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The waning interest in sex by some bears watching

A behavioural blip, or a portend of something major in our evolutionary development?

Lee TunstallCALGARY, AB, Feb 3, 2014/ Troy Media/ – Spike Jonze’s new movie, Her, has generated some controversy and debate about a human falling in love with an operating system. As technology permeates our lives more and more, such an idea becomes less like science fiction and more like a possible evolutionary change.

It begs the question: Is it evolution or ultimate extinction if we continue to give up on physical sex?

Currently, there doesn’t seem to be any chance that humans will give up person-to-person sex in the near future. Humans are one of the few species which have recreational sex – and just not re-creational sex – at present. Sex is still one of our biggest distractions and that has led to prostitution and pornography being considered as industries that generate an estimated $205 billion globally. It is not unfounded to say that we still seem to be passionately interested in sex.

But is that actually an over-generalization?

A growing portion of our population might not really be that interested, especially in physical sex, as they are more than ever avoiding recreational or even re-creational sex.

Almost half of the world’s population – focused in the developed world – has birth rates lower than the needed replacement rate of 2.1 that keeps a population’s rate stable. And the United Nations now estimates that the global population will peak in 2075, then decline as developing nations follow the lower birth rate trend.

Simply stated, we are not having enough children to replace ourselves. Now this may well be a good thing, given our population pressures, but it is nonetheless a trend worth watching.

Japan seems to be the poster child, if you will, for this declining birth rate. There is even a term for this new lifestyle for the under-40s: sekkusu shinaishokogun, or “celibacy syndrome“. A third of Japanese under 30 have never dated at all, with 61 per cent of Japanese men and 49 per cent of women not presently in an intimate relationship. This behavioural shift will lead to Japan losing one-third of its current population by 2060.

Perhaps it is the extreme focus on sex in our society that has blinded us to the fact sex is not for everybody, all the time. People are often celibate for periods in their life. It can even be a lifestyle choice and sexual orientation all its own, as the asexual movement demonstrates.

In other times in our history, celibacy and/or asexuality were accepted practices. Rome’s Vestal Virgins and Greece’s celibate Olympic athletes were some of the earliest examples. The medieval Christian celibate monastic communities were well-accepted and had defined places within society. The Hindu god Shiva, known as the “great ascetic”, is seen as both celibate and erotic at the same time. Within the Hindu asramas, or four stages of life, celibacy is paramount.

An interesting example is Mother Anna Lee’s Shaker community (or Shaking Quakers) in the mid-18th century, which held celibacy – even among married couples – as its key tenet. Lee herself had always desired celibacy, but was forced into marriage nonetheless by her parents. After her four children died, she became convinced of the evilness of sex, and began recruiting others, including her own husband for a time, to Shakerism. Eventually the movement almost literally died out, as young Shakers left for the outside world and new recruits dried up. Extinction becomes a real risk where celibacy or asexuality is advocated.

But it is not only a lack of sex that is the problem – it is the changing nature of sex as well. The current rise in technological sex, as opposed to physical sex, could become a public policy concern if it continues. Intimacy with a software program designed to please you – and thereby avoid all the messiness of fights and adultery – could become a very attractive alternative to the real thing. Add in the imminent development of virtual sex suits  and the lure may be too great for many to refuse.

It is far too early to tell if this is simply a behavioural blip, or a portend of something major in our evolutionary development. Is this an evolutionary leap? Or is it a harbinger of our eventual extinction?

Spike Jonze may well be viewed as less of a filmmaker and more of a visionary prophet by future historians.

Lee Tunstall is an adjunct assistant professor in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Calgary and holds a PhD in History from the University of Cambridge.

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