No Sex Please, We're Committed

June 17, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston
(Note, July 2011. I have substantially rewritten this.)

Why do conservatives object to sex? Not all sex, of course. Sex in marriage is O.K., especially if it’s for purposes of procreation. But any other sex, no good.

If you asked conservatives why they favored abstinence and hated promiscuity, they would probably say that it makes for a better, more civil society. They might also say that limiting male sexual impulses is better for women too. Some of the would toss in something about God and the Bible, so some people would explain the position on abstinence as part of a general political/religious conservatism. 

The evolutionary psychologists have a different answer: conservative views on sex are a “reproductive strategy.” In the battle for passing along the most genes, conservatives have adopted a “committed strategy” (abstinence, then monogamy). But that strategy is threatened by the “promiscuous strategy.” No wonder conservatives want others to be abstinent.

I was reminded of this abstinence issue when I followed a Robin Hanson link to this article about attitudes towards drugs and sex. The researchers, Kurzban, Dukes, and Weeden, start from a finding about attitudes towards drugs. If you want to guess someone's position on drugs, don’t ask whether they are Republican or Democrat.  Ask what they think about non-marital sex.   As a predictor, sex ideology (Sociosexual Orientation Index) overwhelms political ideology. But why? Why should sexual attitudes be so important? More to the point, why should sexually conservative people care what others do sexually or pharmacologically? Here’s the evol-psych answer:

Efforts to limit recreational drug usage flow in large part from attempts by committed reproductive strategists to reduce levels of sexual promiscuity because promiscuity interferes with committed strategies.
It seems like a silly interpretation to me. But, like Freudian interpretations that similarly attribute motives that the people involved would deny: it’s hard to refute. What kinds of evidence might the evolutionists accept as disconfirming it?

Also, there are elements of sexual conservatism that seem not to fit with the evol-pscyh model. Sexual conservatives oppose gay marriage. But if these “committed strategists” wanted to get an edge, they would support gay marriage.  They would want their promiscuous gay rivals to get married and live in non-gene-transmitting gay marriages. Conservatives also oppose abortion. But if their heterosexual rivals got pregnant, shouldn’t conservatives want them to abort the fetuses rather than passing along those non-conservative genes?

It seems more plausible that what’s at stake is not the transmitting of conservative genes to the future; it’s political dominance in the present. Having your sexual morality, and not the other guy’s, enshrined in law is like having your flag flying on the state capitol, or having your language designated the official state language, or having a law “defending” your kind of marriage, or having your religious symbol used as a generic grave marker. It signifies that this land is your land, it’s not the other guy’s land.


PCM said...

I have a theory (I don't actually believe it but you never know... it might be true) that conservative men are against sex because they remember how horrible they and their friends were to girls when they were younger and trying (mostly without success) to get laid. They remember that and they don't want anybody doing that to their daughters!

Liberals (and people who get laid more in general) are a bit less hung up on sex, or see it as natural, or even see it as (gasp) good. So they don't automatically link sex with lies, lecherous men, and aggressive persuasive.

So for liberals sex can be secondary to openness and honesty and good healthy relationships.

Conservatives are still hung up about conquest and getting in a girls underwear (to which a friend of mine said, "I sure surprised him... I wasn't wearing any!").

Jay Livingston said...

If you're right, those kids at Landon School today (see my post of June 12) are tomorrow's abstinence advocates. I'm not so sure that the attitude is caused by memories of what they did. But both the youthful behavior and the adult attitude are consistent with the same view of sex -- that it's dirty (rather than good or natural).