Agner Fog: Cultural selection © 1999

10. Sexual behavior

All societies have moral rules regulating sexual behavior. These rules are very different from society to society, and although the de facto enforced rules are not always in agreement with the written rules, they are usually sufficiently specific to be studied and compared with reasonable accuracy. Comparison of the sexual morals of various societies reveals a distinct connection between the morals and the social structure. Goethals (1978) finds that the strongest sanctions against premarital sex are found in complex patriarchal societies. More generally speaking, it can be said that regal societies have strict sexual morals, whereas kalyptic societies are more liberal. This connection is quite analogous to what applies to other areas of morality, but still puzzling because there is no obvious rational or functionalistic explanation for the sexual morals.

Traditional explanations

The most traditional reason given for the sexual morals is that they shall prevent unwanted children. This explanation is contradicted by two factors: Firstly, strict sexual morals always include a prohibition against contraception and abortion - the two most effective means against unwanted childbirth. And secondly, strict sexual morals are found in the very same societies that encourage and require a large production of children. We must conclude, therefore, that strict sexual morals lead to a higher birthrate in society as a whole - not smaller.

Another traditional explanation of the sexual morals is that they shall prevent the spread of venereal diseases. But this argument is also contradicted by the prohibition against condoms and other means that may prevent the spread of venereal diseases. It is true that the tightening of sexual morals in modern times found some of its reasons in the syphilis epidemics, but it was also the fight against syphilis that gave rise to better sex education and hence a liberalization of the morals at the beginning of the twentieth century (Burnham 1973).

The claim that epidemics of sexually transmitted diseases is a major cause of strict sexual morals can best be disproved by looking at the AIDS epidemic. When this disease was first identified, it was regarded as closely related to male homosexuality. Not surprisingly, AIDS was used as an argument for the oppression of homosexuals, but notably by persons who already had this opinion beforehand. People who already had a liberal attitude to homosexuality used the opposite argument: that a greater acceptance of homosexuality was necessary in order to fight the epidemic. An extensive campaign was organized to promote the use of condoms. The target group of this campaign was primarily promiscuous homosexuals, and in order to appeal to this target group the campaign unavoidably came to indirectly communicate the message that such a lifestyle was acceptable. The overall effect of the AIDS epidemic has been a greater acceptance of homosexuality and promiscuity in countries like Denmark and Germany that already had liberal attitudes to such lifestyles (Schmidt 1989).

A ban on promiscuity may function to establish certainty about paternity for the sake of economic inheritance (Goethals 1978), but many of the prohibitions in the sexual morals cannot be explained with reference to family planning, infectious diseases, or other rational considerations. Most notably, such forms of sexuality which do not lead to procreation, i.e. pornography, prostitution, masturbation, homosexuality, anal intercourse, and sexual intercourse with animals, are often among the most prohibited.

Many historians have studied the ban on homosexuality. One of the most thorough studies (Boswell 1980) disproves the widespread belief that this ban has its origin in the bible. On the contrary, the church was quite tolerant of this condition in the early middle ages, and homosexuality was widespread among the clergy. The arguments against it were primarily found in secular philosophy, and it took a long time for the church to accept this ban and give it a religious reason. Even in the late middle ages, when the fight against heresy was at its peak, the prohibition was often given pagan reasons. The arguments were often illogical and paradoxical. The argument that homosexuality was bestial because certain animals were (erroneously) believed to be homosexual, and the argument that homosexuality was unnatural because animals did not practice it, could be found in one and the same text. The rules must have been selected by some other criteria than their logic.

Boswell is sufficiently acute to see the limitations of his theory. It may be tempting for a historian to explain the prohibition by saying that this or that influential theologian regarded homosexuality as unnatural, but Boswell demonstrated that there were at least as many distinguished persons who expressed the opposite stance (1980:163). Boswell cannot, with the theoretical methods he has to his disposition, explain why one opinion was advanced and not the other. Neither can he explain why homosexuals were punished more severely than prostitutes, when the new testament condemns prostitution much more strongly than homosexuality. He can only demonstrate that the dictates of the bible have been applied very selectively.

There has been a gradual tightening of sexual morals from the beginning of the medieval period, and this has continued - with a few lapses - right up to victorian times. The persecution of sexual deviants has gone hand in hand with the persecution of jews, heretics, witches, and other deviants. One did not always distinguish between the different kinds of deviation, and it was sometimes quite arbitrary whether a deviant was accused of heresy, witchcraft, sodomy, or all three (Bullough 1974).

