one of the greatest debates in biology is what is “natural” for an animal or plant. the simple answer is that natural things are genetically-determined while other things are environmental — reactions to experience. for example, if a tree grows one ring per year, this is written in its genetic code but if it twists that’s a reaction to sun, wind and soil — it’s not natural as much as it’s environmental. humans (being animals) have much the same distinction. this, however, is generally much more noticeable than just the angle of a tree or how sensitive a dog is to loud noises after a bad experience.
there is another problem with this definition, though. what if something is caused by a naturally-occurring chemical — for example, a hormone like testosterone or estrogen? does that mean it’s natural? what about when the chemical’s quantity, concentration or release/uptake is triggered by an environmental change?
of course, this differentiation is about terminology rather than reality. it happens. whether it is seen as a “natural” thing or “artificial” or “environmental”, the fact that it is a reality for most humans can’t be ignored. this is the case for many aspects of human life but the one that immediately comes to mind is desire. let’s take a look at how desire works (sexual and otherwise) and what causes it.
there are three real types of desire felt by humans (animals don’t feel desire — no, don’t argue — desire is a thought and animals don’t think, only react — they “want” things in a colloquial sense but this is an internally-triggered mechanism in response to behavioral programming and it’s not the same thing, though it can be hormonally-triggered just like in humans — there’s no mitigating layer of thought, though, which is why a bull will take every opportunity it gets to mount a cow and deposit its sperm within) — wanting stuff, wanting pleasure, wanting offspring. they all work the same way but they have slightly different triggers and results so it’s probably best to look at them separately.
desire for objects is a side-effect of human society. this is definitely behavioral. it’s not a natural thing — it’s not derived from a hormonal or genetic process. when you walk through a mall and feel a deep desire to buy a new dress or the latest video game, this is about a desire for possession — a materialist lust that has been fueled by millennia of personal-ownership being taught from the first moments a child experiences the human world. while there are occasional links to sex or reproduction to strengthen these desires (that dress will get you fucked! this makeup looks sexy…), this is a relatively-minimal section of material desire. most of it comes down to one of two thoughts.
- “i deserve this because i’m worth more than i currently have.”
- “having more stuff will make me more valuable.”
these are both extremely dangerous thoughts and perspectives but they’re symbolic of western culture — “the one who dies with the most/best stuff wins”. if you haven’t seen that on a tshirt yet, you might not have been looking. it’s a very common statement (in various versions) and i’ve seen it many times on shirts, stickers, etc. the idea is that possession is a demonstrable version of personal worth. it’s obvious to others — if you have stuff, you must be successful. and most people want to be successful. though if they want to be successful because that has merit on its own or just because being more successful means being able to have more stuff, that’s not nearly as clear.
but if you ever hear someone say things like “having stuff is a natural human desire”, just look at them quizzically and walk away. it’s no more natural than painting your face with berry juice or cutting your hair. if you want to do those things, that’s totally fine. but they’re not natural processes. they’re human society acted out in the real world. expectations and training rather than chemicals and biology.
this is where things tend to go off the natural rails, though. sex is natural. animals do it. for that matter, in a way, some plants even do it. the birds, the bees and the birch. so what’s unnatural about that? the motive.
if you’ve never read it, a fundamental discussion (with abysmal, arcane grammar but awesome content) of genetically-programmed reproduction can be found in richard dawkins’ “the selfish gene”. it’s a little outdated but the premise is simple and easily-summarized — we are motivated by genetic programming rather than society to do all we can to produce a new generation of our genetic material (not necessarily our species but that’s not relevant to the current discussion, though an interesting discovery to make the first time you realize it). so, having heard this, the answer must of course be that sex is perfectly natural and sleeping with a new partner every day is an evolutionarily-justifiable way to get around instructions the christian church has been trying to sell for years. right? no. not quite.
while the church has been wrong about almost everything since its instantiation and this is no exception — having sex without marriage isn’t wrong any more than having sex within marriage and sex isn’t inherently good or evil — it’s situational — this is the wrong question. it’s not about whether it’s right or wrong. it’s about what the motivation is.
