In 1879, Mark Twain made the following observation: "Of all the forms of intercourse," he said, masturbation "has the least to recommend it. As an amusement, it is too fleeting; as an occupation, it is too wearing; as a public exhibition, there's no money in it." We laugh, as Mr. Twain intended us to, but his humor contained a serious message, as usual. American culture has long been engaged in a costly, brutal war of attrition against the animal appetites underlying human sexuality.
Thirty years earlier, the New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal had declared masturbation public enemy number one, warning: "Neither plague, nor war, nor smallpox, nor a crowd of similar evils, have resulted more disastrously for humanity than the habit of masturbation: it is the destroying element of civilized society."
Children and adults were warned that masturbation was not only sinful, but very dangerous--sure to result in severe health consequences, including blindness, infertility and insanity. Children were subjected to an array of "treatments" meant to dissuade them from this victimless crime--ranging from the barbaric (spiked penis cages, carbolic acid applied to the clitoris) to the comical (intentionally bland foods like Graham crackers and corn flakes were thought to suppress the adolescent male's libido). As late as 1936, Holt's Diseases of Infancy and Childhood, a respected medical school text, recommended surgical removal or cauterization of the clitoris as a cure for masturbation in girls.
While most Americans would now recognize the tragic absurdity of sewing closed a boy's foreskin (without anesthesia) or strapping a little girl's arms to her bedposts to prevent prohibited pleasure, our war on human sexual nature continues unabated. The enemy has morphed from teenagers touching themselves to husbands and wives wandering from the strict confines of married monogamy. Husbands who look at porn and wives who occasionally imagine George Clooney while having sex with their husbands are declared to be "cheating" at this game almost nobody ever seems to win.
A few weeks ago, in a discussion of our book, Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, on Andrew Sullivan's blog, a reader declared:
In my eventual marriage, I will insist on monogamy. I don't think I could be that free, sexually, with someone if, in the back of my mind, the possibility existed that they were thinking of someone else.
Monogamy--for this person, and many others--includes not just what their partner does, but what they think as well. Time to get out the penis cages and carbolic acid again!
People (most of whom haven't bothered to read our book) assume we're advocating open marriages and rampant promiscuous rutting in the streets. We're not. It's true we argue the evidence overwhelmingly indicates that no creature on Earth spends as much time fussing over sex as Homo sapiens and that our turbo-charged libido was key to our evolutionary success as a species. When you look at the available evidence, it's clear that human beings' bodies, minds and sexual habits all reflect a rather immodest prehistory. But as we say in our book, even we are unsure what to do with this information--other than write it down and spread the news.
If we advocate anything to readers, it would be a "harm reduction" approach to infidelity in place of the "Just Say No" response responsible for a huge amount of needless suffering. Because of the type of creature we are, non-monogamous tendencies will always be within us; whether and how we act on these tendencies is another matter. A deeper, more informed understanding of where these feelings come from can only help us in choosing an appropriate response to them. Our greatest ambition is to provoke conversations that will lead people to clarify their understanding of their own sexual nature before they sign on to long-term commitments they can't change later without making a mess of their lives.
After reporting from Afghanistan for a week, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow summarized her sense of the war by observing that the mission of establishing a secure national Afghan government "depends on a premise that is romantic and unproven and unlikely." A few seconds later, she concluded, "Wanting it to be so doesn't mean we're capable of making it so."
She could have been talking about happily-ever-after, sexually exclusive, never-tempted-by-another marriage. It's simply not in the cards for our species. To insist upon such unrealistic standards is to create a battleground pre-configured for failure.
The war between the sexes is over. Sex won.
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