Thinking about sex

Human beings spend a lot of their time exploring sex, sometimes in surprising forms: a species obsession. Here is my take on the subject. NB some pictures have been edited. BTW I don’t cover technique. Getting advice on how to do it is your problem.

The Greek philosopher Plato (428-348 BC) is not only a great and influential thinker but a great poet. His stories, or myths, have delighted readers from his day to ours. The myth of the cave in the Republic is an analog that explains how we have ideas that are mere reflections of ideal forms, like shadows thrown by a fire on the walls of a cave; the story of Atlantis in the Timaeus tells of the need for balance and moderation in the government of a polis; and the story of the three sexes from the Symposium explains the origins of sex and sexual desire. It is a story told by Aristophanes and is in his fantastical manner.

1 Soul mates


He begins: “The sexes were not two as they are now, but originally three in number; there was man, woman, and the union of the two, of which the name survives but nothing else [androgyne]…the primeval [hu]man was round, his back and sides forming a circle; and he had four hands and the same number of feet, one head with two faces, looking opposite ways, set on a round neck and precisely alike; also four ears, two [sex organs], and the remainder to correspond…Now the sexes were three, and such as I have described them; because the sun, moon, and earth are three; and the man was originally the child of the sun, the woman of the earth, and the man-woman of the moon, which is made up of sun and earth. Terrible was their might and strength, and the thoughts of their hearts were great, and they made an attack upon the gods…[Zeus came up with a solution] “men shall continue to exist, but I will cut them in two and then they will be diminished in strength and increased in numbers. They shall walk upright on two legs, and if they continue insolent and will not be quiet, I will split them again and they shall hop about on a single leg.”…[Zeus moved the sex organs to the front of the body and] after the transposition the male generated in the female in order that by the mutual embraces of man and woman they might breed…Each of us when separated, having one side only, like a flat fish, is but the half of a [hu]man, and he is always looking for his other half…And when one of them meets with his other half, the pair are lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy:..And the reason is that human nature was originally one and we were a whole, and the desire and pursuit of the whole is called love”. (Jowett translation, Collected Works of Plato, 4th Edn, OUP, 1953, 189c-193e, p 520-525).

2 Hermaphrodite

The idea that male and female (and in some cases, male and male, and female and female) were once united, and seek to be so again, the origin of sexual attraction, was not Plato’s (or Aristophanes’) original one. It was known in Greece in the fifth century from the cult of Hermaphroditos,  a god of generation, prayed to at marriages. The god represented both male and female attributes, and was the child of the marriage of erotic gods Hermes (potency) and Aphrodite (desire), from whom its name was formed. Another child of these two was the god Eros. Marriage represented a union of male and female, as was present in Hermaphroditos. The cult came from the Middle East via Cyprus, as did that of Aphrodite. Perhaps the people of Sumer thought that once, male and female were one. The god was represented as a young woman with rounded hips, buttocks and breasts, and  a penis and scrotum. The statue above from the 2nd century BC shows the god with a satyr.

Now that, and it surprised me to find it out, is an idea found in another culture entirely, Japan. In ancient Japan some of the gods were both male and female, or might change their sex at will. This kind of being was ‘futanari’, which means ‘dual form’. They were represented as having both male and female characteristics, breasts and vulva, penis and scrotum. In Shinto there is a god called Izanagi who created the islands of Japan with his spouse and sister Izanami. She died, and Izanagi went to rescue her, but she could not return to the living because she had eaten of the food of the afterlife. So far this is similar to the Greek myth of Persephone and Demeter, or Orpheus and Eurydice. Izanagi was attacked by demons in the underworld, and threw a stick at them, which became the god Sae no kami, one of the futanari. It became a god of boundaries; life and death, childhood and marriage, male and female, and was represented as a dual gendered figure, or a stone carved with a vulva or phallus, and became associated with marriage and childbirth like the Greek gods Hermes (shown also with, or as, a phallus) and Hermaphroditos.

3 Tara's assignment

Ancient fertility rites have come back to haunt us today in the form of pornography. A distinctive Japanese form is Hentai (explicit comix or animation), and a sub genre of this is called futanari, featuring beautiful women with enormous breasts and a vulva, and an enormous penis, a limitless ability to ejaculate, and capable of penetrating women, each other, or themselves. Futanari migrated to the computer, where a combination of sophisticated 3D rendering and intricate animation has produced effects Aphrodite would have been proud of. (The art is by Miro, the only pornographer in modern times other than ‘Pauline Réage’ to create a work of art about sex. Most ancient art was all about sex). When considering pornography it should be remembered that all ancient cultures had fertility rites in which sex figured prominently, and pornography would have appeared familiar. Western Europe in the last 200 years is the only society to have legislated sex out of sight, to insist that mommy and daddy never had sex, they even slept in separate beds.


