Sex and Destiny – Part 1 – Mating
As we saw in the previous parts of the series, there are two main reproductive strategies for all living organisms – the smaller, mobile, high-risk approach aimed at quantity of offspring, versus the nutrient-rich, larger, less mobile, in-for-the-long-haul approach for quality of offspring. Both approaches have costs and benefits, to individuals and to whole populations and species. Sometimes these two main reproductive strategies are unbalanced over the population, and in humans, to the detriment and “cost” to the female of the species.
Patriarchy has been reconstructing females and societies to conform to male (ie human) biological preferences and strategies for millennia, and convincing females that the male strategy is the only strategy. Biology may well be Destiny, but it’s male biology. Culture may also be Destiny, but it’s a male culture.
One of the first bits of female biology to start reconstruction was mating behaviours and mothering behaviours, but more recently sexuality (or sexual practice) and sexual identity, has been also included to complete the ‘Final Solution to the Woman Question’, through Erasure of female biology and social identity from the ‘Human Condition’ altogether.
Mating, marriage and the erasure of female choice.
The first of female biological behaviours to be reconstructed, and ultimately institutionalised globally, was mating behaviour. Female choice in mating is a powerful biological mechanism to counter-balance the male’s preferred mate-and-run strategy. Although there remain remnants of human cultures which practice forms of female choice in cultural mating rituals – generally female choice was wiped out in human reproductive strategies a long time ago – so long ago, that most never question human pair-bonding rituals, even assuming them to be ‘natural’.
For in Nature, pair-bonding in mammals in particular, even of the temporary or seasonal variety, is rare. Mammals are generally weak on their own – even the predatory carnivorous ones. They live in packs, groups, pods, herds and so on. Safety in Numbers. By definition, mammals bear live young which need long periods of care and investment to reach maturity. One or two adults would never be enough in Nature. The Nuclear Family mating structure would be species suicide for humans, (and most mammals), totally dependent on local environment.
Early stone-age cultures lived in groups of 12-20 adults, regardless of the number of children. Life was not always easy, and death-rates were high. Early humans nearly died out in many regions, because food sources were not always easily available, for many species, including humans. When just the work of meals for daily survival takes all your time, effort and energy, many hands make light work and co-operation becomes the critical factor. That meant all able-bodied adults and older children were involved. Long periods of poor nourishment and high physical activity in harvesting food sources, meant females did not conceive very easily, and when they did, they miscarried a lot more often and still-births and infant deaths were high as well.
For mammals, Nature protects the Female & Mother at all costs. If nutrition is poor, the foetus will be expended in favour of saving the mother. Males are also expendable, as they are produced in excess and are built and designed for shorter life-spans. When communicable disease strikes, female survival rates are around 2 to 1 over males. With males in lower numbers, non-bearing females take a greater load of the work of communal life. The oldest profession is midwifery, not prostitution. Protection of the mothers was performed by sisters, older women, aunts, cousins, and other females, and yes there was a female warrior class to defend their weakest sisters. All three Faces of the Goddess, including the Maiden and Crone were important to survival of the group as a whole. The Maiden face, is not a virgin in the patriarchal sense, but she is non-bearing. She is usually young and physical, and wields the weapons of defence.
The excess male problem is one that many sexually dimorphic species need to deal with one way or another. Female choice and male-male competition for mating rights are the most common method, but there is also natural attrition of the redundant male sex through injury or illness. In lean times, the production and survival of males can be so poor, that it threatens population extinction. It is known that some human ancestral human groups did die out, (and many other species), but obviously we survived in other regions. The Ice Ages in Europe and Asia, and subsequent climate change in other regions due to those large ice sheets, were especially hard on homo sapiens survival. In marginal environments, eg deserts and icy tundra, life was on the edge 24/7 for everybody. If too few males survive to adulthood, then the few healthy adult males become highly valued assets.
One major change in humans ascribed to such massive environmental and climate changes, was the evolution of menstruation in humans to replace the lower frequency of oestrus cycles found in other mammals and primates. Alone of the primates, humans menstruate/ovulate on frequent cycles. With fewer people around, scarce food resources without enough to go around that needed aggressive survival competitions, groups separated by large distances, poor survival rates which are poorer still in males than females etc – then the ability to increase fertility rates through increased female egg supply and release, increased the chances of reproductive success for both strategies. ‘For-the-Duration’ in such circumstances, both male and female strategies must adapt and co-operate in mutual self-interest. Adapt or Die is one of the Laws of Nature.
Regular menstruation in females became a sign of physical health. Many sportswomen, women in military high-physical activity occupations, and anorexics for example, experience amenorrhoea (lack of periods), and they also stop ovulating due to lowered muscle to fat ratios. One way of temporarily protecting females from pregnancy when the times aren’t right. If you are spending every minute trying to find just enough food for yourself and or others, Nature will shut it down to help you out. Females deposit and store fat more easily and more quickly than males do, because female livers and kidneys work differently in metabolising biochemical nutrient intakes.
Menstruation however, was the first to be socially reconstructed, minimised and Erased from the ‘human condition’. There is evidence to suggest that human menstrual cycles have changed enormously from ancient times, and modern humans have far more cycles, and heavier and dysfunctional cycles, due to altered nutritional intakes, changes in muscle to fat ratios, changed patterns of physical activity and the list goes on. But it isn’t necessary to males, and so it can be safely erased and women have to adapt their bodies to live like male bodies do. If physical surgery won’t do it, then social surgery (ie social constructions) will have to do.