The idea that there is a close connection between political suppression and sexual suppression can be ascribed first and foremost to Wilhelm Reich, who invented the term sexual politics. His main thesis was that sexual suppression, and particularly the sex-negative education of children, leads to authoritarianism, conservatism and fear of freedom (Reich 1933). The theories of Reich were sometimes politically biased and far-fetched, but his observations of the connection between sexual repression and political and religious power structures are of continuing interest.

The history of sexuality

The ideals of religious liberty, freedom of speech, and democracy were fostered in the age of enlightenment, and were important factors in the french revolution. People would no longer accept the obvious dominance of churches and kings. These ideals of freedom have since been a strong weapon against the most important regal means. As these ideals gained wider and wider acceptance, the regal forces, now having their wings clipped, had a growing need for new regalizing devices which were less transparent and thus more immune to ideological warfare.

Sexual liberty has not yet been fully integrated into the ideologies of human rights and freedom of speech, and sexual oppression is therefore more immune to ideological criticism than other, more obvious, regal means. The selective forces have therefore favored tight sexual morals, rather than other more simple regal devices. The social consequences of sexual morals are quite difficult to penetrate, and therefore also difficult to criticize. This selection process has taken place possibly without any contemporary human fully understanding why.

Nuclear family and private life were constructed during the eighteenth century, and formed the basis for the glorification of marital happiness and true love in romanticism and victorianism (Ariès 1960). Procreation was tied to marriage and family life by physical as well as spiritual control. Generally, women were kept ignorant about reproduction and their sexual drive was conceived as morbid and dangerous. A woman's true nature was believed to be love for her children and fidelity to her husband. Sex and reproduction was not a right but a duty to the husband, the state, and God. It was possible to set children to work very early and this provided an economic incentive for producing many children. The high production of children was a precondition for the europeans being able to colonize half the globe (Heinsohn 1979).

The concept of sexuality

The concept of 'sexuality' in its modern meaning was constructed in the second half of the nineteenth century. Previously, there had been words for sexual intercourse and for love, but not for what we today call sexuality (Ussel 1975). Sexuality was discussed, systematized, controlled, and made an object of scientific study and discourse. Sexuality was fitted into a rhetoric of human nature, dressed up as objective science, which made it difficult to criticize the repressive sexual norms (Foucault 1976).

It has been argued that the modern concept of sexuality is delimited in an arbitrary way for which it is difficult to give a theoretical reason (Ussel 1975). Humans have many pleasurable feelings and impulses in connection with everyday activities and friendships between people. These feelings are traditionally defined as non-sexual, despite the fact that they have very much in common with sexuality. This demarcation of sexuality is necessary in order to maintain the perception of sexuality as something transcendent - as a special sphere raised above daily life - and which has to be regulated by special rules and rituals. In order to uphold this artificial demarcation, it is necessary to put restrictions on pleasurable everyday experiences so that they do not resemble sexual acts or feelings too much: Sport-friends may hug one another, but not kiss. A mother can enjoy breast feeding her baby, but if she gets a clitoral erection as a result then she becomes shameful and has to keep silent about it.

Eventually, the boundaries of sexuality have become riddled by various branches of science: Psychologists have demonstrated that the sexual instincts haunt in many situations which have nothing to do with procreation (Freud 1905). Sociologists maintain that the concept of sexuality is an arbitrary construct (Foucault 1976, Ussel 1975). And ethologists have shown that romantic love has an evolutionary origin in parental love, and that sexual behavior has other functions besides procreation (Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1971). As a consequence of this, I am using the word sexuality in the broadest possible meaning in this book. It is a problem that we cannot draw a sharp line between sexual impulses and other pleasurable impulses, if such delimitation has any meaning at all. Sexuality may be difficult to define, but we cannot do without a word for it as long as it is subjected to an extensive social regulation which we want to study.

Sexual morals as controlling means

Since many moral taboos are seemingly aimless and irrational, these morals provide a very suitable example for the study of how social norms can develop through cultural selection almost independently of rational planning.

If sexual morals had their purported purpose, namely to reduce the number of births, then any kind of sexual activity which does not lead to pregnancy would be a welcome alternative which could provide an outlet for the importunate sexual drives. But since the moral restrictions are most frequently directed against exactly these forms of sexuality, then it is evident that the function of these sexual morals is to compel the population to produce more children, not fewer. The prohibition against unproductive or premarital sex forces people to marry early and raise many children in order to get satisfaction for their sexual drives.

