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Are Sexual Purity Taboos A Response To STIs?

I.

Did cultural evolution create sexual purity taboos to prevent the spread of STIs? A few weeks ago, I wrote a post assuming this was obviously true; after getting some pushback, I want to look into it in more depth.

STIs were a bigger problem in the past than most people think. Things got especially bad after the rise of syphilis: British studies find an urban syphilis rate of 8-10% from the 1700s to the early 1900s. At the time the condition was incurable, and progressed to insanity and death in about a quarter of patients. If you’ve got a 10% local syphilis rate, you are going to want some major sexual purity taboos. It’s less clear how bad they were in truly ancient times, but given how easily the extent of syphilis has slipped out of our cultural memory, I’m not ruling out “pretty bad”.

Here are some things I think of as basic parts of sexual purity taboos. All of these are cross-cultural – which isn’t to say they’re in every culture, or that some cultures aren’t exactly the opposite, just to say that they seem to pop up pretty often. I’m writing this from the male perspective because most of the cultures I know about thought that way:

1. If your wife has sex with another man, you should be angry
2. Preferably you should marry a virgin. If you think your bride is a virgin, but she isn’t, you should be angry
3. If you’ve got to marry a non-virgin, then marrying a widow is okay, but marrying a former prostitute or somebody known for sleeping around a lot is beyond the pale.

All of these are plausible ways to prevent the spread of STIs. If your wife has sex with another man, she could catch his STI and give it to you. If your bride isn’t a virgin, she might have STIs. If someone’s a widow, they probably slept with one known person whose STI status can be guessed at; if they’re a prostitute or slept around, they slept with many unknown people and have a higher chance of having STIs.

But the counterargument is that at least (1) and (2) are also good ways to prevent false paternity, ie raising another person’s child as your own.

The main argument that it’s more STI than paternity is that (3) doesn’t seem paternity-related; if it’s been more than nine months, you shouldn’t care who they’ve slept with before. Also, the taboos usually explicitly reference ideas of “pure” vs. “gross”; in most other cases, these are disease-related taboos. For example, spoiled food is “gross”, dirt/feces/blood are “gross”, corpses are “gross” – all of these are related to risk of disease transmission.

The main argument that it’s more paternity than STIs is that there’s less concern around men who have slept around being impure and unmarriagable. But that could just be because men are making the taboos and rigging them in their own favor. Yet you’d still think that if 10% of the population had syphilis and cultural evolution worked, men would stick to the purity taboos out of self-interest. Not sure here.

One way to distinguish between these possibilities would be to see how taboos changed as STIs became more common. This paper did some computer modeling and finds that STIs probably started becoming a problem around the rise of agriculture, which was also when a lot of restrictions on female sexuality became stricter. They tie this in with the triumph of monogamy over polygyny, which is especially interesting because false paternity doesn’t have a good explanation for this.

If purity taboos were related to STIs, we would expect them to get stricter and stricter through history, from the ancient through the classical and medieval worlds, maybe a sudden jump around the arrival of syphilis, reaching their peak in the 1800s, and then dropping precipitiously once good public health made the threat of STIs recede. I don’t have any real data on this, but it fits my impressions.

Most likely purity taboos came from both paternity issues and STIs. But I think it’s fair to speculate that STIs played a part.

II.

What about taboos on homosexuality?

Obviously there are no paternity issues here. And the AIDS epidemic proves that STIs transmitted primarily through homosexual contact can be real and deadly. Men who have sex with men are also forty times more likely to get syphilis and about three times more likely to get gonnorrhea (though they may be less likely to get other conditions like chlamydia).

In the previous thread, some people suggested that this could be an effect of stigma, where gays are afraid to get medical care, or where laws against gay marriage cause gays to have more partners. But Glick et al find that the biology of anal sex “would result in significant disparities in HIV rates between MSM and heterosexuals even if both populations had similar numbers of sex partners, frequency of sex, and condom use levels”.

Other people brought up that HIV and syphilis both post-date cultural taboos around homosexuality and so can’t be responsible for them. Were there earlier STIs that might have caused the taboos? This history of venereal diseases suggests ancient origins of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and (at least oral) herpes (the last of which provoked Emperor Tiberius to ban public kissing). But nobody understood that the conditions were spread by sex until the Middle Ages (?!) so the records weren’t great. Overall the ancient maladies seem a lot less worrying than syphilis or anything else that moderns have to deal with, but not completely absent.

Complicating the story, taboos around homosexuality were complicated and in some cases nonexistent. China seems not to have had any rules against it (though it also seems to have been pretty rare). The ancient and medieval Middle East seems to have been somewhat accepting also, assuming modern historians aren’t projecting. Some Greek city states had socially-sanctioned relationships between older men and younger boys. In Rome, it was considered acceptable for a man to be the penetrating partner, but shameful to be the receiving partner (and this tended to be limited to slaves and prostitutes). It wasn’t until the rise of Christianity that homosexuality became definitely taboo in Europe (mostly around 1000 or so), and not until Europeans took over other places that those places became equally strict.

Goodreau et al writes about “role versatility” in homosexual communities – ie whether people switch between being the penetrative vs. receptive partner, or always stick to one or the other. They find that role versatility is responsibility for faster STI spread (especially compared to heterosexuals, who are restricted to one role or the other), with receptive partners most easily infected. That makes it pretty suggestive that many of the ancient cultures that tolerated homosexuality had traditions that limited role versatility, with fixed distinctions between a high-status penetrating partner (freemen or adults), and low-status receptive partners (slaves or young boys) (except wouldn’t the young boys eventually grow into adults? Maybe the ten year delay is important in slowing the spread of epidemics). On the other hand, you could also say that these societies were sexist, and it was considered honorable to have sex in the male-like role and dishonorable to have it in the female-like role.

One plausible story is that there were relatively weak prohibitions on homosexual intercourse (as long as there was limited role versatility) during the period when STIs were rare and weak. Once syphilis started spreading in the late 1400s, these became much stronger. But honestly the strengthening of taboos in Europe was closer to 1000 or 1200 than to 1500, so I don’t know.

I still think it’s pretty likely STIs played a role in the cultural evolution of taboos against promiscuity and homosexuality. But the evidence is still pretty circumstantial. To really be convincing, you’d have to determine that serious STIs predated these taboos, maybe even correlate the STI rate with taboo strength. I don’t know of any research that’s tried this, and given how poor the ancient epidemiological records are it sounds pretty hard.

I haven’t been able to find a lot of real anthropological research on these issues; if you know of any, please tell me.

[Comments will be policed especially carefully here; please stick to discussing the origin of these taboos, not what you think of them personally.]

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340 Responses to Are Sexual Purity Taboos A Response To STIs?

  1. Steve Sailer says:

    Syphilis appears to have more or less arrived in Europe in c. 1493 for good (bad) with the return of Columbus’s first voyage. I’ve read that this led to more puritanism, but, unfortunately, I don’t know enough to evaluate the evidence.

    Keep in mind that just about everything historical involving both diseases and intimate morals is hazy and arguable.

    • ChrisA says:

      If STIs are what causes sexual morality, and syphilis is an especially bad STI that arrived from America only after Columbus, one would expect that pre-Colombian America should be significantly more puritanical the Europe at that time? Was that the case?

      • Squirrel of Doom says:

        I don’t think we know that much about pre-Colombian America either way, unfortunately…

      • Gerry Quinn says:

        I wonder if there are differences in resistance to syphilis between populations: specifically, whether those of pre-Columbian American ancestry are more resistant, as might seem plausible if the disease originated there? A quick Google gave me nothing.

        Of course it’s possible that bacteria evolve so fast that it’s too late to learn anything about human resistance to fifteenth century strains.

        • vV_Vv says:

          Indeed it’s plausible that Amerinds had some degree of genetic resistence to syphilis which the European lacked, much like the Europeans had some resistence to influenza, smallpox, measles and so on which the Amerinds lacked.

          • ThomasStearns says:

            William McNeill in “Plagues and Peoples” claims exactly this. That guy was for real.

          • deciusbrutus says:

            If that were the case, it would still be true. People descended from both lines might have both the Amerind resistance and the resistance that Europeans developed, if they ever did.

            I feel confident asserting that Amerind genes for syphilis resistance haven’t spread enough through Europe to prevent them from being identified.

          • baconbits9 says:

            If that were the case, it would still be true. People descended from both lines might have both the Amerind resistance and the resistance that Europeans developed, if they ever did.

            Not necessarily, the strains that went through Europe could have shifted enough to avoid the previous immunity of Amerinds by this point.

    • @ChrisA

      Not if STIs plus high population density is the cause. Pre-Colombian America surely had fewer high population density places than the Europe of the time. High population density is what turns the presence of a disease into an epidemic, and it may be waves of epidemics that provide sudden moral shocks.

      • kaakitwitaasota says:

        The pre-Colombian Americas were vast, and some parts (such as the Valley of Mexico) definitely had population densities on par with Europe. There is some speculation the Mississippi Valley may have, too; it’s very difficult to say because there was about a century’s lag between the arrival of European diseases in North America (with de Soto and Spanish ships who used the East Coast as temporary mooring stations to get clean water–there was also an attempted Spanish mission in what is now South Carolina that didn’t survive) and detailed records (with English colonization of the East Coast). We do know that the Puritans arrived in Massachusetts to find dozens of ghost villages, and there were clear changes in ecology elsewhere as well (e.g. the Mississippi Valley that de Soto saw had plenty of villages and people and no bison; when the French showed up a century later, bison were everywhere, which points to their hunters dying in droves.)

        I vaguely recall that the Aztecs, who presided over the highest population density in the area, were pretty strict about sexual mores.

        • sclmlw says:

          I was thinking the same thing. This is not my field, but when I read 1491 the author estimated the die-off rate from European disease was somewhere between 95-98%, and that there were potentially more people in pre-Columbian Americas than the rest of the world combined.

          The modern idea of wandering bands of nomads from coast to coast seems likely what would happen to us in a post-apocalyptic scenario like what they experienced.

          • Mary says:

            Estimates in the 90-percentage range have been made, but are on the high end.

          • Clutzy says:

            Those estimates are, among the highest there are, and it would have necessitated infrastructure that would have been seen and documented by Europeans for over a century.

