What Can Chimps Teach the Church About Sex?

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hug sculptureCurious about why a pope condemned karezza, I recently waded through the late Archbishop Exner's The Amplexus Reservatus (The Reserved Embrace). It traced some eye-opening Catholic doctrine about the purpose of marriage, much of which dates back to Church father Augustine of Hippo (b. 354 CE). He's well known for his prayer, "Grant me chastity and continence...but not yet!"

Less well known is the fact that he (and his intellectual progeny) concluded that because sex is a consequence of the "animal" in man—and animals have no interest in using sex to foster love or unity—the proper use of sex in marriage is strictly for breeding. Whoa!

Actually, the infamous bonobo chimps, whose males sport supersize testicles, nevertheless engage in "rather casual and relaxed" sexual activity for social bonding, frequently without orgasm. And macaque male monkeys ejaculate in scarcely half of their copulations. That's probably more than the Church fathers would have wanted to know, but the point is that primate sex often serves goals other than fertilization or orgasm. Why are we so single-minded?

Augustine's flawed analysis has been used to ward off some of sex's most uplifting gifts. In the last century, when Belgian and French Catholics discovered that gentle intercourse without orgasm was a "means of achieving a more perfect, more spiritual conjugal love," the pope condemned it. In fact, some Church authorities had actually declared such "incomplete sexual acts" mortal sins. Citing Augustine, they rigidly refused to consider that marital sex might serve emotional and spiritual goals. Even the more permissive Church authorities still tend to carve out very narrow exceptions to the animal/procreative purpose of sex in marriage—such as "avoiding incontinence," that is, preventing the random dumping of semen.

When it comes to orgasm, Church authorities are not the only conservatives. Whenever I've asked experts about doing a few weeks of research comparing the stress levels or healing speeds of couples engaging in orgasm-based sex with couples practicing karezza, I received the same advice: "That wouldn't get past our ethics committee because sex without orgasm is considered a paraphilia, or sexual disorder." (However, this pro-orgasm experiment passed: electrical devices were implanted in women's spines to see if they would produce climaxes via remote control.)

Now I'm sure that people have sometimes avoided orgasm during sex for pathological reasons. But benefits from the practice of gentle intercourse without orgasm have been reported so often, and in so many cultures, that emotionally healthy people must have made this choice too. I'm curious whether their recorded results can be duplicated.

exhausted satyr

I'm also starting to ask myself whether the codified conviction that the only healthy sex is sex with orgasm is serving lovers. It creates unnecessary distress and frustration in the less orgasmic or anorgasmic—and their mates. It also indirectly bolsters the assumption that pursuing sexual urges to exhaustion is a neutral, or even beneficial, practice.

For example, a man commenting on a post here recently assured me that, "men ejaculate 1-3 times a day." Persuaded as he is that men are boundless semen fountains, he might be startled to learn that when subjects engaged in mere a "10-day depletion experience," ejaculating an average of 2.4 times per day, their sperm output remained below pre-depletion levels for more than five months. What other not-so-welcome, subtle changes accompany this one, given the powerful influence of our delicate reward circuitry (the brain mechanism behind our drives) on equilibrium and mood?

I suspect that orgasm feels great not because it is an unqualified health or psychological benefit, but because our genes want us to expend our effort on their top priority: propelling them into the next generation.

The neurochemical "Yes!" of climax may not necessarily indicate that we're equipped to engage in orgasm-driven sex every time we feel sexual desire. (Just as a love of fine chocolate doesn't mean that we'd be wise to eat the entire box, even considering cocoa's antioxidants.) As I learn more about the effects of sex on the brain, I can't help thinking it makes sense to take into account how recently, or intensely, we have climaxed.

In humans it appears that frequent, or especially intense, orgasm can create tolerance (a need for increasing stimulation to achieve future orgasms). It can also lead to satiety and habituation, which may show up as subconscious irritation, out-of-sync libidos, performance demands and insecurities. Moreover, inflated performance expectations may promote the use of risky sexual enhancement measures as lovers try to overcome their built-in biological brakes with force. Not to be alarmist, but Viagra, for example, has been associated with sudden, irreversible blindness and has been blamed for deaths through heart attack and stroke. Perhaps such outcomes are signals that we have our foot down a bit too hard on the old orgasm accelerator.Affection

For as long as we ignore the inherent, possibly even beneficial, limitations of lovers, gentle, relaxed intercourse without orgasm will remain "off limits" for Catholics, and "dysfunctional" for the rest of us. As a consequence, if couples don't know about, or have fallen out of the habit of, using other daily bonding behaviors to sustain the sparkle in their relationship, they are quite likely to rely only on sex with attempted orgasm(s) to keep their union strong.

What would bonobo life look like if one of the chimps' favorite social-bonding techniques, rubbing genitals, had to result in mutual climax-or produce disappointment and resentment? I think zoologists would see a lot of cranky chimps.

