Sex in a Sustainable World Part 8: Localization, Sex, & Community Interdependence

The Argument for Localized Economies

Our modern globalized system has many benefits, including availability of a wonderful array of household products and food choices, along with the cost and quality advantages that often (but not always) come with centralized production.

A major issue is that the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of non-localization. As an advocate of urban food forest planting explained to me, we’re a far cry from the days when you could walk around your village and pick fresh fruit and berries, rather than going to the grocery store and buying ones from several states or a continent away–even during growing season.

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Whether their area of expertise is within agriculture, economics, or energy, sustainability advocates emphasize the importance of localizing various components of our economies.

A system involving such high levels of transportation makes all of us highly dependent upon centralized systems, which are prone to catastrophic failures and abuse of power. The energy needs of a non-localized economy also contribute to harvesting of fossil fuels, which in turn places greater burdens upon our environment.

But localizing economies requires a lot of coordinated effort, and that in turn requires much stronger local social networks. How might our most accepted concept of how people relate sexually—namely, the long-term monogamous pair bond, or marriage—support or discourage stronger local community networks?

Sex, Trust, and Local Social Capital

Social network theorists, often found within the discipline of organizational psychology, have explored the types of social connections and relationships that spur innovation within organizations and communities, and that enable groups of people to function together and get things done. This ability of individuals to call upon one another as resources is often called “social capital.”

In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam describes in detail how social capital has declined in modern communities. The title refers to decreased levels of participation in group recreational activities with one’s local community members. This, in turn, reflects greater mobility (moving around for school, jobs, etc.) and less community cohesiveness.

Important types of connections for building social capital are those that involve strong levels of trust, and a combination of what sociological researchers like Avery Guest and Susan Wierzbicki call Gemeinschaft (close emotional and expressive connections) and Gesellschaft (more rationalized, ends-means relationships). If relationships are just about getting things done, and there’s not a deeper bond, things may not run so smoothly.

Stephen Covey, David Krackhardt, and Jeffrey Hanson have outlined how trust networks also play a vital role in workplace and organizational productivity, beyond other important factors like formal authority or advice sharing.

In Sex at Dawn, Ryan and Jethá suggest that open sexuality may have enhanced the sharing of resources and teamwork mentality among communities, especially when times were difficult or resources were scarce. Providing examples that fly in the face of our present social conditioning, they argue that this dynamic may have played a greater role than most evolutionary psychologists and anthropologists currently acknowledge.

Imagine being a visitor to a village where sex was often offered as a way to welcome outsiders. Would you be more likely to hang around a bit longer, perhaps sharing a few useful resources with them before continuing on your journey?

Beyond Ryan and Jethá, consider simple examples such as how many spy and action thrillers include one character sleeping with another to gain trust and obtain important information. You’ve likely heard how the ancient Greek military used sex to promote greater bonding among its soldiers. Unfortunately, the latter was sometimes state sanctioned, had questionable age limits, and connected sex to violent purposes. The point, however, is that the bonding value of sex has long been recognized.

As some of the authors above note, there are many ways to build trust, social capital, and connectedness. Also, simply being physically intimate with someone doesn’t always make them trustworthy, even if you trust them more–that’s what happens in spy films, right?  Nonetheless, it’s hard to deny that for many people, sex can be a powerful enhancer of emotional connectedness and trust. Thus, sex could be a useful social capital tool.

Sex can also introduce dynamics like possessiveness, jealousy, and conflict; but if we’re open to the possibility that these are largely byproducts of our current self-imposed limitations (as Ryan and Jethá suggest), and of our fear and lack of openness and honesty regarding sex, then is it unreasonable to believe that such dynamics might diminish over time?

As O’Neill and O’Neill pointed out in Open Marriage several decades ago, many types of intimate activities–sex and physical intimacy take up only a small portion of their book–frequently cause jealousy and conflict in romantic partnerships. But simply avoiding all such activities doesn’t necessarily help a relationship; it can be emotionally isolating as well.

In our present sexual and economic system, we strive to obtain our own houses or apartments, especially if we live in the U.S., per the traditional American Dream. Alongside that, we keep most of our property, lives, and relationships—especially anything related to sex—separate from those around us.

Perhaps we’re friendly with those who live near us, and even share some garden tools, a cup of sugar, or housesitting responsibilities from time to time, but in many modern neighborhoods even that doesn’t occur.

When the going gets tough, we may rely more upon our biological families, and perhaps a few very close friends or colleagues. But in many cases, we’ve already established ourselves professionally and socially in locations far from immediate and extended family, and perhaps even many of our long-term friends.

Even when we’ve been exceptionally involved in a particular organization, relying too heavily upon neighbors and other local community members may seem unacceptable—a sign of dependence and weakness in a society where we’re all expected to be independent.

Along with any professionals who can provide support, our long-term partner may be expected to bear the vast majority of the burden. This, as Perel explains in Mating in Captivity, throws additional water onto the flame of the sexually monogamous couple’s sex life.

Perel explains that over time, sex has moved from being something we simply do to being a core element of our identity. Additionally, we developed the concept of romantic love, with sex becoming an expected central element of a romantic love relationship. (At one time, the concept of love didn’t include romance.) At the same time:

“Love, beyond providing emotional sustenance, compassion, and companionship, is now expected to act as a panacea for existential aloneness as well. We look to our partner as a bulwark against the vicissitudes of modern life…Modern life has deprived us of our traditional resources, and has created a situation in which we turn to one person for the protection and emotional connections that a multitude of social networks used to provide. Adult intimacy has become overburdened with expectations.”

