The Nature of Sex
‘Sex in the animal kingdom, even among primates, is diverse. Some animals copulate frequently with a huge number of different partners, while others are monogamous for life. The key seems to be the survival advantage to offspring offered by different mating patterns.’
‘Sex is primarily the process of combining male and female genes to form offspring, however over the past billion years complex systems of behaviour (and the motivation and reward circuits that root such behaviours) have evolved around this process and nowhere is this complexity more elaborately represented than in the human brain.’
(May 19th – Sept 7th, 2015)
Without food and the opportunity to procreate the animal kingdom would not survive. So after all these years why do we pay so little attention to the way food affects our health, and even less attention to the psychological, physical and social factors that affect the libido?
Reproduction via sexual means traces back to one cell eukaryotes a billion years ago when this method of transferring genetic material developed its ascendancy over asexual methods. Since that time complex and unique mating rituals have evolved in all animal species, albeit with a few exceptions like the Timema stick insect that hasn’t ‘done it’ for a million years; or other creatures like flatworms who don’t need a partner if they can’t get one – the Flatworm stabs itself in the head with its needle-like penis and injects sperm to self-fertilize.
The human species, with its big brain and sophisticated social matrix, has evolved its own multifarious and often mystifying sexual responses to go along with the evolved reward system surrounding sexual activity; a reward system that includes euphoria, stress relief, pain relief, improved immune response, better sleep and lowered blood pressure.
One would think that sex would be a primary human consideration to be studied and understood, and yet for most people sexual desire is a puzzling phenomenon that ebbs and flows with ephemeral trigger associations and then when activated is channelled into ritualistic behaviour, partly our own and partly that of the social environment surrounding us.
Over the past 100,000 years of ‘civilised’ human behaviour sex has generated a variety of eccentric beliefs:
· One of the first was the ‘goddess’ concept where the secret of procreation was a woman’s secret: ‘The idea of the goddess is that of a divine and sacred female who has supernatural attributes. The goddess is a primordial being who was believed in and worshipped by people and regarded as the source of all life.’
· The Egyptian culture flourished for 3,000 years with a more masculine belief: ‘The ancient Egyptians held a strong belief that male masturbation was extremely important…It was for this reason that the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt were required to ceremonially masturbate into the Nile.’
· In more modern times the Greek and Roman cultures believed that: ‘Men were assumed to be attracted to both males and females, and to express a preference for just one sex was considered eccentric. But as both societies were intensely patriarchal what was important in sexual relationships was the status of who did the penetrating and their age.’
· While Christian religions have spent an inordinate amount of time struggling with the concept of sex as ‘original sin’ even though: ‘Jesus did not spend a great deal of time discoursing about the trinity or original sin or the incarnation...He went around doing good and being compassionate.’ - Karen Armstrong
· Then there’s the Asian tradition of Tantra with its sexual rites placing emphasis on the body-mind-soul connection: ‘In Tantra, excitement is just the beginning rather than the means to the end. Instead of rushing toward a climax, a Tantric practitioner slows down, remaining in the moment, and travels toward deep relaxation. In the medical model, sexual energy builds and then is lost. In Tantra, energy is not lost but gained. Instead of using a partner for one’s own gratification, Tantric partners provide vital energy to each other.’
· And also from central Asia, along with other customs that allowed multiple husbands, there sprang fraternal polyandry where: ‘The marriage of all brothers in a family to the same wife allows family land to remain intact and undivided.’
· While the man’s polygamous playground gave birth to harems, like the prodigious Kublai Khan’s that contained around 7,000 concubines. – ’Every two years he would get rid of a couple of hundred concubines and replace them with a fresh supply.’
· Then along came the modern day study of the neuroscience of sexual desire. One finding from this is that your medial orbitofrontal cortex blends the perceptions of beauty with your understanding of emotional factors resulting in a regulation of sexual desires; and if it’s not working: ‘Patients with non functioning neurons in the medial orbitofrontal cortex were shown in several studies to have an increased sex drive and an inability to control their response to sexual stimuli, in extreme cases leading to hyper sexuality, drug use, gambling and an inability to empathise.’
With this history of strange goings-on, accompanied by a bewildering number of taboos, it’s not surprising that there’s no universal handbook on moral considerations. Neuroscience may explain the mechanisms that have evolved in the brain over the last hundred millennia, but is the brain the same as the mind? Morality is a mind created structure built originally around the survival advantages associated with group cohesion.
A person’s desire for sexual activity is the result of biological, psychological and sociocultural factors so it’s easy to see howSigmund Freud (1856-1939) could come to think of sexuality as being the lynch-pin of motivation and the core element of personality.
Freud believed that restrictive cultural influences within the growth environment created reflex censoring mechanisms in the individual’s subconscious, which may then lead to fixated expressions, ‘Freudian slips’ and the potential for neurotic disorders. Freud developed the ‘talking couch’ psychoanalytic method of unlocking the unconscious and many of Freud’s theories still have merit today.
