Online dating apps, pornography, advertising, and the continued existence of the human race all testify to a healthy, ongoing interest in sex among human beings, despite the fact that millennials appear to be having less of it. Until the day pills or radiation extinguish the last embers of human horniness, sex will likely continue to shape and govern society in all kinds of ways.
It’s worth wondering, though, what a world without a sex drive might look like. How would it affect the way we interact with one another? What would it mean for the environment? And with the species potentially at risk of extinction, would it be ethical for governments to intervene in some way?
To address these questions in this week’s Giz Asks, we reached out to a number of sociologists, population scientists and bioethicists with a range of opinions, who among other things pointed out that “sex” and “sex drive” haven’t always historically had a lot to do with one another.
Assistant Professor of Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies at Williams College and author of Tourist Attractions: Performing Race and Masculinity in Brazil’s Sexual Economy
People would still have sex. That much is certain. Non-desirous sex for the sole purpose of reproduction wouldn’t be much fun (and would be aided by Viagra and lubricants), but plenty of people (ranging from sex workers to housewives) have experienced sex without desire so that’s not new.
Those who could afford it would spend money on fertility clinics to spare themselves the indignity of sex, thereby making old-fashioned sex something stigmatized and reserved for lower class people. With birth rates declining globally almost overnight, there would be a redistribution of the world’s population as surrogacy and adoption brought more babies out of developing countries. Although initial effects might be positive in those places (with more food and educational services to go around), it could also cause a huge economic recession with global impacts. (Think 20 dollar tooth paste and the end of Forever 21.)
Speaking of education, schools would probably improve as students’ attentions shifted away from distractions like dating, partying, hooking up, or interrupting study time with porn breaks. (I teach undergraduates; it’s a thing.) The next generation born in this puritanical era without even a memory of libido would have a very different relationship to the idea of sex compared to the first generation who would still remember their previously debauched ways.
Anthropologically speaking, however, sex fulfills more than a procreative role. It also produces what social scientists call “pair bonding,” or a sense of emotional closeness. (Even asexual people and couples who stop having sex for long periods may derive great pleasure from intimacy and pair bonding.) I’ve interviewed hundreds of sex workers in my 12 years as a researcher of sexual economies and many if not most of those people have stories of clients who pay them just to talk or cuddle. So even without sex, human beings require intimacy. Thus, there would be a huge growth in demand for “intimacy workers” (instead of sex workers) focused on close physical touch and emotional connection.
Lastly, there might be a radical rethinking of male-female pairings. With no sex drive oriented toward a gender, categories like gay and lesbian wouldn’t have the same meanings and communities organized around sexuality would fade out. But on the other hand, families could be re-imagined in expansive ways. Two (or more!) people of the same sex who were close friends could decide to raise children together, experience non-sexual intimacy together, or even create new kinship arrangements by having multiple non-monogamous partners for intimacy and child-rearing. In a society freed from biological and heteronormative reproductive constraints and expectations, many generations on after the disappearance of all sexual urges the very idea of men and women could vanish into a newer more genderqueer society.
“Anthropologically speaking, sex fulfills more than a procreative role.”
Cary Gabriel Costello
Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of LGBT+ Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Understandings of sexuality vary a lot over time and between societies. This can be hard for contemporary Americans to grasp, because our vision of sexuality is that it is an asocial, universal drive that is the inevitable and necessary foundation of relationships, marriage, and procreation. But in fact, all we have to do is go back in time 150 years to encounter a very different set of beliefs right here in America. In Victorian America, it was believed that women of “good character” were free of troubling lust—in other words, asexual. Men and women were understood to have extremely different natures, and men were expected to be lustful—but this was seen as a bad thing for men, as sexual orgasm was viewed as dangerous, depleting the body of its vital energies. So men were urged by doctors and scientists to exert iron control over their lusts, engaging in sexual activity only for the minimum necessary for marital procreation.
Victorian society was unusual in the way it viewed men and women as profoundly different sorts of creatures. But if we consider just the issue of how eliminating lustful attractions from polite society affected things, a few facts become clear. First, people continued to engage in sexual activity, even though women were believed “passionless.” Women strongly desired to procreate, even if the means was actively distasteful to them. And secondly, marriages were much more stable than they are today, because they were not based on something as unreliable as lustful romantic passion. Today, Americans discussing the fact that half of contemporary marriages end in divorce, while 150 years ago divorce was extremely rare, tend to imagine this was due to some greater moral commitment to “keeping (lustful) love alive in marriage” in the past. But Victorian marriages were not based on passion in the first place. Not experiencing lust for a spouse was considered a good thing, not a cause for divorce.
One more thing: while the Victorians viewed lust as dangerous, they were very sentimental. But because men and women were understood to be so vastly different in nature that they couldn’t understand the other, they invested this sentimental need for emotional intimacy in their same-gender friendships, rather than in a spouse. In today’s parlance, you might call these homoromantic asexual relationships. They loved their “bosom friends” deeply. And this made Victorian same-gender adult social circles much stronger than they are in the U.S. today. This shows us that the absence of lust can coexist with intensive sentimentality and strong social bonds, as well as with stable marriages and continued procreation.
