Culture & Society

Get the Kids Out of the Room—We’re Going To Talk About Sex

Despite our best efforts, we’ll continue to be drawn to each other by the power of sex, and that is mostly a good thing

Strutting his stuff. The male peafowl or peacock. Image credit: Johannes Spahn/EyeEm

Sex is everywhere, and despite what you may think, it’s mostly a good thing. My authority on this is that eminent Victorian, Charles Darwin, who taught us that sex is one of the two great drivers of natural selection, along with our environment. We evolve to adapt but also to seduce. Everyone alive today—all the accumulated art and wisdom of the human race, even unto Facebook and streaming—got here because of sex. (I did say it was mostly a good thing.)

Behold the peacock in all its glory: As an evolved organism, it doesn’t make sense. The peacock can barely fly, and its extravagant tail feathers signal “Hey, here’s lunch!” to predators for miles around. So why the fancy look? Simple: The girls love it. Peacocks with the biggest and most dazzling tail feathers mated with lots of adoring peahens and begat lots of offspring, a process that resulted in the utterly useless but amazing-looking birds that we decorate our parks with today.

The “peacock principle” provides the answer to one of the abiding mysteries of nature: Males will evolve into any sort of weirdness to attract females. Since psychology recapitulates phylogeny, I have personally experienced the peacock principle. In my callow youth, I grew my hair to enormous length and strutted around in ridiculously colored garments. My bewildered parents thought I had become gay, but the explanation was the exact opposite of that. Long hair and gaudy clothes were my peacock feathers.

I bring this up because we seem to have entered one of those moments, not infrequent in American history, when the keepers of our culture have decided sex should be taboo. The word itself is now indecent and unmentionable: We’re supposed to say “gender.” But gender pertains to linguistics, not biology. In Spanish, for example, the moon is feminine in gender: la luna. The sun is masculine: el sol. This sets up all kinds of interesting possibilities during sunrise and sunset, but that’s not the point here. The point is that some moralistic souls think you can somehow detach the sex act from sexuality. But why?

Apparently, many in the zoomer generation find sex scary. I get that. When I was 13 and contemplated the mechanics of the thing, I pretty much became reconciled to a life of despondent celibacy. But at what point was our culture handed over to clueless 13-year-old kids? The zoomers mate later, less and with fewer reproductive consequences than their parents and grandparents. They get triggered by “50 Shades of Grey” and suffer a permanent headache from climate change. I mean, can anyone conjure up a romantic vision of Greta Thunberg?

There’s also the idea that sex is fluid—that one can be born into a biological “gender” then pick among dozens of other flavors, like scoops at the gelato store. But weren’t we told, not so long ago, that being gay was a matter of genetic destiny? Evidently, everyone else is free to choose. You can be transgender, of course, and cisgender, which I think is what I am. But there are 70 more buckets to pick from, such as abimegender, aerogender, cassgender—even cloudgender, which means one’s gender “cannot be comprehended or understood due to depersonalization and derealization disorder.”

If you believe there are 72 sexes, you’re overthinking. You’re also likely to be online 22 hours a day and paddling toward a digitally reinforced narcissism. “You may say you’re cassgender. Fine. Big deal. But I am cloudgender and can’t be fully comprehended or understood!” That’s the stuff of social media. It feels like millions are listening to your magnificently baroque sexual identity, even if you’re only talking to yourself.

The question of fluidity leads by a tragic necessity to the most perplexing dilemma of modern times: pronouns. For the last 500 years—ever since we dropped “thee” and “thou”—English-language pronouns have maintained a solid steadiness. In the 21st century, like so much else, they have exploded into chaos. There used to be personal pronouns. Now there’s personal personal pronouns. You can be ze or hir. You can be co or cos. You can be a single person and expect to be addressed as they—maybe it feels less lonely, like having an imaginary friend.

History warns us that whole societies have disintegrated over pronouns. Once you’re worried about the splendor of your titles, liberty, equality and fraternity get chucked out the window. I freely confess that I have always nursed the secret wish to be addressed as “El Supremo,” particularly by my children. That never happened, but others made of coarser grain may well succumb to the peril of our way of life. Here’s a radical proposal: Let others bestow names on us—so long as we can do the same to them.