Could there be anything in these ideas from ancient Greece and Japan, that male and female were once one organism? Why life forms were born, reproduced and died rather than lived forever is not a question, it is a mystery. But we know that until about a billion years ago all life forms then existent on the earth reproduced by cell division: there was no separate male or female, no sex. In this sense male and female were one and existed in potential. Part of the organism would break away to form another individual genetically the same as the first. Then a random variation produced eukaryotes, an organism with both a nucleus and a part called an organelle, which in eukaryotes became the mitochondrion, controlling the growth, life and death of each cell. This variation survived because it was adapted to changing environments, and produced cells called gametes, each containing half the genetic information needed for reproduction and known as ova or spermatozoa. And sex began. A further development enabled these gametes to combine via forms of sexual union. Specialisation of the sexual function of reproductive cells was engineered by chromosomes in mammals, which in turn produced sexual characteristics, or sexes. Each sex produces genetic information about their own organism, which combines in the gametes to create an infinite variation of characteristics of each new organism reproduced. What has survived has adapted to changing environments, and can continue to do so until adaption fails. Sex is a form of survival technique (or once was).

Orphan chimps at the JGI Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Center in the Republic of the Congo

Although there is no evidence for it in our history as a species, I think the human sexes started out equal. Look at this group of chimpanzees. Can you easily spot the girls from the boys? Probably among humans  girls started out hairy and muscular like the males, and random variation did the rest. Individuals with less hair mated more often and provided more descendants.Those with a developed bust line, smaller facial features, higher pitched voice and all the other characteristics of the modern female, at first the product of random mutation, gradually became genetically dominant. At the same time early humans were developing both a social organisation and an aesthetic sense, both the prelude to language and what became culture, eventually civilisation. Girls that were attractive held the tribe closer together and enforced pair bonding. Female characteristics also mimicked those of children: smaller frame, higher voices, less body hair and so on, so that when under attack, females and children, the tribe’s future, could be guarded and preserved more easily. Females also held the group together by developing social networking, something girls do to this day. Next time someone complains that you gossip too much ladies, remind them that if your ancestors hadn’t done so, there might not be any humans alive on the planet.

How does sex begin in our biological development? One of the first things we are aware of is our sex. Babies that play together discover girls and boys are different in that part of the body, though they don’t know what a ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ is exactly. But surely sex starts earlier than that, in the womb? Of course pregnancy is the result of a fertilised ovum, and so before it is anything, a baby (called then a fetus or embryo) is a cell where spermatozoa and ovum have merged. But it takes nine weeks of pregnancy for the sex of the fetus to form. It might be a boy or a girl at the DNA level, but not yet either on our human scale. Essentially the fetus is still part of its mothers’s body for the first two months of pregnancy, and so female. It still doesn’t look human, being only two cm long and weighing two grams. It could be this period which develops the feeling of sexual attraction, the desire to be one although two, because what happens after nine weeks in the womb is the formation of a separate being, with its sexual parts fully formed, ready to be called a girl or a boy when delivered and passed to the mother for nursing.

5 Seduction


It takes us a while to realise it, but our sexuality is of a dual nature: functional and conditional. That means that we develop sexual organs for reproduction, and exhibit sexual behaviour and secondary sexual characteristics determined by hormones, as part of our genetic and physical development. But also, as we grow up, we are socially conditioned to look, act and behave as males or females, as in the image above. Trans gender individuals are really subversive of the conditioning process, as they want to behave as the opposite sex would despite their physical sex. They in fact are a valuable reminder that sex in many of its aspects save actual reproduction is only a role.

In fact physical attraction between the sexes is atavistic. What men find physically attractive in women is large breasts and buttocks, and wide rounded hips. What women find attractive in men is large body size and facial features, strong chest and shoulder muscles, and a deep voice. In other words. men like women for their reproductive capabilities, and women like men for their abilities as a protector. Yet women today don’t need protection by men (though it can be pleasant) and men don’t need a woman who is going to breed like a barnyard fowl. About 10,000 years ago we did. That’s where we are with physical attraction. But suggest we get rid of sex and you will meet a decided lack of enthusiasm.

The production of hormones makes the difference between the sexes clear, and permits social role play of a sexual nature, by identifying males as men and females as women. That is, we are males and females reproductively because of our physical differences, but can perform that role socially mainly because of hormonal changes to the body. Estrogen gives women breasts, those intriguing wobbly bits, enables nipple enlargement, places body fat to cause those lovely curves, and enables the menstrual cycle.  Testosterone acts in males to deepen the voice, develop muscles around chest, shoulders and biceps, produces facial hair, creates larger bodies, all of which makes many males attractive to females. This process is reinforced by the production of pheromones by both sexes which are part of natural body odour and have a role to play in mate selection.

