On Casual Sex: The Difficulties of Promiscuity

This is a companion piece to my earlier reaction to Sex at Dawn. View the previous piece here.

If our prehistoric forebears’ freely and casually sexually promiscuous ways were influenced by theirhunter-gatherer existence, then our modern sexual behavior is influenced by our agricultural roots. As covered in my previous piece, the advent of agriculture could very well be the reason that we modern Americans are, by and large, sexually jealous creatures.

I posit that sexual jealousy is entirely normal. One could even argue that it is healthy and inherently natural, considering how long agriculture has been a part of our lives. It is entirely possible that jealousy is a survival tactic. With this in consideration, casual sex won’t really work all that easily into our modern post-agricultural lives. Only those who have broken free of society’s possessive status quo would be able to move past jealousy and on to sexual and emotional generosity. In fact, I’d like to relate to you an experience I had regarding sexual jealousy.

Years ago, as a young buck intrigued with the sexual decadence of swingers, I got involved with shady Yahoo swingers groups. I corresponded with quite a number of swingers couples. Nothing ever came of it, but I got an invaluable insight into men and women who are seemingly unselfish and generous with sexual access to their partners.The truth of the matter is that a lot of these couples are not so indiscriminate when choosing their extramarital partner. On several accounts, the couple expressed the concern that the third party (the newcomer to the couple’s sexual relationship) might be mean-spirited. That is, the wife didn’t want to be having sex with a man who looked down on her husband in any way. One woman said that she wouldn’t stand for her husband being treated as a cuckold. Many of the couples I spoke to wanted to be friends with the third party, to live an open existence where the husband and wife maintained emotional fidelity, but gained greater heights of sexual satisfaction by engaging a third party for sexual needs. The main criteria for the third party? That he be good natured and non-judgmental. Mostly, they seemed to be concerned about each others emotional well-being, to make sure that neither partner felt unloved or taken advantage of.Granted, my sample size is not indicative of the swingers population at large, and I was not conducting myself in a scientific manner. With that said, I don’t find it to be too far from the idea that emotions and psychology play a large part in someone’s decision to engage in a sexually open relationship. Post-agricultural humans are not wired to share. Generosity is a virtue, but it is not natural. And when something is not inherently natural, it takes a lot of energy to make it work.

Clearly, this arrangement of sexual openness is a difficult one, considering our agriculturally developed possessiveness. Take for example a couple seen on a Taboo: Strange Love on National Geographic. This couple had an arrangement (they call it negotiated infidelity) where both of them were free to have as many other sexual partners as they wished, provided they bring the partner home to have sex. This way, there is no sneaking around and everything is above board. So there it is again: the theme of honesty. Like the couples I spoke to, there was the issue of trust. In all likelihood, sleepingaroundbehind someone’s back is more hurtful and disrespectful than the sexual act itself. It is more about the betrayal of trust.

The couple expressed concerns of their partner meeting someone else and falling in love. Something like that would be grounds to abandon the current relationship: to leave them for someone better. Each and every time one of them has sex with someone else, it is, no matter how trivial they make it seem, a threat to the relationship. But why?

It’s because sex comes with an emotional component. Try as we might, we cannot deny that there is something emotional about sex. When people have sex, they open up to each other in an immensely intimate way that can transcend any spoken or even non-sexually physical actions. Even when having ‘casual sex’, there are feelings to worry about: who really enjoys getting kicked out of bed the moment someone finishes climaxing? Certainly, someone’s feelings would be hurt, if even just a little tiny bit, when there is no sexual reciprocity. And where there is reciprocity, there is a certain level of mutual respect, which leads to other emotions. Whether it’s love, like, mutual physical attraction, or simple affection, unless you are having callous one-sided sex – the type that is a simple mechanical exercise involving Tab A going into Slot B as one might experience with a sex worker – emotions are bound to arise from such an interaction.