            Given the amount of infrastructure needed to support populations, I think its pretty irresponsible to cite numbers over 50% without really delving into it. The 95% figure is like saying modern day Mongolia has 60 million residents. And we should just ignore that there aren’t enough roads for 6 million people.

          • deciusbrutus says:

            I’d be careful suggesting that roads that Europeans would recognize as such are necessarily required for population density.

          • Watchman says:

            Especially in Mongolia where people still ride a lot…

          • M says:

            But saying that Mongolia has 60 million people and we don’t see the roads because people ride everywhere (and ship stuff using saddlebags instead of carts) also ignores things like where all the manure goes, what the riding animals eat, etc.

          • Clutzy says:

            But saying that Mongolia has 60 million people and we don’t see the roads because people ride everywhere (and ship stuff using saddlebags instead of carts) also ignores things like where all the manure goes, what the riding animals eat, etc.

            This very much. Its not just roads (although roads are reliable because even riders prefer to use them), its number of houses, wells (or other places to reliably obtain clean water), lack of tilled land, lack of evidence for large boating and fishing enterprises, etc. There is no evidence that the pre-Colombian Americans were producing anywhere near enough food to support those sorts of estimates.

          • John Schilling says:

            This very much. Its not just roads (although roads are reliable because even riders prefer to use them)

            Riders of what, exactly?

            lack of tilled land

            What does “tilled land” look like, a hundred years after the last person to till it has died? And, does the next person to come along, A: carefully document evidence of possible century-old agricultural use, or B: till it himself in a way that literally plows under all the evidence?

            I will, however, note that the city of Phoenix, AZ, exists where it does and is called what it is because the first white people to come along found an abandoned irrigation system sufficient to support a small city and said “If we settle here, we can use this to get a head start on building our own city”

          • Steve Sailer says:

            I discussed this with Charles Mann, author of “1491.” I won’t speak for him, but I didn’t much change my view that the population density in 1491 north of the Rio Grande was considerably less than the population density in central/southern Mexico and central America.

            Clearly in 1491 the population of modern-day Mexico and Guatemala was very large. There are, for example, pyramids all over the place. And we know how they raised enough calories to feed a large population: corn.

            On the other hand, estimates for the population of the modern United States in 1491 are all over the place. North American Indians didn’t build all that much in stone, so there just aren’t the giant tourist attractions in the U.S. like there are vast pre-Columbian stone piles in Mexico.

            There are various dirt mounds, like Cahokia in East St. Louis. So, American Indians could grow enough corn in super fertile river bottoms to support locally dense populations to pile up a lot of dirt, at least for awhile (e.g., Cahokia collapsed well before Columbus.) Still, the density of ancient Indian monuments appears to me to be notably lower in the US than in Mexico or Peru (in Peru you can see pre-Columbian terraces for growing potatoes on countless mountainsides.)

            That’s my view, at least. Perhaps, on the other hand, the American Indians just were content to live in small villages and not build stupid stone monuments, instead building in wood and mud that have largely disappeared.

            On the other other hand, there’s some evidence that American Indians didn’t really have a variety of corn adapted to growing in the uplands away from the super rich river bottoms. And adapting corn to the shorter growing seasons of the higher latitudes was a continuing challenge (which exists to this day: Eurasian wheat is preferable in the upper Midwest.)

            It’s likely the American Indians would have figured these problems out eventually if not for Old World diseases introduced in the 16th Century.

            Still, it could be that the apparent lack of huge centralized tyrannies north of the Rio Grande meant that endemic warfare was enough to keep the population down as well.

            The recorded history of American Indians does not suggest a propensity to settle down into large, peaceful empires. For example, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse are famous to this day because they were political geniuses enough to get 1500 braves to assemble at Little Big Horn.

            Now it could well be that in 1491 American Indians were radically different in culture than they were later. But … the enthusiasm with which they adapted to innovations like horse warfare does not suggest a huge peasant population in 1491.

      • rodan32 says:

        I think the assumption about population is incorrect. I remember reading that Cortez doubled the population of the Spanish empire with the conquest of Mexico (from 10 mil to about 20 mil), and Pizarro added another ~10 mil with the conquest of Peru. Cuzco probably had about 150,000 people at the time of conquest, with more seasonally/ceremonially. Tenochtitlan probably had around 200,000. That’s not much smaller than Paris or Rome, and significantly larger than London (though Constantinople probably wins if you count that as Europe.) Even Cahokia probably had at least 40,000.

        I think we get a little provincial when we think about Europe. I didn’t check it (so don’t quote me), but I believe both Beijing and Nanjing were larger than anything in Europe. Anyway, my point is that the large American empires were probably more urban than Europe at the time of Columbus.

        • Watchman says:

          I don’t think that’s controversial to be honest. India and parts of south-east Asia also had large urban centres.

          What made Europe different was not the Romes and Parises or even the Londons. It was the Flemish towns, the Italian city states, the Hansiatic League members and the charterd markets, producing a huge density of competing urban centres. These created polyfocal societies and markets. Large urban centres often imply centralised control and command economies, which are generally exploitative, and aren’t necessarily a sign of a developed urban economy. Big was not necessarily better.

    • Majuscule says:

      There’s some recent research that indicates Eurasian variants of syphilis existed since the classical period, but were fairly low-grade and slow moving where localized over long periods of time. I would have to find the book that mentioned the study.

      The theory added that the endemic Old World syphilis would have often looked like other common illneses. Or, if recognized, it might have been regarded more like modern herpes. It didn’t cause the same symptoms or fear that the post-conquest strains caused. The first strains to cross the Atlantic were fucking terrifying and would absolutely make me 1000% more concerned with purity.

  2. Steve Sailer says:

    My vague impression is that the homosexual activity celebrated in Plato’s “Symposium” wasn’t supposed to be penetrative.

    • I think the Greeks mostly promoted thigh sex, which as it happens, doesn’t have much of an elevated STI risk.

      • David Roman says:

        The current scholarly consensus is that Greeks had indeed discovered anal sex, besides maths, geometry and the like. There are long discussions on the matter, here I just made a reference to the tail end of one such argument among learned scholars in the Times Literary Supplement https://aussiesta.wordpress.com/2018/12/10/the-joy-of-classic-greek-translation/

        • Purplehermann says:

          Aristophanes was a comedian, in a time when non penetrative homosexual sex was normal but penetrative sex was not socially acceptable (though it did happen) a comedian talking about penetrative sex doesn’t mean it was acceptable

          • David Roman says:

            Judging by 21st century rules, and those of any other century I can think of, it seems to me that a definition of “acceptable” in that era could be: “whatever a comedian can publicly joke about, without him/her being sent to jail or social ostracism.” Aristophanes was pretty successful and, indeed, mainstream.

          • Purplehermann says:

            People joke about incest rape and pedophilia nowadays, if you read ‘A Modest Proposal’ you’ll see an example from another time where someone joked about something unacceptable (to do) by a much farther margin of unacceptability than the difference between thigh sex (normal) and penetrative sex (not socially acceptable)

          • AnteriorMotive says:

            @David Roman

            Aristophanes was socially conservative, and constantly makes mean-spirited jokes at the expense of people he doesn’t like.

            His jokes about homosexual behaviour seem usually to be directed at the people partaking in them.

            I originally started writing this comment because I remembered, in my translation of The Birds, an explanation of a joke as being in reference to “a known buggerer.” But when I tried to find it online, Wikipedia claimed the guy was just homosexual, and another translation says he was accused of effeminacy just for being clean-shaven, so who knows?

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cleisthenes_(son_of_Sibyrtius)

        • vV_Vv says:

          The current scholarly consensus is that Greeks had indeed discovered anal sex, besides maths, geometry and the like.

          If I understand correctly, the socially acceptable sexual relationships between men and boys of similar social status were not supposed to involve anal sex.

          Anal sex was reserved for intercourse between men of widely different social status (e.g. a master and a slave or prostitute) as it was seen demeaning for the receptive partner, and brutish for the penetrative partner.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            Anal sex was reserved for intercourse between men of widely different social status (e.g. a master and a slave or prostitute) as it was seen demeaning for the receptive partner, and brutish for the penetrative partner.

            Oh, so that’s what satyrs did.

          • Mary says:

            The argument that the partners were regarded very differently is not that well-founded.

            I offer Courtesans and Fishcakes for anyone who wants to get into it, but the problem is that argument turns on the claim that a certain term is said to mean “passive”, but it’s also used to refer to male adulterers, and to mice. Basically, in a way that makes it clear that it’s “lustful”, not “passive” — the problem is more than the man is a slave of passion that the particular act committed.

          • carvenvisage says:

            @mary catelli do you have a link to an example? That doesn’t sound convincing offhand.

            1. Mice are borderline synonymous with meekness

            2. modern culture might not link self control with forcefulness, but people with idols like https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaius_Mucius_Scaevola and Alexander the Great might have different associations there than moderners marinated in an atmosphere of (gesturingly-) dissolute hedonism rather than purposeful violent action. (Not to mention that if you’re a slave to your passions in any ancient society you’re much more likely to go down ignominiously into the dust than in any modern society with great wealth and a strong safety net, and a christian devotion to the low and the fallen.)

          • Mary says:

            A link to the book?

          • carvenvisage says:

            @Mary I’m not trying to catch you out, I would much rather be able to add an item to my list of commonly-accepted translations not to take at face value than not.

            To one of the places where the author argues the word translated as passive could equally or more be translated as “lustful”, particularly if involving male adulterers or mice.

  3. DeWitt says:

    Prostitution seems to have been a hell of a lot more common in bygone days than it is now. How would you square such a thing with sexual taboos maybe having been stronger in bygone days?

    • Scott Alexander says:

      As I mentioned above, I would expect taboos to have gradually gotten stronger until the invention of STI treatment in the early 1900s, then to have dropped off suddenly.

      My guess is we’re gradually shedding sexual norms that were appropriate for eg 1800s Europe, maybe the most STI-dense culture in history. The prostitution norms are holding on longer than the no-sex-before-marriage norms and the no-homosexuality norms for various complicated political reasons.

