Henry Ford once famously said, “History is bunk.” As the inventor of the assembly line and the Model T automobile, Ford’s name is inseparable from the ideal of technological advancement as the driver of human progress. For those who hail modern scientific progress and advancement as the hallmark of a more intelligent, forward-thinking generation, Ford’s words are dogma.
One of the most impactful changes wrought by high-tech advances is shift in societal views of sexuality. Traditional sexual mores have been dismissed as outdated, especially in an age of artificial contraception and abortifacients that dissociate procreation from a fundamentally life-giving act. Society has reduced sex to a pleasurable pursuit, and as a result, sexual promiscuity and libertinism are increasingly common. Progressives praise the sexual revolution as a period of enlightenment, whereby now people can freely engage in the pleasures of sex divested of its biological consequences. Even today the sexual revolution is viewed by (some) people of all generations as an unquestionably good nexus of beliefs and actions.
So, is the tradition of sexual morality, in the words of Henry Ford, “bunk?”
Oxford-educated anthropologist J.D. Unwin tangentially addressed this question in Sex and Culture, an evaluation of the sexual practices and morality of 86 different cultures. Unwin’s impetus for the project was to test the Freudian theory that civilizational progress was the product of repressed sexuality. This theory of “sublimated sexuality” states that natural impulses and desires require energy to fulfill, and that this energy—though finite—is fungible.
Unwin divided the collective energy of human beings into two categories, “expansive” and “productive.” Activities like exploring territory, conquest, colonization, and commerce were deemed expansive. Productive activities designated an advancement within society or a societal flourishing, such as the development of algebra or the power to harness electricity. Thus, the sexual energy of human beings could be re-directed towards other aspects of civilizational advancement, such as technological progress, art, architecture, or conquering other peoples. (To anticipate an objection: it is worth noting that although Freudian theory has many shortcomings, one can’t blindly overlook the validity of certain aspects of his theories, sexual sublimation being one of them).
After a careful evaluation a variety of civilizations—including the Romans, Greeks, Sumerians, Moors, Babylonians, and Anglo-Saxons—a clear pattern emerged for Unwin: a perfect correlation between sexual fidelity and civilizational flourishing.* Unwin found that discipline in sexual matters appropriated social energy to more civilizational ends, validating Freudian sublimation on a societal level. Unwin remarks:
The evidence is that in the past a class has risen to a position of political dominance because of its great energy and that at the period of its rising, its sexual regulations have always been strict. It has retained its energy and dominated the society so long as its sexual regulations have demanded both pre-nuptial and post-nuptial continence. … I know of no exceptions to these rules.
But what exactly were those strict sexual attitudes and regulations that contributed to societal flourishing? The answer: heterosexual monogamy.
For Unwin, the fabric of society was primarily sexual, and heterosexual monogamy was the optimal arrangement for planning, building, protecting, and nurturing the family. If enough heterosexual partners made a monogamous commitment, civilizational energy was directed toward promoting the firmest societal foundation possible: the family.
Unfortunately, each civilization allowed its success to alter its moral code and actions. Though each civilization’s success correlated with strict sexual ethics, attitudes toward sex became increasingly liberalized and loosened. The consequences of the myth that sexual activity and its impacts could be confined to the private sphere soon became apparent. Premarital, extramarital and homosexual relationships proliferated and individuals began placing their individual desires over the common good. An increase in promiscuity corresponded to a subsequent decrease in the social energy required for civilizational maintenance and innovation. Ultimately, each civilization became less cohesive, less aggressive, and less resolute. Civilizations in this liminal phase then collapsed from either 1) an internal anarchic revolution, or 2) conquest by invaders with greater social energy.
Despite the differences between civilizational cultures, environments, and time periods, Unwin saw a clear civilizational cycle throughout:
These societies lived in different geographical environments; they belonged to different racial stocks; but the history of their marriage customs is the same. In the beginning each society had the same ideas in regard to sexual regulations. Then the same struggles took place; the same sentiments were expressed; the same changes were made; the same results ensued. Each society reduced its sexual opportunity to a minimum and displaying great social energy, flourished greatly. Then it extended its sexual opportunity; its energy decreased, and faded away. The one outstanding feature of the whole story is its unrelieved monotony.
It is no secret that America is the current world superpower, and the increasingly liberalized attitudes towards sex in our nation parallel those of the 86 civilizations during their periods of decline. It is also true that American society has achieved an unprecedented amount of scientific and technological progress, and many would argue that American progress has cast aside ancient notions of the importance of sexual propriety. Unwin’s research identified this attitude as a salient opinion in each of the preceding societies as well:
…convinced that the cultural process is a progressive development and that our own culture is the most developed of all cultures, we assume that every change in our cultural condition is evidence of a higher cultural development.
The American idea of being the most advanced of human civilizations is just one more example of the “unrelieved monotony” Unwin identified when uncovering social patterns. Over 5,000 years of human history argue for the prevalence of this same mentality in all of these extinct civilizations, and not one of them has managed to break the cycle.
One can choose to see Unwin’s work as the foretelling of a doomed American civilization, or merely a historical continuity that Americans will overcome because of technological and scientific progress. Whatever the case, the importance of sexual morality in everyday life should not be overlooked due to its strong correlation with civilizational flourishing. Sexual restraint and ethics are not products of an ancient past that progress can suddenly replace; they are arguably the lynchpin of all of the technological and scientific progress of today.
*Correlation does not imply causation. For example, it is possible that civilizational decline caused increasing promiscuity, or that both decline and promiscuity are related to a yet-to-be-identified variable. But acknowledging the fact that causation is not implied does not necessarily mean that the two variables are not causally related. The only way to know if this is or is not the case would be to conduct a statistical or quantitative analysis of the qualitative patterns and causal mechanism proposed by Unwin. Until such research is executed, claims of both causality and non-causality stand on equally tenuous ground with respect to the study itself; yet my argument loses none of its force no matter which interpretation of the data is sound.