Following Freud was his one time friend Carl Jung (1875-1961) who believed the libido to be more than sexual energy. Jung believed libido was an impelling force, shaped by goals and aspirations with the draw-card being an inner need for integration. Jung’s concept of psychic energy and the striving for inner integrity requires that sexual desire play second fiddle to interests of self development, and this is understandable in an evolutionary sense since without personal development a person may have less success in the courting rituals that precede lineage.
Masters and Johnson wrote a book called Human Sexual Response (1966) in which they recognised four stages of arousal: the excitement phase, the plateau phase, the orgasmic phase, and the resolution phase.
Other researchers have questioned Masters and Johnson’s phases. There are those who believe the excitement and plateau phases should be combined, whilst others believe that a person doesn’t have sex because of sexual desire, but rather one feels sexual desire because one has sex. ‘…we respond physically to highly sexual visuals before our mind even engages with them. In other words, desire doesn’t precede arousal—it’s the other way around. And we aren’t even aware it’s happening.’
The Kinsey reports – ‘Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male’ (1948), and ‘Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female’ (1953) - resulted from interviews with over 10,000 men and women. These reports controversially challenged accepted beliefs at the time and touched on many sexual activities that had previously been taboo. In essence the Kinsey reports showed that most people masturbate, many people have oral sex, women are capable of multiple orgasms, and same sex experiences are more common than admitted.
Jung believed that Freud’s all embracing sexual motivation was not the complete picture. In the same way astrologers recognise Mars and Venus as being the main instigators of sexual desire while understanding that they are not the be all and end all.
In popular literature the notion has been put that men come from Mars (the Yang element) and women from Venus (the Yin element). Mars is the mythological ‘God of War’ and physiologically Mars relates to the ‘fight or flight’ response triggered by adrenaline, while at the same time corresponding to sexually stimulating testosterone. So if Mars is accentuated in your birth chart you need movement, combative endeavours, plenty of sex and perhaps the odd cold shower of empathetic reality.
Luckily for us war is not a majority human activity since compassion and love are essential elements of human interaction. Enter the affinity of Venus, the mediator of attraction and relationship. Venusian attraction goes beyond physical proportions, it is something indefinable that draws one to the other, as noted by Shakespeare in ‘Loves Labour Lost’ - 'Beauty is bought by judgment of the eye’.
Social settings are the best place to see Venus and Mars in action and this doesn’t have to be party time, it can be a work environment, at the football or even downtown shopping. People get dressed up for the occasion and their interaction with the crowd is punctuated with elements of courting rituals designed to distinguish likes and dislikes.
But compatibility is more than the look and feel of Venus and Mars; there is like-mindedness
(Mercury), emotional understanding (Moon), cultural background (Jupiter) and ideals for the future (Saturn). In the Yin and Yang of
relationship nothing is so much right or so much wrong; it’s the balance that matters.
‘...93 to 96 percent of the 655(female) respondents strongly endorsed statements that linked sexual arousal to “feeling connected to” or “loved by” a partner, and to the belief that the partner is “really interested in me as a person”.
The dopamine system is the ‘reward pathway’ and includes the enjoyment of food, the satisfaction of achievement, the pleasure of social interaction and of course, the activation of sexual desire. By contrast a poorly functioning dopamine system is associated with depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, Parkinson's disease, schizophrenia, and strangely enough, drug and sexual addiction.
My Dad used to say that if you had ice-cream every night then eventually you wouldn’t like ice-cream, and it seems that in the case of drug and sexual addiction the same mechanisms are at work. In the case of drugs the intense dopamine effect, when repeated regularly, causes the brain to rewire neurons in an effort to reduce stimulation. This process of neuron rebuilding ultimately manifests as a tolerance to the drug in question while at the same time lowering the brain's response to more natural rewards.
Sexual addiction works in the same way and its incidence has increased with the development of internet pornography. Eventually the overstimulation of the reward circuitry creates tolerance and a need for more hard-hitting stimuli which can then result in the symptoms of sexual addiction which express themselves as a dulling of sexual response, a lowering of self-esteem, a general dissatisfaction with one’s own sex life, and for males something which can eventually lead to erectile dysfunction.
The addictive effect of pornography is more marked in the developing brains of teenagers: 'Now, 24/7 access to internet porn is laying the foundation of their sexual tastes. In'Beeban Kidron's - In Real Life a gripping film about the effects of the internet on teenagers, a 15-year-old boy of extraordinary honesty and courage articulates what is going on in the lives of millions of teen boys. He shows her the porn images that excite him and his friends, and describes how they have moulded their "real life" sexual activity...it's ruined the whole sense of love. It hurts me because I find now it's so hard for me to actually find a connection to a girl.'.