Sex in a Sustainable World Part 2: Food, Sex, & Ownership

Countless people around the globe have been protesting the financial system, blaming it for large disparities in economic wealth, and thus their unhappiness. A small percentage of individuals are living extremely fabulous lifestyles, while hundreds of thousands of people are at consistent risk of starving.

See all posts in this series.

Sure, there’s certainly a share of people with great financial wealth who worked very hard for it, and there’s a share of people who are financially disadvantaged who ended up there because they haven’t put in the effort. And you could argue that many people labeled as “in poverty” today, particularly in more developed countries, still have all their basic needs met. But this isn’t always the case, and the disparities have been growing.

Our ownership-based system has resulted in many types of perceived and genuine scarcity. This in turn, leads to conflicts as individuals, groups, and nations compete to secure resources—land, food, energy, media attention, etc.  But it’s not just about money or banks–much of our present-day system, and much unhappiness, is tied to food and sex.

The Probable Connection between Agriculture and Sexual Ownership

Using a range of anthropological evidence, and later weaving in physiology and evolutionary psychology, Ryan and Jethá (Sex at Dawn) argue that we may have created much of our present-day scarcity. I’m simplifying a bit here, but the plot line goes as follows:

At one point we shifted from a hunting and gathering culture that was more mobile and dependent upon the land surrounding us at any given point, simply moving on when we needed additional resources. The concept of property ownership, outside of small basic personal belongings, was foreign to us.

Then we became stationary, claiming our own land for farms. Men soon saw the need to claim other property, such as women, children, and permanent dwellings, to help maintain our land in a given location.

Once women became private property, they lost many of their rights and their sexuality was viewed as something to be controlled—repressed for everyone other than their husband. Relationships between men and women became more strained, and intimate relationships outside of this ownership-based family structure came to be seen as potential threats. Insecurity increased.

Is Modern Life Better in All Areas?

Alongside the above developments, we’ve continued to believe that modern life is better than early human life in almost every way imaginable. We believe that in prehistoric days, humans had vastly shorter life spans and women were much more subservient to men.

We might imagine the caricature of a grunting caveman barbarically dragging a woman around by her hair. We believe that our modern systems and technologies have rescued us from these dark, horrible, violent times.

But as Ryan and Jethá detail, much of the evidence that appears to support these beliefs is questionable, as it has been impacted by political and cultural biases. Life may indeed be better in many ways, but in some ways it is not.

For example, they describe cultures suggesting that women may have enjoyed more social power when both women and men had more sexual freedom. Within a very small period of overall human history, we’ve made drastic changes in our culture that now promulgate very mixed messages about long-standing elements of our nature (e.g., sexuality) and that heighten behaviors which were once less prevalent (e.g., aggression).

Today, the marketing of many sex-related informational products exacerbates possessiveness and insecurity. A headline from the sales page for one sex techniques guide: “Your man will never desire another woman’s mouth in his life!” And another: “I’m sure your girlfriend or wife is 100% faithful to you, but I’m also sure you want to KEEP her that way!”

Even many car and beer commercials illustrate how their product will elevate status and help attract potential sex partners. We’re constantly inundated with such anxiety-provoking messages. Is this really an advancement from prior times?

Questioning Norms Instead of Labeling Individuals

But how often do we even question current social norms, and consider that many of them have developed over a relatively short period of time? Instead, we tend to blame individuals who can’t seem to cope with the drastic changes the human lifestyle has undergone in a very short period. Sometimes we even create new disorder labels for them.

For example, NPR recently did a piece on the growing problem of road rage, discussing how underlying psychological issues may often be at play. They explain how “intermittent explosive disorder” may now impact 6 percent of the population.

Sure, sometimes a person may have deeper psychological issues. But they didn’t consider the fact that for thousands of years–for the vast majority of human evolution–we weren’t sitting in little boxes on wheels for extended periods, often on either side of a long day sitting in a little cubicles.