However, when times are good and the environment plentiful and abundant, the population grows and the Excess Male problem becomes evident again, along with population pressure. Many ancient human societies practised male expulsion, ritualised games and sports where males competed, sometimes to the death, or expulsion into the wilds to make their own way alone. If they returned after a suitable period of time, they may be granted reproductive rights and social inclusion, but based on female choice. Medieval patterns of young males being denied the right to mate, through long trade apprenticeships, or in having to do many years of army service, like the Romans, are possibly remnants of this. Some ancient societies practiced ritual male sacrifice, but usually of older men and others were sacrificed once they had sired two or three children. Some were given nights of serious religious mating, prior to facing the ultimate Sacrifice for the common good.
But in good times, with plenty of food sources, not enough males will die off as they are supposed to do. Population pressures also mean increased infanticide, which is widely practised as a means of population control, but also increased death rates of the old, sick etc to balance the population. Humans have no natural predators, they learned in adaptation that they must cull their own, one way or another. Those males sent out alone with some basic survival gear, were like the lone wolf. Seeking companionship as well as reproductive success, I can imagine these lone males sitting by a lonely campfire looking back at the women’s village lifestyle with “it is all mum’s fault”. Also, the source of male existential angst, particularly adolescent male existential angst. Jean Paul Sartre in his writings, metaphorically links the female ‘Other’ to not just the power of life, but also the power of death. He calls sexual intercourse and ejaculation for males “the little death”. For females not only had the power to give birth by choice, but the power of choice in death as well. Women outnumbered men, women were the judges, juries and executioners. One of the most common stories told through so many generations, is the Young Lone Male who embarks on a Heroic Epic Journey. The Hero who overcomes monsters and horrific trials. Hercules and his labours, Jesus in the desert, Beowulf, Orestes and the list goes on, and on – to modern Hollywood blockbuster films, like the Matrix. Most of the oldest, include a female monster as the greatest trial of all – the Gorgon, the Medusa etc – She who rules Death. To conquer death, you have to conquer the female. Many of these male Heroes are Not-of-Woman-Born in one way or another. The human female contribution is eradicated.
This eradication of the female mother was formalised in the famous Eumenides Greek play, at the end of the trilogy where the female Erinyes (or Furies) seek revenge on Orestes, the son who killed his mother Clytemnestra, in revenge for her killing of his father. Clytemnestra killed her husband for ritually sacrificing their 14-year old daughter, Iphigenia. A court of law of 12 jurors is set up, with the Goddess Athena as Judge. The Erinyes claim ancient Mother-Right for Clytemnestra to take revenge for the death of a daughter, but that Orestes had no right to take revenge on the mother for his father’s death. The God Apollo, is defender of Orestes, and claims that “the mother is no parent of that which she bears” and only the father is the ‘true parent’ and uses as proof, Athena’s mythical “motherless” birth from Zeus’s head. The jury is locked, and Athena casts the deciding vote, in Orestes favour.
Germaine Greer speculates that one way humans dealt with the Excess Male problem was to form all-male groups which, in theory, excluded these males from the reproductive pool while still allowing survival. Originally seen as a sacrifice for the common good, such men were younger sons, the most expendable of the expendable – forming all-male religious sects, armies and soldiers who lived outside the community. In return for their ‘sacrifice’, they would be fed, housed and given social status. Male-bonding was strengthened in these groups. They stole religious rites, and twisted them and urned them around, invented circumcision to mimic menstruation, childbirth or ‘rebirth’ as a man. By force or propaganda, they also prevented other males from having access to females, for they became controlled by the most expendable men of all – the old ones.
Males invented “marriage”, to allow favoured males to mate and obtain ownership of land and property. However, it was a very long time before marriage or pair-bonding became universal. It was for the rich and powerful only, and well-recognised as a strictly business arrangement between high-ranking males. For lower ranking males rarely got a chance to marry or mate. Slave and peasant classes did not marry, because they did not have property. There was no point in it. There was no romantic pair-bondings either, we do not see much romance until the middle-ages, and most of that medieval romance was about extra-marital affairs. Charlemagne in the 8th century CE, had both wives and concubines at the same time – yet these women kept their own lands and property, and he recognised illegitimate children etc. During his reign the Catholic Church was still not as anti-women as later centuries would unfold. People were executed for refusing baptism, or for cremating their dead instead of Christian burials etc, but women still had some secular power and marriage was by no means universal or enforced. Even as late as the early 19th century, in Thomas Hardy’s book, ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’, Tess’s country peasant folk and family were not fussed by her having an illegitimate baby – it was only a sin in the eyes of the upper-classes.
Part of the roots of the European witch-craze was that after decades of massive epidemics of disease, women survivors largely outnumbered men in a depopulated Europe. Too many ‘free’ women who owned their own property, particularly in rural areas, where most of the burnings took place. Agricultural labour was in such short supply with so many deaths from the rolling plagues, women workers, could demand and get, high wages. Meanwhile in the cities, women also originally had their own property but instead of being burnt at the stake, city women lost all rights to property under secular and church law. There was no female choice left, it was marry, or burn and/or starve.
So why all these rites, rituals, laws, taboos, art, literature, myths, coercion and propaganda about it? If it was so *natural*, it would just happen and not need a whole social arrangement to invent it, control it or keep it in place. Total social construction that actually erases most of female mating behaviour biology – but more to do with male biology and male-bonding.
Next part moves onto motherhood – the last part, sexuality & sexual identity….