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December 05, 2007

More on Dawkins, Sex, Jealousy

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Just because I can -- well, and also because I'm curious about how people will respond -- I'm copying-and-pasting a comment I left on Donald's recent posting about Richard Dawkins and his view of sexual jealousy. Here goes:

Dawkins really does seem to have given himself license to pontificate about whatever he feels like, doesn't he? I wonder if he's having a better time pontificating and provoking than he had as a scientist ... Oh well, he's getting away with it for the moment, good for him. I look forward to being a much-noted old windbag myself when I get to be his age.

I do marvel that Dawkins seems to see the goal of right-thinking people as overcoming the basics of human nature. Evo-bio hit me very differently. It confirmed me in my hunch that it makes much more sense to work with (rather than against) human nature -- to build on it (or just plain enjoy it) rather than pave it over or wall it up, let alone triumph over it. But maybe I don't have the crusading-heroic gene in me, or it hasn't been expressed, or something.

On the other hand, where jealousy and the sex drive is concerned ... I think I'm with most of you about two-thirds of the way. Sexual activity and the sexual emotions are dynamite, of course, and if you're too irresponsible with 'em they'll blow up.

On the other hand, that's true too of food, alcohol, drugs, and art, all of which can be over-indulged-in and can turn on you. That doesn't mean they aren't there to be enjoyed, or even played-with a little bit. (What "enjoyed" and "playing with 'em" means will vary by person, of course ...)

I think the American-style pattern -- dating around a bit followed by longterm monogamy -- is probably a sensible way of arranging sexual matters for many people. But I'd hesitate to prescribe it for everyone.

Life's complicated, people come in many different forms. There are sexual freelancers of both sexes ... There are people who are natural libertines ... Exhibitionists ... People who really don't like sex of any kind ... Couples who make their own arrangements ...

And some people move through phases over time too: women who marry, have kids, then leave to "become" lesbians, for example. Or people who are addicted to marriage but can't stay in a single one of them for long. Or people who marry young, live square, get the kids on their feet and out of the house, and then spend their 40s and 50s as swingers ... I mean, where I live all of these kinds of people can easily be found. And that's not just OK by me, it's kinda fun.

And there's the imagination too. Movies wouldn't be movies if people didn't enjoy the fantasy of being intimate with the people onscreen, for instance. I suppose porn can be become an addiction and for all I know it's generally a social corrosive. On the other hand, there it is -- clucking over it isn't going to make it go away. And the millions of good and loyal hubbies who, er, "surf the web" for a few minutes after the wife goes to bed don't seem to me to be doing the world (or their wives) any harm.

At an extreme: Japan's the classic example of a culture where people routinely permit themselves the most extreme kinds of rape, torture, and underage-sex fantasies, yet who in real life behave in remarkably organized and law-abiding ways. Something wrong with a culture that's low in actual rape and violence?

My own beef with the sexual-liberation thing has less to do with a general dis-inhibiting (which I'm all in favor of) let alone with basic enjoyment (which I'm even more in favor of). It has to do with its therapy-style, theological claims, that we'll all be transformed for the better if only we'll attend orgies regularly. Obviously we won't be. It's a bad and destructive political-social prescription. So screw those claims, sez I. Let's not fall for 'em.

But as for giving ourselves permission to learn how to enjoy the sexual urge? No one has to go do so, of course. But why shouldn't some people explore the erotic domain a bit, even if only in fantasy? It can be -- doesn't have to be but can be -- a life-enricher.

Think of food. If we confine ourselves over-rigorously to the basics, we may start to find our eating lives monotonous. And even if meat-and-potatoes day in and day out does suit many people, I don't see anything wrong with the fact that there are a few oddballs out there who love to try out new and different recipes and experiences. Without 'em, all of food-and-eating would consist of nothing but meat and potatos. I at least would find that very boring.

Short version: Like food and art, the sex drive needs to be respected. But it's also there to be explored, enjoyed, played-with, and perhaps even occasionally teased into something really absurd and remarkable. All risks duly acknowledged, of course. So sez I, anyway.

