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May 24 2010

Sex and the Off-Label Use of Our Bodies

This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.

Human anatomy What are our bodies meant for?

One of the most common condemnations of non-standard sex — from homosexuality to masturbation — is “that’s not what those body parts were meant for.” Genitals and sexual desire were supposedly designed for reproduction, and reproduction alone: by God (as the argument most commonly goes), or by evolution (as the argument occasionally gets made). To use these parts/ desires for any other purpose is dangerous at best and sinful at worst.

Glasses Okay. Let’s set aside for a moment the question of whether there even is a God, much less one who purposely designed the human body to fulfill his divine plan. The most common counter to this accusation is that it doesn’t get applied consistently. Not even by people who do believe in a God who created our bodies. As Dan Savage once pointed out: Our noses weren’t “designed” for us to rest our glasses on — and nobody gets their knickers in a twist over that. Off-label uses of our bodies are ridiculously common. I could come up with them all day. Our feet weren’t “meant” for us to operate the pedals of a car. Our mouths weren’t “meant” for us to play the harmonica. Our heads weren’t “meant” for us to display giant novelty foam-rubber cheese wedges and other oversized signals of allegiance to sports teams. Our hands weren’t “meant” for us to type on computer keyboards. (Boy howdy, were they ever not. My recent tendinitis flare-up is evidence enough of that.) And that doesn’t stop anyone from doing these things.

So why should sex be an exception? No, our mouths and assholes weren’t “designed” for sex, by God or by evolution. So what? We use our bodies in lots of ways and for lots of purposes that they weren’t “designed” for… and nobody considers that immoral. Computers and harmonicas and giant novelty cheese wedges are seen as acceptable and even positively neat. Why is anal sex somehow a perversion of the natural order?

A good argument. And one I frequently make myself.

But today, I’m going to take it a step further.

Off-label uses of body parts and biological functions aren’t just acceptable and morally neutral. They are some of the most beautiful, honorable, and deeply treasured parts of the human experience.

Apollo moon landing Human beings took our animal need for palatable food… and turned it into chocolate souffles with salted caramel cream. We took our ability to co-operate as a social species… and turned it into craft circles and bowling leagues and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We took our capacity to make and use tools… and turned it into the Apollo moon landing. We took our uniquely precise ability to communicate through language… and turned it into King Lear.

None of these things are necessary for survival and reproduction. That is exactly what makes them so splendid. When we take our basic evolutionary wiring and transform it into something far beyond any prosaic matters of survival and reproduction… that’s when humanity is at its best. That’s when we show ourselves to be capable of creating meaning and joy, for ourselves and for one another. That’s when we’re most uniquely human.

Tel Aviv gay pride kiss And the same is true for sex. Human beings have a deep, hard-wired urge to replicate our DNA, instilled in us by millions of years of evolution. And we’ve turned it into an intense and delightful form of communication, intimacy, creativity, community, personal expression, transcendence, joy, pleasure, and love. Regardless of whether any DNA gets replicated in the process.

Why should we see this as sinful?

What makes this any different from chocolate souffles and King Lear?

Rigid moralists — of the “don’t use your asshole for sex, that’s not what it’s meant for” variety — are often fond of talking about “what separates us from the animals.” Our self-restraint, our ability to delay gratification, our ethical judgment… these things supposedly make us finer and more noble than the animals, those base creatures who live only to eat and avoid predators and produce the next generation.

Third-chimpanzee-the-evolution-and-future-of-the-human-animal I, for one, don’t think anything separates us from the animals. We are animals. We tend to forget that. And in fact, recent research is showing that many non-human animals also have ethics and the ability to delay gratification and whatnot. We’re not as unique as we like to think.

But I do think we’re special animals. I do think we have abilities that make us different from other animals. And at the top of that list is our ability to take our animal instincts, and transform them into pursuits and achievements that have nothing whatsoever to do with their original functions of survival and reproduction — pursuits and achievements that serve no purpose but to create meaning, and connection, and knowledge, and joy.

Sex is most definitely one of those pursuits.

It deserves as much respect as any other.

14 comments

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  1. 1
    David Evans

    Beautiful. You made me think about the issue in a new way. I’m stealing your “noses weren’t designed for glasses” line (with attribution).

  2. 2
    Seth

    This is such an excellent point. I’ve often marveled at what a grand accomplishment Meals are, that we’ve managed to take what could be the onerous daily upkeep chore of Nutrient Intake, and managed to transform it not only into a delight for the taste buds, but often into a social occasion that most people look forward to as well. I consider it one of humanity’s great triumphs.
    Sex isn’t bad either.

