Taking the Christianity out of Sex

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. 

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.