WHAT IS IT FOR?
For simplicity, we could say that sex functions at three levels. The primary function of sex is reproduction. Here the motive for courting and then having sex is to beget a baby. If that were all there were to it, then presumably humans would have a mating season, like other animals, and would go most of the year without engaging with this energy consuming business.
However, the human infant is born immature and requires a long period of up-bringing. This works better when there is more than one parental figure around co-operating. Different societies have organised this in different ways. Probably, before it was realised that a child had only one father, up-bringing would often have been done by the mother and her kin. The father figures in the child’s life would actually have been its uncles and aunts would also have played a significant role, relieving the mother of the full burden and thereby enabling her to go on having more and more children. Since child mortality was high and tribal survival depended on numbers, there was a premium upon having as many babies as possible. Of course, mothers also sometimes died in childbirth.
Since we have known that only one man contributes to the genetic inheritance of the child, there has been a natural tendency for the up-bringing of the child to fall to that man. This means the father and mother staying together and here we have the origin of the institutions of marriage and legitimacy..
However, sex achieves other things besides reproduction. We can summarise this second level of function as that of yielding pleasure and reducing anxiety. For the individual to obtain these gains, he or she needs a partner. In the modern over-populated world there are an increasing number of people who have little or no interest in reproduction. For them, babies are a cost rather than a benefit. For such, the second level may become the primary level. In any case, since obtaining these secondary gains requires a partner, there enters into the sexual equation a consideration of benefit. If A seeks pleasure and/or anxiety reduction he/she needs another person, B. B can thus be construed as offering A a benefit and when things are seen in this way, the logic of trading comes in. B will want something in return.
A common scenario, therefore, is that the woman wants a baby and the man wants the secondary gain. The marriage is a trade in which the man gives the woman the baby she wants and she gives him the pleasure and anxiety reduction. Thus each has a reason for having sex with the other, but the reasons are different and complementary. This extends beyond the birth of the baby since by providing the man with what he ewants she can keep him around to assist with the up-bringing. This kind of contract wears out when child rearing comes to an end and as people now tend to live long beyond their reproductive years this means that when the children leave the nest the couple either separate or have to find another reason to stay together. At this point, she may no longer see any point in having sex and he may feel the loss of a benefit he has grown used to. Those for whom the pleasure of sex is a main motive have difficulty seeing why somebody else might not desire it, but sex is a messy, exhausting activity and if one has no particular reason for doing it, it is possible to simply lose interest or even start to feel that the whole business is nauseating. When Nature’s purpose is achieved, what remains?
WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
Now since, as just outlined, sex at the second level has a good deal to do with cementing a bond that keeps the partners together for the work of bringing up the child, sex comes to have a third level of function which resides in the realm of meaning rather than physical effect. Sex becomes a token of love, loyalty, bonding and all the mutual duties that go therewith. Just as the second level may become primary for some people, so this third level can do so. Hence arises the “romantic ideal”. In our modern Western society, the romantic ideal has becomes rather dominant. Birth rates have dropped dramatically and a significant number of couples have no intention of having children. So, Nature might ask, why ae they together? The answer is that achieving a certain kind of relationship has come to be seen as one of the highest ideals of modern life. This has opened up, among other things, the possibility of respectability for same sex marriage. Nowadays it cannot be assumed that marriage is necessarily about reproduction. This third level may be the primary motivation. The arrival of babies may be a by-product that may be considered natural and welcomed, but might not be the prime reason for the couple being together. The motives of the parents have consequences for the cchildren, but that is beyond the scope of this essay.
When a couple get together, each feels a benefit and joy in being with the other, but this does not mean, necessarily that they are both operating at the same level nor with similar motivation. Perhaps he basically wants children whereas she, while wanting to fulfil her romantic ideals, has no such desire. Perhaps he enjoys the pleasure that she is talented to provide while she just wants babies. Perhaps he is the idealist but she feels she needs him in order to keep her existential anxiety under control. One might consider these to be mismatches, but they are very common and they do work, at least for some years. Problems may show up later.
A couple come into couple counselling. The problem is that the children have grown up and left and they are trying to find a new basis for their relationship, now that they have more time and energy. However, she no longer wants to have sex and he does. She does not know why her attitude to it has changed, but she feels pressurised by him and this makes her defensive. He, in turn, feels rejected. Perhaps, she was operating at level one and he at level two and they have each lost their separate and different reasons for being in the marriage, but separation would be a disruption that both want to avoid. Both are also somewhat in the grip of the third level and do not want the marriage to “fail”, but the reasons for which they got together, which were probably not acknowledged by either of them fully, no longer function.
Another couple has another problem. In this couple, she has no desire to have children because the world seems like such a dangerous place. Looking after children in this world would be too anxiety provoking. In fact, she has anxiety enough just for herself. Sex allays this anxiety. He, on the other hand, is an idealist. He thinks that if he just loves her enough, the anxiety will be cured. Also, he would like to have children, but being idealist he is willing to put this aside - and, indeed, sacrifice himself in every way - for the sake of the perfect love that he believes will cure her. In fact, it doesn’t. She remains full of an anxiety that has its roots in the circumstances of her early life where she experienced erratic parenting and early bereavement. He is becoming exhausted trying to achieve the impossible. She feels increasingly guilty as she perceives his frustration, and her fear that this will lead to him leaving only increases her anxiety. Because his love is not being received in the way that he expected and counted upon, he feels he is failing and sometimes blames himself, sometimes her. There seems to be no way out of their dilemma.
A third couple presents a different permutation. They got together to produce babies. They were both on the same wavelength. However, modern society was against them. In modern society, babies are costly in terms of time, money and effort. They settle for the old fashioned solution: he goes out to work and she stays at home looking after the children. Soon, both are exhausted. He is not getting the satisfaction he longed for of spending time with the children because he has to work long hours to bring in enough money. She is having to cope without him. In the real old days she would have had help from other women, but nowadays she lives in an isolated apartment and they are struggling to pay the mortgage. Both have had enough.
MOTIVES ARE HIDDEN
The three scenarios just outlined can be found on the caseload of most couple counsellors. They are not uncommon. There are other possible permutations too. When two people want the same thing they naturally tend to assume that they want it for the same reasons. Nor do people know themselves so well that they can discuss these things rationally. Success in courtship substantially depends upon giving the other person what they want including allowing them to believe that one has the attitude that the other approves. When both are engaged in such persuasion, deep misunderstanding is probably more the rule than the exception.
Situations can be further complicated by the fact that people do not necessarily stay the same. As we grow and mature we encounter new situations and learn new things. Attitudes change. The reason that one got into a relationship in the first place may no longer hold good ten, fifteen or twenty years later. Going back to the tender beginnings can be a way of breathing new life into some relationships, whereas, in others, it can simply bring home the fact that what brought these two people together no longer has any meaning or relevance.
THEY ARE NOT ALL THE SAME
Also, when a couple get together it is likely not to be the first sexual relationship that either has had. In trying to comprehend what is happening, one of the most powerful sources of understanding is previous experience. However, the new relationship is unlikely to be identical to previous ones. Implicit assumptions that all men want this or all women want that are likely to be off the mark.
This essay is a considerable over-simplification, but sex in the modern world is no simple matter.