June 11, 2005


Bodies of Evidence: The Real Meaning of Sex Is Right in Front of Our Eyes (Frederica Mathewes-Green, June 2005, Touchstone)

[L]et’s set aside the idea that humans are different from or better than other animals and think of humans in their natural state. Whether we attribute extra meaning to humans or not, we are at least animals, sharing this planet with many other kinds of creatures.

From that perspective, the “meaning” of sex is pretty obvious. It’s reproduction. Every living creature has two primary drives: first, to sustain its own life (which includes seeking food, shelter, and safety), and second, to pass on that life to a new generation. Creatures reproduce in many different ways, but humans and other mammals do so by sexual reproduction.

It seems that the reason sex feels good is so we’ll want to do it, and be motivated to give birth to that new generation. It’s the same way with food: The reason our taste buds register some flavors as delicious and others as bitter is so we’ll eat things that are good for us and avoid others that might be poisonous.

These flavor preferences are something we’re born with; they’re not learned. Researchers have found that if they add a bit of sweetener to amniotic fluid, the unborn child will gulp it down more quickly. We’re designed to like sweets, I suppose so that our earliest ancestors would keep going back to those brightly colored, vitamin-filled fruits hanging so conveniently within reach.

It’s the same way with sex: It feels good so we’ll want to reproduce. But there are some interesting ways that humans are different from other mammals, even from other primates. For us, sex feels good at any time in the fertility cycle. Other mammals mate only during fertile periods.

What’s more, researchers suspect that only among humans is the female capable of orgasm. Of course, orgasm has nothing to do with conception; it’s not related to the reproduction process at all. So both men and women are motivated to have sex for reasons that other animals, and even other mammals and primates, don’t have. It looks like the “meaning of sex” for humans is something broader than simply reproduction.

You can see the same analogy with food. As far as I know, animals only eat what they need to, for the sake of nutrition. But humans eat for all kinds of reasons. We eat birthday cake, have a cup of coffee with a friend, munch popcorn during a movie. We eat for social reasons, or for comfort, or just out of habit. We don’t eat solely for nutrition. Likewise, we don’t have sex solely for reproduction.

Face to Face

This is shown by another way humans are unique. We’re one of the very, very few mammals able to have sex face-to-face. Seeing each other’s faces means something—not just during sex, but all the time. We are dependent on reading each other’s faces; in fact, we can’t resist looking at faces. We seem to be programmed that way.

Researchers have found that if a newborn baby is shown a set of different geometric shapes, his eyes will always go back to one that shows an oval with two dots toward the top—that is, a very rudimentary face with eyes. The baby will stare at those dots, those “eyes,” and ignore squares, triangles, and rectangles placed alongside it. Consider this: The baby has been in a womb all his life, and has never before seen a face. But the minute he comes out, he knows what to look at. We’re made that way.

There’s something about a human face that attracts the eyes of other humans irresistibly. In an audience, if one person turns around backwards and starts scanning the crowd, the other audience members find it hard not to look at his face. Advertisers know this, and in print ads will often cut off the faces of people, or cover or obscure their eyes, so that you’ll look at the product instead of staring at the faces.

Looking at faces meets a very deep human hunger. I think it’s significant that humans are one of the few animals capable of looking into each other’s faces during sex.

Sex is, if nothing else, about making a connection with another person, and that seems to be something that humans have trouble with. This seems to be the main way we’re different from other animals. All our lives we look at each other from the outside and have trouble figuring out what’s going on.

When a baby keeps his parents up all night crying, they’ll be frantic trying to figure out what he’s crying for. But animal parents don’t have any such difficulty; they understand their babies’ cries very well. When his girlfriend is crying, a young man may be totally baffled as to what’s going on inside her, or what he should do to help. This can be true even among people who love each other very much. We spend much of our time going through life looking at each other from the outside, making guesses, feeling confused, and feeling, basically, lonely.

Since sex is the most obvious, the most literal way we connect with each other, we have to think about what role it’s designed to play in this essential problem of loneliness. It’s not an external activity added on to the other things we do in life. It’s one of our most basic biological functions, and no matter how civilized humans get, it remains an activity that goes back to our most basic, animal selves.

From these clues, it looks like sex means something more to us than to most mammals, something that has to do with humans forging a deep connection with each other. The connection is not just physical or reproductive but involves the whole person. It seems that the “meaning of sex” is related to the profound human need to bond with another person in love, in trust, and to forge a relationship that will last for a lifetime.

What's especially revealing is to apply this analysis to homosexuality.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 11, 2005 9:43 AM

I guess in relating the above to homosexuality you are making the point that it is much the same. Now I'm not too well up on the mechanics of it, but I think that homosexual sex in not face to face, which negates one of the main points of your argument.

Posted by: Ligneus at June 11, 2005 10:35 AM


Posted by: Robert Schwartz at June 11, 2005 10:35 AM


That is the point. It's inhuman and specifically avoids any human connection.

Posted by: oj at June 11, 2005 10:38 AM

Why is this so hard to figure out? Human sexuality is adapted solely to procreation, but not only to procreation in the gross physical sense. The human child needs a home and parents, and the pair-bonding that fosters this environment is continuously reinforced by (mostly) one-man, one woman, (mostly) face-to-face sexual intercourse. The female orgasm is an additional, bonus reinforcer. We are talking tendencies and ideals here, not absolutes. Also, actually more importantly, the evolution in process here is predominatly social, that is, Spencerian, and not Darwinian. A society may accept counter-evolutionary folkways with respect to sex and the family, like the Mayans, who, by their art, had a certain notion of alternative life-styles, and they may follow the Mayans into oblivion.

Posted by: Lou Gots at June 11, 2005 11:37 AM

Face to face? Never thought of that, should try it sometime.

Posted by: joe shropshire at June 11, 2005 3:26 PM

Joe, take the bag off her head.

Posted by: Sandy P. at June 11, 2005 3:34 PM


I expect you over shortly to clean up the coffee from my screen - you little. . . !!!

Posted by: obc at June 11, 2005 5:05 PM

Sandy: She Who Must Be Obeyed remarks that you're not in as much trouble as I am, owing mostly to the fact that she does know how to find me.

Posted by: joe shropshire at June 11, 2005 9:05 PM