      • DeWitt says:

        1800’s and early 1900’s Europe and America were absolutely ridden with prostitution, as best I can tell, so that doesn’t quite seem right! The wealthy in 1910 certainly couldn’t have hired high end prostitutes out in the open without anyone batting an eye as 500 BC’s Athenians might have, but practices like hiring prostitutes for younger family members/friends to lose their virginity to were common enough then, whereas by now that seems beyond the pale.

        • Nicholas Weininger says:

          AFAICT the World Wars seem to have been the turning point here. Could the exhortations to soldiers in those wars about the dangers of contracting STIs from prostitutes have been one engine of cultural change? Availability of treatment is one thing, the expense of having to treat an army is another. The World Wars also famously suppressed economic inequality, which is more directly relevant to the social dynamics of prostitution than it is to other sexual norms.

        • Michael Watts says:

          practices like hiring prostitutes for younger family members/friends to lose their virginity to were common enough then, whereas by now that seems beyond the pale.

          Why would you say this? I see no reason to believe it’s not just as common now. A stigma on talking about it is not evidence that it happens less.

          Maggie McNeill has written about being hired in this role… and a friend of mine in high school was made the offer by his father.

          • g says:

            Michael, the thing by Maggie McNeill that you link to says:

            Now, I knew that at one time it was not at all uncommon for fathers to hire prostitutes to take their sons’ virginity, but it’s not exactly usual nowadays and in any event I had never done it.

            So, while the fact that she did it is evidence that it’s not so very uncommon, her opinion — which seems worth taking note of — is that it is much less common than it has been in the past.

        • MVDZ says:

          It seems like a straightforward supply/demand related issue. As sex became safer with the invention of condoms and modern treatment, people of all stripes including women became more willing to have sex. This lowered the demand for prostitutes by people who were perceived as normal and attractive enough to get sex for free. Consequently, only people who couldn’t attract people the ‘normal’ way would use prostitutes. As a response the taboo actually increased: in Victorian ages, everyone who wanted to have sex (meaning everyone) would turn to prostitutes, so it became a public secret that everyone sees prostitutes. Taboo, but one to be broken. Afterwards only people who couldn’t find a willing woman at a bar would see prostitutes (I don’t mean this in a normative way, just general societal perception). So anyone who would see prostitutes would be by definition associated with ‘unattractive’ people. The taboo becomes more about status than pure morality, though of course people will gladly use morality to justify a status-related taboo.

          • C. Y. Hollander says:

            As sex became safer with the invention of condoms and modern treatment, people of all stripes including women became more willing to have sex.

            I don’t think you need the disclaimer, especially given that the risks, inconveniences, and discomforts of pregnancy fall primarily on women.

          • Watchman says:

            You do realise that in the nineteenth century it’s quite normal for the first baby to appear about six months after the marriage… Try before you buy was pretty normal then too.

            The popular picture of the sexual morality of the Victorians is frankly nonsense. They had their moralistic reformers, as do we, but for some reason the moralists are continually treated as the snorm here, not an outlier.

            As far as I know,, only one US president has owned up to an illegitimate child, and he won two elections in the nineteenth century. It doesn’t look like there was a morality filter in place there anyway…

            People had sex out of marriage in the nineteenth century, quite possibly as much as today. It might have led to marriage a lot more, but it was not something unspeakable so much as something most people seemed quite relaxed about.

            I always wonder if our view of Victorians isn’t heavily influenced by the fact that the grandparents of those involved in the sexual revolution in the 60s were likely born in the previous century and a combination of grandparently disapproval and the general reluctance to consider that your grandparents had sex could explain a popular adoption of the current view. Any modern social historians around?

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            @Watchman:

            The popular picture of the sexual morality of the Victorians is frankly nonsense. They had their moralistic reformers, as do we, but for some reason the moralists are continually treated as the snorm here, not an outlier.

            I find it hilarious that Queen Victoria’s diary dismantles practically all our beliefs about the Victorians in general and her in particular.

            Belief: “We are not amused.” Diary: “We are very much amused!!”
            Belief: They barely had sex even within marriage. Diary: She and Prince Albert were enthusiastic.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            You do realise that in the nineteenth century it’s quite normal for the first baby to appear about six months after the marriage… Try before you buy was pretty normal then too.

            Yeah, but there’s a difference between “Try before you buy” and “I’m in no position to get married at the moment but I sure feel horny.”

          • IvanFyodorovich says:

            Agree with MVDZ. I feel like a lot of the modern taboo surrounding hiring prostitutes is that it is viewed as something sexually unsuccessful men do. It is also viewed as a dark and exploitative business, and since other work has become safer and less horrid over the last couple hundred years (e.g. children no longer die will cleaning chimneys) it is comparatively worse.

          • MVDZ says:

            @Watchmen
            Of course people wanted sex. But your example perfectly illustrates the risks of having sex. Whether it was unwanted pregnancy or STI’s, having sex was a kind of roulette with enormous consequences.
            Imagine you’re married and the only way you can prevent pregnancy is by pulling out. Now try to convince your wife to have sex regularly while you are an ordinary middle-class family with four children and no real way to support a fifth one. She will likely keep down sex to a bare minimum just to be sure.
            Prostitution externalises all those risks. It doesn’t matter if the prostitute gets pregnant, gets a disease or whatever. It becomes Someone Else’s Problem.

        • vV_Vv says:

          I guess there is a strong substitution effect between porn and prostitution.

          Various forms of visual erotica existed for a long time, theey were usually considered illegal in the late 19th – early 20th century. Playboy (yes, it’s porn, people bought it to jerk off) began publishing in 1953. Fully explicit porn movies were legalized in the 1970s.

          As pornography became more common and socially accepted, prostitution became more unacceptable, and the trend in Europe seems to be towards criminalization.

      • Gerry Quinn says:

        Given that gay men are much more likely to suffer from STDs, the hypothesis that they are the reason for purity taboos would suggest that such taboos would be stronger among gay men than among the general population. I’m doubting it.

        • benjdenny says:

          I don’t this makes sense – Gay men as an open culture that could develop and enforce tab0os is what, 40 yearsish? It would also be hard to directly compare the taboos effect – the counter-weight sexual motivations and habits are different between all-men groups and men-and-women groups. It’s plausible you’d find differences in how the taboos worked the same way you’d find taboos against dirty water or rotting food working less well in thirsty/starving populations.

    • IvanFyodorovich says:

      It actually makes sense that prostitution would be common in sexually restrictive societies, particularly those that harshly penalize female sexuality.

      Think of it this way. You are a young man who wants some action. If you have a sexual relationship with “a nice girl”, you bring ruin upon her, especially if you don’t marry her afterwards. A prostitute is a different matter: she is already fallen, you are just bringing her business. A few societies have been intense enough to prevent young men from seeking action (e.g. 17th century Puritans) but most aren’t, so effectively they cordon off a few percent of females as lost to protect the rest. This process is helped along by the tendency of restrictive societies to see women as either virginal or fallen. Modern westerners still look down somewhat on promiscuity, but we distinguish between someone who has had three sexual partners vs. one hundred. Restrictive societies don’t.

      Thinking about it, “women must be pure except some prostitutes” is an extremely bad model for stopping STIs, since there are some people who rapidly become infected and spread infection to others. There’s been epidemiological work on this, everyone having a couple of partners is less conducive to spread of disease than a small number of very promiscuous people having sex with everyone. Supports the uncertain paternity motivation.

      • Purplehermann says:

        Do you have any sources for the work showing this? I’m interested in knowing if they took into account that the few prolific members are female

        • Dragor says:

          I can’t give you the citation (or at least I won’t, I really should be starting a nap right now), but I can give you a treasure hunt map for how to find it: in the Book Narconomocs there is a chapter where they talk about the most important person to take down if you want to disrupt drug markets. It opens with a discussion of midieval marriage markets among nobles in I believe Naples. I believe it is towards the end of the book. That chapter cites this research on STIs.

        • Econymous says:

          Development economist Michael Kremer has done some modelling of this.

          If you search “AIDS” in Kremer’s CV there are a few papers discussing it.

          Kremer’s research on this is also profiled in a book called More Sex is Safer Sex by Steven Landsburg

    • Mark84124 says:

      The claim that there is less prostitution in the 21st century than in the 19th seems strange to me, a former truck driver. There are very few places in the lower 48 states where it is impossible to find a woman who is willing to contract to have sex with a man. These come in the forms of cheap hookers off the street/bars, “asian” massage parlors, and more premium girls that can be contacted through dating sites on the internet. (Now, I should mention that not every masseuse who is of asian descent is a prostitute. But if you are looking at a store front with tightly shuttered windows, a picture of a naked person being massaged, and the name of an asian country in its name there is a high chance the woman running that particular store will be willing to contract for extra services beyond massage.)

      Are you really confident of the claim that all the people working in the three fields of prostitution I mentioned above make up a significantly lower percentage of the population than the prostitutes of the 1800’s? Not just the mining towns and work camps in gritty westerns, but the entire population? Is it possible that these institutions are better at hiding since people gained the ability to drive many miles in half an hour, or since the internet became common?

      (I usually lurk this site, but I took one look at the comments and immediately disagreed with what I saw strongly enough that felt a need to be heard.)

  4. Brett says:

    Positing an ancient STI taboo seems rather unlikely when most folks lived agrarian lives in the same villages and would have had limited options for spreading STIs beyond a tightly knit community (and would have known quickly who was had it). They are more of an urban issue, where sexual promiscuity and illegitimacy were always common in large cities (and got more common in the huge, swelling cities of the 18th and 19th centuries).

    • vV_Vv says:

      Positing an ancient STI taboo seems rather unlikely when most folks lived agrarian lives in the same villages and would have had limited options for spreading STIs beyond a tightly knit community (and would have known quickly who was had it).

      Well, the people living in villages weren’t spared by the recurring plague epidemics throughout the Middle Ages. While the plague is not technically considered an STI because it can spread by means other than sex, sleeping around during a plague outbreak was pretty much a sure-fire way of getting infected.

  5. fnord says:

    This paper did some computer modeling and finds that STIs probably started becoming a problem around the rise of agriculture, which was also when a lot of restrictions on female sexuality became stricter. They tie this in with the triumph of monogamy over polygyny, which is especially interesting because false paternity doesn’t have a good explanation for this.

    The triumph of monogamy over polygyny is a restriction on male sexuality, not female.

