The Truth About “Normal” Sex

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Speaker 1: But Welcome to the Waves, a podcast about gender feminism and doing it. Each week you get a pair of feminists to talk about the thing. We can knock it off of our minds. And this week you have me. Shannon Paul is a senior editor at Slate covering science and Health. And I’m speaking with Rachel Feltman, who is the executive editor of Popular Science and the author of the book. Been There, Done That. A Rousing History of Sex. If you are feeling down about the world right now, Rachel’s book offers an excellent escape. It taught me all about why bats go down on each other. A funny myth about Cleopatra’s alleged masturbation habits.

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Speaker 1: Rachel also answers the question Why are even men? And she takes us through a thought experiment about how maybe all animal life started out very queer. One keeping this conversation got that is how limited our idea of quote unquote normal sex and what not just for cultural reasons, but also scientific ones. I hope you’ll stick with us.

Speaker 1: So today I’m talking to Rachel Feltman. She is the executive editor of Popular Science and of course, the author of the book. Been There, Done That. A Rousing History of Sex. Welcome to the waves, Rachel.

Speaker 2: Thank you so much for having me.

Speaker 1: So your book features on the cover a pair of human beings having some rather athletic intercourse undercover. But the history of sex that’s referenced in the subtitle encompasses both human sex and animal sex. 1/2. In the book, I’m reading about the myth that Cleopatra used a vibrator full of bees. The next you’re telling me all about koala chlamydia? Why did you decide to make this a history of human and animal sex rather than picking one arena to focus on because there is so much going on there?

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Speaker 2: So I love these subjects that are just like really integral to human life because I find it’s a great way to surprise people and like surprise people with information that they didn’t realize was going to be relevant to them. And that’s really the way I love to tell stories about science. I started to think about the fact that we have so many misconceptions about sex, not just as it fits into our culture, but as an evolutionary and biological phenomenon. And so then I was like, Well, if I really want to do the whole history of sex and like talk about why sex exists and why it’s so important, I have to talk about where it came from. It’s one of those things that we we think of the way we have sex and the way we talk about sex and our feelings around sex to be so uniquely human.

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Speaker 2: But that isn’t necessarily true. And I just thought it would be so much fun to as one way of kind of breaking through people’s misconceptions about how sex works and should work is really like making it clear how different the experience of having sex and reproducing sexually can be from one animal to another.

Speaker 1: I loved the part so much. When you talk about homosexual interactions or same sex interactions in other species, and you note that like same sex interactions might seem kind of counterintuitive from an evolutionary perspective because you can’t create a baby that way. There actually actually are evolutionary reasons why having same sex interactions might be beneficial in that one narrow way. And you note that there’s a theory that primates some primates have same sex interactions in order to bond with members of their community.

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Speaker 2: Which yes.

Speaker 1: That’s just like I consider myself a very sex positive, open minded person. I’ve dated, I’ve been to college, all of that. And yet this just like clicked something in place in my head that I in a way like I hadn’t thought of before because we usually view like, oh, sleeping around is like slutty or selfish or like you’re doing it for your pleasure. But like the idea that part of having sex is just to create relationships or can be to create relationships.

Speaker 2: Sex is a very physically intense, often very enjoyable interaction that two or more people can have. And so, yeah, when you think about forming bonds and de-escalating conflict, it’s easy to see how sexuality could can be really beneficial for a species. And it falls into the category of what we would call pro-social behaviors. It’s like I was a theater kid. And when you think about like high school drama club, like massage chain, it’s like that. The actual sexual precociousness of your group may have varied a lot, depending on where and when you were in high school, but the kind of just like very Hindi, very cuddly, very flirty, very physical.

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Speaker 2: When I think of bonobos, I think of laying all over my friends backstage and how that was just this is all you did. You were just figuring things out. Friends just all wanted to snuggle with each other because we were like 15 and we all were like, You smell nice and I enjoy snuggling with you, and I don’t really understand why that is, but it’s fine because we’re theater kids, so it’s not weird.

