The Fantasy of Promiscuity

Periodically, some group of people come up with what seems to them to be the secret to human happiness; the end of marriage and the birth of total promiscuity. They are probably puzzled as to why no one has thought of it before and may consider themselves original. The truth is that every couple of hundred years or so enough people have this thought to start an experimental community based on the idea. I always imagine that if they learned that their great-great-great-grandad had the same thought and even put it into practice, it would put a damper on their enthusiasm.

Nude temple scene by Norman Lindsay

Detail of Life in the Temple by Norman Lindsay.

None of these experimental communities have succeeded in changing the general culture. Prima facie evidence that marriage, while imperfect, is probably better than the alternatives is that nearly all cultures around the world have independently invented the institution. It would seem unlikely that each culture chose the worst solution as to social organization, or matters of the heart, or however one wants to think of it.

The impetus for this idea would seem to be that many younger men find themselves in a perpetual state of feeling rather sexually frustrated. Getting rid of marriage would seem to offer the prospect of helping men to realize a sexual utopia by increasing the number of available women. What they don’t realize is that marriage between one man and one woman actually has the effect of making sexual satisfaction more likely. It stops the rich and powerful from gathering up beautiful women in a harem and making fewer women available. Marriage may in fact have a democratic effect. The alternative might resemble the behavior of certain animals where one dominant male reserves the exclusive right to mate with all the females in that group.

And yet, the fantasy persists. If one is thirsty, dreams of great bodies of water will predominate. Deprived of sex, dreams of great bodies abound. In fact, young males, while traditionally cannon fodder, are also the cause and victim of most violent crime. A young man without a mate is a potentially dangerous and endangered creature. Much calmer and safer is the contented thirtyish householder ensconced with wife and children. Hearing the bellowing of young men at late night outdoor parties makes me think of wild moose in mating season. ‘Just get a girlfriend already’ I think as I rollover and reinsert my earplugs.

Men in particular seem to have a very strong sex drive. Presumably evolution had something to do with this. Those of us with a laissez-faire, take it or leave it attitude to sex presumably were much less successful in promulgating our genes. Natural selection seems to be responsible for men’s relatively permanent year-round intense interest in sex. Women too have a semi-permanent fecundity rare among mammals.

Ironically, one might expect this interest in sex to be a turn-off for women and hence to be counter-productive. Having too much sex on the brain is unsexy. The hard-to-get and aloof male is likely to be able to convey the impression that he has other options available and if the woman plays her cards right she might just get lucky. The overly eager-to-please lap dog might be fun to play with for a while, but demands too much attention. Since sex and money are the two most common sources of arguments between romantic partners, and given women’s generally lower sex drive, a relatively sexless man might be quite attractive to a modern woman.

Two things mitigate against a woman choosing the sexless man. First of all, since most of human history has involved a fairly cut-throat struggle for survival, and harder times necessitated a more intense desire to reproduce, a sexually uninterested man is going to be very hard to find. Secondly, since the majority of American women choose to work part-time for a number of reasons (children, work/life balance, extra household responsibilities) most women continue to need a man willing to be the breadwinner. Men’s desire for love and sex is arguably part of their willingness to perform this role and to enter areas of study and careers and specialties that are higher earning rather than focusing on how intrinsically enjoyable the job is.

So, highly-sexed men are still being selected for and being highly-sexed is the existential position the majority of men find themselves in. In the past, given things like child mortality, the possible effects of disease, and the fact that larger groups of people are likely to militarily defeat smaller groups of people, in most societies, this sexual energy has been carefully channeled into sexual relations between a husband and wife. This contradicts the commonly held notion that male sexuality is encouraged while women are pushed to be chaste.

In order to increase the likelihood of sexual relations being so routed, many possible alternative avenues for sexual fulfillment have been traditionally closed to men. Prostitution has generally been outlawed. Masturbation has been considered immoral and sometimes illegal. Homosexuality, which has the advantage of having two people who are likely to have similar libidos, plus no drawbacks regarding unwanted pregnancy, has been considered immoral and illegal in many societies. Pornography, which presumably goes hand in hand with masturbation, has been prohibited. And despite the joke that ‘Sex is OK, but I prefer the real thing,’ most of us would prefer having a flesh and blood partner. Non-procreative sex of any kind, in fact, has been banned including oral sex even within married couples.

Some of these prohibitions are now relaxing in Western post-industrial countries because population maintenance has been much less of a concern (although countries like Germany are trying to promote childbirth again because of an aging population). Germany’s and New Zealand’s decriminalization of prostitution are social experiments whose results will be interesting. Many industrialized countries have decriminalized homosexuality. This is partly because of the gay rights movement of the nineteen-sixties and partly because of decreased need for sexual reproduction. The relative success of gay rights might be seen as the cultural effect of objective changes in the need for population maintenance.

nude bacchanalia

Detail of a pen drawing for Aristophanes Lysistrata by Norman Lindsay.