    • sleepygnu says:

      I thought that traditionalists and incels supported monogamy as a a sort of testosterone redistribution, so the “chads” won’t keep all the women to themselves.
      They have the same view of women that socialists do of capitalists and I can’t help but think that traditionalists in the past had similar motivations.

  6. len says:

    Why not the relatively simpler explanation of encouraging reproduction of high-IQ/successful individuals (given the correlation between homosexuality and IQ).

    You want a norm of successful, wealthy men settling down with women, forming families and having kids — which requires preserving and promoting “traditional family values”, and the traditional family structure as something desirable, something people aspire for and work towards.

    Having a norm of people buggering each other (or engaging in orgies, or other sexually “impure” behavior that disrupts pair-bonding) instead of settling down into families and raising children would definitely weaken such family values. And strong family values does seem like the kind of thing that would be good to maintain, for STIs and paternity, and for social stability in general.

    Of course, societies with non-traditional family structures exist and the book cited many examples, but a) they seem to be the exception, not the norm and b) non-traditional family structures don’t seem to be present in most successful societies.

    • BlindKungFuMaster says:

      The correlation between homosexuality and IQ is probably a correlation between coming out and IQ.

      • fluffykitten55 says:

        Maybe not, as gender nonconformity among nominal heterosexuals is correlated with higher IQ. Though low IQ might just mean a tendency to more rigidly follow norms, and then we get selection that way. But the it is probbaly not strictly ‘coming out’ that is the filter.

        https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21331499

        • aristides says:

          Does this imply that the Flynn effect could contribute to the increased prevalence in homosexuality?

    • Of course, societies with non-traditional family structures exist and the book cited many examples, but a) they seem to be the exception, not the norm and b) non-traditional family structures don’t seem to be present in most successful societies.

      I think the other major point is that they’re structures full stop. Today, we are experimenting a lot with gender roles and alternatives to the gender binary, but there’s no rigid dogma beyond “be yourself”. This is really a far cry from older societies that had formalised third genders. Modern homosexuality is also individualistic in a way that ancient forms weren’t.

    • Picador says:

      I don’t think you need to get into the IQ issue. A taboo that is locally adaptive (e.g. good for my family/clan) rather than globally adaptive (e.g. good for society/my tribe) will still propagate itself. So if male homosexuality doesn’t contribute to men in my clan having more offspring, investing in those offspring, forming alliances by marrying women from other clans etc., then it’s not going to be encouraged; if it actually undermines any of those things it will be taboo.

  7. David Roman says:

    Romans were never as fond of homosexual practices as the ancient Greeks (who were very much into gay sex, as the Romans never ceased to remind them), but they had a more tolerant approach in the imperial era. People whom we would describe as homosexuals, in modern terms, thrived especially among the upper classes. This era saw the rise of Christianism, with Paul the Apostle being particularly virulent against homosexuals. A good example of prominent “gay” is Trajan, who became emperor Jan 1, AD 100 and was personally inclined towards homosexuality. Trajan’s putative lovers included Hadrian (his successor), pages of the imperial household, the actor Pylades, a dancer called Apolaustus, Lucius Licinius Sura and Nerva (his predecessor, also childless). To me, the question is whether Paul, and particularly his Christian successors of later generations, consciously deployed anti-homosexual prejudice from the Jewish tradition, in order to make the supposedly popular political point that homosexual mutual influence networks had become too powerful at the apex of the empire — and the point stuck, and was often reiterated by Christians, even when there were no “gay influencers” to be chased off power. STIs, in my view, have been probably a secondary concern compared with these social issues.

    • Steve Sailer says:

      In Roman times, homosexuality correlated with sexual predation by the powerful. In the institutional memory of both Judaism and Christianity (and perhaps Islam), which goes back to Persian and Greco-Roman times, homosexuality was what strong men did to weaker males with the full approval of society.

      • David Roman says:

        Good point. Fact that previous “effeminate” emperors like Caligula and Nero were not held in high esteem may have also contributed. The whole Christian anti-homosexual drive may have been part of a wider rebellion against what people saw that as decadent Greek influences weakening the Roman Empire, which the Christians wanted to save and use as a platform to project their religion. So the baby went out with the bathwater, so to speak.

        • Steve Sailer says:

          To put it in contemporary vocabulary, Christians and Jews during classical times saw themselves as underdogs punching up against homosexual exploitation by the powerful, such as the aggressive Roman emperor Trajan.

          • Purplehermann says:

            The Torah was written before classical times, Jews and Christians draw their anti-homosexual sex from there.
            There are records of the underdog punching up narrative, but against the taking of their woman mostly, which was quite common if you believe the texts. Nary a mention of homosexual predation that I’ve seen

      • vV_Vv says:

        homosexuality was what strong men did to weaker males with the full approval of society.

        Which is pretty much the modern view of homosexual behaviors among prison inmates.

        If anything the Christian ban of homsexuality might have originated as way to protect weak men from sexual predation by strong men, in a general framework of increasing protections of the weak from the oppression of the strong (see, for instance, the prohibition of enslaving Christians).

        In fact, there was a recent kerfuffle about the recent book by Naomi Wolf, where she described as a prototypical case of legal persecution of homsexuals in the Victorian period the case of a 14 years old boy allegedly executed (“death recorded”) for being gay (“sodomy”), instead it turned out that she had misinterpreted the legal documents, and not only the teen wasn’t executed (he was pardoned after serving two years) but he was actually convicted of sexually abusing a younger boy, which is what “sodomy” actually meant in most of these cases.

    • Deiseach says:

      TIL that Catullus was a Christian. (Staid and more literal translation here, freer but more in the spirit one here; the point about the son’s hairy bottom is that he’s a grown man, and so too old to be peddling his flesh, unless he liked and preferred sex with men, which for a grown man to be the receptive partner is shameful and low status).

      Your theory about “Christianism” might be more effective if it didn’t sound like the mirror-image of the “Constantine corrupted Pure Gospel Christianity and thus we got three-quarters pagan Roman Catholicism” screeds that are popular in certain quarters, as well as the list of Trajan’s putative lovers. “Putative” is right and until and unless we know one way or the other, it’s gossip.

      Paul nor anybody else needed to whip up anti-gay sentiment; the idea of cliques of the decadent elite and their hangers-on having influence at high levels and being much too powerful for their size and contribution has been around since approximately forever, and we see the same kind of stories today in business and politics (remember the article about Silicon Valley techbro sex’n’drug orgies?)

    • The original Mr. X says:

      To me, the question is whether Paul, and particularly his Christian successors of later generations, consciously deployed anti-homosexual prejudice from the Jewish tradition, in order to make the supposedly popular political point that homosexual mutual influence networks had become too powerful at the apex of the empire

      That seems unlikely, since as far as I’m aware neither Paul nor any other early Christian writer made any explicit criticism of or reference to homosexual cliques in government.

    • jes5199 says:

      there’s some evidence that anti-gay interpretation of certain bible verses is actually pretty recent, with older translations referring to “boy molesters” instead of “homosexuals” : https://www.forgeonline.org/blog/2019/3/8/what-about-romans-124-27

  8. Phil Goetz says:

    STIs probably started becoming a problem around the rise of agriculture, which was also when a lot of restrictions on female sexuality became stricter. They tie this in with the triumph of monogamy over polygyny, which is especially interesting because false paternity doesn’t have a good explanation for this.

    The “triumph of monagamy” was in the 20th century, more than 10,000 years after the rise of agriculture, and is explained by the fact that the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans were very strictly monogamous, and their cultural descendants (including Christians, who are still strictly monogamous despite the New Testament not saying anything against polygamy) basically conquered the world. You could investigate why those peoples were so strictly monogamous, but I don’t think evolutionary theory will help you with such a small sample size–unless you want to claim that monogamy itself led to European world dominance.

    Which isn’t out of the question. Polygamy causes very strong selection on males, and so probably speeds up evolution considerably; but it greatly reduces the power of kin selection, presumably reducing the evolution of altruism and cooperation.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      Yes, they make terrible word choices. They don’t mean monogamy vs polygynous marriage. They mean faithful marriage (including polygyny) vs promiscuity.

    • Michael Watts says:

      the fact that the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans were very strictly monogamous, and their cultural descendants (including Christians, who are still strictly monogamous despite the New Testament not saying anything against polygamy) basically conquered the world.

      You could make this claim as to the Greeks and Romans. It’s not at all true of the Egyptians. Pharaohs had dozens of wives, with the status of “wife”. (Though not the higher status of King’s Great Wife — there was only one of those. A Chinese emperor similarly had only one Empress among his many, many wives; that gets a little more complicated because as far as I know the others had titles which weren’t the word “wife”. But I don’t see anything particularly unusual in a royal wife being referred to by a special title… even (especially!) the primary wives have those.)

      • Phil Goetz says:

        I’ve read that only Pharaohs and kings had many wives in ancient Egypt. (I don’t know how we supposedly know this.) But we should ask what significance “wife” has in these cultures. At least in ancient Rome & in parts of the Middle Ages, men could be effectively polygamous by having concubines. You could say “wife” was a legal term for determining inheritance.

      • Deiseach says:

        Royal harems, be they Indian, Egpytian or Chinese, are as much or more about politics and making alliances as they are about lust or love; see the history of battles within such harems to become the favourite and climb the greasy pole to replacing the current Empress and becoming Empress yourself, or getting your son declared the heir apparent.

        Entering as an imperial concubine and working your way up to regent or de facto ruler with a mixture of guile, ruthlessness, and cultivation of appropriate virtues (or at least an appearance of such) was the path for several Chinese empresses.

    • Jaskologist says:

      despite the New Testament not saying anything against polygamy

      “A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach;” –1 Timothy 3:2

      An elder must be blameless: the husband of one wife, with faithful[fn] children who are not accused of wildness or rebellion.
      Titus 1:6

      Many in the very early church interpreted this to exclude even those who remarried after the death of a spouse.

      • acymetric says:

        Isn’t that only for elders and bishops?

        • Jaskologist says:

          Yes. It’s not a universal command, but it does put that forward as an ideal.

          • Furslid says:

            Don’t underestimate the power of upper class morals to spread downward.

            If a bishop can’t have two wives, then anyone who aspires to be a bishop can’t have two wives.