  3. 3
    L.Long

    Its gently curved and slightly pointed to fit easily into a mouth and is nicely flavored.
    It is just big enough around to fit the hand as if made for that purpose. You can see its primary use is to be handle manually and tongued enthusiastically!!!
    And the outer covering comes away easily….Oh Wait!!! that is the banana…wrong post…got confused.

  4. 4
    Jon Berger

    Heinlein made the same point about food back in 1942 in “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag,” which I rank with his very best work. I can’t remember the exact quote, but the idea is that one of the unique and wonderful things about humans — one of the things that redeems us as a species, in fact — is that we took the simple act of taking on fuel and turned it into an artistic experience. Now I need to go re-read it; I haven’t in about 30 years.

  5. 5
    AnneS

    You know, by the same logic that ‘off-label’ sex is wrong, so is wearing clothes. It’s not as though my hips were designed to hold up my jeans.
    And yet, I have this suspicion that the people who complain about masturbation, oral sex and anal sex would strongly disapprove if everyone decided to walk around naked all the time because it’s more natural.

  6. 6
    Eli

    On your last paragraph, I think you could go further still; other animals don’t do what they do for the sake of “function” -reproductive or otherwise- either. They do what they consider fun. If what they consider fun offers survival benefits, they will pass on these preferences to their descendants, but to imply that they follow instincts in pursuit of a “purpose” sounds like attributing Aristotelianism to animals…

  7. 7
    Eli

    On your last paragraph, I think you could go further still; other animals don’t do what they do for the sake of “function” -reproductive or otherwise- either. They do what they consider fun. If what they consider fun offers survival benefits, they will pass on these preferences to their descendants, but to imply that they follow instincts in pursuit of a “purpose” sounds like attributing Aristotelianism to animals…

  8. 8
    Mia

    Hm, why would we actually agree to the “sex is meant for reproduction”-point?
    I mean, especially for women-we have/god gave us/evolution created us with the only organ that serves no other purpose than lust-the clitoris. So why not believe that lust, pleasure, joy is an aim in itself. Actually even evolutionary: i guess that people with a fulfilled sex life are healthier (endorphines and immune system and stuff) than people that just do their in and out routine because it has to be done for reproduction.
    Well and i also don’t agree on the term “off-label-use”. We try to get pleasure all over our bodies all the time: we eat ice-cream and wear soft clothes. We take bubble baths and buy the comfort toilet paper, get massages and use peeling. Our skin is sensitive and so are our assholes and breasts and ears and mouths… Where is the “off-label” in using the sensitivity of our skin for pleasure? Even in the very orthodox meaning of “god created us like that”. What kind of stupidity is it to say “god created us (after his/her image!!!)” which includes a clitoris and then claim that the creator didn’t mean it to be used for the only purpose it serves?!
    And for the reproduction part: I am sure we could have invented beautiful ceremonies at exactly ovulation that would have been much more effective ;)

  9. 9
    DSimon

    Mia, but from an evolutionary perspective, the clitoris really is merely a way of adding additional incentive to reproduce. It’s just that humans are smart enough that we’ve figured out how to get to the incentive without the reproduction. :-)

  10. 10
    Greta Christina

    Actually, Mia and DSimon — the latest and best research I’ve seen is that, from an evolutionary perspective, the clitoris and the female orgasm don’t serve any evolutionary purpose, except in that it’s easier from an evolutionary perspective for the human body to have one basic blueprint that’s modified for the two sexes. The clitoris is the equivalent of male nipples.
    Quick summary of the best argument: Female orgasm is far too unreliable for it to be evolutionarily useful. If female orgasm were necessary for reproduction, we would have died out long ago.
    Source: The Case of the Female Orgasm: Bias in the Science of Evolution, by Elisabeth A. Lloyd.