And where there are emotions involved, things get messy. As much as men are quoted as being more concerned with sexual fidelity and women with emotional fidelity, I believe that both sexes are ultimately greatly concerned with emotional fidelity. I can’t imagine a loving relationship in which a man would magically disregard the fact that his wife is in love with another man just because she isn’t having sex with him. Evolution may dictate or explain the male’s inherent concern with paternal certainty; but it doesn’t explain why, even when assured of his wife’s sexual fidelity, a man gives a hoot about her daydreaming about going on a romantic trip to Italy with her boss. Psychology does though.

It all comes back to jealousy and possessiveness. I posit that because we are now wired for ownership (again, thanks to agriculture), in any given sexual encounter – repeated over a sufficient length of time with the same partner – that there will be an inherent drive to own. That is to say that given enough sexual liaisons between two people, at least one of them will wish, on some level, that they could have the other person all to themselves. And as we all know, honor dies where interest lies. So long as there is a desire to share in someone’s limited resources – whether material, emotional, or sexual – there will be competition.

If we could actually all get along with each other, if we could all ditch the culture of ownership and possession, casual sex could very well work out. The hippie-esque notion of free love for all, of sexual generosity and good will to all, is a wonderful vision. But until we can break free from the chains forged by the American cultural pillars of consumption, competition, and ownership, casual sex is more likely to hurt someone than it is to result in widespread bliss. Because we are naturally possessive, sharing just isn’t going to cut it. And that, folks, is why casual sexual relationships do not work out in the long run.

  • Gary

    I've been meaning to comment since your post on marriage, but it took me awhile to find the energy to type up everything I wanted to say. I'm going to comment here, on all three of this "series," as I see it, since they share a similar theme. I'm glad you took the time to write all this series, as it helped precipitate some of my own thoughts on the matter:

    I'm curious as to how the authors of that book arrived at the conclusion that prehistoric humans are a promiscuous bunch. I imagine that, its only one of many hypotheses regarding prehistoric lifestyle. Take for instance, the (not commonly known) debate regarding whether hunting really contributed that much to the development of the cerebral cortex. Even on that matter, there is data that can be worked with- in this case, regarding behavior itself, not really.

    Furthermore, what is the time frame? What is meant by prehistoric? Is it that period right before the advent of agriculture? And if so, since agriculture is surmised to have been arose independently in several major sites, then the issue is further complicated by whether there are differences between those cultures. Or do they mean prehistoric as in before mass human migrations out of Africa? Or even earlier, when H. sapiens branched off from H. erectus? Perhaps "prehistory" includes all of the above, but that makes the huge assumption of thinking that despite a wide range of conditions of which humans have lived in, and despite humans having split up and gone different ways, developed different mores, that conclusions as specific as human sexual behavior can inferred with certainty.

    I imagine that inference comes from comparison from extant hominids and/or modern "hunter gatherer" societies. It's not a bad start, and indeed, its really all we have, but the premises are still shaky. If it is the authors intention to use prehistory as an argument in favor of casual sex, then I believe they are misguided. I'm guessing though, that they probably throw that stuff in there to be more holistic in their narrative and to highlight that humans have always had somewhat of a promiscuous streak to them. That, I can easily agree with.

    Perhaps its the presentation of the argument here that throws me off. I'm sure "hunter gatherer" societies are much more egalitarian than ours, but I recall, vaguely admittedly, that they aren't what they seem. Prestige plays a role in "status" there, rather than material wealth. From a primatology perspective, of which I am more familiar with, extant hominids do employ methods of control that are quite complex. "Politics" or "social networking" or whatever one chooses to call it, is there and its certainly not egalitarian. I'm sure there was more than few poor fellows that just couldn't make it because he wasn't big enough or socially apt enough to form alliances or whatever. Hierarchies exist in primates without material wealth.

    Additionally, prehistoric life, no matter the time frame, I doubt, has ever been as nice as it is presented here. Abundant resources? I'm quite skeptical of that, given all the cool and diverse hominid species that have died off and gone extinct. Based on my own research on physical anthropology, prehistoric life was a harsh ass existence. Besides, if resources were so abundant, agriculture wouldn't have been necessary. I haven't done any farming of my own, but I've heard time and time again that farming is seriously tough work.

