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Why Have All Human Cultures, Unlike Many Mammalian Species, Evolved to Value Sexual Privacy?

• October 11, 2013 • 8:00 AM


Acts of public sex typically represent a reversal of cultural norms.

An event at Northwestern University raised an issue I had been meaning to write about. Said event involved public “demonstration” of a live sex act in a classroom in the context of a course on human sexuality. Since the “demonstration” apparently resulted in orgasm, I’m not sure how the “demonstration” is different from a regular ol’ live sex act, but let’s leave that issue aside for now.

In discussions of the event, various commentators claimed that the problem here wasn’t the sex act but the “sex negative” attitudes of people who felt uncomfortable about the “demonstration.” Some of these commentators have gone further, to imply that people who were troubled by what happened are downright ashamed of sex.

I think this attitude reflects a naive assumption that I used to share, namely that anything which you want to keep private is necessarily something of which you are ashamed. I used to think this with regard to people’s attitude toward atypical genitalia: If parents felt the need to consistently hide their child’s atypical genitalia, then the parents were ashamed of those genitals, and that shame would be transmitted to the child.

But this assumption is indeed naive.

“There are ritualized or ceremonial forms of public sex in a variety of cultures. But the key here is ritualized. It is not ordinary sex. It is restricted to a very narrow time frame (e.g., until a new chief is enthroned).”

Clearly there are some things that one might want to keep private of which one is not ashamed. For example, if an individual has terminal cancer, that person’s family might want to be provided privacy during the last weeks together. That doesn’t make the family ashamed of the cancer, nor of the death.

Similarly, one might perfectly well accept a child having ambiguous genitalia without wanting to bring upon that child lots of unhelpful neighborhood chatter, not to mention the attention of sexual fetishists. In such a circumstance, one might be more discreet than usual about the child’s genitals.

And of course the privacy that surrounds sex can be downright erotic. There’s a reason we use the term “intimate” to describe both sexual acts and (other) highly private moments.

I don’t think, therefore, that people who were made uncomfortable by the public sex act in question are necessarily sex negative. They may simply question this business of promoting sex in public. And Professor Michael Bailey’s class was, after all, essentially public; the event was neither required for class, nor apparently did Bailey specifically work hard to keep out people who were not in his class. About a hundred people attended. I’d call that public enough to call it public sex. That an exhibitionist was using the opportunity of strangers’ gazes to get her jollies also speaks to the public nature of the event.

So, coincidental to all this, a few weeks ago I was talking about human attitudes toward sexual privacy with my friend and colleague Ray Hames. Ray, who is an anthropologist, mentioned how interesting it is that humans, unlike many mammalian species (including most primates), tend to want to have sex in private. This conversation with Ray came back to me as I listened to discussions of Bailey’s class. And I wondered: Are the people who felt uncomfortable by what happened really sex negative? Or are they just human?

For purposes of writing this post, I asked Ray (who has been studying cross-cultural sex practices with his former student, Katie Starkweather) about whether I was right in believing that a desire for sexual privacy could be called “universal.” Ray replied, “I know of no culture where couples do not seek some sort of privacy for sex, even if they occasionally fail.”

Ray conceded: “There are ritualized or ceremonial forms of public sex in a variety of cultures. But the key here is ritualized. It is not ordinary sex. It is restricted to a very narrow time frame (e.g., until a new chief is enthroned). It typically represents an explicit reversal of cultural norms.”

In his field work, Ray studied the Yanomamö people of South America. I knew the Yanomamö live in a sort of open group housing situation, in large shelters known as “shabanos.” I wondered to Ray whether, in such a situation, people simply accept that sex ends up being public. On the contrary, Ray explained that the Yanomamö have a word for sex that is inappropriate specifically because it is not kept private.

“The word is soka sokamou, and it is the onomatopoeic word for noisy sex. It is considered crude, amateurish, and impolite. This usually refers to sex in the shabano at night.” The Yanomamö typically have sex by pairing off privately in the rainforest or in their gardens in the morning, though they may also have sex in the shabano. As long as it is quiet and discreet, the sex is not considered “soka sokamou.”

Why have humans apparently evolved to value sexual privacy? We don’t know. Nor should we conclude that just because a value may be natural it is also admirable or necessary. But I think it is worth considering the possibility that those who prefer that explicit sexual acts (like penetration to orgasm) not occur in public might not be so much devaluing sex, as valuing it more highly.

In other words, freedom of speech might well be stretched to allow for soka sokamou, but we’re still entitled to consider it crude, amateurish, and impolite enough to keep out of university classrooms.

This post originally appeared on the author’s personal site on March 18, 2011. It is republished here with permission.

Alice Dreger
Alice Dreger is a professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. She has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.

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