sex is motivated by hormones (and other things — if you want to get technical about it, there are many motivating factors for sex but hormones are the overarching majority of these and it’s easier to think of it in these terms, though a subtle understanding will fill in some of the details and you’re welcome to dive deeper in this topic if you’re interested). the primary sexual hormones in humans are testosterone, estrogen and progesterone. while we usually associate testosterone with males and estrogen with females, they’re found in both biological sexes — the relative levels are generally different but there is considerable overlap and looking at raw data about quantity might confuse you if you try to determine biological sex based only on that — something a lot of people, especially conservatives, find very troubling. this is where the notion of “gender” being related to “biological sex” goes off the rails — there is no link between gender, which is an active decision and thought process linked to behavior and perception, and biological sex, which is about chromosomes, not behavior — actually not even about genitals, though these tend to follow the chromosomes — there are, however, exceptions.
but hormones are natural, right? well, yes. they are. but hormones naturally occur in specific quantities and are triggered by both internal and external environmental factors. for example, diet is a huge determiner for hormone expression. so is cultural expectation. the more you’re around others, the more likely your hormones are to become active — humans living in cities and encountering others on a constant and unavoidable basis, for example, is a relatively new concept compared to even the higher primates where having a few of the same species around is realistically all they’ll ever experience in the wild.
let’s take a look at just how natural those hormones are. how often does a primate generally have sex? well, not very often. many male primates never get an opportunity in their entire lives. only the dominant male in a group will have the opportunity to get up-close-and-ejaculative with the females. and while most of the females will have sexual experiences at least once in their lives, this probably occurs no more than once or twice a year. from monkeys living about twenty years to baboons approaching fifty at times, primates have varied lifespans — humans often expect seventy years and regularly see a century in exceptional cases. but a forty-year-old monkey, if female, might have had sex a dozen times. a male, if not a dominant one, may have done the deed once or twice, if at all. a dominant male will have done it more often but as often as a newlywed human couple does on their honeymoon alone? probably not that many times even in an alpha’s whole life.
this gives an interesting perspective.
so why are humans so full of uncontrollable sexual desire? well, three reasons — food, boredom and culture. food is key. humans eat food that promotes hormonal expression — in many cases, actually, humans today eat so much food that doesn’t just promote hormones to be produced but that contains lots of hormones. eat an animal? that’s probably got hormones in it. eat an animal that’s been intentionally fed hormones to make it grow faster? well, that’s got loads of hormones in it that are now in you. think you desperately want to get sweaty with that server in the restaurant in the alley after their shift? it might just be your steak. i know this is simplistic. but the link is more pronounced than people often give it credit for. no, it’s not instant like that. but a lifetime of swallowing other species’ hormones has a huge effect. and the large, varied and high-protein diet most humans exist on, combined with all the fat, compared to the protein-poor and fat-minimal diet of most other mammals means human hormones are reacting to something that’s never been dealt with by evolutionary change because it’s a relatively recent shift — only the last few tens of thousands of years and in many cases only a few thousand years — a moment in evolutionary terms.
beyond food, though, there’s more. humans are bored. almost all animals have to spend their entire waking lives seeking a way to survive. they don’t have time to fuck away the afternoon. they don’t have time to pursue. they don’t have time for anything except looking for food, taking care of their basic needs and children and resting. humans are bored. so they focus on their desires rather than their needs — meet someone’s needs and they can ignore them. how much do you think about water if you don’t have to wonder where your next glass will come from? how much do you care about having enough air to breathe until it’s not around? what’s the best cure for boredom? for most humans, it appears to be the horizontal tango.