A book could be written on the role fantasy plays in the relation of the sexes. Images from fairy tales lure women to attractive men, stories of adventure make some women more attractive to men, parental experiences can create ideas of ideal partners, role play can enable one sex to take an established part and invite a partner to co-operate. Sex, despite its evolutionary history, is still an activity we to a great extent make up.

6a How to be a Badass6b MarilynMonroe

Gender roles start right after birth. Those assisting at the birth take the baby and begin its respiratory cycle, at the same time noting its sex. Almost the first thing said about the baby is, “It’s a boy”, or, “It’s a girl”. Colour coded clothing, pink or blue, nursery decoration, toys are all used to condition the baby to its sexual role. Girls are expected to please, be pretty, like nurturing games such as playing with dolls, encouraged to take an interest in their clothing, indulged if they develop an interest in fairies and so on. Boys are expected to be independent, their aggressive behaviour is tolerated, they are allowed to be competitive and expected to be interested in how things work. When you come to think about it, there are millions of babies at any one time, and how could they all fit neatly into such gender specific roles? Yet they do, though some, undoubtedly, uncomfortably. Others, as above, do all right.

But there is nothing ‘natural’ about such characteristics of behaviour. Males and females both have the same human nature, and an equal capacity to react successfully with their environment. What social conditioning does is prepare both sexes for specialisation. Females are more practised at what we think of, wrongly, as feminine reactions, such as developed emotional responses, intuition, co-operative actions with others. Males are more practised at what we regard, wrongly, as male behaviour, such as organisational skills, imaginative responses, creative endeavour, aggressive behaviour, individualism. As couples, we specialise. The more ‘female’ the woman in the partnership, the more ‘male’ the man becomes and vice versa. Yet as singles, we extend our responses along the range, still not expert at the full range of responses, but both sexes do equally well. The M/F partnership works extremely well as a survival skill, should no other factors get in the way.

Sexual roles are a means to an end, not a description of reality, and it is well to remember that. Women suffer a slight disadvantage in this respect as their genitals are internal, which gives rise to a feminine mystique by which they are sometimes forced into a particular role at inappropriate times. Just because they don’t go about waving their clitoris and demanding cunnilingus, but prefer to say something like, “It’s late darling, let’s go to bed”.

7 Gender ID


The fact is, the sexes are not as different as we tend to think. Granted, we all like masculine men and feminine women, and agree with the French that “vive la différence”. But consider the similarities. Men have a penis, women a clitoris, which serves the same sexual function of arousal and orgasm. A woman’s labia are almost indistinguishable from a man’s scrotum. The anal area of both sexes is equally sensitive. The prostate plays a role in arousal similar to the G spot. Men have nipples though not fully developed ones. Both sexes are equally strongly interested in sex, though they go about it in different ways, women typically setting up a situation that an eligible male can then ‘initiate’.

In terms of behaviour both men and women identify with their sexual nature. Both sexes are affronted if mistaken for the other. It’s common to be somewhat proud and assertive of one’s sexual attractions, especially when sex is a possibility. Both sexes are somewhat predatory. Though women rarely ask, “How about it?”, it does happen. And the physical pleasure and emotional release of sex is the same for both sexes.

Strangely enough after all that, sexual roles can be reversed with no apparent harm, at least in some cases. Gender seems often to be a choice. Fathers have raised daughters as boys, men have dressed and behaved as women and married (another man). Cross dressing is common, on stage in pantomime, strip shows often add a female impersonator, rock stars flaunt their androgyny. There are ‘shemales’, homosexual men with a hormone treatment, like the one below.

8 Cross gender

What surprises me is that at a time when the point of gender functions, the production of children, is becoming obsolescent, there are those insisting that reproduction should continue, even though become a dangerous and destructive practice. At a time when gender roles can be manipulated for personal satisfaction and fulfilment, when women in particular need not be ‘nurturing’, nor men ‘in control’, there are those insisting that traditional roles be maintained. Catholic priests don’t like abortion, but themselves don’t marry and have children. Go figure. Some people just don’t like change.

These folks even bring god along as a witness, alleging he doesn’t like change either. My goodness, god, the originator of change, the agent that set the ball rolling, the being who said “let there be light”, god not like change! Why then does everything we see when we look out our window change all the time, including our eyes? We live in a world of constant change, and every day something new has been created for us to discover. So that we can change. Hopefully into something better.

©2016 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


3 thoughts on “Thinking about sex

  1. Not to worry. Among many things, I particularly liked how you opened my eyes with your formulation of how social conditioning can and does override corporeal physiology.

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