Our laws require that when people enjoy sex, they do so in private. Our social mores, for the most part, desire that it be talked about in private. We generally believe we are all the better for keeping explicit images and sex industry businesses away from the view and awareness of our children and the larger community. This is one of the hallmarks of a good, safe, and desirable community: Sex is private.
But it is not wholly private. Human sexuality is every bit a public affair as it is a private act. Perhaps more so, actually. Is this a radical and provocative statement, a push for a more open, bohemian sexual ethic and practice? Just the opposite. Valuing sex as an essential public act is actually a very conservative and traditional ideal.
The social sciences and cultural anthropology have demonstrated this empirically. Let’s see just how strong this case is.
Cruise Through the Social Science
By its inherent power and mysterious nature, a sexual relationship is never entirely walled off from the larger community. To believe it can be is to profoundly misunderstand what sex is and does. What people do in their intimate lives indeed affects their neighbors, whether they are those next door, co-workers, or extended family.
The effects of sexual relationships also reveal themselves in our community institutions — in schools, hospitals, police stations, social service offices, and nearly all levels of government — in various ways. Each of these must deal with the positive and negative consequences, often daily, of who had sex with whom and under what circumstances.
As the sexual revolution has spread, a vast range of university-based social science findings, published in premier academic journals and books over the last few decades, consistently demonstrates just how undoubtedly true this is. Just two summaries of the depth and diversity of this research are here and here. Let’s examine just a few of the major affected domains here.
Sex within marriage cultivates responsible men who are more likely to be employed, hold jobs longer, go to school to improve their futures, and be more involved in the lives of their children, making those young people less likely to cause trouble in their neighborhoods. Responsible men are essential to creating healthy communities.
Sexual behavior directly affects the academic achievement of offspring. As much as any other factor, the sexual and relational circumstances of a student’s parents, both now and at the time the child was born, drive school performance, in terms of grades, behavior, and prospects of college attendance.
Consider it this way. Choose one of the following schools for your child: In one school, 90 percent of the children come from married homes, raised by their own mothers and fathers. In the other school, 90 percent of children come from single-parent or cohabiting homes. Both schools have facilities and faculty of equal quality. Which school do you think would give your child a better, safer experience?
The relational status of people having sex within a given community also drives the level of crime and safety there. Take the neighborhood park as a microcosm. Can any community park and its local law enforcement have the problem of too many married mothers and fathers spending time with their children there? It’s actually a very strong social benefit. The more the better.
But can it have too many amorous teen couples regularly hanging out there? Too many adults using its bathrooms for sex-and-go encounters arranged online? How about single men coming to watch the children play? All but the first require great care and authority figures to step in without kindness or apology.
The “four P’s” of your community—police, pediatricians, principals, and public-welfare professionals—will readily confirm all these findings and more. Ask each of these professionals if the sexual decisions and actions of their community’s adults and young people make a difference in the success or difficulty of their work. It’s not a difficult question. Sex influences nearly every sector of society, not the least of which is physical health.
So-called sexual freedom has given us 37 million global neighbors who are presently infected with HIV. The World Health Organization just announced that more than 1 million new cases of sexually transmitted infections occur every day. More than 1 million. Every day.
Child and Female Well-being
It is certainly no coincidence that the phrase “feminization of poverty” emerged shortly after the sexual revolution initiated the great divorce of sex, babies, and marriage. Feminist scholar Diane Pearce introduced the phrase in an important essay, explaining that, at the very time educational and employment opportunities were opening for women due to greater equality, “Poverty is rapidly becoming a female problem” because “the economic status of women has declined over the past several decades.” Very ironic, isn’t it?
Pearce, as well as George Akerlof, a Nobel Prize-winning University of California, Berkeley, and Georgetown University professor, lay the cause at the feet of men walking away from the responsibility to care for their own children, and their partners allowing them to do so. This is largely due to the emergence of chemical birth control and ready access to abortion. Women were supposedly “empowered,” in control of their own fertility. Consequently, men no longer felt responsible for pregnancies they helped generate.
This cultural shift ushered in severe consequences. Despite women’s increased fertility control, out-of-wedlock births have skyrocketed. They now account for 40 percent of all births, with many of these children being raised by single parents, resulting in not only poverty, but sometimes abuse. A live-in boyfriend is substantially more likely to be physically and sexually abusive to his single-parent girlfriend and her children than if they were married and raising their own biological children. Thus, women, children, and the larger community suffer from what people have done in the bedroom.