Could the authentic bonobo lifestyle perhaps inspire us new primates to relearn an old trick: tapping the benefits of relaxed, non-goal-oriented sexual activity, with the primary goals of closer bonds and increased contentment? For pair-bonders like us, such a change may prove especially beneficial. Our nervous system appears to reward us for both close, trusted companionship and the exchange of selfless affection. Interestingly, in other pair-bonding mammals, “sexual behavior is neither especially frequent nor especially fervent.” Many interactions between mates take the form of resting together, mutual grooming, and “hanging out.” (Barash and Lipton, The Myth of Monogamy)

For science buffs: Growing evidence of a lingering post-orgasm cycle (links to studies)


A Catholic reader shared this

I think you overstated the Church's opposition to karezza. I don't think that you are Catholic, but you seem fair-minded, and for that reason I thought you might be interested in knowing what the Church actually teaches about karezza.

Understanding the Church's teaching about karezza is difficult because not everybody appears to agree on terms. For example, your article said that karezza is the same thing as "amplexus reservatus" and linked to a treatise by John Ford SJ to make that point. But the Ford treatise distinguishes between "karezza" (which it says is when a female orgasms during intercourse but the man does not) and "amplexus reservatus" (which it says is when neither partner orgasms during intercourse). The treatise goes on to state that:

1. Any act of intercourse in which the woman orgasms and the male does not is immoral and contrary to the natural law. This position is not very different from some Eastern (Buddhist) teachings, which suggest that if a couple engages in this sort of intercourse, the woman will become estranged from the man. Based on what I have read of your work, I think you'd agree with this idea as well. You might not "prohibit" female-only orgasms in the way the Church does, but you probably would suggest that such orgasms will have a negative effect on the woman's feelings toward her male partner.

2. Any act of intercourse in which neither partner orgasms (i.e., karezza in your definition and amplexus reservatus in Ford's) is neither good nor bad in and of itself; it is only good or bad with reference to the intention of the partners. Ford describes this as the majority Catholic position (some Catholics having said, as you do, that it is always good regardless of intent, and other Catholics having said that it is always bad regardless of intent).

This act would be good if the partners were doing it in addition to "regular" sex acts which might lead to a child, or if they were doing it because they had as many children as they could handle but wanted to experience the closeness of intercourse without using contraception.

This act would be bad if the partners were doing it because they never wanted to have children, or if they were focused on bodily pleasure to the exclusion of the possibility of having children.

Make of this what you will. Again, I recognize that you aren't Catholic and may not share the Church's view that marriages must be open to children. I just thought you might appreciate an attempt at clarification.

NOTE: Karezza's creator, Alice Bunker Stockham, suggested both partners avoid orgasm. This concept has been adulterated by later authors.

Wikipedia article on coitus reservatus has this:

English novelist Aldous Huxley, in his last novel Island wrote that Maithuna, the Yoga of Love is... "the same as what Roman Catholicism means by coitus reservatus.[11] Getting to the point by discussing coitus reservatus, Alan W. Watts in Nature, Man and Woman notes: "...I would like to see someone make a case for the idea that the Apostles really did hand down an inner tradition to the Church, and that through all these centuries the Church has managed to guard it from the public eye. If so, it has remained far more secret and "esoteric" than in any of the other great spiritual traditions of the world, so much so that its existence is highly doubtful...[12] The Welsh writer Norman Lewis, in his celebrated account of life in Naples in 1944, claimed that San Rocco was the patron saint of coitus reservatus: "I recommended him to drink -- as the locals did -- marsala with the yolk of eggs stirred into it, and to wear a medal of San Rocco, patron of coitus reservatus, which could be had in any religious-supplies shop".[13] Coitus reservatus was admittedly part of the teachings of the Catholic church regarding sexual intercourse and was generally a permitted form of intercourse but was subject to the same arguments as coitus interruptus.[14]

Interesting stuff

Huxley's essay on this subject is here, BTW:

Here's a comment from a Catholic lay teacher who has thought a lot about karezza. It sheds some light on the objection to coitus interruptus:

1. Most Catholic teachings on sexual ethics are derived from what we call the natural law, which is derived by observing the world in light of first premises that can be found in the Bible. In theory, non-Christians and Christians should be able to agree on a lot of the natural law, precisely because it's derived from observing the world and not simply lifted from scripture.

[NOTE by Marnia: this argument falls down as an argument against karezza...because some very sexually active primate species certainly don't ejaculate every time they have sex...and pair bonders don't engage in contant ejaculatory sex either. A lot of time is spent engaging in bonding behaviors: mutual grooming, hanging out, etc. St. Augustine - whose musings gave rise to much Catholic dogma on sex - was a bit of a sex addict, so his view of nature was perhaps a bit...wishful. ;-)]

2. As one example of this potential agreement, I think the Church shares your concerns about the power of orgasm to affect how both partners in a couple perceive one another. The Ford treatise that you linked to does a nice job of walking the reader through the history of Catholic teaching on sexuality, and one constant in that history is frowning on people who give themselves over to passion, in part because doing so usually excludes emotional intimacy. This frowning applies not just to women but to women and men alike. If my point suggested otherwise, it was my error.

