe it’s a medical condition—and this needs to be checked for, of course. More frequently, it is likely that is an issue of who is doing what to whom and how. There are tribes in West Africa where the young men are tutored in the arts of pleasing their partners by much older women before they are allowed near the younger ones. We could profit by their example. Instead, we leave it to pornography to educate our young people and then wring our hands when it all goes wrong.
In the light of this—the oft repeated claim that only 25% of women can orgasm through penetration needs to be held up to some scrutiny. How is it we think we know this? All we know—if we do know it—is that 25% of women do report orgasming through penetration doing whatever they are doing now with whomever they are doing it. Here is the female orgasm statistic I would like to see. What is the percentage of women who have tried a number of different partners, have openly discussed with said partners what they like and don’t like in absence of the interference of various do-gooders and their associated guilt feelings, have experimented with which positions work and do not work for them, and are generally comfortable with their bodies--for example not having to be drunk to have sex--and the feedback from them that tells them when they are or are not aroused? Until then it’s rather too soon to conclude that women are just not designed that way.
And what’s with this “by penetration alone” business anyway? As John Cleese put it, in that memorable sex Ed. scene in Monty Python and the Meaning of Life, “What’s wrong with a nice kiss boy?” If anyone is going around just penetrating folk without so much as handshake then he needs a severe talking-to. We have a large range of stimulating things that we can do to one another and it’s our responsibility to learn how to do them properly. As Carol Tavris memorably put it, “Sex is not Soccer—the use of hands is permitted."
I am not a sex therapist or advice columnist—there are some excellent ones here, here, here, and here. However, I do sometimes get asked for advice about sex and my advice—apart from talking to experts—is this: Get over yourselves. And, under yourselves. And around yourselves, and…well, you get the idea. Find out about yourselves, at any rate. And before taking advice on what you are allowed to do in the bedroom with another consenting adult, ask yourself if the person doing the telling appears to be happier than you are. If not, I would suggest treating what they say with some suspicion.
Do any animals have sex for fun? Humans are often one of the only ones that don’t.
Bering, J. (2013). Perv: the Sexual deviant in all of us. Scientific American
Brundage, James A., “Let Me Count the Ways: Canonists and Theologians Contemplate Coital Positions,” Journal of Medieval History, vol. 10, 1984, 81-94; Richards, Jeffrey, Sex, Dissidence and Damnation: Minority Groups in the Middle Ages, (New York, 1993).
Landry, T., & Bergeron, S. (2009). How Young does Vulvo‐Vaginal Pain Begin? Prevalence and Characteristics of Dyspareunia in Adolescents. The journal of sexual medicine (4), 927-935.
Johannes Teutonicus quotes Glos Ord to C. 32 q 5 c. 11 v. et posterior. Even this was too much for Robert of Flamborough (Poenitential 4.244) who cautioned against describing these aberrant sexual practices in too much detail in case the moralist put ideas into people’s heads
Tsui, L., & Nicoladis, E. (2004). Losing it: Similarities and differences in first intercourse experiences of men and women. Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality 13 (2), 95-106.