    I'm also going to touch on a very important point here… everyone "getting some," doesn't make sense. Sex was never free. That would be one of the criteria in which evolution wouldn't proceed- a Hardy Weinberg equilibrium. Very simply put, if everyone "got some," then there would be no net change in the allele and genotype frequencies for a given population over time.

    Again the premises are in question, but either way, this is important because I disagree that jealousy arose in modern times. It's very likely that it's something that has always existed. I noticed that your argument is based on contrasting these two polarities, i.e., that the past was tailored for promiscuous behavior in which jealousy doesn't exist and the present tailored for monogamous behavior for which jealousy exists. It's a false dichotomy, I find it difficult to believe that there was ever a transition. It's perfectly reasonable that we could be promiscuous in the past and jealous at the same time, or be monogamous today and experience jealousy as well. Indeed, a combination of any of the four is just as likely.

    You make a good point in arguing that it's extra work if someone has to raise a child their is not their own. It's not optimal. Aside from such argument, it's also viscerally revolting. However, it's not a good argument against casual sex in modern times. It would've been a great argument against it in the past, but now we have birth control. Sex is no longer about reproduction and quite ironically, casual sex is now more possible than ever with the invention of the condom and hormonal contraceptives. In fact, it can be justified on these very grounds, and like arguments of this type, I'm sure some other fellow out there, a proponent of casual sex, writes on his blog that "nonbelievers" of casual sex are "backwards" and "chained to the confines of evolution" or some other rhetoric like that.

    On the contrary, I believe that relaxing moral standards for society at large is the most sensible approach. It's one that leads to the least frustration for everyone. To be more specific, what I mean is that everyone just mind their own damn business. We know that casual sex happens, so there are obviously personalities agreeable to it, as there are personalities that object to it. Accepting that there are two different approaches here to sex is the most reasonable, because it's not like it's either or. People go with whatever they like and whatever works for them. Both of them exist quite peacefully.

    The same is true for marriages. Monogamy happens if the circumstances are right, if two people decide that it is right for them. That is all there is, really. There's just a bit of unreasonable moral panic involved. There are plenty of people that are into monogamy out there, despite there being people into polygamy or whatever. It isn't a big deal and people go with whatever makes them happy. Both can co-exist.

    And even with birth control aside, biology wise (i.e., evolutionarily speaking,) the two can not only co-exist, the two must co-exist. We interpret this as a game theory problem. We start off with a population of entirely monogamous males and females. Everything's cool at first, and everyone shares the same average investment (in courtship, in parenting) and payoff (in reproductive success.) But then a "cheater" pops up, say, a promiscuous female. She has a large advantage over this entirely monogamous population relative to the other females, that is, she invests less than the monogamous females (in courtship since she is "loose") but receives the same payoff (in reproductive success.) She doesn't have to worry about investment in courtship because thus far, all the males are going to be faithful. The frequency of whatever allele(s) cause her promiscuous behavior rises drastically in the gene pool as a consequence, replacing the formerly dominant monogamous females.

    Once this happens, the environment becomes increasingly favorable to promiscuous males should they arise, and they would. Their net cost would be much lower than that of the monogamous males because the population is full of promiscuous females. He wouldn't need to invest in courtship with the promiscuous females and then he ditches them for another promiscuous female. Promiscuous male allele frequency in the gene pool thus increases. The promiscuous female now becomes the "loser," falling prey to promiscuous males since she no longer has the benefit of low investment and the high payoff of being with a monogamous male. The environment then returns to one in which it is more favorable for monogamous females, since she would turn away promiscuous males who would then become the losers.

    Ultimately, there's a stabilizing effect on the population at large. Both "strategies" co-exist and formally, if you punch in the numbers (whatever they are) and do the math, there would be a ratio of promiscuous to monogamous for both male and females at the stable point.

    In conclusion, I think it's not so much a matter of what's better or what works. They both work, obviously and the moment one strategy becomes dominant, there's going to be cheater who exploits that, leading to a cascade ultimately settling down at a stable point where both co-exist again. The only reason why I can imagine why someone would worry about any of this, is if it would be detrimental to him/her in that it decreases his/her chances of establishing a successful relationship and/or marriage. It is this fear why anyone would even worry- the fear of being cheated on, because they're afraid that people are becoming more and more promiscuous, or that promiscuous is more acceptable now. However, as a proponent of marriage myself, I'm not really worried. I don't think you should either. If you're cheated on, then it's much more so a matter of not being with the right person, I would think.