Regarding pornography, there is a misconception that the nature of the internet makes banning pornography impossible. The truth seems to be that Congress could decide to prohibit internet pornography but it would come at the cost of limiting ‘free speech,’ and would inevitably end up making inaccessible discussions and topics that in fact have no, and are not intended to have, any prurient purpose.

Prostitution, homosexuality and easily available pornography would be likely to be prohibited once again as strictly immoral and illegal if we were to return to some kind of fight for survival.

The advent of the pill in the nineteen-sixties also changed things. It meant that sex without pregnancy became a very real possibility, in a context in which societal continuation and survival was not an issue. This resulted in changed attitudes to sex and briefly led to ‘free love,’ before most women decided that male styles of sexual behavior were not in their interests. Free love mitigates against female sexual power, namely the ability to translate sexual appeal into drinks, meals, entertainment, transport, skiing holidays and marriage proposals, which is why it is other women who tend to object the most to ‘slutty’ behavior as it negatively affects supply and demand, diminishing the sexual power of all.

At the same time, rock music became popular music and reached a truly mass audience after the more sophomoric efforts of the 1950s. As an object of attention, the rock star, by definition, had thousands or millions of fans. Many of those fans were women and many women were only too happy to make themselves sexually available to the rock star. The phenomenon of ‘groupies’ became notorious.

The traditional route by which men can make themselves more desirable to women is by being a performer, either financially, militarily, or early in life, athletically. Rock stars are financial performers as much as anything. They are also the beneficiaries of what René Girard calls “mimetic convergence.” This is the tendency we have to imitate other people’s desires. The insane rush for ‘Tickle me Elmo’s and Xbox 360s are examples of this. Similarly, the desire to get married, have two or three children, and live in the suburbs is generated by mimetic convergence. There is nothing spontaneous or idiosyncratic about such desires. Rock stars are not admired for their inherent qualities. The proof of this is that a rock star can be the recipient of the most rabid adoration on the part of millions and fade into complete obscurity, while his looks and talent are still completely intact. In fact, looks and talent often seem to have little to do with it. The members of the Beatles, for instance, were no better looking than millions of other young men and if sheer musical talent makes one sexually attractive then that is very good news to scores of students of musical composition. In fact, it would indeed be news to them.

What happens in mimetic convergence is that we imitate each other’s desires. We imagine that there is something inherently desirable in the object of desire, but in fact we are imitating the other person’s desire. If they notice our increased desire, this in turn reinforces and heightens their initial assessment regarding how desirable the object is. If someone, for instance, evinces an enormous interest in some forgotten object of ours, a painting, musical recording, item of clothing or jewelry, we tend to find a new appreciation for this object. The desiring person is typically not really revealing a forgotten or unnoticed feature of this object. The object simply seems more attractive because someone is attracted to it. John Stuart Mill made the famously bad and equivocal argument that something is desirable if it is desired. But taken in another context, and given another meaning, this notion is often right. We imitate each other’s desire for objects, often leading to violence, which is then alleviated by finding a scapegoat; someone arbitrarily chosen upon whom this violence can be directed.

When it comes to rock stars, it is the other screaming fans who are really triggering the intense desire and adoration for the rock star. And each of the fans is reinforcing the other fan’s attraction. To repeat, the fact that the objects of desire are often discarded without a second thought rules out the possibility that there is something peculiarly inherently desirable about people who become rock stars.

So the rock star fantasy has a mechanism, mimetic convergence, making it a potential reality. The rock star fantasy takes advantage of biotechnology in the form of the pill to remove pregnancy from the equation. And the fantasy violates just one traditional prohibition; the one against premarital sex. The pill reduced the stigma associated with this rule the fastest, making it seem old-fashioned and redundant.

Men as a rule seem to be in a semi-permanent state of arousal. Plato regarded such feelings as pain, and sexual release as designed to release us from this state of pain. In Gorgias Socrates says to Callicles:

Socrates: When you mentioned hunger, were you thinking of it as pleasant or an unpleasant experience? I mean the actual hunger.

Callicles: I’d say it was unpleasant. When a hungry person eats, however, that’s pleasant.

Socrates: I agree. I see what you mean, but the actual hunger is unpleasant, isn’t it?

Callicles: Yes.

Socrates: Thirst too?

Callicles: Definitely. …

Socrates: When you say ‘thirsty’ in this situation, you mean ‘feeling distress,’ I imagine, don’t you?

Callicles: Yes.