Robyn Lewis Brown
Associate Professor, Department of Sociology and Co-Director, Health, Society, and Populations Program at the University of Kentucky
If everyone lost their sex drives in the Victorian era, it seems this would have been awfully convenient. One’s biological functions would suddenly reinforce their social functions. Women and men would probably have had a much easier time fulfilling the expectations associated with their gender, as repressed and boring as those expectations might have been. Sexual desire and desirability are understood quite differently today, and it’s also interesting to think of how they relate to social expectations associated with being a “real” man or woman. Masculinity is closely tied to one’s virility and interest in sexual gratification, while femininity is linked with one’s sexual desirability or sexiness. How much of this is biologically based? I would say probably not much. To be feminine or masculine—appropriately—is again based on social expectations. If the biological sex drive were to disappear overnight, then, I don’t imagine things would change as drastically as we might like to think.
Laura M. Carpenter
Associate Professor of Sociology at Vanderbilt University and author of Sex for Life: From Virginity to Viagra, How Sexuality Changes Throughout our Lives
If everyone on earth lost their sex drive, people would still have sex. They would just have sex for reasons other than sexual desire—just like they do today. Of course, people in our current world do sexual things because they feel desire and because sexual activities (genital and otherwise) feel good, physically and emotionally. But people also have sex (of various kinds) in order to have babies, to feel close to people they care about, to demonstrate that they’re a particular type of person, to express their creativity, to relieve stress, to gain prestige among peers, to help them fall asleep, to please a partner, to exact revenge, to spark jealousy, to make money, and to dominate or feel power over others. Social scientists generally take the perspective that sexuality isn’t biologically “hard-wired,” at least not in any simple sense, but rather profoundly shaped by social and cultural factors. That’s why different societies have different ideas about which reasons and motives for having sex are acceptable—and why what is deemed sexually acceptable has changed (quite a lot) over time. Sexual “drive” or desire is just one of those reasons—so unless a lot more changed than that, we’d probably keep having sex.
Associate Professor of Sociology and Public Health at Yale University and the author of Sex Cells: The Medical Market for Eggs and Sperm (University of California Press, 2011).
The facetious answer is that the world would probably be a lot less fun. But even if everyone stopped having sex, human beings could continue to reproduce. Over the past century, scientists and clinicians have developed a wide range of reproductive technologies that enable sperm and egg to meet without the need for sex. The oldest and most rudimentary, technologically speaking, is insemination. Semen is deposited, ahem, into a plastic cup, and then a syringe is used to place it in the vagina or uterus.
More complicated is the process of in vitro fertilization (IVF), in which a woman self-injects fertility medications for several weeks to produce multiple eggs. The eggs are then removed in an outpatient surgery called retrieval, and they are placed into a dish with semen. A few days pass, and if viable embryos develop, then one or two are placed inside a woman’s uterus. Some of these same processes are used in freezing eggs or in surrogate motherhood, where a woman gestates a fetus to which she may or may not be genetically related.
Reproductive technologies would allow humans to bypass sex, but they are not risk-free. Women taking fertility medications and undergoing surgery face short-term risks, such as ovarian hyper-stimulation, infection, and complications from anesthesia. And the long-term risks remain essentially unknown, because there have still not been longitudinal studies following women who do IVF and donate or freeze their eggs. Women’s health advocates have long lamented this gap in medical knowledge, and perhaps it would be rectified if the entire species suddenly became dependent on reproductive technologies to procreate.
Associate Director, Spatial Structures in the Social Sciences (S4) and Associate Professor (Research), Population Studies at Brown University
If everyone on earth lost their sex drives, some combination of three things would probably occur. First, birth rates would plummet and it’s probably safe to say that the human population would shrink: there would be many fewer births to offset the number of deaths taking place.
Loss of sex drive doesn’t mean loss of ability to procreate, however, so that—probably within years, if not sooner—there would a movement to enforce reproduction. This dystopian outcome would be sure to impact women and, I suppose, most marginalized populations. Imagine a world in which governments require reproduction for the replacement of workers or soldiers and how such policies would be structured.
Most certainly, the third thing to happen would be a massive reallocation of resources to discover the source of the sex drive scourge and to develop an effective solution.
Ronald M. Green
Professor Emeritus of bioethics at Dartmouth College and Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine and an emeritus member of Dartmouth’s Religion Department, where he is a specialist in the ethical teachings of the world’s religious traditions.
Think about it for a moment. How much of what you consider to be of value and important in your own life depends on the assumption that the human race will continue? For example, say you love great literature or athletic competition. What happens if there’s no one here to remember Shakespeare or Muhammad Ali? What happens if all our achievements crumble in dust with no one to know or even care about them?
The end of the human race is one of the most despairing thoughts we can imagine. Whether or not we want children ourselves, the assumption that our species will go on motivates much of the creative drive that animates our lives. Lacking the future, why should we strive? When I write that great book, undertake that difficult political campaign, or design an extraordinary building, I do so with the assurance that others in the future will recognize my efforts.
