Facets of Medicine (8)


By William Wetherall

A Japanese version of this article appeared in
Kokutai, 16(11), December 1995, pages 158-159

Sex is not just carnal intercourse.

This may seem very obvious to primatologists, sexologists, and other specialists who study sexual behaviors in their natural, social, and cultural contexts. Yet a Martian who observed how sex on Earth is being commercialized, and how human sexuality is being carnalized in mass media, could not be blamed for concluding that sex is something most humans do, usually with a partner, mainly for enjoyment.

The expression "have sex" generally denotes what a couple, usually a man and woman, less commonly two people of the same gender, does, usually in the privacy of a bed room. The expression is also apt to imply "pleasure" or "love" rather than "child production".

Yet sex touches our lives in virtually everything we do. In fact the very existence of human life, and of course its continuation, depend first and foremost on human sexuality.

Indeed, defined sociobiologically, as everything from courting and intercourse to childbearing and childrearing, sexual reproduction would seem to be the sole purpose of life. If so, sex and life are one and the same: sex is life, life is sex.

Mating and parenting require a lot of cooperation and commitment on the parts of the biological parents if not also their families. And preparing children for adult life requires concern and investment on the part of the community and its government. Though human sexuality may originate in anatomical and physiological conditions, it is ultimately more social and political than is usually meant by "having sex".

In an even broader view of sex, human sexuality may be regarded as the foundation of all human organization and expression. Religion and philosophy, technology and science, politics and economics, and of course all the arts from the pretentiously high to the bawdy low, and even sports and hobbies, all owe their reason for existence to sex. Indeed, rather than to list those many aspects of our lives that, for better or worse, serve or betray the imperative of sexual reproduction, it would be much easier to contemplate content that has absolutely no impact on our survival as a species: to wit, nothing.

While the carnal union of male and female requires only a few minutes of muscular activity, every sexual act takes place in the context of billions of years of evolution, particularly of the Animal Kingdom, and especially of the phylum Chordata, class Mammalia, order Primate, family Hominid, genus Homo, and species sapiens sapiens.

The protection of this evolutionary investment is not, by nature, peaceful or altruistic. Indeed, genetic rivalry within the family of man is often brutally selfish and tragically self-destructive. Take, for example, forms of social organization and political action that aggressively pursue the interests of a dominant race or ethnic group. All that goes by the name "World War II" may have been nothing more than a form of sexual rivalry between ideologically defined collectives of human beings.

However, when caught in a vicious circle of ever-expanding means of destruction, rivalry in the form of invasion and conquest may not only fail to secure those interests, but may also jeopardize the future of the entire human race. Ethologists are right to suggest that the summer and winter Olympics, as ritualized forms of war between states, are preferable to the hot and even cold wars that we have witnessed in this century.

The potential for mass destruction of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons is almost incalculable. Some people worry that their internecine use would either annihilate the human race, or precipitate its eventual extinction by irreversibility damaging its reproductivity.

Some biologists have disagreed. The bacteriologist Rene Dubo, one of the first of his breed to advocate concern about the impact of human civilization on the ecology of the earth, boldly argued that man is one of the most adaptive forms of life ever to appear, on a par with the cockroach, which is one of the oldest varieties of life.

Others, too, have argued that, as terrible as a global nuclear war would undoubtedly be, some people would survive. And, as some science fiction writers have suggested, the ability of the survivors to sexually reproduce healthy offspring will be the key factor in deciding whether the human race itself has a future--apart from its quality of life.

Reproduction in the wake of a global nuclear war might not be as orderly as in Japan today. Imagine a war in which the government and most government infrastructure is destroyed. Imagine the entire family register system--primarily the registration of birth, death, marriage, divorce, and incidentally the registration of nationality--disrupted to the point that no one is able to register such vital events.

The state has disappeared. There is no government to impose order on life. No city halls. No courts. No way to enforce the Civil Code or Family Registration Law.

Society becomes a patchwork of lawless zones that in time evolve their own new local versions of order. But considerable time may pass, perhaps several generations, before the emergence of a social system with sufficient authority to tell us who we may marry, how old me must be, how many spouses we may have, how many children we may bear, what sexual positions we may use, conditions of divorce, and conditions for division of property upon separation by divorce or death, and all the other controls currently provided by the Civil Code, the Family Register Law, the Nationality Law, and numerous customs, traditions, taboos, superstitions, and prejudices.

The scattered survivors, all of them possibly strangers to each other, will begin living together out of desperation. As pairing and mating take place, it will be obvious who is paired with whom, and who is born to whom. People will avoid or discourage sexual relationships that threaten the social bonds of the survivor community, or which go against the grain of remembered taboos. No coveting of thy neighbor's wife. No parent-child or brother-sister incest.

But what if one man and one woman find themselves the only two people alive in an entire region? And isolated from survivors in other regions? They, too, will simply begin living together. And probably sleeping together, engaging is sex by consent or force, reproducing.

Presume the woman is not too old to bearing children. Presume the man is capable of producing, and delivering, sperm to the woman's ovum. This couple--whatever their differences in age, ethnicity, or state of mental and physical health--produce children.

Presume the children survive. Who will they mate with? Unless contact is established with other groups of survivors, they will mate with their parents and/or themselves.

Will people thus struggling to survive feel any need to photograph each other naked, and to display their pubic hair and sexual organs on calendars? Will they have need for soaplands and image clubs? Will they sit around a table and debate the purpose of sex on all-night TV?

The standard theory is that sex should be pleasurable for most people who discover it, since people would never go to all that messy trouble if it weren't. And then where would the human species be?

But it does not follow that, because sex may be pleasurable, it exists for pleasure. In the age of AIDS, unreasoned sexual passions can destroy us all. Governments that censor sexual expression, yet dream of arsenals full of nuclear adult toys, can also kill every one of us.

The flower children of the sixties said "Make love, not war."