Why Sex Evolved

Scientists are curious people.

Some scientists are trying to determine why sex evolved.  Early life forms had to reproduce somehow, and presumably did so by natural cloning.  At some point in the past, however, sex entered the picture, and now, although some plant and even animal species that still exist reproduce without sex — bananas, starfish, and Komodo dragons are examples — sex has become the dominant method of reproduction.

Scientists wonder why.

7-water-flea-laguna-designGet your mind out of the gutter for a moment.  It’s a fair question, because scientists point out that sexual activity takes time and energy, frequently involves elaborate rituals — dating alone can be both expensive and time-consuming — and is therefore a lot less efficient than cloning.  Organisms that reproduce through cloning (which, incidentally, are entirely female, males not being needed) presumably could reproduce much more rapidly and easily than organisms that used the sexual approach.  As one scientist, Dr. Stuart Auld of the Faculty of Life Sciences of the University of Stirling, put it:  “Sex explains the presence of the peacock’s tail, the stag’s antlers and the male bird of paradise’s elaborate dance. But if a female of any of these species produced offspring on her own, without sex, her offspring should come to dominate, while the other females watch the redundant males fighting and dancing. So, why are we not surrounded by clonal organisms?”

Sex, fighting, dancing, and redundant males.  What could be more interesting than that?

Dr. Auld and his colleagues came up with an ingenious approach to trying to test why sex might have evolved.  They found an organism that reproduces both through cloning and through sex, the common water flea, and they compared offspring of the same mothers that were produced through cloning to those produced through sex.  They found that the sex-produced offspring were much more resistant to disease and parasites than their cloned sisters.  Sex evidently allows the genetic material to be mixed up and also shared, and organisms that use the sex route therefore get an advantage in avoiding illness.

Dr. Auld concludes:  “The ever-present need to evade disease can explain why sex persists in the natural world in spite of the costs.”

So there you have it.

Don’t Vex About Sex Or Guess About “Yes”

There’s been a lot of activity lately, in the legislative arena and on college campuses, about what constitutes consent to sexual activity.

In California, colleges must require “affirmative, conscious and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity,” and consent can be communicated through a verbal agreement or through actions.  Consent must be given at every step, so agreement to kissing or “heavy petting” is not consent to actual intercourse.  The underlying idea, of course, is to ensure that all parties to the sexual activity agree to move forward before matters escalate.

nastroeniya-devushka-paren-6966But if you’re concerned about complying with state law while at the same time wanting to be absolutely sure that no one will claim that you’ve exceeded the boundaries of their consent, how do you memorialize the consent in a way that will hold up?  Do you draft up a written agreement, or try to make a recording?  What are college students supposed to have at hand when passion strikes?

Leave it to a Mom to develop a smartphone app that attempts to solve the dilemma by allowing the participants to the contemplated sexual activity to log their consent.  With the “Yes to Sex” app on their phones, students can access the app when the moment arrives, walk through their agreements through the touch of a button, get a “safe word” to use when they want their partner to stop, and record an audio consent — all of which gets stored on encrypted servers in the event a disagreement arises in the future.

I guess it was inevitable that we would get to the point where people would be using their phones to document, in a legally meaningful way, that they’re engaging in sex by mutual consent.  Why not?  Phones are used for everything else these days.  Why stop at selfies?

Species-Saving Sex

Don’t look now, but the history of homo sapiens — and of human-like creatures on planet Earth — is getting progressively weirder and more titillating.

article-2029559-0d8dcb7300000578-310_1024x615_largeScientists conducting studies of human genes are learning lots of interesting information about the development of our species.  One of the more provocative findings is that our genetic information indicates that there were multiple instances of significant homo sapien interbreeding with other human-like species — specifically, the Neanderthals, and a mysterious, largely unknown species called the Denisovans —  that left indelible marks in the DNA of modern humans.  And it also appears that the cross-breeding provided us with some useful genetic material, including genes that enhanced the operation of the human immune system and helped our ancestors fight off pathogens.

Not much is known about human history before the dawn of civilization.  Most of what we understand comes from looking at fossils of human ancestors and attempting to piece together the gnarled branches of the human family tree.  Human genetic analysis provides a different kind of window to the past of our species.  It’s now obvious that the early days of the human species saw our ancestors competing with — and apparently having lots of sex with — other hominid species.  We couldn’t have been too much different from them, because the genome evidence means that when humans had sex with Neanderthals and those enigmatic Denisovans, their one-night stands produced pregnancies and non-sterile offspring that, in turn, shared their genes through mating.  All of that cross-breeding among different species helped to make humans what they are today.

We might never learn what happened to the Neanderthals, or the enigmatic Denisovans, and why they died out while humans survived and became the dominant species on the planet.  What we can now say with some confidence is that human ancestors apparently were as interested in sex as modern humans are, and weren’t particularly troubled about who — or what species — they were having sex with, either.

Is Bill Clinton’s Sex History Fair Game?

Bill Clinton’s sex life has moved to the forefront of the news again.