            If having two wives is frowned upon by the powerful, then anyone who wants to curry favor with the powerful will find a second wife a hindrance.

            If having two wives would make the bishop less holy, then anyone who wants to be holy (or present themselves as holy) could have a harder time if they marry a second wife.

            It could just become fashionable because people emulate the powerful.

      • Phil Goetz says:

        Yep; I’m familiar with those verses. First, Timothy and Titus are both forgeries, as bishops didn’t exist in Paul’s lifetime. But even if you take them as scripture, they’re both speaking of bishops and elders, not of Christians in general. There is nothing said anywhere in the Bible against polygamy among the congregation, and there would have been if it were considered important, since polygamy was still practiced in Judea at that time.

        Furthermore, if you think that the requirements put on bishops and elders (by an anonymous 2nd-century forger) apply to everyone, then why mustn’t everyone now remain unmarried–as today, bishops must be unmarried?

        (I note in passing that the verses you quoted don’t say these church authorities must have at most one wife. In the Greek they say he must have one wife. It could mean “at least one” as easily as “at most one”, and in either case, bishops today who are unmarried are defying scripture.)

        Furthermore, this is all in line with Paul’s more-authentic statements in 1 Corinthians 7:1-9, saying that all sex is bad, and marriage exists only to make it less sinful–but that best of all is not to marry, and to never have sex. If just one wife is good, no wives is better. This entire business about bishops having only one wife is doctrine against sex, not against polygamy.

        • Jaskologist says:

          So, when you said “the New Testament” you really meant “a subset of the New Testament that I’m keeping to myself.” I can also declare that the New Testament says nothing about subject X, once I exclude the books that talk about X.

          But if you look at the writings that the church itself actually accepted and considered the New Testament, then yes, polygamy was mentioned, and it’s no big surprise that Christians were against it.

        • Deiseach says:

          But even if you take them as scripture, they’re both speaking of bishops and elders, not of Christians in general.

          Yeah, let’s forget that whole part about “So Moses said you could get divorced, but I’m telling you nuh-uh”, who cares about the Gospels, pfffttt!

          Why not go further? I’ve seen people arguing to square the circle that “the husband of one wife” only means one wife, so no multiple marriages as in the example of “polygamy was still practiced in Judea” being permitted amongst the Jews, or that bishops/elders could get divorced but could not remarry if the ex-wife was still alive, and the like. And the Protestant reformers did use in seriousness your snipe about “bishops today who are unmarried are defying scripture” as to why clergy not alone could but should and must be married.

          It’s wonderfully convenient when we can attribute the parts of Scripture we don’t like to anonymous forgers, isn’t it?

        • The original Mr. X says:

          First, Timothy and Titus are both forgeries, as bishops didn’t exist in Paul’s lifetime.

          That seems a bit circular.

          “Bishops didn’t exist in Paul’s lifetime.”
          “But here’s a text written from Paul’s time which mentions the existence of bishops.”
          “That text is a forgery.”
          “Really? How do you know?”
          “Because it mentions bishops, who didn’t exist in Paul’s lifetime. Duh.”

        • theredsheep says:

          I too would like to know how we know bishops did not exist in Paul’s time. It seems like we’d have no way of knowing other than to rely on texts from the period, no?

          • Mary says:

            Yeah. It’s kind of hard to see what other evidence we have against it.

          • Also, that line like the entire New Testament is not actually “a text” from Paul’s time. It is a centuries-later English translation of what was in Paul’s time a series of stories written down in Greek. There are many examples in the New Testament where the choice of translation of specific words from that original Greek has implications for that word’s actual substantive meaning. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that entire wars have been fought over such translation choices…point being that we don’t necessarily known that the word we are now reading as “bishop” meant, in that 1st-century Greek and to Paul and his contemporaries, the same thing that it means now.

          • Thyle says:

            It depends on what you mean by “bishop.” As I mention below, the actual translation is “overseer.”

            From what I remember of the history, he is more or less right that Bishops, as we know them now, didn’t exist. But an office of overseer was created by the apostles and it evolved into what we see today.

          • Mary says:

            From what I remember of the history, he is more or less right that Bishops, as we know them now, didn’t exist.

            Please be more specific on what the differences are to make you say that. Especially since bishops are still overseers.

        • Thyle says:

          I looked it up. (I have to get something out of all those years studying ancient Greek for that fairly useless history degree. Now if anybody has an interesting interpretation involving King Alfred’s English, it will make my day!)

          The word “Bishop” is a modern spin on the text. The original Greek word is better translated as “overseer.” So I don’t think you can call it a forgery on that account.

          Also, the word order of the phrase is “one-woman man,” which, although awkward, better conveys the sense.

    • theredsheep says:

      The New Testament does contain Paul’s instructions that a bishop should be “the husband of one wife,” but that’s understood to mean a man who did not marry more than once in sequence, e.g. after his first wife died. The fact that the NT doesn’t say anything explicit against it doesn’t mean much by a traditional understanding; the idea that the Bible was an exhaustive resource that had to be the final authority on everything would have been foreign to almost all Christians prior to the sixteenth century. Church traditions were real and powerful enough. The Bible also says nothing about abortion, but Church fathers are unambiguously opposed to it from quite early, even if the population frequently ignored their proscriptions.

      Polygyny can’t be the norm for the whole of a healthy society, top to bottom, because men and women are born in roughly equal numbers. Unless something is killing off or otherwise eliminating a bunch of men over and over again–or the society is importing lots of women somehow–multiple wives will be the privilege of a few powerful men, even in societies which condone it.

      • Mary says:

        One notes that in Roman paganism, some cults were limited to the “wife of one husband” meaning a woman who had not had two husbands ever.

        One also notes that the Roman emperors had laws penalizing those who did not remarry about widowhood or divorce (and less penalties for those who were childless), because of worries about population.

    • Phil Goetz says:

      BTW, you could interpret the scarcity of polyandry as evidence that cultures are selected to avoid paternal ambiguity.

      Also BTW, all talk of cultural selection invokes group selection. I’m not doubtful of group selection, as it’s obvious that group selection, in the form of one group conquering another group and imposing their culture and genes on it, has been a major factor in human history. I’m just pointing it out.

      • Clutzy says:

        I think a lot of people have gotten away from simple explanations like family investment being a positive contributor to the economy. There are lots of people who think things like a nearly 100% inheritance tax and universal free childcare/education would help make people more equal. My thought is it would, but only by lobbing off the top, not bringing up the bottom. If you do things like that, there is much less incentive to invest in your kids, which means there is little reason to work at all. My dad would have retired 10 years ago if he didn’t want to leave a little extra to his grandchildren.

  9. Le Maistre Chat says:

    Complicating the story, taboos around homosexuality were complicated and in some cases nonexistent. China seems not to have had any rules against it (though it also seems to have been pretty rare). The ancient and medieval Middle East seems to have been somewhat accepting also, assuming modern historians aren’t projecting. Some Greek city states had socially-sanctioned relationships between older men and younger boys. In Rome, it was considered acceptable for a man to be the penetrating partner, but shameful to be the receiving partner (and this tended to be limited to slaves and prostitutes)

    Yes, they’re projecting. They wouldn’t treat Western culture as “somewhat accepting” while having the death penalty for male homosexuality on the books. That said, Islamic greater Iran (extending from modern Iran beyond the Aral Sea and to the Pashtun-speaking part of Pakistan) had/has a lot of it going on. There’s circumstantial evidence from Greek Classics that this is the continuation of an ancient practice.
    Looking at Europe, I don’t even know what your model would make of the 16th century. Protestant success as a response to syphilis coming from America? OTOH Protestants opposed the existing celibacy taboos…

    • ilfautcultivernotrejardin says:

      Do we know that the death penalty was enforced (or even just legal consensus) for male-male anal sex in the medieval Middle East? I’m genuinely curious.

      • David Roman says:

        This is from Martin Stannard’s biography of Evelyn Waugh: Waugh takes Thomas Moor (a young American admirer who visited in England) to visit Gloucester cathedral. He loudly informs that Edward II was buried there; this is verbatim, Moor reporting to Stannard in September 1987: “‘Great aesthete, you know.’ He pronounced it ees-thete, and added for my possible benefit: ‘patron of the arts, you know.’ He spoke in so uninhibitedly conversational a tone that several of the hushed, whispering tourists nearby, most of them elderly ladies, looked our way. At the same level of volume, he continued: ‘Homosexual, you know — died near here at Berkeley Castle with a red-hot poker thrust up his anus.'”

        • David Roman says:

          Fun fact: Viserys Targaryan (Daenerys’s ill-fated brother) and Renly Baratheon (Stannis’ ill-fated brother) in Game of Thrones both appear to be de-composite versions of Edward II, as depicted in “Les Roi Maudits,” a series of novels about the last Capet kings of France from which George RR Martin drew inspiration for his own novels. Note their horrible deaths in the show.

      • theredsheep says:

        In the medieval middle east? Hell no. The Abbasid caliphate was eventually taken over by Turkish slave soldiers–who doubled as sex slaves. There are still plenty of extant poems from the era about the seductive beauty of little boys.

        • David Roman says:

          In Europe, going back to the era depicted in Les Rois Maudits, (perhaps unfounded) accusations of sodomy were key in the trial that destroyed the Templar Knights and ended up with some of them burning at the stake.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        By the beginning of the 10th century AD, independent reasoning by judges, called ijtihad, began to end in favor of applying the strict rules of an established school of sharia jurisprudence.
        This does not address the question of whether enforcement was lax unto nonexistent, for which we have some evidence (see theredsheep in this subthread).

    • Phil Goetz says:

      We know that in the time of Mohammed, it was acceptable for some wealthy men to have sex with boys, even while homosexuality was condemned. “Homosexuality” may have meant a man having sex with a man–and boys were not men.

    • Deiseach says:

      Complicating the story, taboos around homosexuality were complicated and in some cases nonexistent.

      There’s an article in the wonderfully titled “Acta Dermatovenerologica Croatica” (Acta Dermatovenerologica Croatica (ADC) aims to provide dermatovenerologists with up-to-date information on all aspects of the diagnosis and management of skin and venereal diseases) about “History of Venereal Diseases from Antiquity to the Renaissance” which touches upon prostitution and homosexuality in the spread of such diseases and has an overview of European and Indian and Chinese medical culture, though in a necessarily abbreviated form:

      Some English physicians and surgeons also studied in Salerno. Gibertus Anglicus, who studied in Salerno and lived mostly in Europe, wrote in his voluminous “Compendium de medicinae tam morborum universalis” on sterility and impotence and claimed that copulation with a woman that had had intercourse with a patient suffering from leprosy could be the cause of various penile disorders and pustulae. He also used the term “gomorrhoea” alluding to the discharge from urethra, which originated from sodomitic and wicked copulation.

      In 1305, Bernard Gordon, who was professor in Montpellier, in his “Lilium medicine” advised treating the urethral discharge with baths, emetics, and bloodletting, and for gonorrhea also used the term “gomorrhoea” because of anal copulation; leprosy was also transmitted in such a way. Other physicians such as John of Arderne (circa 1307-1377) called urethral discharge gonorrhea or “incendium virgae”.

      In his “Chirurgia magna”, Guy de Chauliac (1290?- 1368), who was also a famous surgeon and priest, emphasized, similarly to Saliceto, the need for a surgeon to know anatomy and medicine. In the treatment of Galen’s gonorrhea he recommended extract of cantharides (Spanish fly) as a contrairritant, and in obstinate cases, fleas or lice.

      Pazzini, in his book on the history of medicine, concluded that gonorrhea was well known during the period due to the diffusion of prostitution (and it should be noted even Thomas from Aquino expressed the opinion that it could not be abolished), numerous wars, and presence of city baths where young people enjoyed themselves.

  10. Douglas Knight says:

    FWIW, syphilis isn’t representative. It wasn’t an STI in the New World, so its virulence was a temporary state as switched transmission modes. More highly adapted STI like gonorrhea and chlamydia have infertility as their main symptom. But that’s a pretty strong selection pressure! Lack of symptoms is good for cultural evolution over explicit reasoning.

    The paper talks about HG vs agriculture, but it should also talk about hoe/garden vs plow. Hoeing can be (and usually is) done by women, so men don’t supply resources, so they don’t worry much about paternity, but instead take a promiscuous strategy. STI infertility rates are high in Africa today and were much higher in 1900 before antibiotics (“infertility belt”). So STIs were not enough to evolve monogamy. So I prefer paternal investment theories of monogamy. But is this a recent development? Has a recent (but pre-1900) population explosion in Africa increased density and thus STI spread?
    (Tropical diseases like malaria also cause infertility, which may mask the connection between promiscuity and infertility, so maybe it is a reasoned rule in temperate regions, not unconscious cultural evolution.)

    • Douglas Knight says:

      Specifically, syphilis descends from pinta.

      • ThomasStearns says:

        Isn’t the spirochete causing yaws the ancestor of both the syphilis bug and the pinta bug?

        • Douglas Knight says:

          Yes, the spirochetes causing yaws, bejel, pinta, and syphilis are all classified in one genus. Yaws, bejel, and syphilis are classified as one species and pinta another. But really pinta means “new world yaws” and it is diverse, some the special species and some the main species. That is a prerequisite for a new world origin of syphilis.

          Maybe I was too definite in saying that syphilis is a new world disease. Maybe it was really from old world yaws. But my argument goes through: regardless of whether it descends from yaws or pinta, it was in 1494 switching transmission from skin contact to a venereal. Its virulence is not representative of STD. Its declining virulence was due to its evolution, not human evolution.

          Here is a 2011 paper claiming genetic proof that syphilis is from the new world.

          PS in re your other comment. McNeill 1976 does not say that it is a new world disease. On the contrary, he leaned towards yaws. He mentions one person who tried to test the pinta theory by looking for American adaptation, but got confusing results.

          • ThomasStearns says:

            Yes, McNeill interestingly is really unsure about Syphilis being of new world origin. In the previous comment, I meant he claims that virulence was probably enhanced in Old World populations compared to New World ones because of genetic resistance. It was likely just a nuisance to Native Americans, but produced gross symptoms in Europeans.

          • ThomasStearns says:

            Wait, why do you think it wasn’t an STI in the new world?

          • Douglas Knight says:

            There is absolutely no evidence for a new world STI version of syphilis. Like McNeill says, it evolved from a skin disease, either pinta or yaws. When it crossed to Europeans wearing too many clothes, it had to find another way. It probably became destructive of the face as a way of getting a little bit of European transmission, before it smoothed out the venereal pathway.

            There are new world tribes that appear to have completely asymptomatic pinta. But they’re no more adapted to pinta than Africans are to yaws. It’s something other than time of adaptation that causes symptomatic pinta to be milder than yaws.

          • ThomasStearns says:

            Why could Syphilis have not evolved from an ancestor of yaws when the Americas were first settled across the landbridge, become venereally transmissible, the host population have become resistant and asymptomatic carriers of the disease, and Columbus’ sailors, having had sexual contact with native women been symptomatic carriers of it back to europe?

          • Douglas Knight says:

            The idea that hosts adapt to parasites is largely mistaken. Parasites evolve so much faster, it’s almost all on them. McNeill makes a point of saying that the demographic impact of syphilis in the old world was too small for the old world to adapt—it was all the bacterium adapting. In the footnote he does consider “lengthy adaptation between host and parasite,” which seems like he’s allowing host adaptation, but I’m skeptical.

            If it were already a new world STI, then it would have swept through the old world repeatedly until the old world adapted, but it only crossed once. The old world did not genetically adapt. With more easily transmitted diseases, the naive population can adapt by developing antibodies. A newly evolved mild form of the disease can sweep through, infect practically everyone and create herd immunity. But I’m skeptical that would happen with an STI.

            Asymptomatic pinta is probably a mistaken interpretation. Probably pinta swept through the tribe, but they fought it off, leaving them with antibodies.

          • ThomasStearns says:

            If it were already a new world STI, then it would have swept through the old world repeatedly until the old world adapted, but it only crossed once.

            Ahhh. I get the argument now. Thanks. How controversial is it to say

            The idea that hosts adapt to parasites is largely mistaken.

            ?

    • Peffern says:

      >Hoeing can be (and usually is) done by women,

      I shouldn’t laugh at this.

  11. meltedcheesefondue says:

    Even “3. If you’ve got to marry a non-virgin, then marrying a widow is okay, but marrying a former prostitute or somebody known for sleeping around a lot is beyond the pale.” has a paternity angle – someone who’s slept around in the past is more likely to sleep around in the future.

    I°d say adding in the homosexuality taboos are a stretch – how would the increased risk from anal sex make its way into the culture, given the taboos already in place and the ignorance and lack of statistics? There were also taboos against masturbation, which make no sense at all.

    Maybe syphilis did drive heterosexual norms to prudishness (the risks there are easy for anyone to grasp), with the other norms coming along for the ride.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      I°d say adding in the homosexuality taboos are a stretch – how would the increased risk from anal sex make its way into the culture, given the taboos already in place and the ignorance and lack of statistics?

      Some of the men of the desert tribe enjoy each others’ company with frequency and vigor. One contracts a nasty disease and it quickly spreads through the ranks, but only among those who engage in that activity. They die horribly. The rest of the tribe sees this and says “clearly, God does not approve of this” and into the scriptures it goes.

      It’s a Just-So story, but it makes more sense than “they made it up for absolutely no reason.”

      And people figured out how to prepare manioc with no knowledge of what “excruciatingly slow cyanide poisoning” was.

  12. Sniffnoy says:

    Of the two alternatives you present, I think the “false paternity” one is closer to the mark — I’ll admit I have zero expertise here but the STI explanation seems basically ridiculous to me — but I think both are fundamentally a bit too pat, positing a single explanation that it is expected to track as closely as possible.

    Basically:
    1. I’m skeptical of cultural evolution,
    2. On the other hand biological evolution has definitely shaped our instincts,
    3. But on the other hand, what both these have in common is that they’re both often quite crude — people are adaptation executors, not fitness maximizers!
    4. To expand on the previous point, human psychology is naturally going to take things and reify them and extend them in non-adaptive ways
    5. And then of course you’ve got culture which can take this even further (because, again, I’m skeptical of there being much real cultural evolution; culture doesn’t work like that)

    So for instance — we know that humans have a mate-guarding instinct, right? This doesn’t always translate to full monogamy, but the instinct is there. And purity instincts, too. So it makes sense to me that over time those could easily end up getting combined into a reified, culturally-solidified idea of sexual purity, even if that doesn’t happen to be adaptive (as in the instances you describe). And that’s how I think of basically all of this — start with instinct, then apply steps of reification, extension, and cultural solidification.

    Or to put it differently: Behavior regarding sex is weird. Because humans have evolved special instincts surrounding it, we should expect that their ideas about it, and their cultures’ ideas about it, will be less determined by immediate helpfulness than their ideas about other things are, and be more determined by evolved biological instincts than their ideas about other things are.

    And even things that don’t have that extra factor screwing it up, culture is just weird on its own! Things get reified and extended and ossified all the time even without that starting weirdness. I guess this is just me repeating point #1; I’m skeptical of the whole cultural evolution thing.

    Again, don’t really know much of anything about any of this; this is all just off the cuff. If you want some really crazy speculation, though — you mention the “penetrator vs penetrated” way of thinking as a Roman or Greek thing (IIRC it’s been fairly common in the Middle East as well?). But here’s something weird: Is it just me or does this idea keep getting independently reinvented? Like, in the modern US, the culturally dominant idea is instead that of “sexual orientation”, right? And yet, it sure seems like a number of people keep reinventing this older way of thinking instead. What’s up with that? Is there some hidden tradition of this, or do people keep reinventing it? It could well be the former, I don’t want to rule that out. But if it’s not… well, that certain implies something, though I have no idea what.

  13. PLindenfors says:

    I think the case would be stronger if it could be shown that the cultural variation in current sexual taboos are correlated with STI prevalence. My guess is that they are not, in which case it would make more sense that sexual taboos in their basic sense biologically has more to do with paternity, but that the cultural variation we see has more to do with cultural drift.

    • Steve Sailer says:

      The way to test this question is to look at European customs and attitudes pre and post 1492.