  • Always great to hear your thoughts, friend.

    Of course, I'm far from a scientific mind. I just speak on a more vernacular level. My concerns are mostly based in the real world and egocentric: I pay attention to how things are relevant to me. Because of these weaknesses, I can't really address most of the interesting points you brought up. My expertise is mostly in applied psychology and anything that strays from that field is vastly subject to my personal opinions and experience rather than academic rigor. It could very well be that I'm misinterpreting the book. I would assume someone with your scientific mind would be far more suited to answer your questions, in which case, I again recommend that you read the book. Perhaps when you do, you can lend some more insight on the premises of the book: I'm certainly interested in the questions you bring up.

    In any case, on the point of casual sex and contraceptives. I'm mostly implying that we haven't quite grown out of the fact that we can have sex without consequences. Or maybe it's the fact that the majority (at least the majority for now) of people don't believe that sex should be without consequences. I'm entirely unscientific and incredibly insular when I express my romantic wishes for everyone to be all lovey-dovey, holding hands and only having monogamous relationships. I know it's not realistic, and you're quite right that the two strategies really just co-exist, but there'll always be that part of me that wishes the world to be shaped in my vision. Call it narcissistic, a God complex, or having grandiose fantasies; I'm just stuck in my own world.

    As for marriages, I think there's more to it than it just happening under the right circumstances. There is a certain level of societal pressure for people to marry. The oft referenced biological clock of women who wish to have children drive them to get married. Even today, there is a certain sense of weirdness if a fifty year old woman says she never got married. Then there's the arranged marriages and whatnot. As for it co-existing with other configurations, I concur that it would be optimal for everyone to just "have it their way", as Burger King would say. My concern here is strictly a personal one, one that reveals my highly disillusioned role of hopeless romantic: I worry for the day that marriage becomes a minority decision rather than the majority. Why?

    I'm sure some part of me is concerned that I'll be less likely to find anyone with common values and aspirations (more promiscuous people leads to more acceptance of promiscuity, leading to less monogamy-minded women and thusly leading to less potential mates for me). But that's not something that keeps me up at night (namely because I highly doubt I'll find anyone who is suitably like-minded). Largely, it's just that I don't think it bodes well for the future of the ideal environment in which to raise a child: the traditional family unit. While marriage is still the lifestyle of choice for Americans, the family unit remains intact as the primary environment in which a child is raised. As casual sex and non-monogamous relationships increase, the family unit becomes at risk. Sure, we could point at those cultures in which the village really does raise the case, but realistically, that's not happening in America.

    Of course, the premises of my argument against casual sex lie in the fact that we have yet to find a form of contraception that works 100% of the time. Those crafty sperm cells are still going to make it through every once in a while. Bearing that in mind, my main concern is unplanned and accidental pregnancies that will increase with the increase in casual sex. From a purely mathematical standpoint, if condoms are 98% effective, then two out of every hundred women that Jack Smith has sex with is going to get pregnant. The more Jack Smith's that are out there, the more unwanted/accidental pregnancies there will be.

    While my brain's motor is still running, I think I'm more concerned with the "trauma" of an unwanted pregnancy. I think it's something that women may not consider when engaging in casual sex. Pregnancy is a life changing event, and there is something incredibly permanent about pregnancy. You will either have to give birth to a child, or abort it. If you abort it, you will have to live with the fact that you, for all intents and purposes, ended a life. I know there's the argument of what constitutes a sentient lifeform, but I'll not get into that for now because it's irrelevant to my point. To bring it back around, women who have casual sex must deal with the consequences should there be an accidental pregnancy. That is why I believe there is such thing as truly casual sex. The consequences of having sex, while not necessarily obvious, are very real. Who hasn't heard of the story of a man changing his entire lifestyle to settle down with the woman he got pregnant, all because of a one-night stand?