Have at it, folks. Eager to hear reactions, disagreements, objections, whatevers.



posted by Michael at December 5, 2007


Michael, I think that people are enjoying sex in all sorts of ways... and staying true to their spouse or mate.

What do you think Las Vegas, cruises, and adult themed vacations are about?

And, it's not ideologues or great thinkers who are doing this. It's plain old redneck America.

People are finding ways to explore their sexuality, have fun and keep the thrill alive. In general, it's not a very good idea to talk about these things in a very specific way. That's why everybody takes a jet plane to someplace several thousand miles away from home to enjoy these adventures.

Everybody wants both sides of sexuality... the play/lust side and the romance/love side. The first thing you need is a partner who understands and wants to work with you to find the balance.

It's happening. You've got to be blind to fail to see it.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on December 5, 2007 12:39 PM

Well for starters, the idea that "evo-bio" has revealed or confirmed some wisdom about the human condition, or really anything at all, is pretty dubious.

Posted by: BP on December 5, 2007 12:50 PM

I guess disagreements will be more fun, but I agree completely, especially about your point regarding human nature and what evo-bio should do to our opinion of it. Nice job.

Posted by: JMW on December 5, 2007 12:59 PM

I do marvel that Dawkins seems to see the goal of right-thinking people as overcoming the basics of human nature. Evo-bio hit me very differently. It confirmed me in my hunch that it makes much more sense to work with (rather than against) human nature -- to build on it (or just plain enjoy it) rather than pave it over or wall it up, let alone triumph over it.

Dawkins' "Selfish Gene" and "Extended Phenotype" were so insightful, I always have a hard time reconciling the rest of his judgment where human nature -- especially religion -- is concerned.

It seems to me that he hasn't figured out (or doesn't want to accept) that he's an exception to the religious belief rule -- MOST people on the planet have an innate drive to believe in something religious/spiritual (which is an extremely interesting Evo-bio thing, isn't it?!). He, apparently, does not. And, while he may think he's an atheist because he's reasoned that there is no God(s), it's more likely that he just isn't wired that way.

I'm not wired that way, either (agnostic here) -- but at least I can recognise that, for whatever reasons, I'm one of the odd ones out!

Trying to overcome human nature might be something to try to do in some cases -- but I doubt it will ever work very well -- and certainly not if we don't fully acknowledge to ourselves what it's all about.

Posted by: Hibernia Girl on December 5, 2007 1:17 PM

"All risks duly acknowledged, of course."

Are all the risks so obvious? And can simply acknowledging them possibly be the full extent of due diligence, given the stakes?

Here I'm not talking about bf/gf possible breakups, but marriage. The one that's supposed to last two lifetimes.

Michael I read your post as essentially stating a position of art---that sexual pleasure, like every human thing, can be explored as an artform. On that principle, I agree. But again, the stakes! Unlike experimenting with a new recipe or exploring watercolors, or writing an opera, marital infidelity is an "artform" with lasting and expansive consequences.

My take whenever risks seem huge and hard to know precisely is to proceed with caution, if at all. Maybe I'm a coward. Maybe I'm not mature enough or confident enough in my marriage or a good enough liar(!) to pull of this kind of art. :-)

Certainly I would feel a crushing guilt about it, just as I would feel a devastating jealousy were my wife to dabble in a new medium, so to speak.

It just ain't worth it.

Posted by: Matt Mullenix on December 5, 2007 1:18 PM

As someone once said:

"Dawkins gets to (have intercourse with) Leela and doesn't believe in God?!"

As a corollary, he probably has an extra incentive to rise above sexual jealousy.

