Saturday, May 28, 2005

Human Sexuality Part II

[If you haven’t already done so, read Part I. Each part will build on what came before.]

I've argued that Eros is naturally relational- that we are built in such a way that we seek our romantic fulfillment in exclusive relationships (whether temporary or permanent), and that the exceptions to this are something other than Eros [what they are, I'll get to in a later post]. It then makes sense to ask what effect sexual acts have upon a relationship of two in such a state of Eros. The definition of "sexual acts" here is pretty expansive, and for the purposes of this discussion I'm going to define it as anything, from "making out" on up, that intentionally leads to arousal and/or sexual pleasure. I'm just going to hope you know what I mean.

That the effects of this class can be discussed in general is, of course, non-trivial. We don't bother to ask what effect, say, going out to dinner has on a relationship in general because it can mean so many different things: a special treat, a relief from the necessity of cooking, an exploration of an uncommon type of food, et cetera. In other words, we have remarkable ability to define for ourselves what dining out is going to mean. I assert that sexual acts are of a different sort, that there's a rather significant element to what I before called the objective character of the act, and that we don't have the latitude to redefine this as we see fit.

Our biology is such that we have pretty predictable responses in a number of important spheres; one of these is sexuality. Disorders aside, there are certain hormones that guys and girls release, there are certain areas of the brain that get involved, during these sexual acts. As far as I know, there's not that much intrinsic biology around restaurant-going, so much more of that experience consists of learned and willed responses. The reason for this difference is pretty obvious, whether you believe in evolution or intelligent design or what-have-you. Since procreation depends on the sexual act, it's pretty important for survival of the species that the individual responses surrounding sexual acts not be dependent on chance or on caprice. Of course, it appears from this that natural selection dictates only the responses surrounding coitus, and that the rest of our sexual behavior (heterosexual and homosexual) gains innate responses by similarities to coitus; after all, it is the only sexual act which bears directly on reproduction. But the fact is that all these sexual acts set this internal process in motion, release the same hormones, stimulate the same brain areas, so they trigger many of the same responses and effects.

We developed a whole set of innate sexual behavior for this reason, a set of responses to and effects of sexual acts. These responses and effects, then, we're not in control of to the same degree that we control many of our other responses (either through cultural conditioning or through conscious effort). So much so, in fact, that we can draw some very meaningful general conclusions from observing ourselves and others.

So the big conclusion I'm going to draw here is one that, I hope, is mostly obvious: that these sexual acts create a peculiar sort of emotional and psychological bond within a relationship. A couple just isn't quite the same way to each other before and after some significant level of physical intimacy. This bond- what Catholic terminology denotes the "unitive aspect" of sexual acts- has many effects on the couple, some of which are positive and some negative in a given context. The couple usually starts desiring each other more than before (after a period of satiety), becomes more exclusive and more jealous, becomes more willing to commit to each other and to overlook problems. [An interesting study I've heard quoted on the exclusivity claimed that for more than a day after intercourse with a woman, a man will experience a moderate psychological aversion to women other than the one he slept with. Peter, do you remember the source?]

The reasons for this sort of psychological bond should be apparent, as well, from necessity. If we are to have such a significant innate aftereffect of sexual activity, it must have been selected for in relation to the process of reproduction: for human beings, both procreation and child-rearing. It is for the purpose of the second, that father and mother might be united to each other in the proper way to take care of children, that this psychological bond has come to be.

Need I note again that this is not yet a moral claim? Teleology is not necessarily ethics; just because something came to be for a certain reason does not mean that it must be used for that reason. As people have been quick to point out on other blogs discussing this, we evolved hair to keep our brains warm and keep us alive; but we use it for distinguishing statements of fashion, and there is nothing intrinsically wrong in this.

But it does say something about the chaos we observed in the temporary sexual relationships of high school. Couples are forming with each other these emotional bonds strong enough to hold together a father and mother while they raise children, and forming this bond in situations where it's unlikely they'll be together for more than a few weeks. It looks somewhat like trying to run an iPod on a car battery, and is often as destructive. High school-age boys and girls end up in therapy, or doing stupid things to escape the pain, or attempting suicide, in staggering numbers from broken sexual relationships these days. Moral or not, it certainly looks foolish in that context.

Again, I don't think I've said anything really controversial yet. I just claim that sexual acts do, in general, have meaningful effects on a couple, and that these effects correspond to the sort of psychological bond involved in staying together and raising children as a couple. If I need to clarify something, or if you think I'm overreaching, tell me so. Otherwise, Part III is scheduled for Sunday.

No comments: