Shall We Dance painting by Todd
(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2011)
“There’s only one person in the whole world like you, and that’s you yourself.” Fred Rogers
You may have heard about Cynthia Daily, a social worker using an interweb directory to keep track of all the children fathered by the same sperm donor who fathered her child. According to Cynthia’s data, this same sperm donor has now fathered one hundred and fifty children, several more of his offspring are on the way, and, also according to Daily (who enjoys vacationing with families of other children fathered by said sperm donor), “It’s wild when we see them all together because they all look alike.”
Wild? Interesting choice of words. I’m inclined to call this phenomenon anti-wild. I mean, what qualifies this guy to be populating the earth with his genes? Is he fabulously strong and intelligent and handsome and creative? Maybe. But he might be weak and stupid and ugly and nearsighted and prone to arthritis and gluten intolerance. Or maybe he’s just a regular guy with time on his hands, so to speak, and that’s why he’s donated so much sperm. The only thing we know for sure is that he’s potent.
One of the concerns of parents of children fathered by the same prolific sperm donor (and there are apparently quite a few of these randy fellows flooding the gene pool) is that their daughters and sons may unwittingly end up procreating with their half-siblings, which apparently multiplies the chances of genetic defects manifesting in offspring. On the other hand, some people with the same father but different mothers may enjoy hooking up with someone who looks wildly like them. I don’t know. I, for one, enjoy having a wife who looks nothing at all like me, thank goodness.
“More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.” Woody Allen
I remember some years ago there was a sperm bank in New York offering the sperm of celebrities to women seeking artificial insemination. I seem to recall that Woody Allen was one of the sperm donors. Several jokes come to mind about that, but I don’t want to get sued for slander. The idea that a woman would want to have, say, Albert Einstein’s baby, has a certain appeal until one considers the issues of unruly hair and huge foreheads. Are those attributes we would knowingly want to burden our children with in this appearance-oriented culture, even if he or she did turn out to be wildly intelligent?
“The four best things in life: to love, to be in love, to be loved, and to make love.” Lilo Bloch
As a young man I was a voracious reader of ethnographies, with a particular interest in how people of other cultures comported themselves sexually, both in terms of what was acceptable in those societies and what was taboo. I’m sure my fascination with sexual comportment in other cultures had to do with my sense that the acceptable sexual comportment rubrics of my own society were emotionally and physically suffocating, and I was looking for sexual comportment models that made more sense to me, and I don’t mean intellectual sense.
As a consequence of my particular interest, I unearthed dozens of ethnographies of indigenous societies with sexual comportment systems so shockingly antithetical to the American way of doing it, euphemistically speaking, that I could star at any party by reeling off a few synopses of the spicier comportment models employed by our genetically identical brothers and sisters around the globe. And in none of these indigenous socio-sexual systems were anonymous men fathering hundreds of kids.
“In my experience, there is only one motivation, and that is desire. No reasons or principles contain it or stand against it.” Jane Smiley
I know what you’re thinking. Or hoping. Am I going to share with the reader a few of those spicier (compared to the American model) sexual comportment systems employed by our genetically identical brothers and sisters around the globe? Yes, but with the following disclaimer: I will not be precise regarding locations, names, and historic time frames of the ethnic groups about which I write. And in keeping with the traditions of academic Anthropology, I will employ the present tense when speaking of these societies, whether or not they still exist.
“I think there are two areas where new ideas are terribly dangerous: economics and sex. By and large, it’s all been tried, and if it’s new, it’s probably illegal or dangerous or unhealthy.” Felix G. Rohatyn
There is a sect in India in which no one may marry outside the sect, and everyone in the sect must marry an age peer born in the same five-year period. For instance, an age peer group might be composed of everyone born between 1995 and 1999, after which the next age peer group would be everyone born between 2000 and 2004. Now here’s where things gets spicy by American standards. From the onset of puberty until marriage at eighteen to twenty years of age, all members of a particular age peer group are expected to have sex with all the members of the opposite sex in that group except with the one person of the opposite sex they ultimately marry and have children with. Try to wrap your American mind around that one. According to the ethnography I read, incidents of adultery among married couples in this sect are so rare as to be virtually non-existent.
“If a man and a woman go into the woods with a picnic basket and a blanket and have a picnic, that’s a G. If they go into the woods with a picnic basket and crawl under the blanket, that’s a PG. And if they go into the woods without a basket or a blanket and have a picnic anyway, that’s an R.” Jane Fonda on movie ratings
I’ve read several ethnographies of Australian aboriginal societies, and though these societies differ from each other in little ways, they share many foundational beliefs and sexual comportment rubrics that allow one to generalize about Australian aboriginal society.
One of the most un-American of those foundational beliefs is that females are born perfect, whereas males are born deeply flawed and must spend most of their lives striving to overcome their flaws in hopes of becoming more like women. Again, try to wrap your patriarchal Judeo-Christian-Muslim minds around that one.
Because females are perfect, when a girl begins to menstruate, her transit into womanhood is joyfully celebrated, whereas boys, being terribly flawed, must undergo brutal initiation ceremonies that often result in the deaths of some of the young males. Should they survive these initiatory ordeals, these young men are then sent off to wander about with other unmarried men as they quest to overcome their flaws so they might one day be good enough to marry one or more of those perfect women. Hence most Australian aboriginal men do not marry until they are in their late twenties and thirties, at which time they usually wed women who have only recently attained sexual maturity, which means a typical Australian aboriginal couple will feature a man much older than his wife or wives.
Adultery is taboo among Australian aboriginals, but it is a soft taboo, which means many people have lovers outside their marriages. That, on the face of it, is not unlike the American model, but among Australian aboriginals extra-marital activities are expected and even encouraged (even though they are taboo), and so there are rarely any dire consequences for extra-marital hanky panky.
Now…those questing men I mentioned a couple paragraphs ago? The ones sent off to roam around with other imperfect men? Well, they wander for years and decades trying to improve themselves spiritually and emotionally so they can one day get married, have children, and grow old in the company of perfect women and other much improved men. And in the course of those many years of roaming around, these groups of men occasionally come into contact with mixed gender bands with whom they like to hang out for a time because, well, that’s what life is all about, bumping into groups of other people and socializing. And the sexual comportment practice that goes on at the outset of contact between roaming men and a band of married people and children and unmarried women is, to say the least, by American standards, spicy.
So…imagine a band of four or five extended families camped by a desert spring, life meandering along, so to speak, when a group of wandering men appears and stops a respectful distance away from the camp to await a response from the larger mixed gender band. And that response, assuming the wanderers are discerned to be a worthy bunch, is for several of the women, married and unmarried, to go out to greet the wandering men.
And when the wandering men see the women coming out to them, they lie down on their backs and surrender themselves sexually to the women, who mount those eager yet submissive visitors and thereby expiate lust, tension, mistrust, and you name it, so that when the wanderers enter the camp, they are, as it were, tame. This is the only acceptable occasion for a married woman to have sex outside of marriage.
Are there any occasions when a married Australian aboriginal man may, with the blessing of his society, have sex with a woman other than his wife or wives? Yes, there is one such occasion. But because I am absolutely certain my description of that occasion would deeply offend at least half my readers, I shall not endeavor to describe such a shocking event and the astonishing aftermath.