The influence of sexuality on the social structure is not as obvious and transparent as the effect of religious or political government. I therefore find it necessary to explain the social functions of sexuality in more detail in the following paragraphs.


10.1 Psychological mechanisms

In chapter 7 I described a mechanism in baboons which makes them change their sexual and social behavior when external ecological conditions change. Promiscuity disappears under conditions where external group competition dominates over competition within the group. Sexual behavior becomes controlled by a fixed harem structure, and the males get a clearly dominant position over the females. I suggested that this reaction could be interpreted as a vicarious selection mechanism. If it is possible for such a mechanism to exist in baboons, then it is also possible in humans. We have already seen that group-external conflicts, and other factors which threaten the security of the society as a group, lead to authoritarianism (see chapt. 4.7). It is possible that the same or a similar mechanism also makes humans order their sexual life into fixed patterns when their group is threatened, in almost the same way as do the baboons. Thus, under regal conditions, people will make the social structure more hierarchic and patriarchal, make sexual morals as well as other norms stricter, and increase the production of children. These are all strategies that make the group more fit for regal selection. The theory of vicarious psychological selection mechanisms is thus a likely explanation why regalization leads to more strict sexual morals.

Vicarious selection mechanisms result in a much faster reaction to altered external conditions than do natural or cultural selection based on trial and error. An example of a fast change in the sexual morals was the legalization of pornography in Denmark in 1969. The change in political attitude behind this liberation took place in approximately ten years, and it has been demonstrated that this change was neither based on new scientific knowledge about the effects of pornography nor on a re-evaluation of the right of the state to meddle with people's private lives, but purely and simply on a changed moral attitude towards pornography (Kutchinsky 1987). In USA the official attitude to pornography has changed from tolerance to condemnation almost equally as fast (compare e.g. Lockhart 1970 with Meese 1986). This tightening of morals was connected to a strongly increasing fear of sexual crimes and sexual violence, a fear which was reflected in the political as well as in the professional and scientific discourse.

Self perpetuating mechanisms

Vicarious selection is not the only possible explanation for fast changes in norms and attitudes. Another possibility is positive feed-back mechanisms. There are several possibilities for such mechanisms, some of which I will discuss here.

In a society where sexual life is restricted by many taboos, people will be likely to internalize these taboos and hence come into conflict with themselves because they have an unconscious desire to do what is forbidden. The psyche will react to such intrapsychic conflicts with defense mechanisms such as reaction formation and projection. The reaction formation finds its expression in an obsessional over-conformity, and the projection is seen in the phenomenon where the person attempts to fight his own repressed impulses by attacking other persons to whom the same impulses can be ascribed. A person who is plagued by forbidden desires will be the first to condemn others who can be accused of having similar desires. The paradoxical consequence of these psychological mechanisms is that the person who has the greatest problems complying with a taboo will be the first to uphold and bolster the very taboo that caused his frustrations. It is a prevalent opinion among psychologists that this mechanism is at work in people who show a fear of homosexuality (Adams, et. al. 1996, Herek 1984; Shields & Harriman 1984), and I find reason to believe that similar mechanisms are responsible in connection with other sexual taboos. A conscious conflict inspires rebellion, whereas a repressed conflict leads to over-conformity.

The more the legal possibilities of sexual activity are limited, the more will the illegal activities abound. Not only 'soft' crimes of a purely moral nature, but also violent sex-crimes committed by desperate people who cannot control their intrapsychic conflicts. The people who are being stigmatized because of their sexual sins will gradually develop secondary non-sexual deviations as reaction to the social oppression. Secondary deviations may include violent or anti-social behavior, alcoholism and social isolation (Lemert 1967, Fog 1992). And to make matters worse, the psychological trauma in victims of sex crimes are the more severe if their moral values are strict. The sexual crimes as well as the secondary deviations which accompany them lead to a social call for more control of sex criminals and stricter sexual morals. If, on the other hand, the moral restraints are loosened, then the vicious circle will be reversed and the number of sex crimes will go down. In Denmark the number of serious sex crimes fell dramatically when pornography became available (Kutchinsky 1985).