It can be easy to miss these points of agreement when people use different words for identical concepts, and I think that to an extent that's what is happening here. Again, from what I can tell of your work, you state that your own experience from the days before you met your husband, and your understanding of biochemistry, suggest that focusing on orgasm to the exclusion of bonding can be the death of relationship. The Church would say the same thing, only it would employ references to sin and apostolic authority and so on. But the underlying point would be the same.

3. You asked how Christians came to understand Jesus as encouraging procreation when He says nothing explicit on that topic in the Bible. A short answer might be that Jesus's teaching is that one enters the Kingdom of Heaven by giving oneself to others without holding anything back. You can see hints of this in Philippians 2.7 (Jesus "emptied himself, taking the form of a slave") and in Ephesians 5 (the much-misunderstood bit about wives submitting to husbands and husbands sacrificing for their wives) and in lots of other Bible passages.

Catholics look at sex and see that procreation, emotional bonding, and physical pleasure are all tied together in it. Therefore, we would say that if someone engages in sex without at least an openness to all three of these things, that person is holding part of himself or herself back from the experience. A male who knows that his girlfriend wants the emotional intimacy of marriage but has sex solely for physical pleasure is holding part of himself back. A woman who knows that her husband wants children but has sex with birth control is holding part of herself back. By using condoms and diaphragms, the partners visibly hold part of themselves back; other means of birth control are less visible, but the effect is the same.

If Catholics are right (and we may not be!), then having sex without being open to children is like eating cake without being open to calories: an incomplete experience. Efforts to have sex without children (using birth control or abortion) are, on this view, are as unnatural and ultimately unsatisfying as efforts to eat cake without calories (using low-fat substitutes or bulimia).

So it's not that Jesus said that couples are obliged to have lots and lots of children: I happily concede that he didn't. Rather, it's that he said that couples should give themselves totally to each other, and we Catholics think that the only way to do that is to be open to having kids.

My response included the following:

The idea that one can hold nothing back - and yet not suffer the after effects of orgasm because one has somehow managed to take passion out of the equation - sure sounds challenging, given that the hangover is automatic and subconscious...a product of our neurochemistry. Some people seem to be so sensitive to it that, even without a big passion build up, it kicks in.

I do believe you're right we're all talking about the same challenge: too much dopamine/arousal/passion causing bad feelings to kick in after the orgasm and shift perception away from loving feelings. And we're close to the same solution: making sex sacred and keeping our focus in the heart. But why sperm should be such a vital element in lovemaking from which passion has been "held back" sounds suspect to me.

I also mentioned the agapetae tradition http://www.reuniting.info/wisdom/agapetae and the Gnostic Gospel of Philip, which hints at a "Sacrament of the Bridal Chamber" which is not about procreation, but rather about restoring lovers to Christhood.

Study: Effect of mating and dominance on male masturbation

Interestingly, in this study, male masturbation only ended in ejaculation 15% of the time. Are humans really the exceptions to the primate rule such that they can ejaculation very frequently without negative repercussions?

Ethology. 2013 Nov 1;119(11). doi: 10.1111/eth.12146.

"Effect of mating activity and dominance rank on male masturbation among free-ranging male rhesus macaques."
Dubuc C, Coyne SP, Maestripieri D.

Center for the Study of Human Origins, Department of Anthropology, New York University, NY 10003, USA ; Institute for Mind and Biology, The University of Chicago, IL 60637, USA.

The adaptive function of male masturbation is still poorly understood, despite its high prevalence in humans and other animals. In non-human primates, male masturbation is most frequent among anthropoid monkeys and apes living in multimale-multifemale groups with a promiscuous mating system. In these species, male masturbation may be a non-functional by-product of high sexual arousal or be adaptive by providing advantages in terms of sperm competition or by decreasing the risk of sexually transmitted infections. We investigated the possible functional significance of male masturbation using behavioral data collected on 21 free-ranging male rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta) at the peak of the mating season. We found some evidence that masturbation is linked to low mating opportunities: regardless of rank, males were most likely to be observed masturbating on days in which they were not observed mating, and lower-ranking males mated less and tended to masturbate more frequently than higher-ranking males. These results echo the findings obtained for two other species of macaques, but contrast those obtained in red colobus monkeys (Procolobus badius) and Cape ground squirrels (Xerus inauris). Interestingly, however, male masturbation events ended with ejaculation in only 15% of the observed masturbation time, suggesting that new hypotheses are needed to explain masturbation in this species. More studies are needed to establish whether male masturbation is adaptive and whether it serves similar or different functions in different sexually promiscuous species.