Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


privacy-hotel-door

(PHOTO: XIXINXING/SHUTTERSTOCK)

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

• October 11, 2013 • 8:00 AM

(PHOTO: XIXINXING/SHUTTERSTOCK)

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.

More From Alice Dreger

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 4:00 PM

Should the Victims of the War on Drugs Receive Reparations?

A drug war Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of post-apartheid South Africa is a radical idea proposed by the Green Party. Substance.com asks their candidates for New York State’s gubernatorial election to tell us more.


October 31 • 2:00 PM

India’s Struggle to Get Reliable Power to Hundreds of Millions of People

India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a “big thinker” when it comes to energy. But in his country’s case, could thinking big be a huge mistake?


October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.


October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.


Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.