Why in the first half of the twentieth century were women’s ankles considered sexy in the United States? Why are breasts considered intimate parts in industrialized places but not in poorer ones where breasts are thought of in more utilitarian terms? Why in conservative societies, such as those in the Middle East, are women’s whole bodies, including their wrists and hair, considered indecent if publicly exposed? Why is public nudity taboo in Canada and the US, but less so in Europe?
The answer must begin with the fact that whereas biology determines the sexual practices of animals, psychology and culture are factors in human sexuality. Specifically, no human body part is inherently sexy, not even the genitals which have primarily sexual functions as far as biologists are concerned; for example, nudity in the locker room or in a life drawing class or on the operating table isn’t so sexually arousing. Social context matters: the historical evidence indicates that under certain conditions, the tantalizing concealment of any body part can cause sexual arousal in a brain in which the imagination rather than just the sex hormone dictates sex appeal. In a prudish culture, visually-oriented men must make do with limited offerings, and so American men in the 1930s imagined ways in which the ankles of long-dress-wearing women could be thought of as sexy. Likewise, bored Middle Eastern men might rhapsodize about women’s hair curls and eyelashes, which are the sole body parts that some Islamist dictatorships permit to be publicly exposed. Most male body parts have the tedious evolutionary function of being muscular to make the man an effective protector, and so women starved for some novelty in their sexual diet imagine that beards can be sexy. Just as the long dress which covers the legs and ankles allows the woman to choose how high to raise the garment, creating an air of mystery and of being so near and yet so far from the promised land, as it were, the beard can obscure lantern jaws which are symbols of strength and stability, and the facial hair tantalizes as the man chooses to shave and to allow the hairs to grow to varying lengths.
Evolutionary psychologists are certainly right to point out that the underlying mechanisms of arousal have biological, reproductive functions, but culture isn’t an impotent byproduct of genes and hormones. We rewire our brains by modifying the environments to which we must adapt to survive, and our artificial environments are energized by ideologies, including those that determine the purpose of the tools, machines, and other artifacts we rely on throughout civilized life. Thus, whereas the mechanism of female arousal may originate from the woman’s desire to have her clitoris stimulated by a penis, for the evolutionary reason that sexual pleasure facilitates the transmitting of genes by sexual reproduction, that desire has evidently been exapted after what Yuval Harari calls the cognitive, agricultural, and scientific revolutions. Thus, women can be turned on by the way a beard makes the man seem withdrawn or wayward and in need of mothering and instruction. The biological mechanisms are repurposed to achieve cultural, often idealistic or fantastic goals. Sex acquires meanings that have little to do with that which is paramount from the gene’s eye view. In particular, sexual ecstasy is comparable to the religious kind, which in turn is akin to the experience of existential horror, to the revelation of that which transcends and so humiliates not just our comprehension but our standing as entities.
The Revelation of Sex
The degree of lust and of the giddiness of being on the threshold of sexual contact may be inversely proportional to the degree of familiarity with the partner’s body or with sex in general. The more sex you have, the less earth-shattering it becomes over the years, unless your sex drive is low or your expectations are curbed by cultural conventions. This is one reason that adultery is commonplace among able-bodied individuals who have options: to renew the height of ecstasy enjoyed when sex in general or with a particular partner was novel. Sex for virgins is typically overwhelming because they haven’t yet solved the mysteries of sex. Unfamiliarity with the other’s body parts or with the sex acts that are generally kept secret accounts for why even ankles, wrists, calves, beards, or hair can be deemed sexy even though those parts are irrelevant from the genetic standpoint. In hunter-gatherer tribes, for example, breasts have no sex appeal because they’re constantly exposed and so their men’s imagination isn’t fired by the fantasy of what they would look or feel like were they revealed. They’re exposed because the tribes are consumed with the purpose of surviving in harsh, perhaps exceptionally humid natural lands and have no time for luxuries such as fashion. By contrast in the individualistic West, fashion is an art form and we individuate ourselves by showing off our possessions, thereby forgetting about the fleshy bodies toiling to maintain so many artificialities. Indeed, as Morris Berman argues in Coming to Our Senses, we in the West are virtually disembodied; we live in our heads and in a noosphere of abstractions—until, that is, in all infantile innocence we find ourselves drawn back to that which is hidden by the products of our labour, to the shapes, sounds, and tastes of each other’s flesh.