The Meaning of Sex

Peter Wood writes in The Weekly Standard:

Attraction. Pleasure. Attachment. Reproduction. Fulfillment. What is the meaning of sex? The answer lies somewhere in the way we integrate the biological imperatives with the emotional and experiential realities. I’m not going to improve on that answer in the next few pages, but I’ll complicate it a bit. 

Recently a young woman at Dartmouth College, having had sex for the first time with a man, reflected that she had “lost her virginity.” Then she put that thought on hold: “Virginity is just a total social construct,” she told her interviewer. Her story appeared in the college’s student newspaper. 

A “social construct”? I’m an anthropologist and I speak this language. Virginity is a social construct to the extent that we invest the state of virginity with social significance. American culture seemingly has been divesting its stock in virginity since the sexual revolution more than half a century ago, but somehow the idea lingers. The young woman at Dartmouth would like to think it doesn’t matter, it is just a total social construct, but even the dismissive formula betrays her troubled feelings. It does matter. 

As well it should. To say that something is a social construct is not to say it is trivial or meaningless. It is only to say that we have developed standard ways to talk about it. Virginity, as it happens, is a biological fact as well as a social construct, and because it is both, it commands a special kind of attention. 


Virginity is a bit like some other words that connect biological realities with social expectations. The word “father,” for example, refers inescapably to the male who played the seminal role in impregnating the egg that became a child. But we build on this nucleus of meaning to create quite elaborate cultural conventions. The man who raises a child he has not fathered is also called a father; George Washington is father of our country; and some holders of religious office are addressed as Father. A father in the familial sense is expected to love, care for, and provide for a child and to exercise tempered authority. We could, with the Dartmouth student, say this is just a total social construct. But we’d be wrong. It is a lot more than that. 

Anthropologists have spent some 150 years trying to get to the bottom of words like “father”—and mother, brother, cousin, etc.—kinship words. A 19th-century American lawyer who was gifted with both unusual curiosity and immense patience opened this door in the 1850s when he took note of how much Seneca Indian kinship terms differed from English ones. Lewis Henry Morgan tugged on this thread for the next 30 years, along the way producing one of the great monuments of 19th-century scholarship, an immense study titled Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity in the Human Family

Morgan made much of the observation that in many societies around the world words such as “father” apply to whole classes of people. I might, for example, use the local equivalent of “father” for my father’s brothers and for my father’s father’s brother’s sons. Thus the word “father” might be translated as “paternally related male a generation older than me.” At which point we might be tempted to conclude with our Dartmouth friend that the concept of “father” is just a total social construct. After all, different cultures fill the conceptual space of “fatherhood” in different ways, so how much biological or existential reality can there be to the concept?

Morgan himself thought something similar. He speculated that maybe the natives being none too scrupulous about sexual relations were never certain who their actual fathers might be and hit upon the happy expedient of identifying all the potential inseminators with a single term. Morgan’s theory was never substantiated by evidence of such promiscuity among people who used kinship words in such a broad fashion, but Morgan did succeed in putting some key questions on the table. How do we decide collectively who is a relative? And what difference does it make?

These turned out to be very good questions, and the discipline of anthropology grew up wrestling with them. One of the characteristics that makes us human and that both unites us with nature and sets us apart from it is our preoccupation with kinship. At its most basic, kinship is the way human societies organize the realities of sexual reproduction. It supplies the meaning of sex—at least a large portion of that meaning, if not all of it. Kinship turns the biological fact of mating into the social facts of living together in a more or less orderly world. 

We need that social ordering because the biological facts are and always have been dangerous, disruptive, and often deadly. Sex without the constraint of social constructs would have brought an early end to our species, which depended on pair-bonding and a sexual division of labor to make it through the hard passage of time to reach modern civilization. Sex and human reproduction liberated from fairly stable pair-bonding wasn’t a viable possibility for most of human prehistory, and in the ethnographic and historical record, there is the barest trace of societies that did without pair-bonded marriage between men and women and stable families of some sort. 

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