10.2 Selection of discourses

Most people have a penchant for discussing or hearing about sex because it is a powerful psychological button. The discourse may in itself have a pornographic value, the person may hope that more knowledge can make him happier, or the discourse may be motivated by a need for working through intrapsychic conflicts and frustrations. Different societies have very different limits for which discourses are possible. In a sex-repressive society it is impossible to speak about sex in neutral phrases, let alone a glorification of the pleasures of sex. The only possibility of talking about sex is a discourse that warns and condemns. For a person who wants to talk or hear about sex, this discourse is better than nothing. The sex-negative discourse is therefore, paradoxically enough, primarily led by people who would rather have led a positive discourse, whereas those who honestly want strict morals prefer the tactics of silence. There is a strong selection of discourses going on here. The loquacious person will find and exploit any exception from the prohibition against speech. Professional literature will be written full of admonitions, warnings, and bans (Foucault 1976). Novels will be written with a daring storyline, but where the morals triumph in the end and where the hardened sinners die while the innocently seduced repent and get saved. Such literature flourished at the beginning of the twentieth century. In many cases it is likely that the author wanted to communicate a positive message, but included the negative admonitions to avoid censorship and punishment. This is particularly evident in novels and plays about sexual deviations such as homosexuality. The best known examples are Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness and Thomas Mann's Death in Venice.

This kind of double standards is also obvious in newspapers, even in contemporary liberal society. Sex stimulates the readers and sells newspapers, but pornography and celebration of the pleasures of sex is considered substandard in the newspapers, whereas crime reports are considered serious subjects. Journalists who are well aware that sex sells, are therefore often indulging with unrestrained inquisitiveness in juicy sex scandals and sex crimes and do not abstain from grotesque exaggerations in order to titillate the readers. They therefore unintentionally communicate a negative and condemning discourse about sex, although the poorly disguised purpose was purely pornographic button pushing. Another example of selection of discourses was the eugenics movement in Europe in the inter war period, which was used as an excuse for discussing sexuality and contraception (Jones, G. 1980:110).


10.3 Social scripts

The sexual behavior of humans is charged with social meaning. Only a tiny fraction of the sexually motivated actions are directly aimed towards procreation. Physiological models are therefore inadequate for explaining human sexual life. Sexual actions can best be interpreted as rituals with social as well as psychological meanings. In order to describe the relation between actions and meanings, I will use the concepts of Simon and Gagnon, which are based on social cognition theory. The reader is referred to Simon & Gagnon (1984) for a more detailed description.

Since social behavior is mainly learned, it may be described as imitation. The personal motives must be integrated with available social meanings in order to make action possible. Simon and Gagnon illustrate this complex process as scripting. The word script is used as a metaphor for the cognition and production of social action. The playing of a social role directly or indirectly reflects the contents of a cultural scenario which the actor has learned. The social script does not only describe roles and actions, but also the motives and feelings that the actors are assumed to have. If a person's motives or feelings are not in accordance with the socially expected, then you may talk about incongruence between the cultural script and the intrapsychic script (Simon & Gagnon 1984).

In principle, there is no fundamental difference between sexual acts and other acts, except for the fact that a special social meaning is attached to sexuality. The cultural meaning of sexual acts is internalized in people to such a degree that any incongruence between inner impulses and cultural meanings give rise to serious intrapsychic conflicts evoking defense mechanisms such as repression, reaction formation, sublimation, etc. The consequence of this is that the cultural script is a powerful tool for controlling people's behavior. Few people have sufficient imagination and originality to carry out and justify an act which is not written in any cultural script, which they have no knowledge of anybody else doing, and for which they do not already know any motive or meaning. If it is possible to hush up an act, to erase it from any cultural script, to wipe out any reference to it from the vocabulary of the population, then it is actually possible to prevent that act from being carried out.

In Scandinavia in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, the authorities had actually succeeded in silencing the phenomenon of homosexuality into virtual non-existence. The danish historian von Rosen (1988, 1993) has demonstrated that in that period the authorities preferred not to prosecute persons who had committed 'unnatural vices' because they regarded it as more important to keep silent about the phenomenon and avoid inspiring others to do the same than to convict the sinners. Apparently, the population did not even have an adequate vocabulary for discussing such phenomena. But in central Europe the information interfaces were so large that the strategy of silence was impossible, and the authorities had to fight sodomy by declaring it unnatural and sinful and burning the guilty at the stake.