That is indeed a great burden for small, largely independent two-person couples to place upon one another, particularly if they have kids and are distant from one or both extended families. Particularly in times of significant economic and social change.

What we’ve ended up with is a population of relatively independent small families, many of whom rely increasingly upon highly centralized (i.e., city, state, and national) systems because their local connections are more limited. In other words, our current sexual norms and romantic relationship concepts may contribute to dependence upon big centralized government.

This, of course, is the opposite of localization. Large-scale, highly centralized operations may have their place for certain government and private industry functions, but have we gone too far?

Despite the intriguing popularity of recent shows like Desperate Housewives, just because someone lives near you doesn’t mean that you have any desire whatsoever to be intimately involved with them, and vice versa. I’m not suggesting you run out and fulfill any girl- or guy-next-door fantasies if you do have them.

However, consider this: While we may be hesitant to ask a neighbor for help shoveling the driveway, or even for job seeking assistance, would we have the same issues going to a person with whom we or someone close to us has shared physical intimacy? This doesn’t necessarily need to include sex, but could even include things like snuggling. Such questions may feel strange to ask, but perhaps we need to be asking them.

A few years ago, my partner and I visited a number of cohousing groups and ecocommunities. Such groups are responses to many of the disjointed community issues mentioned above. By sharing property responsibilities and resources such as community gardens, tools, vehicles, and labor, they build supportive relationships and simplify their lives.

I wonder whether an analogous alternative to private ownership should be present in the realm of romantic relationships, resulting in support systems that may or may not have much overlap with one’s immediate neighborhood networks.

With couples and communities, the sex and social support dynamics may be a two-way street.

As suggested above, a more open sexuality might help to strengthen an individual or couple’s other social bonds with a given community. Conversely, as Perel explains, more social supports and connections outside the marriage, even if not sexual, can lessen the “we need each other for everything” burden upon a couple.

This in turn, makes it easier for the two members of a couple to enjoy one another sexually as well.

The added irony of the above is that in our current system, many individuals instead resort to leading some or all of their sex lives in secret, as we’ve already discussed. This often leads to shame, which in turn is connected to further emotional distancing–and less interconnectedness.

More Open Sexuality: Simply Physical for Men?

Due to current gender stereotypes, we might jump to the conclusion that more open sexuality would enable women to form deeper emotional bonds, but that men would simply be getting more physical gratification.

But if this were true, then how do we explain the fact that men on average report more emotional stress than women following divorce? Apparently, many men develop a emotional attachment—perhaps even stronger than that experienced by many women—to those with whom they’re physically intimate. For whatever reason, we just don’t want to admit it. (By the way, if you have any thoughts on how this applies to same-sex couples, I appreciate any comments.)

The above stress disparity may occur because men form deep emotional bonds primarily with those with whom they’re regularly physically intimate, while keeping other contacts relatively superficial in nature. Women, on the other hand, spread their emotional intimacy across broader social support networks.

Compare these two activities: Watching a ballgame together vs. having a deeply personal conversation over coffee or dinner. I’m stereotyping a bit here, but for a man already in a relationship, which is more socially acceptable for them to do with others, especially with someone of the opposite sex?

So in addition to being physically detached, men are often more emotionally detached, in relationships outside their monogamous partnership. In other words, a vast majority of their social capital may be committed to a single relationship, impacting both self and others.

This, ironically, may occur precisely because women and men both know, on a deeper level, that physical and emotional intimacy are connected for many men. In the context of an ownership-based system where we compete for everything including emotional intimacy, many women (and men, for that matter) may fear that a more open sexuality will also lead to a loss of their partner’s emotional intimacy. We assume that there’s only so much to go around.

In addition, there may be a perceived loss of status that accompanies not having complete sexual commitment from one’s spouse. One may be viewed as a victim who settles for second best.

At a recent social event, I was speaking with a female friend who shares interests on a number of topics. She also happens to be very physically attractive.

Having been thinking and writing about sexuality recently, I later reflected upon the finer details of how I had behaved in my friend’s presence. Although she’s very easy going and friendly, I realized that I had felt somewhat nervous, and had purposely limited my physical presence in some ways. For example, I had shifted my body away and limited my eye contact more than normal.

Essentially, I was distancing myself from her, not sharing more energy and intimacy simply because I find her physically attractive and because we both have partners. On a cerebral level, the last thing I wanted to do was look like I was flirting with her in any way.

How many interactions between people would be more emotionally intimate if we were all more sexually relaxed? I don’t know how obvious my slightly altered behavior even was in the above. If many others find her attractive and do the same thing, it may be largely the norm for her.

She may also deal with many men who are openly very sexual and flirtatious, but who also behave in a defensively macho or “jerk” fashion simply because they fear emotional vulnerability.

When so much is expected to accompany sex, that can create anxiety. In other words, many of her interactions might be less than optimal, simply because someone else finds her attractive in the context of a monogamous, sexual ownership culture.

Shortly after the above interaction, I overheard a conversation among several women. They were discussing instances in which other women had behaved in a backstabbing or “catty” fashion toward one another. One of them remarked, “I guess that’s why it’s helpful for a woman to have some gay male friends to confide in.” Several of them chuckled, acknowledging the fact that gay men do represent a “safe” friend for many women to emotionally confide in.

“Why not a heterosexual male?” I wondered to myself. Perhaps it’s because with a gay male, there can be emotional intimacy without the threat of crossing lines with sexual desire, as could be the case with a heterosexual male. Within the confines of a sexual ownership culture, that could create issues, at least for heterosexual individuals. But without such strong confines, might the same women be able to expand their trust networks?


See all posts in this series.

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

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