Posted by: David C on December 5, 2007 2:56 PM

ST -- Agreed. I sometimes think of it as "the HBO effect," people in the heartland who are completely comfy with far-out fantasy and the idea of sexual adventurousness (whether within conventional marriage or not). I don't think the boho world has gotten used to this yet, do you? The Wife and I ran into a lot of it as we toured our erotica around the country. Narrow demographic we encountered, of course, but still very interesting how far-out people in "provincial" places can be these days. On the other hand, and complicating the pic just a bit, there's also a lot of ... I dunno, resistance, or something. People who are really, really vehemently controlling and unhappy, who object strongly to, well, to whatever. I semi-sympathize; pop culture especially has gotten awfully strident, pushy, and unavoidable, and it can all seem to be too hectic and too much, even if you're someone who generally enjoy flirtation and eroticism. At the same time: I don't want alarmist soccer moms deciding what I can buy at a bookstore or order from Netflix. Interesting thing about the objector set that we found was that they're just as likely to come from a Hillary/NPR background as from a conservative-fundamentalist one. I guess overbearingly moralizing lefties and moralizing righties are both ... overbearing moralizers. Grrr.

BP -- I wouldn't argue that evo-bio has settled much of anything in any objective sense (aside maybe from "the blank slate was a silly delusion"). But that people would make use of its findings and/or theories in personal ways wouldn't surprise me at all, or generally bug me at all either.

JMW -- With an attitude like that how do you survive in book publishing? I often wonder about arts/media/publishing people ... There's a general requirement in those fields that you at least pretend to agree with a litany of leftish beliefs. But how many people in the field deep-down disagree with that litany? Some days it seems to me like 30%, some days like 80%. What's your hunch?

Hibernia Girl -- Dawkins does seem like a peculiar combo of smart, down-to-earth, and completely out of his mind, doesn't he? As zillions of people have already pointed out, he's as militant, intolerant, and fanatical in his anti-religiosity as are the people he criticizes. Is it religion that's the problem? Maybe it's the fanaticism instead. It's weird that he doesn't notice this and give it a moment's thought.

Matt -- It takes all kinds, doesn't it? I've known some marriages where the basic "bond," so to speak, was an interest in sexual adventuring outside the marriage. Probably resulted in some messy times, but hey why not? It's not like every faithful marriage is a bed of roses. Besides, there are lots of ways (as ST points out) that people today are having a little more fun and keeping that flame burning within faithful-style marriages. I think people have all kinds of interests and temperaments and for at least a few of them traditional-American-style marriage isn't suitable. I also think we all make mistakes, take risks with our lives, and wind up with misgivings and regrets, and not just in the sexual domain. Should I really have moved to the city where I live? Was it the best choice I could have made to go into the field I'm in? There are all kinds of ways to make catastrophic (or just not-the-best) life decisions! I like your comparison of the argument I'm making to one that might be made about art, tks.

David C -- We should find a good academic deconstructionist and sic her/him on Dawkins and his many moves and rationales.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 5, 2007 3:21 PM

The growth of de facto polygamy in America is one sexual trend that's likely to lead to far more misery than anything else.

Posted by: Peter on December 5, 2007 3:27 PM

Well, Michael, I agree, but I meant something broader.

People who would never dream of making a public display of their sexuality in their home town are using their vacation trip to do the things they wouldn't dare do back home. And, I don't mean the type of folks that would go to a book reading.

I mean car mechanics and their wives, school teachers and their husbands, cops and their spouses, etc.

They are going on the adult themed vacations, the cruises and the trips to Las Vegas to do those things that they'd never be caught dead doing at home. They have no intention of ever allowing their neighbors, families or co-workers to discover their dalliances. Messing around is confined to people they know they'll never see again.

Once they get a couple of thousand miles from home, all bets are off. As long as they are sure that they'll never have to be exposed, these folks are engaging in public nudity, public sex, spouse swapping, visits to the strip club, voyeurism... you name it.

You can't really drink your ass off in most public places now that DWI laws are so strictly enforced. So, you vacation in an enclosed space where you don't have to drive, where you've got a hotel room close at hand, and you drink until you drop and do what you can't do at home.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on December 5, 2007 4:40 PM

We have impulses to sex, to sexual jealousy, and to religion. Let's indulge them all, within limits. Swingers, for example, have developed a fairly elaborate code of conduct to contain and resolve jealousy issues. They understand that jealousy is not going to be risen above, and so it should be accepted and managed. It can even--Dawkins forbid!--be incorporated as an element in sexual games between the couple. All that it requires is maturity, experience, mutual respect, and a refusal to play the no-win Dawkins game of pretending we aren't bodies. Which is indeed a very strange position for an evolutionary biologist to hold, but Dawkins does hold it, and hard.