Social scripts are particularly powerful as controlling means in the area of sexual behavior. The best example is the definition of the very concept of sexuality in the christian culture. During the middle ages, the understanding of sexuality was gradually narrowed into the conception that the sole function of sexual acts was reproduction, and that any sexual act which did not serve this purpose was unnatural. Even though this idea originates in pagan philosophy, it was gradually accepted by the church, which has since been the principal advocate of the view that sexuality is the same as reproduction (see above; Boswell 1980). Today this way of thinking is so deeply rooted in the western culture that even atheist sexologists are inclined to define sexuality by referring to the act of procreation.


10.4 Taboo and sacredness

Human sexual behavior is often regulated by taboos. Several scientists have observed that the tabooed area, which is regarded as unclean and dangerous, can be characterized as sacred in the sense that it has a special transcendental meaning. It has connection with an invisible world with invisible magical forces that are powerful and dangerous (see chapt. 8.4) (Douglas, M 1966; Freud 1913; Bergesen 1978). Interestingly, this sacredness has survived the secularization in our society. Even atheists uphold the sexual taboos, although they have difficulties giving a rational reason for them. The taboos are no longer defined as sacred, but the sexual life is still not felt as a part of our everyday profane life. It belongs to another world, and when we move into the world of sexual life we almost feel a change in identity:

"The separation of an erotic identity from an everyday identity is reflected in the highly disjunctive experience that commonly occurs upon the entry into explicitly sexual acts" (Simon & Gagnon 1984).

The many taboos associated with sexuality have the function that they preserve the immanence of sacredness in sexual life and thereby maintain the disjunction between sexual life and everyday profane life. It also serves to uphold the strong distinction between love and sex that our moral culture relies on.

According to Freud, the basis for any taboo lies in a prohibited act to which there is a strong unconscious affinity. It is characteristic for taboos that they are extended to include not only the prohibited object or act, but also any symbolic representation thereof. This is because a symbolic representation of the prohibited act implies a temptation to commit the prohibited act (Freud 1913). As far as sexuality is concerned, this means that any word or picture that represents something sexual must be tabooed in order to uphold the sacredness of sexuality. This is the cause of the widespread prohibition against pornography.

The ban on pornography has often been characterized as magic thinking: You try to fight the irregular sexuality by controlling its symbolic representation. This may be compared with primitive peoples trying to fight an enemy by attacking a dummy or an image representing the enemy (Jarvie 1987). This fighting the symbolic representation rather than the real phenomenon is not as dysfunctional as it first may seem. Our sexual behavior is determined by our conception of what sexuality is, of its cultural meaning - in other words: its social script. And this cultural meaning or script may be communicated through exactly these symbols which society is attacking. The individual sexual act is normally hidden from society and can therefore not be subjected to surveillance and physical control. But the communication of sexual symbols is public and can be controlled. Physical control will only expose and curb a small fraction of the unwanted sexual acts, but by controlling the symbolic communication of sexual meanings you can control the behavior of all people who acknowledge the current symbolic moral universe or scripts.

Anthropologist Mary Douglas (1966) uses the word unclean for everything that disturbs the existing order. Things that are placed where they do not belong, or things that lie on the limit between two categories, are often regarded as unclean, powerful, dangerous, or taboo. In the medieval age, hermaphrodites were stigmatized because they were on the limit between man and woman and thus violated the order of nature. In other cultures, like the native american, such people were believed to have magic powers for which they were valued. In Europe around the seventeenth century, sexual intercourse between humans and animals were punished by burning human as well as animal because they had both been defiled. Such a sexual act was regarded as highly dangerous because it threatened to destroy the important boundary between human and animal. Homosexual acts were likewise punished severely because they threatened the order of nature and the distinction between man and woman. Sexual acts between adults and children, on the other hand, were not regarded as a serious problem because the boundary between child and adult had little importance and because, from an early age, children enjoyed the same status as adults. Today it is the other way round. Homosexuality and transvestism have been de-tabooed thanks to the equality of the sexes, and hermaphrodites no longer exist as a socially constructed category. Sexual intercourse between humans and animals is still highly tabooed, but seldom gives rise to public attention or social sanctions. Sex between adults and children is today the strongest of all sexual taboos and offenders are punished severely. This is due to the fact that the distinction between the categories of adult and child is important in our society, and that there is a wish to maintain the image of the child as an innocent, ignorant, asexual and vulnerable being demanding protection (see below).

