Civilized Sex: Has Civilization Changed Sex for Better or for Worse?

Civilized to Death. Image courtesy of Avid Reader Press

Civilized to Death. Image courtesy of Avid Reader Press

There’s a tendency to believe that civilization is our greatest human accomplishment and to think that every advance we’ve made—whether scientific, medical, or otherwise—has made things better because it has fixed a problem. However, as Dr. Christopher Ryan argues in his new book Civilized to Death: The Price of Progress, this line of thinking may be all wrong. 

As Ryan argues, every advancement we’ve made has brought with it a different set of problems, and sometimes those problems are more serious than the ones we were trying to fix in the first place. So in the process of attempting to make the world a better place, we may have inadvertently made it more dangerous. 

Ryan’s book is broad and provides numerous examples to support his argument. He explores everything from climate change to tooth decay to mental health; however, the part of the book that interested me the most—as a sex researcher and educator—was how civilization has changed sex and reproduction. 

I recently interviewed Ryan (who also happens to be co-author of Sex at Dawn) about his latest book and the subject of civilized sex in particular. In a two-part series, I’ll be sharing the highlights of our discussion.

The first excerpt from my conversation with Ryan appears below, which has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Lehmiller: Let me start with this question. How has civilization changed sex? Has it changed the way we think about sex? The way we have sex? What can you tell us about that?

Ryan: I think the first place to start would be how agricultural societies view relationships between men and women differently than pre-agricultural or non-agricultural societies do. One of the points that I make repeatedly in both Sex at Dawn and Civilized to Death is that women are thought to be equal to men in their stature, authority, independence, and autonomy in hunter-gatherer groups, whereas in agricultural societies, women are almost universally held to be very low stature compared to men. In fact, they’re considered the property of men. This seems to be a result of the fact that property per se as a concept is really not understood or valued by hunter-gatherer groups. If someone hoards things for themselves, that’s actually seen as a social taboo. Sharing and cooperation are the central organizing principles of a hunter-gatherer society.

When you don’t have a sense of personal property, it becomes very difficult to think of other people as property. But with the shift to agriculture, for the first time people settled down and started growing food on the same land year after year. They started building permanent shelters, domesticating animals, and investing a lot of time and energy into these things, which led private property to become very important. As soon as that happened, men became very concerned with who was going to inherit this property that they’d spent their lives accumulating and tending to. And so at that point, as we argued in Sex At Dawn, paternity certainty became a very important principle in human endeavors. And that leads to men trying to control the reproductive behavior of women so that the lines of inheritance can be well-established and very clearly maintained. So the relationships between men and women changed radically along with every other human relationship with the advent of agriculture. And the repercussions are far ranging, certainly.

I often point to a line in the Old Testament: thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife. I used to think that this line was only about respecting our neighbors’ marriages. But if you read the full context of the line, it says, “thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his ox, nor his house, nor his slaves, nor his ass” and all these other properties of the neighbor. The wife, in that context, is just another possession of the man. And we still see this where the father gives the bride to the husband, or in societies around the world where a woman who’s been raped is considered to be without any value. She’s no longer “pure.” And what does this purity mean? It means that the sperm from the chosen approved man is the only sperm that’s ever been in this woman’s body. So any children that come from her have to be from that man. There’s a sense of purity that’s very much based upon the notion of property. 

Lehmiller: In reading Civilized to Death, I noticed that you talked about human beings as this deeply, essentially sexual species. For millennia, however, we’ve been pressured into thinking that we’re supposed to ignore, tame, and repress our sexuality. As a prime example of this, you talk about this guy John Harvey Kellogg, who is someone I talk about in my human sexuality classes. He was kind of a quack because he was this doctor who held the belief that masturbation was bad for you, and that sex was bad for you, too.

He actually developed the original cornflake thinking that it was a cure for masturbation because if you were eating bland foods, you wouldn’t be sexually excited and therefore you’d be less likely to touch yourself and you wouldn’t want to have sex. Kellogg also advocated for circumcising boys who were masturbating without using any anesthetic because the pain would make them not want to do it anymore. He also suggested applying carbolic acid to the clitoris of girls who were masturbating to prevent that behavior as well. 

Kellog is just one of many examples of medical authorities in our past who tried to tell us that we need to repress our sexuality and sexual impulses. Being told for so long that we’re supposed to repress our sexuality, what kind of effects has that had on us sexually or otherwise? 

Civilized to Death author Dr. Christopher Ryan. Image courtesy of Avid Reader Press. Photo by Joshua LaCunha.

Civilized to Death author Dr. Christopher Ryan. Image courtesy of Avid Reader Press. Photo by Joshua LaCunha.

