Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Sex And The Scientist

Note to the delicately nurtured:  this post is slightly R-rated.

A long-ago TV documentary on the sexual politics of a troop of baboons showed the dominant male, huge and ill-tempered, lording it over his unfortunate subjects.  He chased the other males, swatted the babies who dared approach him, and grabbed food from the females.  This, the investigating scientist intoned, was natural selection at work, Gaia's way of ensuring that the next generation would be endowed with the best possible set of genes.  In order to be able to spread his DNA as widely as possible, the alpha male had to be big, aggressive, and mean.

Did I mention that the scientist in charge was a man?

Then some years later another ethologist went out and studied baboon sexual politics, and found that many of the lower-ranking males were peace-loving, friendly types who would share their food with females and help them when they got into scrapes.  And when the females went into heat, it was the nice guys they sneaked off into the bushes with, while the alpha male was busy snarling and swatting and stomping around.

Did you guess that this researcher was a woman?

When E.O. Wilson's theory of sociobiology emerged in the 1970s, it seemed to confirm all the stereotypes about male and female sexuality.  If humans are only the gene's strategy  for reproducing itself, it makes sense that men, who theoretically can father infinite numbers of children, would desire infinite numbers of sexual partners.  Women, on the other hand, can produce only one child a year at most, so they are programmed for monogamy.

Despite my admiration for E.O. Wilson, I always found his theory, when applied to human sexuality, unsatisfactory.  It failed to explain, for instance, women's sexual stamina--a woman can have sex with five men in five minutes, but the equivalent is not true for a man. And the theory provided a handy, science-based excuse--"my genes made me do it"--for male infidelity.

Now the old notion that men are programmed for polygamy and women for monogamy is being looked at again.  And this time, some of the scientists doing the looking are women  (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/16/books/review/what-do-women-want-by-daniel-bergner.html?pagewanted=1).

One of these researchers, primatologist and anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, thinks that women's anatomy might be specifically designed for sex with multiple partners within a single sexual episode --the slower pace at which a female reaches climax, for example, could be meant to ensure this, which in turn would maximize the chances of conception.  This would also, to my mind, guarantee her lots of help in the care and feeding of the resulting baby....

My point here is not to debunk the stereotypes of male and female sexuality, which most women have always suspected were false anyway.  My point is to celebrate the long-overdue entrance of women in these fields, so that a different view of the world is gradually emerging, one that reflects the perceptions and experiences of the other half of humanity.

As to where--in the male view, or the female view, or somewhere in between--the real, empirical, unequivocal truth lies...that, of course, we will never know.



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