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Is sexual jealousy natural?

JealousyJealousy is an expression of fear. But whether or not someone else’s sex life provokes fear depends on how sex is defined in a given society, relationship, and individual’s personality, write Christopher Ryan and Dr Cacilda Jethá, MD.

14 November 2010

Written by Percy Sledge and first recorded in 1966, ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ hit a cultural nerve. The song shot to the top of both the Billboard Hot 100 and R&B charts.

Another version, recorded 25 years later by Michael Bolton, also went straight to the top of the charts, and the song now sits at number 54 on Rolling Stone’s list of the five hundred greatest songs of all time.

Nothing is more prominent than love and sex in Western media, and ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ is an example of the message whispered in romantic ears throughout the world.

What does Mr. Sledge have to say about a man’s love for a woman? What are the signs of true masculine love? Copyright restrictions won’t allow us to quote the song’s lyric in full, but most readers know the words by heart anyway. To review, when a man loves a woman:

• He becomes obsessed and can’t think of anything else.

• He’ll exchange anything, even the world, for her company.

• He’s blind to any fault she may have, and will abandon even his closest friend if that friend tries to warn him about her.

• He’ll spend all his money trying to hold her attention.

• And last but not least, he’ll sleep in the rain if she tells him to.

We’d like to suggest an alternative title for this song: ‘When a Man Becomes Pathologically Obsessed and Sacrifices All Self-Respect and Dignity by Making a Complete Ass of Himself (and Losing the Woman Anyway Because Really, Who Wants a Boyfriend Who Sleeps Out in the Rain Because Someone Told Him To?)’.

Similarly, ‘Every Breath You Take’ sits at a respectable number 84 on Rolling Stone’s list of all-time great songs.

One of the biggest hits of 1983, the song topped the U.K. charts for a month and the U.S. charts for two. It won Song of the Year, and The Police won that year’s Grammy for Best Pop Performance. To date, the song has logged in over 10 million registered air plays on radio stations around the world.

Again, we’re assuming you know the words. But have you ever really listened to them? Though often held up as one of the great love songs of all time, ‘Every Breath You Take’ is not about love at all.

Sung from the perspective of a man who’s been rejected by a woman who refuses to acknowledge that she “belongs” to him, he says he’s going to follow her every step, watch her every move, see who she spends the night with, and so on.

This a love song? It should be #1 on Billboard’s ranking of “Crazed & Dangerous Stalker Songs.” Even Sting, who wrote the song after awakening in the middle of the night when the line “every breath you take / every move you make” bubbled up from his subconscious, didn’t realize until later “how sinister [the song] is.”

He suggested in an interview that he may have been thinking of George Orwell’s 1984 — a novel about surveillance and control — certainly not love.

So is jealousy natural?

It depends. Fear is certainly natural, and like any other kind of insecurity, jealousy is an expression of fear. But whether or not someone else’s sex life provokes fear depends on how sex is defined in a given society, relationship, and individual’s personality.

First-born children often feel jealous when a younger sibling is born. Wise parents make a special point of reassuring the child that she’ll always be special, that the baby doesn’t represent any kind of threat to her status, and that there’s plenty of love for everyone.

Why is it so easy to believe that a mother’s love isn’t a zero-sum proposition, but that sexual love is a finite resource?

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins asks the pertinent question with characteristic elegance:

“Is it so very obvious that you can’t love more than one person? We seem to manage it with parental love (parents are reproached if they don’t at least pretend to love all their children equally), love of books, of food, of wine (love of Château Margaux does not preclude love of a fine Hock, and we don’t feel unfaithful to the red when we dally with the white), love of composers, poets, holiday beaches, friends … why is erotic love the one exception that everybody instantly acknowledges without even thinking about it?”

Why, indeed? How would the prevalence and experience of jealousy be affected in Western societies if the economic dependence trapping most women and their children didn’t exist, leading female sexual access to be a tightly controlled commodity?

What if economic security and guilt-free sexual friendships were easily available to almost all men and women, as they are in many of the societies we’ve discussed, as well as among our closest primate cousins?

What if no woman had to worry that a ruptured relationship would leave her and her children destitute and vulnerable?

What if average guys knew they’d never have to worry about finding someone to love?

What if we didn’t all grow up hearing that true love is obsessive and possessive?

What if, like the Mosuo, we revered the dignity and autonomy of those we loved?

What if, in other words, sex, love, and economic security were as available to us as they were to our ancestors?

If fear is removed from jealousy, what’s left?

Human beings will be happier — not when they cure cancer or get to Mars or eliminate racial prejudice or flush Lake Erie but when they find ways to inhabit primitive communities again. That’s my utopia. — Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

According to E. O. Wilson, “all that we can surmise of humankind’s genetic history argues for a more liberal sexual morality, in which sexual practices are to be regarded first as bonding devices and only second as a means for procreation.”

We couldn’t have said it better. But if human sexuality developed primarily as a bonding mechanism in interdependent bands where paternity certainty was a nonissue, then the standard narrative of human sexual evolution is toast.

The anachronistic presumption that women have always bartered their sexual favors to individual men in return for help with child care, food, protection, and the rest of it collapses upon contact with the many societies where women feel no need to negotiate such deals.

Rather than a plausible explanation for how we got to be the way we are, the standard narrative is exposed as contemporary moralistic bias packaged to look like science and then projected upon the distant screen of prehistory, rationalizing the present while obscuring the past.

Yabba dabba doo.

SexDawnThis is an edited extract from Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality by Christopher Ryan and Dr Cacilda Jethá, MD. Published by Scribe, and reproduced here with the publisher’s permission.

Christopher Ryan received his PhD in research psychology at Saybrook Graduate School in San Francisco, focusing on pre-historic sexual behaviour. He has taught at the University of Barcelona Medical School and published both scientific and popular articles and book chapters on human sexuality.

Dr Cacilda Jethá, MD, is a practising psychiatrist, specialising in psycho-sexual disorders and couples therapy. She has done field research on sexuality for the World Health Organisation.

Christopher and Cacilda are married and live in Barcelona, where they co-author a
blog for Psychology Today magazine.


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