      • notpeerreviewed says:

        How fast are we assuming cultural evolution works? Wasn’t there an example of people not preparing manioc ideally in Africa, more than a hundred years after its introduction?

  14. DinoNerd says:

    Without reading the comments, the bizarre thing about your argument is that you’ve phrased it as men avoiding women with sexual history – nothing about the reverse. This is, of course, consistent with one large strand of “sexual purity taboos” – boys “sow wild oats”, girls are expected to be virginal at marriage… Even though some STIs are easier to transmit male-to-female than female-to-male.

    Unless you figure that females don’t matter enough in the relevant cultures/periods for it to be reasonable to have customs to prevent them from getting STIs (from their husbands!) – which might actually be plausible in some cases – the gender imbalance vitiates the whole argument.

    • acymetric says:

      You don’t have to read the comments, just re-read the beginning of the post:

      I’m writing this from the male perspective because most of the cultures I know about thought that way:

      • ADifferentAnonymous says:

        Also in the post:

        The main argument that it’s more paternity than STIs is that there’s less concern around men who have slept around being impure and unmarriagable. But that could just be because men are making the taboos and rigging them in their own favor. Yet you’d still think that if 10% of the population had syphilis and cultural evolution worked, men would stick to the purity taboos out of self-interest. Not sure here.

    • Jaskologist says:

      It is precisely because STIs transmit more easily MTF than FTM that we would expect disease-driven norms to come down harder on promiscuous women; they’re more likely to become infected as a result of that behavior.

      • Dacyn says:

        I don’t follow. If you have sex with a promiscuous woman (who has sex with men), then the only way you can be infected is by an MtF transmission (from her partner to her) followed by an FtM transmission (from her to you). So the thing that matters is the product of these two probabilities, and that is symmetric with respect to men and women.

        • Purplehermann says:

          On the individual level it makes sense, on the societal level I could see culture curbing acts that have more immediate, visible negatives more harshly

        • Jaskologist says:

          These norms are oriented around determining who is good marriage material, not who’s good for a quick shag. In a marriage, the frequency of sex is high enough that the risk of being infected with whatever your partner has approaches 100%.

          Consider the following made-up numbers:
          Male chance of catching an STI from having sex once with an infected partner: 10%
          Female chance of catching an STI from having sex once with an infected partner: 20%

          If they each have 5 infected partners, the male has a 41% chance of being infected. The female has a 67% chance of being infected. It is therefore riskier to marry the female than the male in this example. How risky it is in real life will depend on the actual percentages, of course.

  15. Radu Floricica says:

    The Parasite-Stress Theory of Values and Sociality is laying open on my table for about a week – paused due to finding more interesting stuff, like The Secret of our Success. It’s supposed to be The book on the topic – how “parasites” in the largest sense shaped our culture, and especially the liberal/conservative lean of societies. (I could have sworn I found it here… sure there wasn’t a review?…)

    About cultural prohibitions being more about what women can do – many (most? all?) STDs are easier to spread from male to female.

    On the other hand, you could also say that these societies were sexist, and it was considered honorable to have sex in the male-like role and dishonorable to have it in the female-like role.

    Minor gripe, but… well, sure, those societies were sexist, but this isn’t answering anything. Why were they sexist in those specific ways?

  16. Nornagest says:

    I feel kind of dirty even thinking this, but the way pederastic relationships were structured in e.g. Ancient Greece looks an awful lot like virgin marriage, disease-wise. AIUI, the general idea was that a socially mature dude would take a male teenager or very young adult on as a combination mentee, object of adoration, and sex partner. And I believe the erastes/eromenos relationship was normatively exclusive, at least at any given time.

    The ideal was a boy just recently emerged into sexual maturity: a “beardless youth”. You can’t verify virginity for guys like you can for girls (imperfect though it is for the latter), but youths of that age wouldn’t have had much opportunity to sleep around.

    • fluffykitten55 says:

      Yet there was no taboo on visiting male or female prostitutes. It would make little sense for an erastes to make sure to take on a virginal eromenos due to a motive of avoiding STI, if he was also vising many prostitutes.

    • Le Maistre Chat says:

      AIUI, the general idea was that a socially mature dude would take a male teenager or very young adult on as a combination mentee, object of adoration, and sex partner. And I believe the erastes/eromenos relationship was normatively exclusive, at least at any given time.

      Yes, there was an expectation of serial monogamy.
      According to the lost historian Cleitarchus, Philip II of Macedon’s assassin Pausanias was driven to murder him over being dumped for a younger man also named Pausanias.
      Aristotle, the royal tutor who had an unusually low opinion of homosexuality, only said “Pausanias had been offended by the followers of Attalus, uncle of Philip’s wife Cleopatra.”

  17. bagel says:

    At least the ancient Jews felt that there was a stronger relationship between sexual purity laws and STIs than paternity. There are explicit textual links given between STIs and sexual activity, times where paternity is deliberately obscured, and a host of laws that could only have an effect on STIs and not paternity (gay sex, beastiality).

    At the end of Parshat Balak – around Numbers 24-25 – Israel camps, and a number of Jews have sex with Moabite women and “worship their gods” and a plague hits. The plague is stopped by killing everyone who had sex with the Moabites. Allowing that their interpretation – godly anger, ambiguously defined “worship” – of the plague is different from our modern interpretation – STI – they seem to have still come up with a very similar cause and effect.

    Similarly, the actual text of the Jewish prohibition against gay sex is telling; the thing that is prohibited is “lying with a man as if with a woman”, in much the same way that Scott points out the importance of sexual role in pre-modern prevention of STI spread.

    Beastiality is forbidden, which can definitely have an effect on STIs but not – one hopes! – paternity.

    But, on occasion, the Torah requires falsifying paternity! In Parshat Vayeshev (~ Gen 38) a man dies and leaves his wife childless, and the man’s brother is commanded to bear her children to continue his deceased brother’s line! (Fun aside, an overly narrow reading of a verse of this chapter (“he spilled his seed on the ground”) is used much later to ban masturbation!)

    Even though elsewhere the Torah has many of the cultural mores that Scott notes cover both paternity and STIs (faithfulness, virginity, honesty), these cases indicate to me that (1) both links were understood at some level but (2) there were exceptions to the paternity rules, but a death sentence for the STI rules.

    • bullseye says:

      I disagree that the story of Onan involved obscured paternity. Had he obeyed, the child would have been his biologically and also his to raise, despite nominally belonging to his brother.

    • Purplehermann says:

      In general Judiasm is not at all in favor of obscuring paternity. The idea of continuing a male relative’s line (in name and inheritance at least) is found from the Torah through the Jewish law books, and is done only when the deceased (brother) had no children of his own, and it is a ritualistic ‘continuing the line/name’- the child born to continue the line cannot marry his biological sister.

      Even if it was about obscuring paternity, that isn’t the paternity fraud discussed here- what was discussed here is men not wanting to spend resources on others’ children in general/actually not knowing parentage.

      When someone thinks it’s their kid biologically and he isn’t, not when he’s raising, biologically speaking, his kid, but saying he’s his brother’s child are utterly different.

      The situation here is more similar by far to adopting a brother’s deceased child without even needing to raise genes that are not your own.

      • bagel says:

        @Purpleherman I absolutely agree, in general Judaism is strict about this, just like other cultures. But Judaism is willing to compromise on one in a corner case but not on the other. That to me indicates a hierarchy of importance.

        @bullseye I disagree. Although the child would (obviously) be Onan’s biologically, from all relevant Jewish perspectives the child would be the his brother Er’s line. The child would inherit from Er, and in particular be considered Er’s firstborn, as well being Er’s line. Refer in particular to Chabad’s translation of 38:9;

        Now Onan knew that the progeny would not be his, and it came about, when he came to his brother’s wife, he wasted [his semen] on the ground, in order not to give seed to his brother.

        • Purplehermann says:

          bagel despite the inheritance, I’d say bullseye has it right- the child would have been raised by Onan, the child not being his is referring to the same nominally not being his that bullseye mentioned, but this was important socially.

          As for the hierarchy, I did not intend that in general it is one way but here it a different way in regards to paternity fraud. I meant my first sentence as an assertion, followed by an explanation of the “yiboom” law.

          I don’t think this is cutting corners on paternity at all.

          Rather, it’s closer to adoption (and everyone knows who the biological father is, and it’s the same man raising him, making the genetic-economic base of paternity fraud non applicable here).

    • Douglas Knight says:

      Also Genesis 12:17. The central miracle of Genesis is that God forgives a dirty whore and lifts her STI infertility.

      • Dacyn says:

        That’s a stretch. Sarah is supposed to be 90 years old, a type of infertility which does not necessitate STIs as an explanation. The line you cite suggests that she carried STIs, but not that they made her infertile.

        To be clear, I’m not suggesting that Sarah was actually 90 years old, in fact I don’t think she really existed. But within the logic of the story, there seems to be no connection between the line you cite and Sarah’s infertility.

        • Douglas Knight says:

          Sure, it’s hard to draw out a coherent story. Yes, book 17 mentions her age in conjunction with her miraculous fertility, but why didn’t she conceive when young? When she first enters the story at age 66 she is infertile (11:30). But did she just marry? Was she an old maid of 66? No, since it’s worth mentioning that she’s infertile, it implies that she had a long marriage to Abram and surprising infertility. No, it doesn’t explicitly connect her infertility and STI, but they are close together in the text. If we restrict to books 11 and 12, all we know of her is that she has STI, is surprisingly infertile, and is “beautiful,” ie, young.

          • Jaskologist says:

            We don’t actually know that she has an STI. The text does not describe her as having any condition beyond her infertility, nor does it imply that she’s a “dirty whore.” It even goes to pains in the similar story in chapter 20 to say that Abimelek had not touched her.

            The central miracle is God building an entire nation from the descendants of a childless, infertile, post-menopausal couple in the middle of nowhere.

    • ana53294 says:

      My understanding of Onan’s actions was that, if his brother’s line was carried, the child would inherit his brother’s posessions, instead of him. So it was about money/land.

  18. chaosmage says:

    In this difficult-to-fathom area, it may be useful to compare food taboos. They’re about as ubiquitous, and I would imagine they’re fairly well studied.

    I think the alternative hypothesis to compare to is not paternity, but class signaling. Fucking around, and especially prostitution and being on the receiving end of sexual abuse, is a very strong marker of low class.