Thanks to Donald Trump — who wrote a tweet stating “If Hillary thinks she can unleash her husband, with his terrible record of women abuse, while playing the women’s card on me, she’s wrong!” — there’s a lot of chatter about Bill Clinton’s affairs and alleged predatory behavior and unwanted advances against women.  The Washington Post has even done a “fact check” that separates “Bill Clinton’s womanizing” into five “consensual affairs” (one of which was a “consensual affair” with a 22-year-old intern, Monica Lewinsky, when Clinton was the President) and other “allegations of an unwanted sexual encounter.”  And some are asking:  is it fair to delve into Bill Clinton’s sexual history?

article-2624332-1d9ec7da00000578-278_638x517Fair?  Seriously?  Since when does “fairness” enter the equation in presidential politics, particularly when Donald Trump is involved?  The lack of “fairness,” and the harsh spotlight that tends to shine on the families and friends of candidates for the Oval Office, is one big reason why some people decide never to throw their hat in the ring in the first place.  Every candidate — and every member of their families — has to know that.  It would be absurd to think that Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton, who have spent a lifetime in politics, don’t understand that reality.

I guess the better question is, is Bill Clinton’s “sordid sexual history” — as an opinion piece by Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post described itrelevant to deciding whether Hillary Clinton should be president?  Marcus says it is, reasoning that if Hillary Clinton is going to send her husband out as a campaign surrogate and play the sexism card against Trump and others, it’s fair to point out that, in Marcus’ words, Bill Clinton’s “predatory behavior toward women or his inexcusable relationship with a 22-year-old intern,” in “the larger scheme of things,” is “far worse than any of the offensive things that Trump has said.”

The Wall Street Journal goes farther, contending that there was a “Clinton war on women” during Bill Clinton’s presidency and arguing that “Mr. Clinton was a genuine sexual harasser in the classic definition of exploiting his power as a workplace superior, and the Clinton entourage worked hard to smear and discredit his many women accusers.”  The WSJ opinion piece adds:  “This September Mrs. Clinton declared that “every survivor of sexual assault” has “the right to be heard. You have the right to be believed.” But when her own access to political power was at stake, she dismissed the women and defended her husband.”

There are many of us, I think, who would prefer not to revisit these topics. We don’t want to hear about Bill Clinton’s lechery or think about what kind of marriage could survive so many affairs and allegations of sexual misconduct.  But if Bill Clinton is going to be out on the campaign trail, and if Hillary Clinton is going to play gender politics in her bid for the White House, Bill Clinton’s personal record inevitably is going to come up.

And the Clintons had better be ready for it, because it can’t really be fully dismissed as old news.  One thing is true:  American culture has changed a lot since the ’90s, and the notion of what constitutes appropriate behavior in the sexual arena has perhaps changed most of all.  In an era where California has enacted a “yes means yes” statute to define what constitutes sexual consent, where workplace sexual harassment allegations are much more prevalent, and people’s careers can be effectively quashed simply by using language that is deemed not politically correct, how are people going to react to detailed information about a President having an “affair” with a 22-year-old White House intern, his initial lies about it, and the humiliation the intern endured at the hands of minions seeking to excuse or explain the President’s egregious behavior?  I may be wrong about this, but I doubt that a modern politician who admitted to Bill Clinton’s behavior with Monica Lewinsky — to say nothing of the other allegations about what Bill Clinton has done — would be able to survive it.

If a new generation of voters, steeped in our current culture, are hearing about that conduct in detail for the first time, how will they look at Hillary Clinton?  And how will revisiting Bill Clinton’s “sordid sexual history” in the light of current social mores affect his historical reputation and his status as a kind of avuncular figure on the American political scene?

The Arc Of Playboy

Playboy has announced that, beginning next March, it will no longer feature photographs of completely naked women.  Sure, there will still be a “Playmate of the Month” — whether there will be a centerfold is still up in the air — but the pictures will be of the PG-13 variety, with women in provocative poses.  It will be part of a redesign of the magazine, which will continue to feature interviews and articles and fiction and a sex columnist but will have more content about liquor and more visual art.

Playboy is struggling to remain relevant in today’s internet world, where photographs of naked women, and beyond, can be found with a few keystrokes.  First published in 1953, Playboy has long been credited for helping to usher in an America with a less puritanical attitude about sex — but its high point passed by decades ago.  Its best-selling issue, which sold more than 7 million copies, was published in November 1972.  Its circulation is down to about 800,000 now.  Other magazines that featured similar content no longer exist.

I haven’t seen a Playboy in years, but I remember the ’60s and ’70s, where Playboy was sold in drugstores from a little rack, separate from the rest of the magazines.  Sometimes the rack was behind the counter, but sometimes it was tantalizingly placed out in the store itself, potentially available to inspection by curious teenage boys who’d heard about it from other kids at school.  Would they have the nerve to pick up a copy and quickly riffle its pages, hoping to catch a peek at a bare breast and not be yelled at by the shopkeeper or humiliatingly seen by a Mom in the neighborhood?  Those days are long gone.