The sexuality debate has focused mainly on three taboos which are much debated: women's sexuality, children's sexuality, and male homosexuality. The war between sex reform movements on one side and moralist and conservative religious forces on the other is mainly a controversy over these three taboos and their symbolic representations in the form of pornography. This is currently an important battlefield between kalyptic and regal forces in the western society. It is far from obvious why these three areas are important for the cultural r/k-scale. The answers follow in the next paragraphs.

Female sexuality

Women's ability to feel sexual desire and achieve orgasm is not a universal character. There are societies where women apparently do not masturbate, do not feel any particular pleasure by sexual activity, and where female orgasm is an unknown phenomenon that does not even have a name. Female sexual desire is a quality that can be fostered or suppressed during upbringing. Nothing prevents different cultures from evolving differently in this respect since female desire is not necessary for a fertilization to take place (Mead 1949).

In a regal and patriarchal society, the sexual activity is based on duty rather than desire. The victorian ideology which makes sexual intercourse a marital duty for the woman also gives the man total sexual power over the woman. But if sexual desire is ascribed to the woman then she will also gain control over her own sexuality because the man cannot force the woman to feel desire. A woman may deny her husband sexual intercourse, or refuse to marry a man chosen by her parents, with the simple reason that she has no desire to do so. The connection of sexuality with pleasure also means that the motives for marrying are changed from the rational and convenient to the emotional. Parents can no longer decide whom their children shall marry and the age of marriage rises.

Female sexual desire is therefore threatening to the regal society. The seductive woman is portrayed as dangerous to the man. A woman who openly shows her desire is stigmatized as a nymphomaniac or a whore. Not so with the male's sexual desire which is considered normal because he is the one to control and decide in the sexual sphere as well as in all other areas. These double standards appear most obviously in the area of prostitution: The prostitute is stigmatized, but not her customer. Prostitution is the only non-procreative sexual activity that is allowed to take place in a puritan society. It is regarded as sinful, but is nevertheless tolerated as a necessary evil because male sexuality is regarded as an irrepressible drive that must have an outlet. If for some reason the man cannot get satisfaction for this drive from his wife then he must resort to a prostitute.

It would be unfair to claim that this double standard is something that the men have forced upon the women. Both men and women were interested in making women passionless in victorian time, but for very different reasons. According to Nancy Cott, the men had an interest in making the women desireless, not only to increase their control over the women, but to a large extend also to improve their own self-control. On the other hand, the women wanted to desexualize their relationship with the men in order to limit the sexual activities to that which was necessary for procreation, and hence limit the sexual dominance of the males. Even reformist women used the passionlessness of women in their fight for the right of women to limit the number of children they would get (Cott 1978).

The sexual ignorance and innocence in which the women were wrapped relieved them of conscious conflicts. The conflicts between inner impulses and outer taboos were repressed into the unconscious since the women had internalized the idea of their own asexuality. But the men, having preserved their desire, had to cultivate their self-control and responsibility in order to protect the vulnerable women. This self-control pervaded all areas of social life, not only the sexual. In other words, the conflict between instinct and morals was conscious in the men, but repressed to the unconscious in the innocent women. The men had to compensate for the lack of sexual satisfaction through their work, while the women, being confined to the protective environment of home life, sublimated through religion - the only channel through which sexual emotions could find expression freely and without shame (Cominos 1972). Victorian culture had thereby created a society of hard working men and pious and dutiful women.

But victorian women were not quite as frigid as contemporary literature seemed to indicate. Historian Carl Degler has demonstrated that this literature was prescriptive rather than descriptive. The victorian conception of female sexuality was not left unchallenged, and Degler has found proofs in a medical archive that many american women in this era had a desire for sex and the ability to achieve orgasm (Degler 1974). The moral literature was often self contradictory and ambivalent. Sex was both natural and unnatural. The biggest paradox was that an incredible amount of energy was spent on fighting what allegedly did not exist: the sexuality of women and children (Rosenberg, C.E. 1973).

Children's sexuality

The education of children has a central importance for the cultural reproduction of sexual behavior because the moral norms and the social scripts are inculcated and internalized and the sexual feelings developed in childhood. The frigid woman, for example, can only be created through a childhood education that is hostile to sexuality and to the body. No cultural influence in adulthood can achieve the same effect. I have already mentioned that a sex-negative upbringing can create political and religious authoritarianism, obedience, and self-control (see above). I will here supplement this theory with some historical, anthropological, and psychological observations.

