Why do we have sex?
Many of our answers probably include a reference to reproduction. Sex is the primary way that babies are made.
But what will we think about sex if it has almost nothing to do with procreation?
Since the birth of the world’s first “test tube baby” in 1978, around eight million people have been born by IVF. And the number may vastly increase in the future as our tools to identify genetic risks in embryos become more sophisticated.
“My strongest prediction is in the future people will still have sex – but not as often for the purpose of making babies,” Henry T Greely, author of The End of Sex And The Future of Human
Reproduction, tells me over the phone. “In 20 to 40 years, most people all over the world with good health coverage will choose to conceive in a lab.”
Greely’s book explores some of the legal and ethical challenges facing the science of preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD).
“Like most things, there will be a fair amount of visceral negative reaction initially, but as time goes on and kids [born via PGD] prove not to have two heads and a tail,” the public will come not only to tolerate but to prefer reproducing non-sexually.
And in that world – a world where babies are made in labs; where pregnancy-via-sexual intercourse is elected only by a minority of women; where sexual ethics have nothing to do with procreative possibilities – what will sex mean?
“What is sex for?”
That’s a question David Halperin asks in a provocative essay of the same name.
Sex, we reason, must always have a why. Such reasoning isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, to be human means to be curious, intellectually and emotionally. Experiencing sex and theorising about what it could mean seems very natural for animals that spend much of our time engaging in higher-level criticism.
Biologically, there is one an obvious why to human sex. We have sex because it fulfills biological drives, including the necessary drives to procreate and bond. In fact, these are the two whys that have passed down to us in the Western tradition, both of which are organised around a telos, or end goal.
As I wrote in a previous article, it was the stoics who, attempting to curb self-indulgence, tried to fit sex into a scheme of meaning: indulging in the pleasure of sex was alright as long as it was for the purposes of making babies. This ethic worked its way into the Christian tradition, famously through Augustine, and continues to wield enormous influence in the West.
According to this framework, sex is ethical when it is practised primarily for procreation. (To clarify, though this is presented as a Christian ethic, its origins lie elsewhere. In fact, the biblical book Song of Solomon celebrates wild, passionate, erotic sex on its own terms, between two lovers – not between a husband and wife, as later Christian commentators wrongly interpreted the poem.)
The other important why for sex comes from Aristotle, as Halperin points out. In Prior Analytics from the 4th Century BCE, the Greek philosopher offers the following syllogism:
“To be loved, then, is preferable to intercourse, according to the nature of erotic desire. Erotic desire, then, is more a desire for love than for intercourse. If it is most of all for that, that is also its end. Either intercourse, then, is not an end at all or it is for the sake of being loved.”
For Aristotle, as Halperin explains, “Love is the telos of erotic desire. It is not love that aims at sex as its goal… It is sex that aims at love.”
The real reason we have sex, according to Aristotle’s proof, is not because we want to have sex, but because we want to love and be loved. Sex is not about something, but about something else, something higher, something nobler.
Like many people, Aristotle takes it for granted that sex and love go hand in hand – but he never seeks to demonstrate the soundness of this assumption.
What he does demonstrate, however, at least as Halperin reads him, is that “sex is not the final aim of erotic desire”. And if that’s the case, then Halperin thinks the most interesting question to ask isn’t about the relationship between sex and love but the surprising relationship between sex and erotic desire.
If Aristotle is correct, then sex has no erotic purpose – its real aim lies elsewhere. In short, sex isn’t actually about sex.
Why do we have sex then? To procreate, sure. To bond, fine. But those are just two of many possible answers. Like many cultural phenomena, sex exceeds its why. Think of food.
From a survival standpoint, it makes sense that we eat, and that we eat together – after all, it was advantageous to our ancestors to pool their resources (more for our group means more for me).
But when we move from those things to contemporary culinary culture – burgers topped with gold shavings, Instagram food accounts, the cooking network, happy hours with colleagues, after church potluck dinners – it becomes harder and harder to nail down the exact purpose of our relationship to food. The difference between us and many non-human animals is that we regularly take pleasure in doing useless things.
We do them, that is, because we enjoy them, because participating in such activities brings us pleasure — the kind that distracts us from any why questions. It’s possible, writes Halperin, that “the act of sex makes sense only when it makes no sense.”