Let’s imagine for a moment a variety of scenarios where this could happen: human beings en mass lose their sex drive, or reproduction, for whatever reasons, is reduced to such low rates that species extinction is likely. In such circumstances, would it become necessary and justifiable to force people to reproduce?
Absolutely! No single generation or group of generations has the right to determine the fate of the whole lineage of humanity. We have a responsibility to both the future and the past to continue our species.
The question is not a new one. As we know, many major world religions—Judaism, Catholicism, Islam, Hinduism—are pronatalist, requiring adherents to have children (traditional Judaism insists on a minimum of at least two, a boy and a girl). These teaching are widely regarded as outmoded in today’s world of burgeoning populations. And they are. But that is not where these teachings start. Rather, they arose in environments where high rates of infant and childhood mortality were the norm, and where populations hung on by the skin of their teeth. In those circumstances, religions had to reinforce the obligation to procreate.
Nothing would be amiss if we reversed current population growth rates and reduced the impact of human populations on our global environment. But if too many moderns decided that having children is not worth it and human extinction really loomed, we might have to outlaw contraceptives and welcome back the bedroom police.
“Forcing pairs of individuals to copulate against their will would be state sanctioned rape.”
Assistant Professor & Associate Director of Research Ethics at the Center for Translational Bioethics & Health Care Policy at the Geisinger Health System
I very strongly suspect that if everyone on earth lost their sex drive, we would still have plenty of sex—or reproduce in other ways. Indeed, the considerable physical, financial, and emotional lengths to which many, many people will go to reproduce via IVF and other assisted reproductive means (a billion dollar industry) is evidence of a drive to reproduce that is separate, or at least separable, from any of the other reasons we have sex (e.g., libido, maintaining or strengthening intimacy in relationships, appeasement and reduction of aggression). Our reasons for wanting to gestate and rear genetically-related offspring will not disappear even if our libidos do. So sure, if everyone on earth lost their sex drive, there would be fewer (no?) unwanted pregnancies, which presumably would be a good thing. And the world’s population growth would, as a result, significantly slow down (also probably a good thing, for environmental reasons). But I don’t think that there would be any need for state-forced procreation.
As for the ethics of state-forced procreation, um, no? Forcing pairs of individuals to copulate against their will would be state sanctioned rape and violate multiple constitutional provisions in addition to virtually all ethical frameworks—with the possible exception of some forms of rigid utilitarianism. But if there ever were a need to replenish the world’s population, there are various technological alternatives to sex that could be used to produce babies instead. One of my bioethics colleagues has already predicted “the end of sex” by arguing that within the next few decades, most people will reproduce through technology rather than through sex, because doing so will provide more parental control over offspring traits while still being relatively easy, cheap, safe, and legal. (To be clear, he thinks people will continue to have sex for other reasons.) It would be somewhat – but only somewhat – easier to justify a state program in which the state simply took skin cells from individuals, used emerging technology to “spin” them back into pluripotent stem cells and, from there, “forward” into gametes, and then conceived babies with these gametes using IVF and, say, surrogates who (one hopes) would be paid by the state to gestate (but artificial human wombs are probably coming to solve that problem, too, before too long). So there would be no need for state sanctioned rape. If the state also paid people to rear the resulting children, rather than impose rearing obligations on nonconsenting gamete providers, this would minimize the ethical issue to forcing people to be genetic parents against their will. Of course men are forced every day to become genetic – but not gestational or rearing/social parents—against their will. Partly, that is acceptable because the alternative (forcing a woman to have an abortion against her will) is ethically and legally unacceptable, but partly I suspect it is also because simply living with the knowledge that one has genetic offspring wandering the earth somewhere, without any required financial or social obligations to them, is perhaps not such a terrible harm or moral wrong. And of course the state could, without violating anyone’s rights, pay people to donate their skin cells for this purpose, just as many people already donate or sell their gametes for use in procreation.
But if I’m wrong about the above and our species dies out for want of a sex drive, have we behaved unethically vis-à-vis “future contingent persons,” i.e., those future persons whose existence or nonexistence, and identity, are the result of the choices of existing persons? In short, no. We have ethical obligations to at least some of the future persons our actions bring into existence. For example, if I am newly pregnant (let’s assume we agree a conceptus is not yet a person) and I choose to take a drug for trivial reasons, fully knowing that it will harm to conceptus and result in a person with lifelong disabilities, I have arguably behaved unethically towards her. But most ethicists think that we do not have ethical obligations to bring people into existence in the first place; I do not behave unethically by choosing never to have children, much less by choosing each month not to conceive. The situation is more dramatic, but not materially different, if everyone makes the same non-procreative choice, with the result that the entire species dies out. We might call it a cosmic shame, for lack of a better phrase, but it harms no one and is not unethical. A state program that encourages people to procreate by providing financial incentives to do so already exists, by the way. It’s called the tax code.