Why Sexual Morality May be Far More Important than You Ever Thought

Source: Quest with Kirk Durston.

The blogger explores the work of Cambridge anthropologist J.D. Unwin, specifically Sex and Culture (1934). Unwin studied 80 primitive tribes and six known civilizations through 5,000 years of history. He claimed there is a positive correlation between the cultural achievement of a people and the sexual restraint they observe (Wikipedia).

A causal relationship between chastity and the success of cultures remains (I think) to be established, yet Unwin’s correlations are compelling. The blogger lists a few:

Effect of sexual constraints: Increased sexual constraints, either pre or post-nuptial, always led to increased flourishing of a culture. Conversely, increased sexual freedom always led to the collapse of a culture three generations later. 

Single most influential factor: Surprisingly, the data revealed that the single most important correlation with the flourishing of a culture was whether pre-nuptial chastity was required or not. It had a very significant effect either way.

Highest flourishing of culture: The most powerful combination was pre-nuptial chastity coupled with “absolute monogamy”. Rationalist cultures that retained this combination for at least three generations exceeded all other cultures in every area, including literature, art, science, furniture, architecture, engineering, and agriculture. Only three out of the eighty-six cultures studied ever attained this level.

Effect of abandoning prenuptial chastity: When strict prenuptial chastity was no longer the norm, absolute monogamy, deism, and rational thinking also disappeared within three generations.

Total sexual freedom: If total sexual freedom was embraced by a culture, that culture collapsed within three generations to the lowest state of flourishing — which Unwin describes as “inert” and at a “dead level of conception” and is characterized by people who have little interest in much else other than their own wants and needs. At this level, the culture is usually conquered or taken over by another culture with greater social energy.

Time lag: If there is a change in sexual constraints, either increased or decreased restraints, the full effect of that change is not realized until the third generation.

Unwin’s observations suggest to me that a socio-biological theory to account for the origins of marriage in all cultures might be possible, as well as an explanation for the fact that marriage is almost universally heterosexual.

4 thoughts on “Why Sexual Morality May be Far More Important than You Ever Thought

  1. There are changes in technology that invalidate past experience, and the advent of effective birth control is one of those.

    The problems associated with prenuptial and post nuptial polyamory are primarily due to efforts to remove responsibility for the raising of children from their fathers by replacing fathers with government aid.

    The author describes ‘absolute polygamy’ as a man having many partners but the wife remaining faithful for life. That is patently absurd, with whom is the man going to have many partners unless they are someone else’s wife?

    But with birth control, a woman can choose with whom she will have children and with whom she is just having fun and variety.

    Monogamy might have been practical when death mercifully ended a marriage at 40 years of age, but with longer lives, monogamy is cruel and impractical, especially as women live another 30 years or more after their childbearing years.

    Marriage remains a useful concept for raising children and for lifelong support and partnership, but it should not be a prison.

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    1. I am intrigued by the possibility of explaining Unwin’s observations. When I downloaded a copy of his book I learned that he was inspired to conduct his survey of cultures by the analytical psychologists of his time.

      It was their view that the repression of sexual urges caused psychic energies to become applied to other uses, either productive or destructive. Unwin’s correlations seemed to confirm that the analytical hypothesis deserved further development.

      Today we know that the repression model is too simplistic to account for the development of civilizations, but we are left with Unwin’s correlations, which now need a framework for interpretation.

      There is no good reason to treat Unwin’s findings as a basis for some kind of utopian social planning. On the other hand, it is certainly useful to know that the social sciences do not necessarily support the idea that human sexuality can be whatever we want it to be, without consequence.

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      1. “Abstinence is the worst form of perversion.”
        — Guy de Maupassant

        I don’t think there is anything good about that comes from sexual repression. But there is also nothing good that comes from irresponsibility. That’s why birth control changes everything.

        Most of the universal assumptions in society have an evolutionary basis. We are built for the exclusive purpose of passing on our genes. Evolution tells us not to waste our resources on a child which does not carry our genes. Civilization tells us otherwise, on the presumption that our efforts for someone else’s child reciprocally benefits ours.

        But the sexual import of that is that a woman knows her children are hers, but a man, until recently, could never be sure. A great deal of misogyny and repression are based on a man’s efforts to control from whom his wife receives genetic material.

        At the same time, in earlier times, a woman and her children’s survival depended on her husband not leaving her for a younger or prettier woman.

        So, both sexes have a now inappropriate tendency toward jealousy.

        But now the joy of sex and procreation can be effectively separated. So, in my mind, compassion and love require us to leave jealousy behind,

        When you think about it, jealousy is a shameful emotion, rooted in narcissism. It is the intention to deny someone who loves you some joy in their life because it is not about you.

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      2. Looking back over my life I notice a pattern in which high stress and high personal development (for lack of a better phrase) seem to correlate. This leads me to speculate that stress might be the biological mechanism which drives cultural achievement or flourishing.

        That is to say, stress alters the “consciousness” of the organism which experiences it, but specifically in ways that are conducive to complex problem solving or discovery. Thus, the social suppression of sexual opportunity (or at least its compartmentalization through ritual or status relationships) would have adaptive value for the species to the extent that it causes beneficial stress.

        In any case, I agree that sexual repression in the Freudian sense is probably undesirable.

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