The controversial neuropsychologist James Prescott has compared the body stimulation of children in 49 primitive cultures and compared these data with the general level of violence and aggression in these societies. Prescott finds a significant correlation between sensory deprivation (i.e. lack of body contact) and a high level of aggression and violence. He concludes from these data combined with neurophysiological considerations that physical stimulation of children (caressing and play) is necessary for creating a peaceful society. Furthermore, Prescott has found that these factors are connected with several other behavioral factors as is presented in table 3 (Prescott 1975).

Adult behaviors in societies where physical affection is lavished on infants:
  • Individual display of wealth is low
  • Incidence of theft low
  • Overall infant indulgence high
  • Infant physical pain low
  • Negligible killing, torturing or mutilating the enemy
  • Low religious activity
Adult behaviors in societies where pain is inflicted on infants by parent or nurturing person:
  • Slavery is present
  • Polygyny practiced
  • Women's status inferior
  • Low infant physical affection
  • Low overall infant indulgence
  • Developing nurturant behavior in child is low
  • Supernaturals (gods) are aggressive
Adult behaviors in societies where premarital sex is strongly punished:
  • Community size is larger
  • Slavery is present
  • Societal complexity is high
  • Personal crime is high
  • Class stratification is high
  • High incidence of theft
  • Small extended family
  • Extramarital sex is punished
  • Wives are purchased
  • Castration anxiety is high
  • Longer post-partum sex taboo
  • Bellicosity is extreme
  • Killing, torturing and mutilating the enemy is high
  • Sex disability is high
  • Narcissism is high
  • Exhibitionistic dancing is emphasized
  • High god in human morality
Table 3. Behavior factors that correlate with physical nurturing of children and attitudes to premarital sex. (After Prescott 1975)

It is obvious that most of the behavior patterns listed in table 3 have importance for the cultural r/k-theory. The first list contains kalyptic traits, whereas the two lower lists mainly represent behaviors which are characteristic of regal cultures. Prescott's statistical analysis cannot be used for distinguishing between cause and effect. Whether it is neglectful upbringing of children that leads to a violent society or it is a violent society that leads to the neglect cannot be determined on the basis of these statistics. We can only ascertain that there is a connection. It is likely that the causal influence goes both ways in a self-perpetuating process. The interesting thing about Prescott's findings is that they reveal a strong correlation between the bodily nurturing of children and a long list of other regal and kalyptic indicators. The connection between the upbringing of children and violence in society is confirmed by another cross-cultural investigation (Ross 1985). According to this investigation, the level of violence is determined by psychological predispositions acquired in childhood, whereas the ratio between internal and external conflicts in a society is determined by the social structure (Ross 1985).

The highest degree of neglect towards children has probably taken place in victorian time. In this period well to do parents had nannies to take care of their children, or the children were sent to boarding schools (Ariès 1960). Maternal love was apparently an unknown phenomenon. Babies were not nursed by their own mothers, but breast-fed by wet nurses or bottle-fed (Badinter 1980).

The suppression of children's sexuality culminated in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Children's masturbation had hitherto been a quite common and disregarded phenomenon, but now it became the object of a heavy moral panic. Numerous diseases and other evils were imputed to masturbation, and all kind of measures were implemented to fight this hidden vice (Ussel 1970, Barker Benfield 1972). The interesting thing is that it simply was not possible to control masturbation. Rather, the campaign forced the sexuality of children into hiding so that there was something to discover and punish (Foucault 1976).

The impossible prohibition against masturbation has the same function as the christian prohibition against coveting (see chapt. 5.5): It plants a perpetual sense of guilt in the sinner. Such a prohibition can only be upheld as long as the sin is hidden. When it was revealed that almost all children masturbated, then people realized that the ban was absurd.

The tabooing of children's sexuality gives rise to many psychological conflicts, not only in children, but also in adults. The construction of children as asexual and ignorant about sex is so deeply ingrained in our culture that the word 'adult' has become a euphemism for pornography. As a contrast to this stands Freud's generally accepted theory of children's sexuality. There is a severe cognitive dissonance here. Parents must fight hard to deny that the loving feelings they have for their children are very similar to sexual feelings. These feelings are so much against the incest taboo that they must be repressed at any price and the distinction between love and sex must be preserved. This intrapsychic conflict leads to reaction formation and projection which, as mentioned on page 175, reinforces the taboo. Since the late 1970's this conflict has fueled a widespread moral panic over child pornography and sexual abuse of children in the english speaking countries and in Europe18 - a conflict which is quite analogous to the previous fight against children's masturbation.