I’m not wistful about the arc of Playboy‘s rise and decline; I’ve often thought that Hugh Hefner is one of those people who has skillfully managed the media to obtain better press and more attention than his actual cultural significance merits.  But Playboy‘s decision to yield the field to the porn sites is an interesting development.  Playboy‘s website stopped displaying nude photos some time ago, and it reports that the average age of its website visitors declined — the teenage boy effect, perhaps? — and its web traffic increased.

Now they will try that experiment with the magazine, and we will finally learn the answer to an age-old question:  do people actually read Playboy for the articles?

Fake Philanderers And Just Desserts

The saga of the “Ashley Madison” website — which used the tagline “Life is short.  Have an affair.” and purported to bring together people looking for confidential extramarital liaisons — just keeps getting better and better from a “just desserts” standpoint.

The whole concept of the website is appalling, obviously, but nevertheless a number of people looking to cheat on their spouses evidently signed up.  Apparently they didn’t have any qualms about giving their personal and financial information to a website that existed solely to facilitate adulterous sexual trysts. That’s pretty amazing, when you think about it, because marital misconduct traditionally has been one of the biggest causes of blackmail and extortion in the world — which means any rational cheater would be pretty dubious of entrusting a third party to arrange for their affair.

But a bunch of unfaithful sleazebags nevertheless did so, anyway, which logically would make the “Ashley Madison” website and its trove of data about cheating husbands a prime target for hackers.  After all, if you were a criminal looking to gather information that could be used to extort money from others, wouldn’t a database that collected the information of millions of philanderers whose very participation in the website was self-incriminating be impossible to resist?  And, that’s exactly what happened.  When the hacking incident was disclosed to the website’s users, how many of those cheating spouses who were titillated by the idea of having an affair began to dread the thought of phone calls from unknown numbers and started to scan their mail for anonymous letters?

But the “chickens coming home to roost” element gets even richer.  The hacking revealed that the website’s membership was decidedly male in makeup, by about a five-to-one ratio — and now there are allegations that a number of the “female” members never actually existed.  Data experts have been looking at the “Ashley Madison” data released by the hackers and tracing it back to root IP addresses, and say they are finding that thousands of the “female” members curiously share the very same IP address.  Others are claiming that the website sent out computer-generated messages from fake female members to the scuzzball husbands who signed up for the website — and then those husbands paid the website for the privilege of responding to tantalizing messages from potential sex partners who didn’t actually exist.

So the faithless guys who tumbled to the lure of “Ashley Madison” have been hacked, exposed, become prime candidates for extortion, and now discovered that they stupidly may have been paying for a pig in a poke (so to speak).  Karma is a bitch, isn’t it?

Selling Senior Sextapes

Recently Kish and I have been receiving the AARP Bulletin.  For the most part, it’s the kind of publication you’d expect from an organization that caters to senior citizens.  This particular edition, for example, included an article about new Medicare scams taking advantage of the elderly, a how-to guide on 99 ways to save money and make that nest egg stretch farther, and an encouraging piece with the front-page teaser headline:  “Study Looks At Brain Aging:  Cognitive Decline Is Not Inevitable.”  (Hooray!)

IMG_5685The ads, too, are about what you would expect — with one exception.  In this edition, among the promotions for medical alert devices, walk-in showers, and life insurance, was a full-page ad entitled “Sex.  It’s Never Too Late To Learn Something New.”  Along with a picture of an amorous older couple, the text said “See for Yourself on Discreet Home Video” and “Real people demonstrating real sexual techniques.”  (If so, how discreet can they be?)

Eh?  Boy, that sounds suspiciously like porn, doesn’t it?  In fact, the ad copy seems to make that point so clear that even a senior citizen on the cusp of cognitive decline could grasp it by adding:  “Couples who watch together not only LEARN from what they see, but often report that the videos themselves are an ‘instant aphrodisiac.’  That’s because they show REAL couples (not actors) demonstrating the joys of REAL lovemaking.”  The ad promises that if you order within the next seven days you can get 50 percent off three of the videos, plus another three videos free — so viewers can get really educated!

The world is a fast-changing place, and we just need to accept it.  Even so, it’s weird to see AARP offering ad space to a company peddling senior citizen sextapes to the geriatric generation.  And really, what distinguishes these video volumes from the more sordid efforts that appeal to prurient interests?  The fact that it’s “REAL couples (not actors)” who are getting it on onscreen?  The fact that the videos have clinical titles like “The Art of Sex Positions” rather than bad sex-related puns on Hollywood movie titles?  Or the fact that the ads says the tapes are “recommended by leading doctors and therapists”?  (What would qualify a particular physician as a “leading doctor” for this purpose, do you think?)

Who knows?  Maybe the videos begin with a white coat wearing doctor, with a stethoscope draped around his neck, giving a little primer on anatomical matters that the sexed-up seniors have to endure before they can get to that ‘instant aphrodisiac.”