    As for jealousy in hunter-gatherer societies, I of course did entirely neglect the idea that humans are not created equal. I'm sure the taller, more athletic men got more sexual opportunities than the smaller, less able-bodied men. But I don't know, just from a strictly imaginative perspective, I imagine that most men nowadays wouldn't care if his neighbor got laid ten times a week to his eight: eight times is still plenty.

    Oh, that reminds me. The book suggested that women would engage in what were essentially orgies because they allowed for sexual selection to work on a cellular level: they let a bunch of men deposit their sperm into her, at which point the sperm would be doing the competition, and not the men. So when a woman opens up her legs, everyone gets some, and the genetic pool still gets varied because while everybody gets to have fun, there can still only be a single "winner" – the woman can only get impregnated by one man. This way, every man has equal sexual opportunity, at least on a level in which they compete on. There's no fighting over who gets laid because everybody gets laid, and thusly everybody gets along. Paternal certainty was impossible due to the nature of this sexual strategy.

  • Gary

    It's admirable that you actually took the time to read all of that and reply. I can get carried away very easily when it comes to things that spark my intellectual curiosity, this just happened to be one of them. But, I'm glad you took well to the criticism. I realize that you probably aren't that well versed on the facts of the matter and speak more so on a personal level, and it's always far more difficult to write an original piece than it is to reply to one and pick it apart.

    I wanted to mention earlier, as a reply to the marriage piece, but didn't get around to it, that we shouldn't use science as a moral compass. I don't think we can either, but I'll save that philosophical discussion for another time. The topic at hand is hardly a scientific matter, it's a moral dilemma. I know your stance and I can empathize to a degree. But like I said, it saves us all a lot of frustration if we just accept it. Doing so doesn't forfeit one's own ideals either.

    Now I know I can't speak for you, only myself when it comes to this, but there's a cynical part of me that doesn't think it's really about ideals. It's hard to imagine that someone else would care if some random stranger out there has an unwarranted pregnancy. It certainly sounds pleasant to subscribe to such ideals though, but I'm no "white knight" out to save the world and rescue fair maidens from falling victim to unwarranted pregnancies. I think those fair maidens can take care of themselves, and if not, too bad.

    But I suppose it isn't about ideals either. The ideals are merely a facade for insecurity. It's a natural fear. Just as it would be natural for someone to be afraid of someone unfamiliar and different moving into their neighborhood, encroaching on their territory and basically, fear of change. I'd like to convince you that it isn't a big problem, but I can't. The reason I can empathize is because I also experience this, and I'm sure everyone does. I just ignore it. I do, however, wonder if there really is a change, or if it is a perceived change. Do we know if promiscuity is really becoming more acceptable? Or perhaps this is just one of those things that you "grow up" to realize, like realizing that the "real world" isn't just a the Disney fantasy land children are brought up to believe it is. A little like realizing that the good guys don't always win or the other tragedies of the real world.

    On the last matter, what they're talking about is formally called "sperm competition." That isn't the way it's presented in school and textbooks though. It happens in a bunch of places and I think I've read about it happening outside of primates too. I'm sure you can apply this concept to other scenarios too, like if we were to imagine pollen as competing against each other to make it to the stigma of another flower. Basically, I don't know where the authors here attached the idea of orgies to it, so rest assured, it isn't exactly evidence for orgies.

    It's presence in primates is explained as a female strategy against infanticide. Basically, when a female ape has a newborn, she spends her resources raising it for awhile, disrupting the ovarian and uterine cycle. A male who knows that the child isn't theirs, will kill the child to bring the female back into estrous sooner, thus allowing him to mate with her as soon as possible. It should be noted, that in chimpanzees, there is no sex outside of estrous. Males don't find females attractive unless they display the signs of being in estrous.

    By mating with several males, as in chimpanzees, a female creates paternal uncertainty as to prevent the males from killing her children, since they don't really know if the child is his or not. Sometimes, it isn't entirely about sperm competition when a female mates with several males as they could do it for "political" reasons, gaining the support of a particular male. It certainly isn't "free."