We’ve made a *huge* shift from spending much of the day being physically active outdoors. And we’ve made this drastic shift over the course of just a few generations, a tiny blip in the overall timeframe of human evolution.

road rage driver

Given the above, is it any surprise that many people struggle? Fortunately, urban planning professionals have come to recognize that we didn’t think everything out so clearly when cities initially developed.

Things like pedestrian friendliness, bikeability, trees, etc., are starting to get more attention. As are things like the neurological effects of vehicle pollution, something our species hasn’t contended with for the vast majority of its existence.

Similarly, the rapid development of agriculture and food technology has provided myriad food options. But at the same time, it has rapidly and drastically shifted our diets away from where they were for the vast majority of human evolution. It has suddenly distanced most of us from our sources of food.

In fact, some would argue that the core of many people’s diets may actually be less diverse now, because a high percentage of food comes from a small number of “monocrops” (e.g., corn, wheat) that are increasingly dominating the once-diverse landscape.

Because of this, many people have become more cognizant about reading food labels, exploring the sources of their food, and so on. In some cases, they may become unhappy, overwhelmed, and frustrated by all the information.

Once in a while, their frustration might stem from obsessive compulsive disorder, or from a legitimate eating disorder. But is it ever helpful or accurate to view it as orthorexia, a disorder for which one medical doctor has been lobbying? It’s defined as “an unhealthy obsession with eating healthy food.”

It seems to deny that seemingly extreme concerns about food may sometimes be valid, given that there have indeed been extreme changes in the nature of our food.

So how does all of this relate to sex?

As with transportation and food, we’ve created profound shifts in our sexual and relationship practices over a relatively short period.

As with transportation and food, these sexual shifts have caused some problems because we didn’t think everything through.

As with transportation and food, we don’t question current sexuality and relationship norms because we cherish the perceived security they also bring.

Instead, we slap labels of dysfunction or repulsion on anyone or anything outside our comfort zone, until collective discomfort finally drives us to open our minds.

As we’ll discuss later, our current system of sex and relationships divides us in a way that may exacerbate our insecurities while perpetuating our dependence. It might even drive some of us to buy large, aggressive vehicles out of sexual insecurity. One more point for road rage.

More on the Food and Sexuality Relationship

Given the likely connections between the advent of agriculture and current relationship norms, it’s not surprising that books focusing on ethical eating practices also touch upon sexuality and gender roles. However, they share both differences and commonalities with Ryan and Jethá’s viewpoints.

Vegan author Carol Adams has connected our treatment of farm animals to male violence and sexism toward women. For example, why are phrases like, “Pound that meat!” sometimes used to describe sex?

Many men have emotionally distanced themselves from women while still physically objectifying their bodies to meet sex needs, similar to the manner in which we emotionally distance ourselves from farmed animals while physically objectifying them to meet food needs.*

Ryan and Jethá’s viewpoint, as noted above, is a bit broader: they suggest that agriculture as a whole–both plant and animal–has been a key contributor to gender-based oppression and conflict between the sexes. Also important to consider: When groups hunted and fished wild animals rather than sequestering them in tightly-packed factory farms, treatment of animals was likely a much less salient issue.

Lierre Keith, who has an interest in feminist issues, also discusses the impacts of agricultural development in The Vegetarian Myth. While I believe some of the book’s points are flawed, and this book was far from the only reason I went from being vegan to “mostly plant based,” she raises many uncomfortable but important questions.

Keith argues that both plant and animal agriculture have largely disconnected humans from our natural world and a less hierarchical and power-centered way of being. These activities have also led to killing or forcing countless other animals out of their natural habitats.

Her book suggests that if human population growth were drastically slowed and our food system—both plant and animal—were returned to a more natural state, it would positively impact many animal rights, human rights, and environmental issues.

In other words, human overpopulation is at the root of many of the same issues that vegan-related philosophies seek to address. If we consider that more open and honest discussion about sex might help to address overpopulation, then we see that promoting a more sexually open culture may be just as important as considering our food and consumption habits.

