Men have stronger sexual desires than do women…Women are the more monogamous gender…Homosexuality is an unnatural sexual behavior.
Sexual beliefs, like these, are so widespread that we have collectively come to view them as being embedded in our biology. Cross-cultural data collected from pre-industrial societies, however, tells a different story. That data suggests that culture – including religion – has played an important role in ingraining these “truths” about human sexuality into our collective psyche.
Just to give you an example of our modern perspective, a few weeks ago, when we were talking about the origin of marriage, one of the commenters asked the question: “Why the obsession with pre-marital virginity (and extra-marital children) that we see emerge across cultures from a very early point in time?”
I find these types of questions revealing. They illustrate our belief that conservative sexual values today are representative of historical sexual values (across societies) and, as a result, tell us something important about who we are as sexual beings.
Thanks to the exhaustive efforts of anthropologists like George Murdock, Douglas White, and dozens of others who contributed to the Standard Cross-Cultural Survey, I can tell you quite emphatically that there is no uniformity of human beliefs about sexual behaviors across cultures and from an early point in time.
In fact, cross-cultural evidence collected on 1167 pre-European contact societies suggests that much of what we believe to be true about human sexuality is socially constructed rather than biologically pre-determined.*
Let’s start with the issue raised by the commenter – how widespread across societies was the belief in pre-marital virginity?
Only 26% of the societies in the sample insisted on girls being virgins at the time they were married. An additional 25% had mild prohibitions on female pre-marital promiscuity but reported that the behavior was “not infrequent”. A further 11% only had an issue with pre-marital female promiscuity if pregnancy ensued and a remarkable 25% of societies had no issues with pre-marital female promiscuity even if that promiscuity resulted in pregnancy.
In 59% of societies pre-marital sex was universal for boys and in 47% it was universal for girls, suggesting very little double standard when it came to male and female adolescent sexual behavior.
Additionally, sexual expression in the form of heterosexual intercourse (predominately), heterosexual foreplay, masturbation, and homosexuality was strongly approved of for boys in 30% of societies and strongly approved of for girls in 23% of societies.
Speaking of homosexuality, this behavior was observed in 58% of the societies in which anthropologists explored this issue and, among those societies, only 42% strongly disapproved of the behavior and 32.5% accepted or ignored the behavior.
How about our belief that men have stronger sexual desires than women?
Pre-European contact societies, overwhelmingly, believed that men and women had the same level of sexual desires: in 76% of societies that was the prevalent belief. Sure, 18% thought that men had stronger sexual urges, but the remainder (over 5%) thought that women were the hornier of the two genders.
(Interestingly, modern day studies that electronically measure sexual arousal have found that women often understate their level of sexual desire while men tend to overstate their desire.)
Finally, are men less monogamous than women?
In only 20% of the societies was extra-martial sex uncommon for men and in 28% it was uncommon for women. Other than that difference, the distribution of the prevalence of extra-martial sex (from universal to occasional) was very similar for men and for women.
When it comes to modern day human sexuality we really should be having a nature-versus-nurture debate – how much is determined by biological factors and how much is determined by our culture (not to mention 2,000 years of Christianity).
We can’t actually strip away culture completely, but exploring how pre-European contact groups of hunter-gatherer and early agricultural societies behaved sexually two hundred years ago is as close as we are going to get to a “twins separated at birth” approach to answering this question.
* In this, very rough analysis, I have used a sub-sample of 186 societies contained in the SCCS to help address the issue of collinearity in the data. The data used is collected by anthropologists over time (roughly 1840 - 1950) to represent as many world cultures as possible and has been coded according to the standard, vetted definitions widely used by anthropologists and other researchers.