The moral panic over sexual abuse of children has been amplified by newsmedia selection. Stories of sex crimes against children have extremely high selective fitness because they push three of our most sensitive buttons at the same time: the sex button, the danger button, and the protection of children button.

This moral panic may also be interpreted as a reaction against the general loosening of sexual morals and family values. There is one more selective factor at work here, namely that people with regal tendencies have been unable to find alternative targets for attack. Authoritarian personalities may have problems finding an outlet for their regalization tendencies in a time where the sacred ideals of democracy and human rights prevent almost any persecution of scapegoats. In this light the tabooing of children's sexuality may be seen as the regal moral's last stand.

Male homosexuality

Strongly sex-segregated societies very often have rituals with a symbolic or manifest homosexual content. The function of these rituals is to reinforce social bonds and cooperation between persons of the same sex: between working fellows, between leaders and subjects, between instructor and apprentice, etc.19. The sexual element or sexual symbolism in such rituals may be difficult to see in a modern homophobic society, whereas it is obvious in many primitive societies (Herdt 1984). Whether these rituals involve genital contact or not is unimportant for their social function since this function has nothing to do with producing children. Likewise, it is unimportant whether the society in question defines these rituals as sexual or not (according to their definition of sexuality).

The tabooing of this general form of male homosexuality leads to a displacement or sublimation where central authorities like the king, God, Jesus, or heroes enter as objects for the repressed homosexuality. This mechanism strengthens the loyalty of the men towards distant, central authorities (always male), and this loyalty is a necessary precondition for a regal society.

This mechanism is unconscious, and can therefore hardly be the result of conscious planning at the hand of powerful leaders. A possible mechanism is that those cultures or subcultures where homophobia is most widespread have an advantage under regal selection, or that homophobic men have a relatively higher inclination for showing loyalty to the regal social system and consequently have better chances of being promoted to influential positions in such a social system.

The bodily homosexuality can be seen as a ritual which reinforces the near alliances at the expense of the emotional bonds to distant authorities. The more centralized a society is governed, the greater the distance between leaders and subjects, and the more the bodily homosexuality must be repressed in favor of the sublimated one. It is obvious that this mechanism both presupposes and reinforces a patriarchal social system, where leaders at all levels are male. For the same reason it is first and foremost male homosexuality which is tabooed, whereas female homosexuality hardly receives any attention.


The reader has undoubtedly expected a mentioning of the incest taboo in this discussion of sexual taboos. Let me first make it clear that I define incest as heterosexual intercourse between blood-related persons, such as brother and sister. In the recent years, a widespread moral panic over incest has led to an expansion of the meaning of this word, which is inappropriate in scientific contexts (Bixler 1983).

The taboo against incest is fundamentally different from the other taboos mentioned here because it has a significant genetic component that makes it universal. It has been demonstrated that adult people have an instinctive aversion against sexual intercourse with persons with whom they have had close contact during childhood (Westermarck 1891, Shepher 1971, Brown 1991). This so-called westermarck effect is considered the genetic component of the incest taboo, the function of which is to prevent inbreeding. Even though the incest taboo evidently also has a strong cultural component, it must be regarded as so constant and universal that it has little interest in cultural selection theory.


18. This moral panic is seen in grotesque exaggerations of the extent of so-called sexual abuse of children, and ever-wider definitions of this concept, and in some cases even a belief that secret satanist cults are behind this abuse. False accusations of sexual abuse has become such a big problem that organizations for the support of parents unjustly accused of incest have been formed in several countries. A considerable number of books and a scientific periodical have been dedicated to this problem alone (Issues in Child Abuse Accusations; Eberle and Eberle 1986; Wakefield and Underwager 1988; Best 1990; Jenkins 1992; Lanning 1992; Goodyear-Smith 1993; Nathan & Snedeker 1995, Hunter 1998).

19. See Tiger (1969). This phenomenon was described by Hans Blüher as early as 1920, but later this general form of homosexuality has largely disappeared from all social scripts, partly because western society is no longer organized around sex to the same extent as previously, and partly because homosexuality today is constructed as a special identity reserved for a little minority of deviants.