So in a way, sex is not so much about pleasure, but about relief from discomfort. The rock star fantasy is effectively designed to make the pain stop. In traditional sexual relations, men are the pursuer and women the pursued. In order to drive this dynamic, the pressure for sex from the male side must be very strong. There was a study in the nineteen-seventies designed to test just how strong the desire for sex by men was. It was decided that homosexual men should be examined, because then the male sex drive could be released to its full potential. It was found that the average homosexual man in New York City during the nineteen-seventies had over 300 different partners a year. That meant that not only was the desire for sex extremely strong, but that the desire for promiscuity was also strong. Lesbians, on the other hand, tended to have one relationship lasting on average, four and half years.

For heterosexual men of no special status, such promiscuity is usually impossible. But rock stars are in a position to have a similar number of partners to homosexual men in the nineteen seventies. The rock stars discover that, thanks to mimetic convergence, they have an effectively endless supply of attractive, young, sexually eager women who want to have sex with them. Sometimes these women are regular groupies, and sometimes they are chosen from the audience by a third party, based on their looks, and then the rock star chooses from among this narrowed group. The question is whether this is good or not. For Plato, something is good if in fact it makes you happy. The question is whether unrestricted promiscuous sex will make men happy. If not, it is not good.

Part of the desire to become a rock star for many young men is precisely this fantasy. When members of so-called ‘hair bands’ from the nineteen-eighties are asked about their reasons for pursuing a musical career on television, their stock reply is ‘girls.’ In some cases this probably means the ability to attract almost any girl at all. In other cases, it will be the rock star fantasy of promiscuous sex. The trouble is that the fantasy of promiscuous sex seems to run into some uncontroversial features of human psychology.

One aspect of the rock star fantasy is the expected ego-gratification of being intensely admired by many attractive young women. This in itself confers status. It’s the fantasy that one will be transformed from being an unappreciated wallflower, to being the object of admiration. The trouble is that our egos are only gratified when we in turn admire our admirers. If we regard our admirer as boring, stupid, ugly, immoral, or humorless, then there is no thrill in being admired. In fact, it takes just one of these characteristics for us to find another’s company intolerable. No one says ‘Oh my God, that really boring person likes me, how amazing’ falling on their bed with a goofy grin. They say, ‘Oh my God, that real jerk likes me, how am I going to avoid him?’

The bigger the rock star, the harder it presumably becomes to find someone who you admire who admires you back. The bigger the ego, the harder the rock star will be to please. One wonders how many young women Mick Jagger for instance, actually admires. How could a twenty year old hope to match Jagger’s cognitive sophistication, assuming his sophistication matches his years, not to mention decades of extra life-experience and completely different cultural frames of reference? If he finds someone age-appropriate then he has stepped outside the rock star fantasy.

Part of the excitement of being liked by someone is being with someone who you respect and admire. In the movie ‘Trust,’ by Hal Hartley, it was suggested that respect and admiration are near synonyms for love. It seems to turn out that if you don’t love someone, then you won’t want to have sex with them. The truth is that if you think someone is boring, stupid, ugly, immoral or humorless, then you don’t even like someone. If you don’t like someone you don’t want to spend time with them, and certainly don’t want to have sex with them. Having sex with someone you despise is closer to torture than to being something enviable.

The mere fact that a person is willing to have sex with someone they don’t know and haven’t met will tend to lead one to question their intelligence and their moral acumen. Not to mention the fact that lining up to service the star would, to any person in her right mind, be itself humiliating. Being humiliated and in turn being despised is the opposite of being admired.

But let’s say the unlikely happened, and a very bright, interesting, beautiful, moral woman with a good sense of humor happened to be one of the women lined up. This would be very ego-gratifying indeed. Of course, it would only be ego-gratifying once this woman was given an opportunity to know you better. The reason she is standing there has almost nothing to do with your personal qualities and almost everything to do with mimetic convergence. One reason it is hard to enjoy being admired by thousands of people is that thousands of people don’t even know you. They can’t be admiring the real you; merely some commercially fabricated image. If you are aware of the difference between your image and reality, then the next step will be waiting to see what she thinks of you once she actually gets to know you. Ultimately, love is really admiring one’s lover’s good qualities and knowing about and choosing to forgive one’s lover for their failings. So this would all take some time and probably couldn’t happen on the first night.

So somehow, by some chance, a bright, interesting, moral, beautiful woman has ended up offering herself up for near anonymous sex. There is a near universal reaction to spending an evening with someone whom you regard as possessing all these characteristics and that is that you want to see them again. It is, one would think, almost unheard of that someone meets such a person and says ‘I never want to see that person again.’ Anyone who you regard as possessing all these qualities you could fairly be said to respect and admire. It would be very easy for any person to lack one of these qualities and that would be enough for you to dislike or even despise them.

The psychology of this is not unique to sexual relations. We tend to want to repeat any highly enjoyable experience. If we eat a truly delicious meal at a restaurant, we tend to make plans to revisit that restaurant and to choose the same meal. The sign of truly enjoying a good movie is to want to see it again. If we go skiing and decide that skiing is wonderfully enjoyable, if possible, we will work out some way of skiing in the future.