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Speaker 1: Yeah, that that reminds me so much of like, one of the most intimate interactions I’ve had in my entire life was when I was getting ready for a middle school dance with other girls, and someone was like, I’m going to do your eyeliner. And she, like, pulls down the inside of my eyelid. So, like, tight like that, like little inner lead and just being like. Wow. You’re, like, touching this really, like, interior piece of my body. Like, yeah, that was sexual, but I can see that connection. What if, like, that’s more on a spectrum with, like, casual sex or sex outside of, like, you know, monogamous relationships then then, like, this idea of, like, oh, like, going to go get some for me.

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Speaker 2: Yeah, I think there’s really something to that. And in the book I talk about, you know, some other species where same sex sexual interactions. I mean, you do see that in bonobos, they do something called penis fencing or just like juvenile males, just literally like hanging from trees, swatting their penises at each other. Not that different, I think, from what like adolescent young men say.

Speaker 1: That sounds.

Speaker 2: Funny, but there are also there are few types of bats that like when it’s like very crowded and they have to huddle for warmth. You’ll see a lot of this like male on male genital rubbing and licking. And some researchers think that it’s just like they’re literally stuck in such close quarters that it’s like a way of keeping the peace. And it’s like we’re all stuck together.

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Speaker 2: So let everybody be chill. Queerness doesn’t need to have an evolutionary purpose in order to deserve to exist. Queer people exist, and that means we deserve to exist. But I do think it’s really weird that so many people are so confident that we need to explain the paradox of homosexuality and not the paradox of heterosexuality. You know, the assumption that we must have all started straight and something has allowed non procreative sex and the desire for it to evolve. Why can’t it be the other way around?

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Speaker 1: Yeah. You try on this idea in the book. What if every creature started out queer and then like some of them somehow managed to narrow down their sex lives to this one much narrower set of preferences?

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Speaker 2: Yeah. So there was a study that came out a few years ago that I talk about a fair bit in the book that I really loved, because it really is just a thought experiment. There’s no way of proving this, but there’s also no way of proving the way we tend to think about it, which is like sex evolved. And that obviously meant that the binary sexes evolved and that was how sex worked. That like male was attracted to female and they made babies.

Speaker 2: This one paper and a few other researchers outside of that paper have said like, Well, it would make just as much sense and maybe even more sense theoretically, if when sexual reproduction first evolved, the default was like these amorphous, sexually indiscriminate, you know, blobs being like the owls sidle up next to this one and next to that one. And sometimes that’ll make a baby and sometimes it won’t. And that, you know, maybe sexual dimorphism evolved later and that sexual preference may have then evolved to like make sex have a higher likelihood of leading to reproduction.

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Speaker 2: Yeah, it’s just a really interesting way to think about it. And there are a lot of things I get into in the book that just boil down to like there are a lot of biases and assumptions baked into the early natural sciences. And so a lot of things that people are very attached to as being like just the way the world works are really not. We have no way of knowing that’s the world. That’s the way the world works. It’s just that that’s what scientists in the 1800s felt comfortable saying was probably how the world worked.

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Speaker 1: One piece of your book that I really appreciate is you debunk the common misconception that sexuality evolved in just like a straight line, and you talk about how our species history is a loop to loop a progression regression, suppression and exhibition. I really appreciated that point because it kind of hammers home this idea of like, whatever you’re doing or desiring that you may be feels a little weird is just some expression of something that happened before, whether with humans or another species or or somewhere else in our past as animals.

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Speaker 2: That was a really. Big takeaway for me in researching and writing this book that so much of what we consider normal, it’s just based on like what the cultural norms are right now. And those are so arbitrary. And when you look at cultures around the world and when you look at the whole span of history, you see that it can really go any which way and things can change so quickly and they can also get stuck in one way of thinking for long enough that we think that’s just like what’s normal. I mean, I think this is not like a revelatory hot take. Many people who are historians and are much smarter than me have, I think pointed this out. But like a lot of what we think of as normal today is like from the Victorian era, like there was kind of this, this cultural reset.

Speaker 2: And one example people ask me all the time when I bring up this point, like, so what’s a place that was really progressive that is going to shock me? And I’m like, Well, this shouldn’t shock you and won’t shock many listeners, but a lot of people in the US don’t know that when Y was a sovereign nation, pre colonialism especially, it was very progressive, very sexually liberal. And in terms of gender identity, too much more progressive than the continental U.S. today, for sure.