Citing consciousness theorist Ken Wilber alongside public health research in The World Peace Diet, vegan philospher Will Tuttle discusses how testosterone links meat-eating to violence. Testosterone has “two, and only two, major drives: f*ck it or kill it.” Diets high in animal fat and low in plant fiber can result in higher levels of such hormones.

Ryan and Jethá also recognize the role of testosterone in violence but take things in a slightly different direction. Their arguments imply that if we honored the “f*ck it” part of our nature a bit more openly (in a non-violent, less possessive, and non-controlling fashion), then we might have more cooperative relationships, less stress and competition, and less violence. More on this later.

An added irony of the agricultural impact upon sexuality: Agriculture itself is one of the factors that has enabled our species’ population to soar, in turn requiring even more food. To produce enough food per acre to meet demand and make a living, farmers have turned to various hormones.

Those same hormones can affect humans in various ways, including triggering earlier onset of puberty. So we now have many kids hitting puberty sooner in a culture that wants them to wait longer to have sex—or to even learn about sex, for that matter.

Where To Go Next?

I love many of the conveniences and technologies of modern life, and don’t advocate a large scale “return to the wild.” With our present population levels, it probably wouldn’t be feasible anyway. That’s the catch-22 here. In order for a system with lessened ownership restrictions to work, a population first needs to be more relatively geographically dispersed and able to function as smaller communities on many levels. This reduces the likelihood of “tragedy of the commons” situations, e.g., a public park that isn’t cared for because a) so many people use it, and b) few of those users take responsibility.

I remember addressing “tragedy of the commons” in a graduate economics course, as it is a common issue. But as Ryan and Jethá’s work suggests, such occurrences aren’t  just about human nature; they may be due to the community being so large and anonymous to one another that they experience little personal accountability. This aligns with earlier work done by other researchers (e.g., Barry Wellman, Roger Ahlbrandt) on topics of community cohesiveness and accountability.

If slowing our population growth can address many of our sustainability issues, including those related to food, then more open and honest discussion about sex (which can reduce unintended pregnancies) is key.

In my opinion, competition and private ownership may continue to have a place in certain domains of life and business. However, have we become overzealous in our wholehearted application of the private property / ownership model to too many areas of our existence, including sexuality?

Already, many forward-thinking groups are experimenting with ways of moving away from a full-fledged private ownership model in certain domains of life. This includes a rapidly growing cohousing community movement, where people share amenities such as yards and meeting spaces, and may have activities such as regular shared community meals. Some groups are experimenting with local urban food forests, one way of shifting from standard agriculture back to a more natural food system. One community in Pittsburgh (Borland Green Ecocommunity) is doing both. We’ll touch more upon such things later.

Whatever the case, we must consider that many elements of our present culture come from vast changes over a relatively short period of our evolution. We must courageously question whether they continue to support or hinder us. Do we need a partial return to the wild in some areas of life?

*Notes on the topic of objectification:

I do believe it is possible to carry our concern and sensitivity on this topic to the point of detriment. For example, in Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence, Esther Perel illustrates how eroticism often thrives off of a certain degree of  non-egalitarian energies, e.g., dominance, submission, and aggression.

If we try too hard to treat one another as equals in all settings including the bedroom, and try to mask entirely our raw animal side, we may be missing out on a vital part of our humanity. In other words, while regular exercise of one’s PC (in this case, “political correctness”) muscles may improve sex, we may not want to be overly PC in the bedroom.

Relatedly, in a discussion group at a sexuality conference I attended, one middle-aged female therapist argued that sex doesn’t always need to be imbued with a higher-level emotional, cerebral, and spiritual meaning. “Sometimes,” she asserted, “a f*ck is just a f*ck.”

I think there is a balance between being fair and respectful to one another, while consensually and playfully treating one another as sex objects from time to time. But this can bring up anxiety while we’re all still recovering from a history of sexual ownership. Perel notes another potential passion killer: viewing our partner as someone we have, rather than as someone with whom we have mutually agreed to be “on lease.”

From agricultural lands to intimate partners, must we lessen our need to possess and own? And if so, how?

See all posts in this series.

Dave welcomes phone-based life, career, and transition coaching clients from around the world.

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