Ryan: Oh my God, that’s, that’s a massive question. I think it’s resulted in generations of twisted, tormented people who then pass on their twists to the next generation. So there’s been a cascading effect in terms of shame and denial and the grotesque forms that these essentially beautiful and life-giving energies can take when they’re pushed underground. I think you could argue that the Catholic church is essentially a result of the repression of sexuality in general and specifically of gay male sexuality. The church was a place where gay men could go and sort of be protected in a sense by an institution that was built upon denial. 

I think it was James Prescott who looked at the anthropological database and correlated how open a society was in terms of accepting the sexual expression of adolescents vs. punishing them with how violent the society was. What he found was an almost perfect correlation amongst societies showing that the more repressed they were sexually, the more violent they were, both within the society and in terms of warfare and conflict with other societies.

So it could be argued that the repression and shame that you’re pointing to are essential components of violence and war. Obviously correlation doesn’t imply causation, but I think it’s no accident that when you look at some of the greatest conflicts in the world right now, you have one very sexually confused and twisted society, which is the United States, in conflict with certain types of Islam, which are also extremely confused and conflicted around sexuality.

There’s a section in Civilized to Death where I talk about the connection between sexual repression and outbursts of violence in in the Islamic world and mass shootings in our world. I think these things are certainly connected. There’s also the violence against women that’s being perpetrated right now in the United States where abortion clinics are being shut down and doctors are prohibited from speaking honestly with their patients about their reproductive options. Then there’s abstinence only sex education, which doesn’t work but is supported by the federal government to the tune of tens of millions of dollars per year. These are all forms of institutional violence against our innate sexual nature and, particularly against women even learning how to feel comfortable in their own bodies. These are all reflections and echoes of these changes that took place no more than 10,000 years ago with the advent of agriculture. We’re still reeling from it today.

Lehmiller: I think that’s such an interesting way of framing it. I think we all realize that sexual repression happens and that it has consequences, but people tend to focus on how that leads to, say, unhappy marriages and other things like that. But what you’re arguing is really how there are these much larger global consequences that may result from sexual repression.

Ryan: One of the themes in Civilized to Death I tried to play throughout the book is that the war with our inner nature is a reflection of our war with the nature outside us, the nature within which we live. These are two aspects of the same misguided conflict. And so just as we’re being constantly told that we shouldn’t trust our nature—and of course, sexuality is a big part of that nature that we’re told we should be repressing, resisting, fighting, denying, and hiding—we’re also told that the world outside us is to be conquered and controlled and not to be trusted. There’s an essential conflict between these two aspects of nature. I think they’re two sides of the same coin, and I don’t think we’re going to ever be able to live in peace with our natural environment until we’re at peace with our inner environment and vice versa. 

Lehmiller: I think that’s really beautifully put. If I remember correctly, you also talk a little in your book about how things are not necessarily the same cross-culturally when it comes to this conflict we face surrounding sex, right? For example, you bring up the Dutch model of sex education and one of the things you argued there is that the Dutch approach emulates the approach taken by early foragers in terms of recognizing that adolescents are sexual beings. Can you talk a little bit about that and how this tendency towards sexual repression and openness varies cross-culturally and also how in cultures where there’s more openness and more respect for teenage sexuality, the outcomes tend to be better?

Ryan: The outcomes in the studies contrasting the Dutch approach with the American approach couldn’t be clearer in terms of which approach is more effective. Teen pregnancy in Holland is a fraction—I think it’s a fourth, fifth, or sixth—of what it is in the United States on average. Then if you look at the US states where abstinence-only education is in effect, the contrast is even higher. STI transmission rates reflect the same differences. So there’s no question that talking about things openly, in letting students and children know that they can come to adults with questions and that they’re not going to be shamed, and that teachers are here to talk about these things—that’s how people learn. Why would we make an exception for sexuality? I often think that if we taught kids to drive the way we teach them about sexuality, we would essentially just say, “Look, here are the keys to the car. Don’t tell me when you go driving. Figure it out and try not to wreck the car.” That’s essentially our approach to teaching kids about sex. And it’s absurd.

I think this isn’t even really a conversation about educational techniques or what works and what doesn’t. That’s all very well established. There’s no question. The question is why are we so uptight about this? Why is this one area of life in the United States so difficult for us to deal with rationally? I think it’s that we’re living with the lasting effects of a very Old Testament, puritanical approach to these matters. 

You know, I lived in Spain for most of my adult life and even though Spain is an officially Catholic country, they have a much more relaxed, open, and tolerant approach to issues of sexuality. Whether it’s sex ed, condom use. distribution of condoms, or extramarital affairs, all of these issues are actually approached with a much more relaxed attitude, even though the country is officially Catholic. It’s an interesting contradiction.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of my interview with Dr. Christopher Ryan, and be sure to check out his new book Civilized to Death. Also, read my review of Ryan’s previous book Sex at Dawn here.

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Image Credits: Avid Reader Press

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