the third one is perhaps a bit more relevant, though. social pressure is a big deal. if you don’t think so, look at your wardrobe. actually, look at your wardrobe when you were a teen. how much was it determined by those around you? we live in society. we have to work with its expectations and norms. what is typical? what is average? what is expected? what is normal? how much sex are other couples having? other singles? if i’m in a relationship, what does my partner expect? am i performing or will they leave me for someone else? do i give them enough pleasure? what about my neighbors. keeping-up-with-the-jones is a pretty common reason for frequent sexuality. that expectation, obvious from early childhood and engrained in all modern human consciousnesses, leads to the body functioning at a much higher level of hormonal production than it would have if society wasn’t a factor. let’s put it this way — you might not jump off a bridge if your friends do it. but you’ll think about it. and if your friends are having sex and you think about it, that thought is enough to stimulate hormone production — that production increases your desire for sex. remember when they told you thinking about sex isn’t the same as having it? well, the more you think about it, the more you’ll want it. not just because it’s on your mind. your body will produce more sexual hormones because thinking about it is preparing to have it and the body wants to be ready. we are fed a steady and overwhelming diet of sexuality in everything from television and movies to music and advertising. it’s absolutely everywhere. from early childhood. wonder why you want sex all the time? society expects it. and it reminds you all the time. the more you think about it, the more you want it. the more you want it, the more you feel physically driven to have it. it’s a self-fulfilling obsession. society is, for lack of a better term, literally fucked.
of course, there’s one other fundamental desire in humans — procreation. most humans want children. and that seems like a natural, biological drive. it is, of course. but the depth of that desire is far from natural. it’s a result of hyperproduction of sexual hormones (among other things) like we’ve just looked at. the more testosterone you produce, the more you want to procreate, not just penetrate or … catch. the more estrogen you produce, the more deeply you feel the need to create parasitic visitors in your uterus, despite the sacrifice in physical and social terms. children are a socially-imposed desperation in modern society. there’s an expectation. and the more people talk about children, the more you’re reminded of the fact you haven’t had any. which means you start thinking about sex and … well, we know where that train leads and it’s an express-line with only one destination — bed.
so do you want children because it’s natural or because it’s social? realistically both. but both are chemical and this desire will drop dramatically (usually completely) when hormones significantly shift. there is a natural hormonal production to trigger desire for child-production much like there’s natural hormonal production to trigger sexuality in young primates (in humans “young” can refer to about 12 years old to perhaps 40ish). but the vast majority of this is socially-and-behaviorally-triggered. the more you think about it, the more you produce the chemical triggers driving you to do it.
if this sounds frightening, you may have only gotten part of it. if someone is at a party and they see a woman they’re attracted to, they might think about having sex with them. this stimulates more hormone release and it’s a spiral. but let’s just assume they’ve been drinking mentally-inhibiting poison of some sort, which isn’t outside the realm of possibility — now that desire that’s been triggered by social conditioning, entitlement-culture and diet is an increasing and self-perpetuating spiral that can’t be limited by a diminished mind. can they stop thinking about it? how overwhelming is that desire? this leads to a very dangerous place — rape. “i want sex with you and i deserve it and it’s natural so you can’t say no.” is the person responsible for this action? absolutely. is a culture that encourages this behavior a contributing factor? absolutely. is the spiral of hormonal expression the method of action? disastrously, yes. how do we stop rape culture? realistically, the only way out isn’t to make people stop raping each other. it can only be stopped by doing three things together, all three not things modern society wants — eliminate the chemicals that inhibit thought (like alcohol and marijuana), eliminate the sexuality from cultural memes and norms and stop accepting randomized sexuality as acceptable instead of expecting sexuality to be a procreative act between two long-term-committed individuals. no, i’m not making a comment about gay/lesbian sex here. absolutely not. sex is sex. it’s two people stimulating each other in a sexual manner. their sexes and genders are irrelevant. but randomized sexuality is a precursor to rape culture and if we want to eliminate one we have to eliminate the other.
human collective culture triggers spirals of hormonally-fueled sexuality. is that good or bad? well, i have a view on this — it’s a disaster — but you don’t have to agree. whether you like it or not, at least it should be a bit clearer how this link works and exactly where in nature and evolution this shift away from the monkeys, baboons and gorillas occurred — and it’s much more recent and human-centric than most people seem to realize or even want to admit.
can we fix a culture that accepts rape, sexual pressure and overwhelming desperation to have children despite it being generally unwise to do any of these things? absolutely. will we?
in a word, no.
thanks for reading!