Posted by: PatrickH on December 5, 2007 5:08 PM

Here's one guy who's got it figured out:

Posted by: Todd Fletcher on December 5, 2007 6:47 PM

jealousy is a very elastic emotional force. how jealous someone will feel will depend a lot on mitigating factors. for instance, i know i feel less jealous if the flirty girl i am with is not the most attractive girl i can get. those buttons simply aren't pushed as hard. the degree of flirting with other guys that will fly under my radar is indirectly proportional to her hotness -- the hotter she is the more of her subtle flirtations with other men i will notice.

another factor is the size of my stable of regulars. if i'm dating one girl exclusively i will react more viscerally to any attention whoring she does. if i have a few in rotation i get less jealous of any one girl's infidelity taunting. and if the girl gives me a distinct "playette" vibe i tend to do better at keeping my jealous urges in check when she acts to type.

finally, i have noticed that i was less jealous when dating girls of other races than my own. i'll leave that to the evo-bio guys to explain.

btw, simply mutually proclaiming at the outset of a budding relationship that it will be "open" will not curb the jealous instinct. it may make it easier to logically rationalize but the storm of emotions will still be there. the hindbrain is not to be F'ed with.

Posted by: roissy on December 5, 2007 8:14 PM

Well, I'm currently outside the full-time publishing thing. I left to freelance for a while, which has been refreshing. But to answer the question (since I still associate mostly with publishing/media types), it's pretty well known among my friends that I'm a centrist, which in NY makes me pretty conservative, of course. I'm not a very combative personality, though, so I tend to get along with people of all political stripes. And to the degree that I am combative, it's usually in a way that just tries to make other people laugh about the absurdity of everyone's ideology, not convince them of my own (whatever that might be).

Posted by: JMW on December 6, 2007 11:19 AM

And just to talk about Dawkins specifically -- I'm an agnostic myself, but I find it insane that someone who has built his reputation on the value of paying attention to evolutionary biology can argue simultaneously that religious belief has been a part of that evolution and that everyone should transcend it because he doesn't think that way. The scientific thing for Dawkins to do would be to consider himself an anomaly and keep studying the situation. That doesn't sound like a formula for bestsellers, though.

Posted by: JMW on December 6, 2007 11:22 AM

"argue simultaneously that religious belief has been a part of that evolution and that everyone should transcend it because he doesn't think that way"

Is that what he's arguing? He's saying, "Look, I don't think religiously, so how about all of you other people stop thinking that way, too?" Funny, but in my reading the God Delusion i didn't see that as what he was saying.

Some other things that have probably been a part of evolution: Rape. Murder. Should he, as a scientist who doesn't think it's right to rape and murder, just keep his mouth shut about that, too? Or should people who think that stuff is, you know, maybe not such a good thing, go ahead and talk about that?

Posted by: i, squub on December 6, 2007 4:08 PM

David C: I really do hate to be this nerdy, but he's not diddling Leela, he's diddling Romana.

Posted by: Brian on December 6, 2007 5:05 PM

Is sex really only a good or service for the purposes of personal consumption and entertainment? All of your analogies suggest as much. If this were the case, then sure, the whole "indulge in moderation" viewpoint would seem to make the most sense. And personal preferences for style would be not much different than the choice between fish or beef.

But there is another way of viewing sex that sees it as intrinsically embedded within a relationship. Sex, in this view, is the physical expression of love. The fact that it is so enjoyable is meant to feed into the enjoyment a person feels for that other person. The shooting off of pleasure neurons are not an end in themselves. I would also add to this what we all know inside that love is a permanent choice of giving oneself over entirely to another. Any deviating from this model is not just another consumer option, but rather a deviation from the intended sexual function of humans.

Of course, the "evo-bio" types will want to tear this perspective to pieces. ("intended function" no way!) And the libertarian types will see it as stifling and narrow-minded. But at least I'm a little heartened that that quaint little phrase of "make love" is still in our language.

Posted by: Daniel Nairn on December 6, 2007 6:16 PM

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