Bottom line: No architect or facilitator of the sexual revolution could have ever imaged the deep and vast human suffering their project has wrought. But there it is.
Cultural anthropologists know sex is a public act across diverse cultures because human sexuality always has the same public consequences. Every culture, in order to remain free, safe, and productive, must find a forceful and reliable way to regulate sexuality, ideally through the social expectation of long-term, monogamous marriage.
Professor Suzanne Frayser, in her magisterial anthropology of sexuality, explains that across diverse cultures, we find: “The person with whom an individual decides to have a sexual relationship with is as relevant to the group as the occasion for sexual encounters. Groups provide guidelines to channel a person’s choice of a sexual partner.” She contends, “Social restrictions limit a potentially wide and diverse pool of sexual partners to a definable range of acceptable companions.”
Yale University’s George Peter Murdock, a founding father in the discipline of cultural anthropology, explains from his team’s examination of 150 diverse cultures, “As a powerful impulse, often pressing individuals to behavior disruptive of the cooperative relationship upon which human social life rests, sex cannot be safely left without restraints.” Every known society has found it necessary to impose restrictions upon sexual expression to control its effects, he says.
Monogamy and Democracy
Nearly all societies have brought sex under control and regulated it through marriage. Polyamorous cultures do this less effectively, as we shall see. Oxford-trained anthropologist Fernando Henriques explains:
Unrestricted sexual license cannot be tolerated by society. Its existence would lead to perpetual dissension. On this ground alone, it is necessary for sexual relations to be ordered. … Thus no society exists – or has existed – where general promiscuity is the norm. To achieve order and regulation in sexual behavior, some form of marriage is necessary. … Marriage is necessary for the regulation of sexual life and stability of society.
Sexual guardrails are essential “for the simple reason that sex is really dangerous,” says Bronisław Malinowski. His is not a negative estimation. It’s a respectful one, recognizing the immense power and life- and community-altering consequence of human sexuality. Malinowski continues, “Sex is a great and wonderful power for evil and for good, and we must deal with it as we deal with other forces of nature: understand, respect, and control it in the light of truth.”
A fascinating 2012 article entitled “The Puzzle of Monogamous Marriage,” in the prestigious journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, examined how the “normative monogamy” of marriage has arisen and continues to arise across human cultures. It concluded the rise of this marital norm was not a result of its being “moral,” “wholesome,” or “traditional,” but for sheer pragmatism.
Monogamy as a community’s sexual norm simply makes for a much better society. Citizens are more likely to thrive, particularly women and children. In fact, the article attributes “democratic rights and civil liberties” to “the strength of normative monogamy,” concluding, “The peculiar institution of monogamous marriage may help explain why democratic ideals and notions of equality first emerged in the West.”
Monogamy, as a one-to-one negotiation, democratizes sexuality, making women more powerful agents in domestic and sexual relationships. This allows for and facilitates the democratization of the people at large.
Single and polygamous men collect women as sexual and domestic objects, which requires competition among men and the subjugation of women. As more women are collected by richer, more powerful men, the poorer, less attractive men must resort to trickery and violence to gain access to a smaller and more competitive market. This has egregious consequences for the community. Unexpectedly, these scholars found that normative monogamy reduced a community’s rates of overall violence by half.
Male and Female Impulses
Thus, society must bridle and corral particularly male sexuality. George Gilder explains this better than anyone, and his Men and Marriage is a must-read for anyone interested in this subject. He opens his book with this meaty first line: “The crucial process of civilization is the subordination of male sexual impulses and biology to the long-term horizons of female sexuality. … It is male behavior that must be changed to create a civilized order.”
He adds, “The prime fact of life is the sexual superiority of women.” Female sexuality is largely pro-social. Its energy and end are toward the purposes and power of the home, the primary and uncontested factory of humanity and civility. Male sexuality, in the state of nature, is fundamentally anti-social. Without externally imposed boundaries, it brings chaos and destruction. The unchecked college fraternity proves the point.
The incredible power and consequence of human sexuality, for incalculable good and devastating harm, judge it an undeniable public act. Societies that deny this fact can do so only by artificially constructing and continually maintaining a vast illusion. They do so to their own detriment.
No community in history, anywhere in the world, has found a way outside monogamous marriage to unleash sexuality’s profound goodness and limit its desolating harm. Irrefutable evidence demonstrates ours is no exception.