If, however, you want to see that person again, then you have begun a process called ‘dating’ and this means the end of the rock star fantasy. This is partly because one knows that continuing to have indiscriminate sex with other women is likely to alienate this person whose affection one craves so strongly. Another factor is that, at least in our cultural context, when you are overwhelmed with feelings of what amount to love for another person, you are not at that moment likely to be thinking about other people you could be having sex with. So far, the other people you have had sex with pale by comparison. One doesn’t fantasize about reading a bad book while reading one you think is fantastic, nor about eating an unsavory meal while enjoying your favorite. The list of possible analogies is long.

If you admire this person so much, then sex itself will become secondary to the relationship. Conversely, sex is unexciting if one’s emotions are not involved. Sexual arousal is actually connected to things like your moral assessment of the other person. This may seem high falutin,’ and overly idealistic, but the truth is that there is a perfectly colloquial term for this, and this is regarding someone as a jerk. Being a jerk often relates to how someone treats you, but it would extend to how you see them treating other people. If it is bad enough, your opinion of them will decline and your excitement that they like you will also diminish. If you see them grossly maltreating other people or animals you will be offended. If you find their political opinions offensive your degree of sexual attraction may also diminish.

Presumably even playing a video game that doesn’t engage your emotions wouldn’t be fun. Without excitement, curiosity, interest, video games would be pointless and no fun. Emotionless sex would be more of a chore.

Much of this is related to the probable reasons Plato had for saying that heterosexual love was inferior to homosexual love. His reason appears to be that women could be very good looking but you could never love them because it was impossible to admire their minds. Women were too stupid to be the proper objects of romantic devotion, because women were regarded as too stupid to be educated. Of course this was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Women, other than a special kind of prostitute, were ‘stupid’ because they were typically uneducated and illiterate. We know that long complicated arguments are impossible in an oral culture. And women as a group were probably not recipients even of a full-blooded and rich oral tradition. Rational thought seems to require a mind trained in following complicated texts and the long chains of reasoning texts make possible. Reading develops one’s sense of an interior and eventually permits a reflexive ability to think about thinking i.e., formal operational thinking. Thus Athenian women would for the most part not be worthy objects of respect and admiration through no fault of their own.

Love is impossible without respect and admiration. And much more crudely ego gratification is not possible either. In fact, spending time with people you don’t admire because you regard them as being stupid, boring, ugly, immoral or humorless is not even fun. And this means a death knell for any hope that even an egocentric, hedonistic narcissist would enjoy the rock star fantasy.

If these arguments are correct, then the rock star fantasy can only continue so long as one is not in fact enjoying oneself. As soon as one actually starts to enjoy spending time with someone, the rock star fantasy is over. Indirect evidence that we have reached the right conclusion is that rock stars do in fact get married. If they had found the secret to human happiness, they would never be so foolish.

Plato argues that a fool can never get what he wants because what he wants is happiness and the fool has no knowledge of the good i.e., of what will make him happy.

Socrates: …Rhetoricians and dictators are the least powerful members of communities, because they almost never do what they want, rather than what they think is best for them to do.

Socrates: … [Y]ou claim that a great deal of power is a good thing for its possessor.

Polus: Yes, I do claim that.

Socrates: Well, suppose an unintelligent person does what he thinks is best for him to do – is that a good thing, do you think? Would you describe this as an instance of great power?

Polus: No, I wouldn’t.

Socrates: So why don’t you prove me wrong by demonstrating that rhetoricians aren’t unintelligent – in other words, that rhetoric is an area of expertise, not a kind of flattery? As long as this claim of mine remains in place, any rhetoricians who do what they think is best for them to do in their communities won’t benefit at all from this, and the same goes for dictators too. Power is a good thing, according to you, but you agree with me that action based on unwise decisions is a bad thing. Yes?

The rock star fantasy involves not knowing what is good for you – power in the hands of a fool. If counter-factually, narcissism (what’s good for me is good, even if good for me alone) could make you happy, the rock star fantasy would still not make you happy. Sex with people you despise is not fun and neither is it gratifying to one’s ego.

Finally, the documentary ‘Commune’ looks at an experimental hippy community based on the idea of sexual freedom. Of course only the most die-hard adherents would bother uprooting their lives to follow this goal. But even these select few found themselves pairing off after a few years. Jealousy was part of the problem. But the people who were the unhappiest were the children who, essentially fatherless, felt relegated to the status of the semi-wild chickens who had the run of the place. Neglect was their lot. When contemplating radical societal changes the interests of all members must be considered. In the end, even the adults became dissatisfied.

Richard Cocks2Richard Cocks teaches philosophy with key interests in ethics, metaphysics and consciousness from Platonic, Christian and Buddhist perspectives, with an especial interest in canonical works of Western Civ.