Why it’s so difficult to experience complete sexual compatibility
Sexuality is a topic about which few of us tire of either reading or writing. Our sexuality reveals some of the deepest truths about ourselves and is one of the few ways in which under propitious circumstances we can express ourselves most completely.
Yet for most people, especially in cultures fearful about sexuality, such self-expression is difficult or impossible. Indeed, it’s frequently the case that many people aren’t even aware of their deepest sexual impulses and desires because self-censorship from an early age means these things are locked away in the darkest recesses of the psyche, utterly unknown by the person concerned.
We humans have had an overly-complex relationship with sexuality for as far back as we can see into the past. It’s plausible to presume that many of our sexual problems began with the Agricultural Revolution at the end of the last ice-age that changed our way of life out of all recognition. Once wealth could be passed down from one generation to the next, the question of paternity became even more important than during our long hunter-gatherer existence.
Group primate species have to juggle the complex interactions necessitated by a blend of competition and cooperation. Some solve the problem by adopting relatively solitary lifestyles, like the orangutan. Others solve it by means of a dominant male forming and defending a harem, like the mountain gorilla. At the other end of the behavioral spectrum we see wildly promiscuous chimps and bonobos that use sexuality as a kind of super-grooming strategy to create and reinforce social bonds throughout the troop.
But we humans are uncomfortably stuck in the middle as a semi-promiscuous species that seems too often to get the worst of all worlds and very few of the benefits.
We know humans have evolved to be semi-promiscuous because there are multiple phenotypical markers and multiple behavioral markers that reveal the awful truth. In highly promiscuous primate species males have enormous testes relative to their body mass and conversely in highly monogamous species males have tiny testes relative to body mass. Hence bonobo males have comparatively huge testes and mountain gorillas have tiny testes. We humans stand in the middle, with testes size clearly indicating semi-promiscuity. Furthermore, the ratio of male body mass to female body mass is another classic indicator: male mountain gorillas are far larger than females whereas bonobo males are nearly the same size as females. With humans, males are on average twenty percent larger than females.
When it comes to behavioral markers we see a similar phenomenon. Male mountain gorillas fiercely guard their harems while bonobos seemingly couldn’t care less who does what to whom. We humans practice quite a lot of mate guarding but have also evolved behaviors to defeat mate guarding on occasion.
With the advent of a pastoral way of life in which wealth could be amassed and passed down to provide significant advantage to one’s offspring, our problems were amplified. Various solutions have been attempted throughout history. Very powerful men have implemented the mountain gorilla strategy and created harems guarded by proxies. Swinging originated among US test pilots after WWII, perhaps as an unconscious way of creating the same deep web of social bonds that bonobos enjoy, in order that this high-fatality career wouldn’t necessarily result in a new widow suddenly losing all financial and social support.
As much of human sexuality is centered around heterosexual relationships, this article will tend to default to that perspective for the sake of simplicity. It is in no way implied, however, that heterosexuality should be considered desirably normative, especially as studies indicate that sexuality is rarely completely any one thing. Most of us operate across a scale from purely heterosexual to purely homosexual, even if we’re largely unaware of the potential within us. In fact one of the overwhelmingly positive aspects of modern Western culture is the increased willingness to explore sexual possibilities without a priori assumptions about what is “right” or “normal.”
Today various experiments with open relationships, polyamory, and other non-traditional lifestyles are enabling a few people to move past the stifling norms of outworn convention but for the most part we’re still relegated to rather unsatisfactory accommodations with our sexual selves. Many cultures are still Victorian and therefore women worry about what men will think of them if they own their own sexuality overtly. Many people are crippled by insecurities they cannot find the inner fortitude to overcome. Still others are impregnated early by Disneyesque fantasy tales of “one true love” and “happy ever after” and no amount of experience can persuade them that such stories are hopelessly ill-suited to real life.
Worse yet is the modern tendency to drag politics into a realm in which it can play no constructive part, so that every thought and act is seen through the distorting lens of whatever happens to be transiently politically correct. Add to this the unfortunate tendency of far too many therapists to assume patients need to be guided towards the average rather than learning to express and accommodate their own individual drives, and it’s easy to see that accidental self-sabotage occurs on a depressingly large scale.
If this weren’t all bad enough, there comes into play such personal factors as compatibility: we don’t all find each other equally attractive according to a universal scale.
While it is true that across all cultures more symmetrical features are favored (for very good evolutionary reasons: symmetry is very difficult to achieve and thus indicates great genes plus great upbringing) and while it is also true that across all cultures males favor a specific hips-waist-chest ratio, and while it is true that across all cultures women prefer to mate with tall men rather than their shorter peers, these facts are only true on average; individual preferences vary wildly even without the influence of culture to further shape them.