    The interesting thing about this is that the magnitude of sperm competition in a species correlates with the size of the species' testicles. This is because in species where there's heavy sperm competition, the males that produce the most sperm have a higher chance of winning. We observe this through the large size of the chimpanzee's testicles where this kind of thing happens relatively often. On the other hand, the gorilla has the smallest testicles of the hominids because each alpha male essentially has his own harem that other males are forbidden to access. Humans, if my memory serves correct, are somewhere in between, but for unknown reasons, have the largest penises.

  • That's quite an interesting point on whether or not casual sex is actually becoming more and more acceptable. I suspect that it actually is. Dating websites a while back would've never thought to include an option for people to state that they are looking for nothing more than casual sex. As someone who's followed (again, in a purely unscientific way) the Craigslist personals scene, casual sex seems to have become more sought after nowadays as compared to my first foray into the scene in 2005. There's also the spammy adult dating websites: there are more and more of them now. While penis enlargement spam emails are still prevalent, I've noticed a gradual increase in trying to lure men into these adult dating sites. Then there's the overall (admittedly relatively unreliable) representation in the media. Shows like Cougar Town would not be acceptable in times where a woman wasn't even supposed to be divorced, let alone having casual sex.

    This brings me to point to the oft referenced phenomenon of oversexed teenagers. Music videos and music stars are all highly sexualized. Young people are bombarded with sexual imagery all the time in the media. Whether this is a reflection of society's values or the media's agenda is not something I can determine at this point since I haven't given much thought to the matter. But even so, it still sets the trajectory of our society. Either people are becoming more sexually loose because media portrays it as an attractive or acceptable behavior, or they are becoming that way naturally and the media is just a reflection of that. There will always be that disparity between the illusion that Hollywood, television, and magazines show as the public face of America and what actually goes on in the real world, so I'm not sure if we can ever actually point to either one as the absolute truth.

    Speaking strictly on myself, my ideals are not any form of insecurity but simply a romantic's vision of the way things ought to be. There is the realistic side of me (which I don't usually feel the need to express) that of course accepts the world for what it is. Anything I write is inherently colored by my need to express my frustration with what I deem to be the idiocies of people, my impatience with inefficient bureaucracies, and pretty much everything else under the sun that a person could bitch about.

    On the point of concern over unwanted pregnancies, I personally do care very much about this. Children should not be brought onto this planet without a nurturing environment. It pains me to think that there are children who grow up without the chance to succeed. It's a tragedy, and it's something I'm quite sensitive about. The life of a child is nothing to be trifled with.

    As for science being the moral compass, I agree for the most part. But it can certainly relieve the responsibility of the human animal. If it is considered inherent to humans to be promiscuous, then biology at the very least excuses – to a certain degree – people's bad behavior. I suppose that there will always be that battle between those who believe in conforming to our animal behaviors, to become "natural man", and those who believe in transcending and moving towards a higher ideal (Nietzsche's ubermensch for example). As we can see, I am closer to the side of extremist transcendent.

  • By the way, here's a link detailing in a more neutral tone the tenets of the book: http://edition.cnn.com/2010/OPINION/07/27/ryan.pr

  • Gary

    Yes, it would appear that it is becoming more prominant in the media. I wouldn't question that. On the matter of whether it is becoming more prominant because it reflects a shift in social mores or if it is something that the media is pushing society in the direction of… I don't know. Perhaps we can see this as something of a positive feedback loop? I don't have the historical or cultural knowledge to really speculate on this and I'm not really confident enough to stake a claim on anything here.

    On the other stuff, I'm going to have to ask you to excuse me on. It's getting pretty philosophical. We're going to have to start defining what responsibility is, laying down basic axioms and crap. Not interested enough to go through all that mental effort at the moment, for the sake of figuring out a matter that isn't even that important to me.

    And thanks for the link. It was interesting. I never thought about some of the points that are brought up. Going to have to sit on this info for awhile, but it seems, preliminarily, that the book is on polygamy vs. monogamy, and to me, for reasons I have touched on before, it is a non-issue. I'll just go with what you said, "biology be damned," because biology doesn't dictate the way we do things.