  11. 11
    Cyc

    First off I want to say that this was brilliantly written and that I agree with almost all of it. The one part I don’t entirely agree with is in your last paragraph. Here you say that what does separate us from other animals is our ability to transform our animal instincts into sources things that have nothing to do with survival. The reason I partially disagree with this is that this is also seen in other animals. Perhaps not to the same extent, but it is also seen.
    Such cases are when Orcas are seen playing with their food. This doesn’t add any benefit, in fact it wastes energy and leads to an increased number of failed hunts. But they seem to enjoy it so they do it anyway.
    Another case is the Porbeagle Shark. These sharks are well known for wasting a decent amount of their time playing with floating logs, loose bits of seaweed and other flotsom. They don’t eat it or any of the fish around it. They don’t gather socially around such things. They just sit there and grab them and toss them about and generally play with them in a manner similar to the way dolphins often do (which is another example in of itself).
    When Bonobos get stresses or there is conflict or even when there simply isn’t anything else to do, they often use sex or some form of sexual contact to calm things down or ease boredom. These sexual encounters are not a significant source of reproduction. They do ease some tension, but then don’t we humans use sexuality for the exact same reason? There is no actual selective advantage in using it to alievate boredom either, but this is also something we do (and for those who aren’t familar, Bonobos are our closest genetic relative, they are the ‘second chimpanzee’).
    Also, as to your last comment Greta, about the case of female orgasm, I am familar with this argument and see two problems with it. While I agree that if there is any evolutionary advantage, it isn’t as direct as some, I do believe there is evidence for there being some. Since we know that an advantage does not have to be direct and that indirect advantages, even very slight ones, will allow for the retention or even formation of actions and structures.
    The first line of evidence comes from observation done recently of Macaques. It has been seen that females who make more noise during sex have an increased rate of pregnancy. This is caused by the noise causing the male to copulate for longer and release more semen during climax. Noisy females also engage in sex more frequently then those that are less noisy. Similar observations have also been noted in Bonobos.
    The presence of a clitoris in humans increases stimulation in sex and foreplay. This results in more noise and a greater willingness for females to engage in sexual encounters. It also, just like in the observations of macaques and bonobos, encourages males to produce more semen during sex and engage in sex more often (which I and many others can personally attest to because I know that when my partner is enjoying herself more I react a hell of a lot more, something you have written about yourself actually) So from this angle, even if the presence of a suitability sensitive structure like the clitoris only increased sexual encounters by a percent or two, drove males to want to engage for longer and more frequently, increased semen production by a small bit, then it would create a positive evolutionary pressure for these structures behaviors and reactions. So looking at it this way I see the clitoris and female orgasm certainly is an evolutionary advantage.

  12. 12
    Alyson Miers

    Even relatively plain-vanilla het sex involves some “off-label” use of bodies. Female breasts are meant to feed babies, not to be sex objects, but how many of those “it’s not natural” types expect married men to keep their hands off their wives’ breasts during sex?
    (Not that I would ever suggest such a thing as a good idea, but by the “it’s not natural” logic…)

  13. 13
    Indigo

    @Mia: For me, the kicker about the clitoris is that I have never once reached orgasm through penetration alone, and I know I’m hardly the only woman. Yet oral sex reliably brings me to climax. (One lover actually said, “Intercourse is actually afterplay for you, isn’t it.”) Why would God both design the clitoris and position it where it is if it were just going to hang out and be almost useless during activities that can result in procreation?

  14. 14
    Mia

    I don’t really like all these evolutionary debates-for me they often seem to work in a very circular logic. Because we have a certain picture of how humans are supposed to work, we search for similarities in the animal world (and don’t focus on counter examples there) or interprete the potential behaviour of cave people or “savage tribes” in a way that proves our point.
    Anyway i want to get back on the “off-label” issue, because i really don’t get why people people are so keen on labelling body parts as “meant for” and i just read the example of breasts. Sure they can serve the purpose of lactation. Sensitive nipples are actually not very useful for that. Babies chew on nipples, nipples get soaked and crack and because of the sensitivity of the skin they do that easier than other tissue and get infected. Ouch. Even dangerous. But for sexual pleasure the sensitivity is quite a nice feature. And men have sensitive nipples, too.
    And a prostate is very useful to produce fluids for the semen to swim in. But it doesn’t need to have the sexual pleasure factor for it. In the logic of “meant to be”, why would the prostate not be “meant” for sexual stimulation?! I believe that this whole “meant to be” logic bases on the believe that the main purpose in life is reproduction.And it mixes in with some believe of “selfish pleasure is sin/wrong/useless/ridiculous/weird. People try to prove that with evolution, but I think that this is the mosaic religions bullshit still deep in our daily life and even our science. Maybe one word more on that. Of course i don’t deny that in the evolutionary sense reproduction is the big factor. But coincidence is a big factor, too. and it’s less about “what is functional proceeds”, but much more about “what is not functional gets sorted out”. Whatever doesn’t DISTURB reproduction and is genetic can be passed on.
    And as i said above, i really believe that pleasure and joy serves the very evolutionary purpose of being happy and healthy!
    Enjoy yourselves!

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