Growing up in the 50’s it occurred to me that while most aspects of morality had to do with treating other people well, there were a whole lot of rules about sexuality that didn’t seem to serve any real purpose. I didn’t buy the idea that for some inexplicable reason supernatural powers were intensely concerned about our sex lives. Understandably we should want to avoid unwanted pregnancies and spreading diseases, but dread of sexuality went way beyond an expectation of “safe sex.” Some sort of puritanical sexual taboos seemed to pervade most cultures.
About the only explanation I’ve heard for where these rules come from is that is somehow relates to men wanting to control women, but that strikes me as implausible. As a heterosexual male, I certainly don’t feel that these taboos do me any good, and I’m pretty sure most of the men I know would agree with me. The last thing I want to see is women covering up their bodies all the time – men love it when women show off their bodies. The idea of women having their genitals mutilated so they don’t enjoy sex is particularly repulsive - most men enjoy sex far more if the woman is enjoying it. I think it’s great if women want to be promiscuous – while it might increase the chances of “my” woman having sex with somebody else, it also increases my chances of having sex with another woman, a tradeoff I’m happy with. Simply put, I don’t think most males would promote sexual taboos based on self-interest.
Not long ago I thought of a better explanation. Sexual taboos come from mothers with husbands or other long-term male partners passing down their attitudes over thousands of years.
The competition here isn’t between men and women, but between less attractive (older) mothers who have a male partner to help protect and provide for their children and more attractive (younger) women who are in a good position to steal those men away. The mothers have more than enough sex from one man to produce all the offspring they can handle, so they have little desire for access to other men and promiscuity doesn’t benefit them in terms of having more surviving children. Since they’ve often already had several kids which have taken a toll on their bodies, puritanical dress codes are fine for them since they mean the competition can’t show off it’s superior product. In cultures that practice female genital mutilation, older mothers don’t object to the practice since they’ve already had it done, but may benefit from it because it reduces the threat from eager younger women. Early arranged marriages also help protect married mothers from competition.
But did these women make the rules? Not the official ones (laws and commandments) which were made and enforced by males, but mothers were the ones who teach children their values. They would certainly emphasize the values that serve their purposes more than the ones that don’t. Even the priests and chiefs probably learned most of their values from their mothers. In addition, when women hang out together, they seem to spend much more time then men discussing the relative merits of people’s behavior. I suspect this is true across cultures and has been historically. So while men may make the rules and give the commands in traditional societies, it is the older women who teach children the values. This happens gradually over many generations, each generation taking for granted the taboos that went before and notching them up slightly. Having been indoctrinated by their mothers into seeing casual sexuality as bad, the high priests and kings may codify these ideas into laws.
Of course I’m talking about traditional cultures. In developed countries in recent times, with women having fewer children and decent career opportunities, mothers have much less incentive to promote such taboos, so (hopefully) prudish traditions are gradually fading out.
So is it a reasonable hypothesis that the historical reason for most sexual taboos is mothers protecting their own interests?