Higgamus hoggamus

Pub date May 27, 2009


Dear Andrea:

I wonder if you’ve been living in San Francisco too long? Most prostitutes are not happy grad students! Most have been abused, are addicts, or both, and it’s not a "career choice." I think the woman in your last column is a sex addict and needs therapy, not someone to be cheered on by people like you who think promiscuity is cool. I would worry that kind of behavior says something pretty bad about the emotional state of anyone who’s doing it. I usually like your column, but I do think you can get warped by living too long where being weird is cool.


I Used To Live There Too

Dear Used:

I worry about her, too! What do you think I am? The question for last week, though, was not "Is promiscuity healthy for women?" (a very complicated question indeed, and one we will get back to), but the far simpler and more specific, "Is meeting men online for sex likely to get you killed?" No matter how you feel about female promiscuity, the answer to the latter is going to have to be no. It is simply not likely, although we have seen, tragically, that it is possible.

Expensive, boutique-y prostitution practiced by sane, smart women who can afford to screen clients carefully is surprisingly unlikely to lead to ax-murder. Neither does either activity put its female practitioners at any great risk for STDs or accidental pregnancy, since these are women who own condoms and know how to use them. It’s young (and not so young) people in the fuzzy-headed throes of romantic love or lust (sure, there’s such a thing as "romantic lust") who fall prey to the "spontaneity" fallacy or simply cannot force themselves to hold back until someone has gone out and procured the necessary protective gear. Call girls don’t go "oops," and last week’s "friend" probably doesn’t either. Certainly my own friends who use the sexier personals sites (say, Nerve rather than Chemistry.com) don’t make amateur’s mistakes. They can’t afford to.

Now, "Female promiscuity — hobby or symptom?" Contemporary understanding points to neither, or both, or to questioning the entire category, since the word itself implies deviation from an assumed non-promiscuous norm. For the last 60 years or so, the basic sociobiological story has gone something like this: Men are naturally promiscuous (and interested in nubile young women) because sperm is cheap and the best route to reproductive success is to shoot (and shoot, and shoot) and run. Women, meanwhile, are naturally (if serially) monogamous because pregnancy and infancy are expensive and they will need the help of a well-to-do, physically strong male to help them achieve reproductive success. More recent research has served to completely bollux-up our tidy story, though.

"Chimpanzee males trade meat for sex!" announced pretty much every media outlet in April. No surprise there, really, but it also turned out that … female chimpanzees trade sex for meat. Lots of sex, although not on the first date, since they are not always in estrus at time of trade. Are they making bets on future help (and sperm donations) from males they are merely flirting with now? And are the males keeping a database of females who will later say yes? If they can carry on such complex sociosexual calculations, what else are they up to?

Meanwhile, our premier expert on the sociobiology of motherhood, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, posits a revolutionary difference between ape societies and early (and modern) human ones, so big that it renders ape models even more useless than they already were as revisitable reservoirs of human history. Looking at modern hunter-gatherer societies, she sees cooperative parenting, a human invention, still in operation. It takes a village, in other words, men and women both, to raise a helpless human baby. And, looking back, the more we helped each other, the better our social and communication skills grew. Group responsibility for the children, she says, made us human.

More immediately apropos, perhaps, is the research (www.scientificblogging.com/news_articles/human_sex_roles_male_promiscuity_debunked_and_women_arent_all_picky_either) by Gillian Brown and associates, widely reported this spring, which examined mating behavior and reproductive success in 18 human societies and found that what people do depends on what else is going on: population density, differing life expectancies between the sexes, sex ratios, and a bunch of other variables made a huge difference in who was doing more or less of what with whom. Why this demonstration that humans are complex and adaptable should have come as much of a surprise to anyone, I couldn’t tell you. I admit, though, that I likewise couldn’t tell you that sociobiological research supports the innate wholesomeness of picking up men on Craigslist, and I doubt it ever will. I tend to be a worrier too, and I have certainly seen people, especially women, do a fair amount of psychic damage to themselves with ill-considered sex. But it would be pretty presumptuous to assume that last weeks "friend" is broken on the basis of, well, not knowing anything.



P.S. Readers, what about you? Care to share your adventures in promiscuity, soul-deadening, life-affirming, or just plain OK? They would make a great column.

Don’t forget to read Andrea at Carnal Nation.com.