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Speaker 2: And European colonists were really horrified by a lot of what they saw there, and they interpreted those practices through a very Puritan Christian, European imperialist lens. And that really sucks. And you see that in a lot of indigenous cultures where, you know, imperialism comes in and is like, Oh no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. Stop that.

Speaker 1: We’re going to take a break here. But if you want to hear more from Rachel and myself on another topic, check out our Waves Post segment today. Rachel and I are going to continue our conversation about her book and talk about why STI’s sexually transmitted infections might be, in some cases, helpful. All right, we’re back. Rachel, I want to ask you a very important question that the book poses. Why even our man?

Speaker 2: Yes. When my lovely agent, Jeff, handed the book to an older male from the publishing industry at a book event recently, he opened it to that page and got very mad. Pretty sure he literally yelled at by aged in the middle of a book fair. So if that was you, I don’t think you’re going to like my book. It’s true. You were right. But yeah, why even. Amen.

Speaker 2: While it definitely sounds like something I would just tweet after a bad day, it is a like serious line of scientific inquiry because similar to, you know, that thought experiment of why does it actually make sense for us to be strictly heterosexual? Like, why not just hedge your bets and want sex all the time? So similar to that is posing this thought experiment. That’s like, wouldn’t it be more efficient for every organism to have the ability to either carry or contribute to you without carrying offspring or, you know, to lay eggs and to fertilize eggs?

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Speaker 1: So basically, like, what if like I could also dispense sperm from like some body part just as like a little convenience bag?

Speaker 2: Yeah, exactly. Like, why did we evolve to. Mostly. Generally speaking, though, it is an oversimplification of how things work. Why did we evolve to mostly be either people with uteruses and vaginas or people with testicles and penises? There’s a reason Swiss Army is exist. They are efficient. You get everything in one space. And, you know, of course, there are many organisms that are fully functionally hermaphroditic or that even can fully switch sexes like clownfish can. What I talk about in the book, we know it can be done.

Speaker 2: So the question is like, why isn’t that just how it works? Because the organism that just contributes sperm is not actually contributing much energy wise to reproduction. Seems like maybe a waste of wasted space. Many men are not waste of space, but from a biological perspective you wonder why is this how it works?

Speaker 2: So one of the most common answers to this that scientists offer is that it’s because the existence of sexual selection helps further improve a species genetic fitness, meaning how many variations of different genes are available and how many of those are ones that set you up to live long enough to reproduce and have healthy offspring, compete for resources?

Speaker 2: And there’s this idea that, you know, we have natural selection, which is just literally, you know, you survive long enough to create offspring that survive. And do you make more of them than other members of your species? And so do your traits get passed on more? And then there’s sexual selection, which is like, is there stuff that makes you more likely to get picked as a mate? And so the question of like how important that is to a species thriving is a really interesting one.

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Speaker 2: And there was one study that I really enjoyed that basically studied beetles for a bunch of generations because you can sure make a lot of beetles really quickly. And in some of them, they took away sexual selection by like really skewing the female to male beetle ratio. And in others they really inflated that ratio so that the female beetles had like tons of choice. And then they took the resulting beetles from that experiment and they inbred them for like several generations.

Speaker 2: And inbreeding, of course, like amplifies any shortcomings you have genetically. And they found that the more sexual selection they had, the longer the beetles could survive. Incestuous from generation to generation, which is it’s kind of bizarre now that I was saying it out loud that like that’s ah, that’s the best experiment I’ve ever seen to demonstrate why the sexes evolved.

Speaker 2: All of that is to say that there is this idea that maybe we have multiple sexes because it’s good in terms of genetic diversity to have a non gestating sex that can like live fast, fuck once, die young. But we don’t know. We still don’t really know why it exists, but that’s one idea.

Speaker 1: The way you phrased it in the book was that perhaps males can serve as an evolutionary doodle pad, which I really love. And I think this in concert with the thought experiment about homosexuality, gives us this perspective where maybe maleness and straightness are just these like interesting accessories that have evolved, and it’s just that they’re culturally the norm or a norm right now, or seen as like something powerful. But in reality, it’s possible. Like a guy in your we’re talking about thought experiments. You can come from the view of like maleness and straightness don’t need to exist.

