Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Public Sex

Why is public sex illegal?

A friend asked me this recently (don't ask why - let's just say it came up). Anyway...we decided to verify our assumption that having sex in public was, in fact, illegal. A quick web search determined that aside from a number of state laws that proscribe what kind of sex one can have, and with who, it turns out most of the laws against public sex revolve around anything that "offends public decency."

For the most part, it appears that if you perform any act resembling sex (even fully clothed, acting like you're having sex) and someone sees it and takes offense, you can be prosecuted.

So back to the question - why?? I mean, if you really think about it from an evolutionary perspective, it seems so counterintuitive that this would be proscribed. But (in the U.S. at least) we've all grown up with this strong taboo and we don't think twice about why. (Well, okay, maybe some think twice or more about it - clearly my friend and I have. But you still don't see much of it. Or if you do, you live in a more interesting neighborhood than I do).

Here's the evolutionary argument.

I think you'll agree it's a given that most people like sex. (Those that don't tend not to pass this trait on to the next generation, so it tends to die out).

In fact, some surveys indicate that most people think about sex multiple times a day. Every day. Again, given the obvious evolutionary argument here, this shouldn't be much of a surprise either. (Great recent recap of the research here).

So...most people like sex, think about sex every day, and would like to have sex a fair portion of their waking minutes (and many of their sleeping ones as well).

So given that this appears to be one of the most common, natural impulses of humans everywhere, why don't we support having sex in public?

The obvious answers, of course, is that we're all prudes in the U.S.; that people love to make laws telling other people how to behave; and any laws that require only that one person be offended for an act to be a crime would tend to squelch excessively exuberant behavior.

But being interested in behavioral evolution, I wanted to investigate more. Evolutionary theory would say that unless there were a breeding disadvantage to a behavior, over time it should die out. Prohibitions against sex are definitely a disadvantage to breeding.

More research led me down a number of garden paths with little satisfaction. Some related to classic (and overused) arguments regarding males need to ensure paternity (selfish genes), female fertility cycles and receptivity, monogamous relationships, protection of children, "we are not animals" (yeah, right).

All of it left me cold, because in every case the big large pink and blue elephants in the room were ignored, such as the eternal proliferation of prostitution and the enormous economics of the sex industry in general, both of which provide direct evidence that there always is huge pent up demand for sex that finds an outlet somehow. (Though I did learn a new word in the search, which is always cool.)

So again - how did these prohibitions against public sex evolve in so many cultures? (Side note - not all cultures have this prohibition. For example, people used to (and still do) live in small houses, or even huts where everybody is in one room. Sex is carried within sight of everyone else in the household. It's apparently ignored, treated as just "one of those things", like taking a piss). But this isn't common).

One argument my friend and I came up with involved the productivity hit to a society - that if everyone was having sex anytime they felt like it, nothing would get done. One could envision a societal evolution model of two cultures competing for resources, where one redirects sexual energy toward behaviors that better benefit the group as a whole and therefore outperforms the other culture that is still laying around humping in the street.

Another idea is maybe those caught by the enemy tribe (or lions, tigers, and bears) with their "pants down" were killed and weeded out, and only those who had sex in "safe" places survived to reproduce. But probably not - when exposed to danger, your best bet for survival is to be surrounded by friendlies, not off by yourself. If exposure to danger was a large factor, we would more likely have a taboo against having sex without other people around.

After batting around a few other ideas, we finally just gave up and had fun envisioning a culture where public sex was legal and acceptable. The porn industry and sex trade dies out - you can get better for free on any street corner. Sanitary Engineer takes on a whole new meaning, and stock in cleaning products skyrockets. Breastfeeding is no longer the primary concern of the religious right. Cluster fucks are no longer a bad thing. "Would you like to be seated in fucking, or non-fucking?" Everyone is reminded once again that there is good naked, and there is bad naked. (Hmmm...maybe that's the answer...)

Try to come up with a few yourself - it's pretty fucking hilarious (if you'll excuse the pun).

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