Dreaming to be something other than what you are pretty much defines the human condition. Thinking you can be anything you want defines our moment in time. Can a person born a human male become a female? Only approximately, but yes. It involves self-mutilation and medication for life. The same is true in the other direction. The process is irreversible, regardless of regrets. Those desperate enough to attempt it deserve our compassion and understanding.

But for the vast majority who merely play at the game of genders, what’s the motivation? A lot of zoomers, I’m guessing, don’t like themselves very much, and feel compelled to turn into the opposite of what they are. It makes them more interesting and alluring, suddenly able to break the ice and start conversations at parties. In my day, you would ask, “Are you an Aquarius?” Today it’s more like, “You’re omnigender, right? No, wait … genderflux!” Sadly, this game has charm only during the addled innocence of youth, and I have terrible news for the zoomers: You won’t be young forever.

Or it may be a simple matter of the herd instinct kicking in. Young people get told by those of us who know better that the only path to virtue is victimhood, and that the best way to be a victim is to belong to the tiniest of oppressed microminorities. Well, you can’t get any tinier than healgender (“changing one’s gender type based on the surrounding people”). Contrary to received opinion, the young are ardent conformists, and never more so than now. Like the wildebeest driven by the urge to be like every other wildebeest, they will leap into the river, even as they watch the crocodiles smiling up at them.

For some, the motive is perfectly understandable. If you are a mediocre male athlete, you can transform yourself into a world-beater in an instant. All you have to do is put on lipstick, buy a woman’s bathing suit and declare yourself trans. I said men can become women, but only approximately: Those who do so retain male musculature and reflexes. You don’t even need surgery to compete—which tends to remove the sporting bit out of sports. Competition involving trans women can feel like a bad Hollywood comedy about body transference: “Freaky Friday” at the 100-meter freestyle.

Can it ever be said, empirically, that there are dozens of sexes—or even genders? Ask the peacock. Once it ceases the avian equivalent of rolling over with laughter, it will tell you: “I didn’t get this gorgeous from gender bending.” You can believe in natural selection and evolution or you can believe that sex is socially constructed. Choose one.

Still, isn’t humanity different from the animals? Ask Darwin, who wrote “The Descent of Man.” Certain religions hold that humanity is special—evolutionary science, alas, maintains otherwise. As organisms, we are not the end result of a long line of healgenders and genderfluxes, but of crazy teenagers who had too much to drink. If you ask Richard Dawkins, he will tell you selfish genes have hardwired the itch to reproduce in every member of our species—even zoomers, who are doing such a poor job of it. That itch translates into near-irresistible impulses.

Look, I have no wish to glamorize nature. Human mating is mainly a miserable mess. Those biological impulses collide with subjective feelings—our organic selves against our symbolic selves—in what is literally a silent but endless struggle of all against all. Nobody wants to be lonely. Nobody wants to be humiliated. It’s the most intimate and self-revealing act human beings will engage in, yet the rules of the game are written by culture-geezers too old to give a hoot. Plus, on the internet, you can’t tell that the lovely girl of your dreams is actually a bearded, 250-pound truck driver.

All of that falls on my side of the argument, though. Why add massive new levels of complexity to an already torturous ritual? How is being phobic better than being heartbroken? What is gained by trading two conflicted and confused sexes for 72 narcissistic genders? Who is happier this way?

There can be found, inside every American, a miniature Puritan yearning to grow large and seize control. We long to put sinners in stocks for using the wrong pronoun and attach a scarlet letter on every patriarchal cis male (which is different, I hasten to add, from wearing your pronouns on your lapel). And, in the digital wonderland, we crave to turn the shiny black screens of our smart phones into the mirror of Narcissus.

But releasing our inner Puritan will only convert us into lethally dull and annoying persons, to ourselves and to others. If we want to fight, we can do better than pronouns. If we want to mate, we should dispense with them. Life is short, and love is fleeting.

The sexual revolution, I suspect, was a utopian mistake, but the counterrevolution has already failed. We will not evolve into a race of prudes and desert hermits. We will continue to seek warmth, solace, even meaning, in each other’s arms. The peacock principle is stronger than our hollow slogans, stronger than politics, stronger—believe it or not—than the web. So long as we remain human, we’ll be drawn to each other by the awesome binding power of sex: And that, I insist, is mostly a good thing.

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