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Speaker 2: The the fact that so much cultural nonsense has been built up around what may have been just like a really random, quirky path for evolution to take in terms of how reproduction works is fascinating. And also, I realize very upsetting for people. I definitely you know, I’m very used to getting emails saying that the way I talk about sex and gender is unscientific. But I think that relies on like a real misunderstanding of what science is and how little we actually understand about how sex and gendered works.

Speaker 1: And also how much science is about posing theories and exploring them and saying, what if we’ve been thinking about it all wrong?

Speaker 1: All right. Before we head out, we want to give you some recommendations. Rachel, what are you covering right now?

Speaker 2: I just received a book I preordered ages ago that is an anthology of, like, weird horror by authors who are trans nonbinary, gender non-conforming. And the proceeds go to protecting the rights and interests of trans kids in Texas. And it’s called Your Body is Not Your Body. I have not started it yet, but it’s beautiful. I love weird experimental fiction with like just a touch of body horror. Even better if it’s queer. So I’m really excited to dive into that and it’s for a great cause. So I definitely recommend that people check it out.

Speaker 1: I’m going to recommend something many listeners may have heard of already, but Spindrift Seltzer’s it’s seltzer made with a little bit of juice, and importantly it is a little bit more expensive than your average can of seltzer. It feels extra fancy compared to your average kind of seltzer. And we are just sort of we’re always on a big seltzer cake in my household, but especially as the weather warms up, I’m trying to drink less. I’m trying to enjoy being outside with a special beverage more, and it’s just so satisfying to try the different flavors. And I brought a pack of Spindrift to a dinner party I was at the other week along with a bottle of wine, and it just felt really nice to, like, have a palate cleanser to pass around between alcoholic drinks.

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Speaker 2: I love Spindrift. I don’t know what how they do. It is so tasty and fancy.

Speaker 1: It’s awesome. And then also bonus points. If you pour it into like a beer glass or a cocktail glass and you’re like, I’m having a real drink now.

Speaker 3: That’s it.

Speaker 1: That’s our show this week. Waves is produced by Shannon Roth. Shannon Paulus. That’s me is our editorial director. Alicia montgomery is vice president of Audio. We’d love to hear from you. Email us at the Waves. Slate’s archives. The Waves will be back next week. Different hosts, different topic, same time and place.

Speaker 1: Thank you so much for being a sleep past member. And since you’re a member, you get this weekly segment where today we’re talking about sexually transmitted infections. Rachel, one of the most counterintuitive points in your book to me personally is you have a whole chapter that asks why we’re so scared of your eyes, and you declare right off the bat that some STIs are, in fact, quote, quite fucking badass, unquote. Rachel, what could possibly be the upside of an STI?

Speaker 2: Yeah. So, I mean, fun fact. Initially, my book was going to be entirely about the history of SDI. And that was just in the course of working on the proposal, which took a very long time. I don’t really recommend doing that while you also have a full time job if you can help it. But the upside, to be spending a long time on the proposal is that I realized I wanted to say a lot more than just like, don’t be afraid of STIs.

Speaker 2: But that is something that as a science journalist, I care really deeply about because, you know, all of the research we have on STIs and their spread shows that the more we talk about them, the less bad and scared people feel, the less likely they are to spread through a community. And I think it’s so interesting that right now in the U.S., we are in this moment culturally where we really think of STIs as being like it quicker than other infections.

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Speaker 2: Sex is just one very efficient means of disease transmission. Just to talk about a recent, you know, news peg. There was that whole discussion about whether we should talk about monkeypox as being sexually transmitted. It’s like, well, it’s transmitted by skin to skin contact and like, I think sometimes body fluids. So, yes, having sex is a great way to get it. So it’s having sex is also a great way to get covered. Like it’s any anything that you can get from someone to spit or for or by rubbing your skin and or mucous membranes all over each other because membranes you do those things during sex. So for starters, there is we have kind of like a weird line in the sand between things that are sexually transmitted and then like stuff you don’t have to feel bad about catching. You know, like COVID.

