Biological justifications for oppression: Casual sex

Biology has been historically used as a justification for problematic and oppressive arguments. Science was used by the Nazis to justify the extermination of ‘inferior’ races. Ever since the dawn of the era of Enlightenment and subsequent increased secularisation of the Western world, the justification for discrimination has shifted away from religion and towards science and biology.

While historically biology has been used as a tactic for oppression, these days, biology, though shrouded in faux concern and scientific jargon, continues to be used as an argument against same sex relationships, transgender people and women who engage in casual sex. There is obviously no direct link between science and bigotry. Many scientists are the pioneers in their fields as well as for the social liberation of marginalised groups.

However, the attraction behind using science as an argument for bigotry is one of convenience and safety. Somehow, there lies the assumption that the hailing of scientific arguments automatically makes the argument a rational one, thus precluding it from bigotry or a discomfort with otherness.

This has been rather apparent in terms of arguments used against women and casual sex. I once had a trained mental health professional, a person of science with numerous degrees hanging on their walls, mention to me, quite casually, that women are not genetically predisposed to casual sex. This person went on to rationalise that the women’s liberation movement had surged ahead without any regard for the realities imposed upon us by biology.

I meekly accepted the words because that is what you do when a someone with multiple different degrees tells you something in a situation where they hold the power. But the idea has been simmering away within me since then and I now long to dismantle it.

The biological argument against casual sex is based on the hunter-gatherer biology whereby women as gatherers are designed to preserve the optimum amount of eggs for one suitor and therefore, have nothing to gain from casual sex. It is argued that as a result, engaging in casual sex can lead to nothing but emotional turbulence for women.

I am not denying that biology has a role to play in our behaviour. The release of oxytocin after sex can result in some complex emotions and feelings of attachment. In this sense, perhaps casual sex can create emotional turbulence in women. However, to claim that any feelings of dissatisfaction, guilt or sadness are linked to biology alone is reductionist and narrow-minded.

The plethora of complex reactions that a woman may have to casual sex could be multiple and varied and could lie outside the realm of biology. They may include issues with male objectification, body consciousness amid skewed standards of beauty and inherent imbalances within sexual encounters in a culture that does not address female pleasure.  Research has also found that there is harsher stigmatisation surrounding women who engage in casual sex. This stigmatisation also has a direct impact on their feelings about casual sex as well as their willingness to engage in casual sex.

Perhaps the most problematic aspect of the biological argument is that it puts the onus on the oppressed rather than the oppressor. The problem becomes the female body and female tendencies rather than a society that does not prioritise female pleasure and continues to judge women with multiple casual sex partners.

Furthermore, the elephant in the room regarding casual sex continues to be female sexuality and desire. We talk about biology, sociology and psychology and fail to talk about what drives many women towards casual sex in the first place: sexual desire.

Part of this approach is linked to the societal discomfort with female sexuality. Women are not raised to be comfortable with their sexuality. Masturbation is a taboo subject and consequently, sexual desire is not an acknowledged driving factor for women.

The problem with denying and ignoring female desire it that is might potentially lead to unsafe sexual behaviour in women. It may lead them to supress their desires and binge drink and put themselves in unsafe situations because they are uncomfortable with pursuing their desire in other situations.  It keeps women out of touch with their own sexuality and therefore denies them access to power.

Audre Lorde, the brilliant poet, feminist and activist in her essay Erotic as Power says,

In touch with the erotic, I become less willing to accept powerlessness, or those other supplied states of being which are not native to me, such as resignation, despair, self-effacement, depression, and self-denial.

The regulation of the sexual pleasure of women is a form of political oppression. If the erotic can be a source of power and empowerment then denying women this power limits their autonomy and power.

Denial of sexual desire keeps women in a fractured state, preventing them from accessing and harnessing the liberation that comes from a harmonious sexual life. Therefore, claiming sexual desire and actualizing it in a society that does not encourage this sort of behaviour can, in itself, be a source of power and defiance.

Lorde, in the same essay, went on to say,

And there is for me no difference between writing a good poem and moving into sunlight against the body of a woman I love.

Lorde clearly viewed sex as being as transcendental and liberating as creativity itself. She was a woman who was told that her desires were an aberration. She encountered scrutiny and homophobia. But she turned her desire into something beyond right and wrong. She turned it into power.

Once we start viewing female desire and sexuality as a source of power rather than as a mysterious entity or a taboo then we can move towards dismantling biological and psychological arguments against casual sex. Even if women are having biological reactions to casual sex, the focus should be on helping them manage their emotions rather than discouraging them from engaging in behaviour they want to engage in and using biology as a justification for this. This applies especially to mental health professionals.

It seems to me that the obsession with the intention of biology goes beyond simply a convenient justification for oppression. People only question the biologically optimum state of things because their comfort lies between strict parameters, because otherness is equivalent to fear.

While we are questioning biological intent, let us momentarily consider our lives as we know them. Overwhelmed by commitments we have created and dependent on technology, working fifty-hour weeks, living indoors, consuming wheat, producing a lot of waste, living lifestyles that the earth cannot possibly sustain.

Did our own biology/nature intend this?

What would happen if casual sex for women, same sex relationships and transgender people were normalised? What kind of retribution would biology unleash upon us? Just as it is somewhat absurd (arguably) to view states as rational actors, it is similarly absurd to view biology as something with intent.

Perhaps if we focussed less on the intent of biology and more on our actions and their impact, on our needs and their actualisation then we might be able to move away from trying to attain a fictional ideal and towards addressing a flawed reality.

Image: Danielle Dolson


Neha Mulay is an English major, a radical deconstructionist and an ardent Feminist. Her writing has appeared in Overland and Demos Journal. She has a self indulgent blog.

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