Several comments today set me thinking about men and women, and sexual politics.
These days the discussion mostly centres around the equal abilities and rights of men and women in most respects, and the need for this equality to be reflected in status, pay, etc.
But rather than dive into all that, I’d like to ask: What happened in the remote past that resulted in the emergence of a patriarchal society in which men were the masters and women were servants? Because it seems to have been that way for thousands of years. And yet before that, it seems it wasn’t.
I’d like to sketch out one possible explanation why some societies were patriarchal societies, and some were matriarchal.
And in looking at this I’d like to consider something that women can definitely do much, much better than men can do. And it’s that women can have babies, and men can’t.
I’ll start with matriarchal societies, and to do so I’d like to go back 100,000 years to the beginning of the last ice age (which only ended about 10,000 years ago). Humans were around in fairly small numbers throughout this ice age. Their numbers never seemed to grow much. And during that ice age, several human cousin species – Homo Erectus and Homo Neaderthalensis – died out. Homo Sapiens – us lot – is the sole surviving hominid species.
And this rather suggests that life was pretty difficult for humans and other hominids during the ice age. And that life was hard work, with neither plants nor animals being very abundant. Toiling humans probably died young. They may also have died of exposure when temperatures dropped very low. And because they died young, it was necessary to keep the numbers up. So women probably had to produce lots of children, to keep the numbers up. During this time, it was probably human female fecundity that kept the human race in existence at all. And accordingly, women were given very high status, in what was a long era of the Great Mother. In fact, matriarchs probably controlled human societies.
And that’s how it was throughout the ice age, and probably for several thousand years after the ice age ended, and gave way to our current warm inter-glacial period. At the start of this new warm period, plants grew more strongly, animal numbers rose, and it became a lot easier for humans to find food, and so they didn’t have to work so hard, and also they didn’t die as young as they had during the ice age. And as a result of this, human numbers started rising, and humans started colonising the whole planet (if they hadn’t done so already).
But after a few thousand years, as human numbers kept on rising, new problems start cropping up. In some places, human numbers outstripped the ability of the land to support them (and all this was before humans started cultivating the land), and they either died or invaded other human-occupied territories. Wars started breaking out. And it was the men whom the matriarchs sent out to fight.
And it was at this point that human female fecundity ceased to be as beneficial as it had been during the ice ages, and started being a big problem. And something had to be done about it. The women who had once been the greatest human asset became its greatest liability. And this was the end of the Great Mother. Whereas once the birth of a daughter would have once been cause for celebration, it now became cause for grief. Sons became far more preferable than daughters. And human society flipped from being matriarchies to patriarchies. Men became the bosses.
And they imposed stringent regulations on reproduction. Only women who had been licensed to reproduce (in marriage) were permitted to do so. Unlicensed women were kept out of sight, more or less under armed guard, and sworn to lifelong chastity. Women either married, or they became nuns. In both cases, they were tightly chaperoned.
At the same time, quite a few men became the male equivalent of nuns: they became monks, with similar vows of chastity.
But the restrictions on men were probably never as strong as those on women. Hence the emergence of the sexual “double standard” by which it was wrong for women to be sexually promiscuous, but all right for men. And this double standard arose because the more that women were sexually promiscuous, the more babies were born. But the more that men were sexually promiscuous (with a restricted number of women), it made little difference to the number of babies – because men don’t have babies.
And this was the beginning of an era of sexual repression, in which women were almost completely forbidden from sexual relationships, and men were also (but not completely) forbidden.
And there would have been a great deal of sexual frustration, not only among all the women locked up behind closed doors in nunneries and marital homes, but also among men who found few sexual opportunities in an almost woman-free world.
And so this was probably when prostitution began. And this institution allowed a lot of men to have sex with a relatively few women, many of whom were probably infertile. And this was possible because, in theory, women can have sex with hundreds of men in one day, in ways that men can’t reciprocate.
And it was probably also a time when homosexuality became rampant, as frustrated men turned to other men, and frustrated women to other women. And also adults turned to children. And animals. Because none of these sexual practices produced children.
And that’s how it has remained for the past few thousand years. And if it has begun to change now, it’s because human food technologies have improved vastly, and also human birth control measures, and much else. Educated young women can now have as much sex as they like without also having babies. They no longer need to be kept locked into marriages and nunneries to stop them doing so. And so sexual morality has relaxed. And many more marriages break up as a result of marital infidelity. And women have begun to reclaim their status in society in the Western world, if not in other more backward countries.
There could probably be a lot more added to this account of changing sexual politics, and the changing status of women, but to my mind it’s one which is above all a rational account, of humans facing one set of problems (too few children living too short lives during the ice age) and then the exact opposite set of problems (too many children living for too long when the warm interglacial period got under way) responded accordingly. And it’s not an account which is in the least bit about equality or rights or fairness and all the other things that currently dominate the discussion.
If anyone’s interested, I wrote quite extensively about sex and reproduction on my Idle Theory website here and here and here. And about ice ages here. They’re not things that I’ve been thinking about recently, so these are some quite old ideas of mine that I’ve been articulating tonight.
Anyway, that’s the gist of my theory. And I reckon that when the next ice age starts (and it’s due to start pretty soon, because these interglacial periods never last long), and we all start dying like flies, the girls will probably soon be back in charge.