Speaker 1: Which maybe some people said feel worse about catching. No, no. But you feel shame from getting anything. But, you.

Speaker 2: Know, no one should ever feel ashamed about anything they catch. But yeah, we have all of this weight around STIs. And I mean, it’s not totally mysterious where that comes from. The AIDS epidemic is, you know, in our very recent cultural history and America handled that horribly and used a lot of stigma and shame to try to ignore the problem into going away. And I think we’re really still feeling the echoes of those effects.

Speaker 2: I mean, my my mom is an Amy Joy-Ann. And she told me once that the pictures that a lot of people associate with what a herpes outbreak looks like are from textbooks showing what herpes outbreaks look like in people who had full blown AIDS. So like any infection, when you’re immunocompromised, of course, you’re going to have the worst possible symptoms.

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Speaker 2: And so so yeah, that’s just one very concrete example of how the way we talk about STIs, specifically in the U.S. and over the last few decades is really based on like the the nightmare scenario in terms of symptoms and also relies really heavily on shaming the people who who get ascites. I think there was just like, I don’t know who decided this in what room full of white old people, but they decided that like you just wanted to convince high school students that they didn’t want to be the kind of person who got HIV or herpes or chlamydia and focused on making. That seemed like a really terrible club you didn’t want to join as opposed to like, here are how condoms can keep you from probably getting chlamydia. And here’s why. If you have herpes, it’s okay and you should talk to your doctor.

Speaker 1: Well, it’s like shaming people for ending up for for using cars and then ending up in a fender bender. Right. Sometimes being like, wow, that’s horrible. That like someone hit you for you actually mentioned a few STIs, a couple in animals and one in humans that can have positive outcomes for their hosts.

Speaker 2: Again, I feel like this comes back to like, are we really categorized as yeah. As as being this like different scary, horrible thing from all of the many, many infections that exist out in the world because. We know we have a thriving microbiome. We know we are full of bacteria and fungi and other microbes. And some of them are really good for us, really important. And we also are full of viruses. We have tons of viruses inside us all the time. That’s something we’re just starting to understand. And a lot of them are benign and some of them are important the same way.

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Speaker 2: Some bacteria are important. And there are, you know, some nonhuman species where some of the microbes that they pass around sexually actually do impart benefits. And we know of at least one in humans. It’s a relative of hepatitis, and I believe it’s GBV. And it shows up in if you take like a random sample of blood from a bunch of people, it’ll show up in a in a lot of them. I don’t remember the exact percentage, but it’s like really common, especially in certain parts of the world. And in most people it seems to just float like many other aspects of our microbiome.

Speaker 2: But research has shown that people who carry this virus, if they’re exposed to HIV, have better outcomes. It seems to have, you know, some kind of protective effect. And like I say in the book, like, this isn’t a reason to go like have a bunch of unprotected sex and like try to collect a bunch of guys like their Pokémon. But I think it it does really serve as a reminder that guys are just microbes.

Speaker 2: The reason we switched from calling them sexually transmitted diseases to sexually transmitted infections is that there are lots of things you pass around sexually that don’t cause symptoms, don’t cause disease. So we know, you know, a lot of people have herpes and it’s usually asymptomatic, for example. But there’s also stuff you pass around sexually that like we probably don’t even know about because it does nothing and maybe it even helps you. So I think while SCA is of course can be dangerous, can be deadly, and of course, like any other virus or bacterial infection, something new could show up at any time. That’s why safe sex is so important, because it’s not just about the stories we know about the ones we don’t know about yet.

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Speaker 2: On the other hand, like, I think if we could just stop thinking about them as some other category of infection, that it’s always your fault forgetting as opposed to like being on the subway next to someone with the flu and then getting the flu. You know, if I went on a date with someone with the flu and I got the flu, people would be like, it sucks that you have the flu now.

Speaker 1: Yeah, they wouldn’t be like, How did she get the flu? What has she been doing? As she adds, just like any other germs? Mostly. Okay. Sometimes you’ve all. Is there something you’re dying to know if it’s feminist or not? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at the waves at Slate.com.