But attractiveness is child’s play compared to sexual compatibility at the most visceral level. What if she is very vocal during sexual activity and his strong preference is for silence? What if she likes to enjoy sexual activity for an hour or more at a time while he prefers to be finished and asleep within six minutes? What if he likes bondage but she’s afraid of it? What if he likes talking but she prefers strict silence so that she can focus undisturbed on her internal erotic imagery? And when it comes to basic physical compatibility, what if the relative sizes of their genitalia are unfortunately grossly mismatched?
The list of possible complications is nearly endless. Of course, we attempt to accommodate ourselves to whatever situation we happen to be in, but such accommodations require shutting off some parts of ourselves. We tell ourselves the trade-offs are worth it, and that may very well be true; but it does not alter the fact that henceforth we’re unable to express completely our true sexual self.
There are, however, various things we can do to ease our burden. It’s long been known that sexual repression causes all manner of unhealthy behaviors such as pedophilia and generalized cruelty. This is why Catholic priests and nuns have finally got the reputation they’ve deserved for centuries. Enforced celibacy suits only the tiny percentage of people whose sexual impulses are so faint as to be practically non-existent. For everyone else, celibacy is a one-way street to psychic damage. So being sexually active and permitting oneself free rein in one’s fantasy life are healthy ways to avoid the psychological damage resulting from extended periods of sexual denial.
Accepting one’s personal sexual preferences regardless of whatever happens to be politically or culturally “correct” is also essential. We ourselves are the only people qualified to pass judgement on our own sexual preferences and desires. Other people’s opinions are irrelevant. Provided we do no harm to others and that all our actions involving others are consensual, we can ignore completely whatever notions other people may hold.
The Internet, for all the harms it is inflicting on our world, has also been a source of potential benefit. Not so long ago it was difficult to know whether any particular non-vanilla fantasy or desire was “normal” or instead wholly unique to the person experiencing it. Today, thanks to the Internet, it’s easy to discover that no matter what your preference, fantasy, or fetish, there are hundreds or even tens of thousands of other people around the world who enjoy precisely the same thing. The realization that we’re not alone in our desires can be a source of great relief, especially if we live in a culture in which generalized fear of even “normal” sexuality is widely prevalent.
As we become more emotionally mature, sometimes a few of our fears and insecurities may gradually dissipate, especially if we are brave enough to allow ourselves some experiences and experimentation. We may find that our fears of “not being good enough” will attenuate as we learn that most other people feel the same way at one time or another. We may also discover that there’s no “gold standard” of attractiveness. On a trite level some men prefer large breasts while others prefer small and pert; some women prefer very large penises while others prefer those that are easier to accommodate. On a less trite level some men prefer women who are intelligent and funny while others gravitate towards women they feel less threatened by; some women seek out brash overtly “alpha” males while others look for quiet strength and inner confidence.
We know from data gathered over the last seventy years that countries in which there are low levels of sexual repression experience less violence and especially less sexual violence, they tend to be more egalitarian, and they tend to show more stable family relationships (which is not at all the same thing as marriage and divorce rates). These are all traits that reinforce each other in a virtuous feed-forward loop. It’s easy to argue, therefore, that what benefits us as individuals also benefits the society in which we live.
Of course, this is not an argument that people who are afraid of sexuality will accept. For many, repression and hypocrisy and coercion are the only things they know and their perspective is consequently so stunted and distorted than no growth is possible. We generally call these people “conservatives” and unfortunately they are amply supported by those that benefit from maintaining an unhappy status quo: religious organizations, political Parties that garner much of their strength from the less educated, the ignorant, and the unintelligent, and everyone who is afraid of their own sexuality and seeks affirmation from others like them.
While we may be unable to persuade those who are too trapped by their own limitations for any positive change to be feasible, we can hope to permit younger minds to perceive that their parents’ way of life is by no means inevitable. As young people are generally more optimistic and hopeful about change than older people, there’s a very real chance that over the course of several generations a significant amount of positive change can occur. Indeed, we’ve seen this since the end of WWII: in Western nations homosexuality is no longer a crime, equality under the law regardless of gender or sexual orientation is increasingly accepted, and there is likewise a greater tolerance of non-traditional lifestyles.
It is unclear whether the rest of the world will follow these trends or alas become more repressive; current signs indicate the latter but the distant future is rarely obvious enough for us to be certain how things will go.
Returning to an individual perspective, however, it is clear that sexual compatibility is a complex topic and very few of us will ever be fortunate to enter into a relationship with someone who is completely sexually compatible with us. At best we can hope for a considerable degree of overlap and a greater degree of mutual understanding.
What to do about those aspects of our sexuality for which there is little or no place in such a relationship must unfortunately remain a seemingly intractable problem.