  19. Purplehermann says:

    Women should be much more susceptible to STIs due to being penetrated as opposed penetrating, same as recieving homosexuals.
    However I’d say the difference is only significant in one offs or flings, in a long term relationship the guy will eventually pick up what his girl has.

    So homosexuals spread M:N, assuming they are generally both penetrating and recieving they can spread STIs much more quickly
    This shouldn’t matter too much to heterosexual men who marry non-promiscuous (especially virgin) women, but could matter to society as a whole, men who sleep with promiscuous women, to the men themselves and the women they sleep with.

    Heterosexual men in relationships will eventually get what their partner has and therefore don’t want their (more susceptible) partner sleeping around.

    Women are susceptible to STIs and are therefore more strongly discouraged from ruining their “purity” than men who are less susceptible in general.

    Tenuously, polygamy is worse for women than their husband sleeping around occasionally, as the man will eventually pick up whatever his wives have and share it around, while most men won’t have much casual sex if they have a partner.

    STIs would not explain why (most?) men have a serious issue withthe idea of polygeny and not polygamy- a man will pick up everything in that group given enough time regardless of composition . So I’d say that false paternity does contribute at least a bit to taboos

    • thomasbrinsmead says:

      It did occur to me that if “receptive” homosexuals are more at risk of STIs, this would be consistent with women being more at risk of STIs then men. Hence the fact that there is less concern with men who have slept around is in fact NOT evidence that the taboo is more about paternity than STIs.

    • Enkidum says:

      Women should be much more susceptible to STIs due to being penetrated as opposed penetrating, same as recieving homosexuals.

      No. The physical differences between the cervix and the anus matter here.

      • Purplehermann says:

        There may be a difference (probably risk of tearing skin) but there is a higher risk for women than men per incident of sex

        • Jaskologist says:

          Both are true. Risk of transmission:

          male having hetero sex < female having hetero sex < (receiving) male having homo sex

          Not sure where the penetrating male homosexual fits on that continuum.

          • notpeerreviewed says:

            > female having hetero sex < (receiving) male having homo sex

            For HIV specifically. I don't think this is true for most other STIs.

        • Enkidum says:

          On average, women may be more at risk from many STIs than men. But if you break it down according to sexual preference, anyone who likes having penises in their bum is orders of magnitude more likely to get STIs that transmit themselves through the blood. And male homosexuals are much more likely, on average, to be having regular anal sex. (I believe that everything I just said is very well-established, if I’m wrong I apologize.)

          So what Jaskologist said is right.

          • notpeerreviewed says:

            That is correct, for HIV. Other STIs are generally not transmitted through the blood so the same reasoning does not apply.

  20. As always with cultural evolution, the problem here is with a lack of properly specified transmission mechanism of change. Cultural preferences are encoded in much more complex ways than gene expressions – and those are comicated enough. Also, they are transmitted both intra and inter generationally. Therefore, we don’t have the clear mathematics of reproductive advantage.

    Sexual purity is a subset of broader ritual purity. That’s why sects and dictators often focus on sexual morality. Augustus, communists, Puritans, etc. If sexual purity is a response to STIs, why wasn’t hygiene? The link there is even stronger.

    • thomasbrinsmead says:

      Materially effective hygiene rituals, without a biologically accurate theory of infection, would be hard to stumble on accidentally, and hard to verify as effective. (Florence Nightingale’s handwashing was allegedly a significant discovery).

      On the other hand, banishment is a pretty obvious candidate action to prevent becoming sick (physical distance is associated with decreased risk for many dangers) and its pretty straightforward to verify that it works.

      When there is an obvious empirical connection between violating a taboo (sexual chastity) and bad things happening (getting sick, especially if the symptoms manifest in the genital area) that is all that is required for a taboo to spread.

      • evocomp says:

        There are a lot of ritual cleanliness rules in different cultures and some of them seem to have a clear hygiene benefits.

        In ancient Judaism for instance, ritual cleanliness was a big deal, and there were rules in the Torah about what made you unclean and how to get clean again. There were rules that mandated hand washing before eating, dealt with touching dead things or going in houses of the sick and even specific rules on washing and bathing if you had puss or discharge and then washing your clothes too.

        If generally followed, these would likely confer significant health benefits and lowered disease transmission.

      • Yes, but the question was not about response to STIs in general. It was about the origin of ‘sexual purity’ taboos. These are much more complex than a simple response to infection. And usually, they don’t have a component of cleanliness to them. Also, you would expect that visiting prostitutes would have been the first thing to become taboo if you think an empirical connection is enough. And, men making the rules does not seem to be a sufficient way to explain that away not least since it is women who often enforce these rules.

        I suspect that sexual purity taboos don’t have the same origin across cultures. Particularly given how varied they are in their impact.

        Also, the assumption is that these taboos did not develop consciously. So even difficult to discover customs should transmit if they confer some reproductive advantage. For instance, treating cassava seems like something almost impossible to stumble on (as are many other food preparation practices).

        Bottom line, evolution is a metaphor of very limited use when it comes to culture. There are too many plausible explanations and picking one just because it seems the most ‘sciency’ is more or less voodoo.

  21. ARabbiAndAFrog says:

    Economic concern are probably more important. Men want to invest resources in their own children and not someone else’s – so they’ll want virginal, loyal brides, whose loyalty is ideally enforced by a threat of violence. Pregnancy is a major hindrance for women – so they (Especially when they are young and stupid and not married yet) need to be encouraged to not have pre-marital sex; if they do – you punish them, the same way you would punish anyone who needlessly endanger themselves on your watch. If they do has sex, their credibility diminishes, making them less valuable marriage material.

    STI might cause some association – but even at the peak promiscuity they probably weren’t as relevant as economic partnership for breeding, traditionally known as marriage.

    • Purplehermann says:

      I get loyal, but why virginal? Who cares economically if there was a chance of her getting pregnant a year ago?

      • ARabbiAndAFrog says:

        I would say because she already broke the taboo of extra-marital sex. But I would also say it’s partially a cargo-cult.

        • Purplehermann says:

          So basically no good reason/inability to develop a more nuanced tabbo?

          • ARabbiAndAFrog says:

            “Have sex with your husband and only your husband” seems like a perfect rule to achieve the goal without loopholes.

          • Purplehermann says:

            1. The question wasn’t whether a rule like that would work, rather why would that rule develop instead of a slightly more nuanced one- ‘don’t have sex with anyone but your husband if you have one, or animals ever’ for example. Is your answer: such an alternative rule was too complicated?
            2. The Bible doesn’t advocate virgins for anyone except the High Priest.

          • ARabbiAndAFrog says:

            I would say that not abstaining for extramarital sex – and being motivated to sex by anything other than giving children to your husband – is an indicator of poor discipline in abstinence – that’s what makes a loose woman less desirable wife material.

          • Purplehermann says:

            A husband wouldn’t be looking for a wife who only has sex for children, but for enjoyment as well. So being motivated for sex only by children wouldn’t be a plus.
            Why would cultures develop a fixation on abstinence when fidelity is what they’re looking for?
            This doesn’t happen in any area of life that isn’t sex as far as I know.

          • ARabbiAndAFrog says:

            Sexual restrictions are also for woman’s benefit – becoming a single mother would be disadvantageous for her. So this might be merger of two values – a woman would be instructed not to sleep around before marriage because she might get pregnant without any man consenting to support the child. Now when you see a loose unmarried woman, you see a woman who can’t follow basic instructions to not sleep around, how can you trust her not to cuckold you in marriage?

          • C. Y. Hollander says:

            A husband wouldn’t be looking for a wife who only has sex for children, but for enjoyment as well.

            I wouldn’t treat this as a given.

          • Purplehermann says:

            Can you trust her? Probably yes, she’s getting sex in the relationship (unless you go off on a journey, but even then cheating is different) but I concede the point, this does make sense as a combo taboo/norm.

          • ARabbiAndAFrog says:

            Having a partner that stays loyal only as long as she feels like it precisely the kind of thing traditional marriage was invented to prevent, no?

            Better security means more willing investors, so to say. If only thing between you and being a cuckold is sexual prowess, one might as well not marry at all.

          • Purplehermann says:

            I’m trying to point out that you can have loyalty as a value without having abstinence as a value.
            It could be taboo to cheat but not taboo to have sex for fun when single, which would give the security you’re talking about.

            Even once a premarital sex taboo exists it seems that breaking it is seperate from cheating as far as most people are concerned.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            I’m trying to point out that you can have loyalty as a value without having abstinence as a value.

            The value is not “loyalty” but “makes good decisions” and “obeys the wisdom of the tribe.” In an age without effective birth control, premarital sex is very risky for a woman. She could become a mother with no man committed to supporting her. Therefore, the tribe and her father command her “do not sleep with anyone besides your husband.” She disobeys her father and the wisdom of the tribe and makes a poor decision. It is perhaps best to find another woman who did not do these things to be your wife.

          • Purplehermann says:

            I already agreed that this would make sense, in the same way as doing any other stupid thing and disobeying the elders

  22. GreatColdDistance says:

    I wonder if part of the case with homosexuality taboos is the lack of reproduction resulting from such activity. Straight sex can be arbitrarily risky, but any society which banned straight sex would die out rapidly. You need kids to have a future and, until the modern era, need straight sex to get them.

    Imagine that both straight and gay sex have the same level of STI risk. A society would still taboo gay sex much earlier, as it has much less social benefit. Straight sex could kill tons of people but your society still needs kids. The most a society could ever do to prevent STI transmission through straight sex is taboo everything that isn’t monogamous and procreative.

    (None of this is a good reason for a modern society to taboo homosexuality)

    • Purplehermann says:

      1. Accidental pregnancies seem like a negative.
      2. People are going to have sex for enjoyment if they want to, I doubt see how making them have a specific type of sex in your hypothetical would decrease the total- two societies, one with gay sex and one without, should have equal amounts of sex going on (assuming identical cultures (and biology) otherwise) and so an equal STI load.
      3. Additional non accidental pregnancies would come (only) from those who would have gotten an opposite sex partner, if gay sex were out-lawed, in order to have children, but wouldn’t procreate in a society where gay sex is allowed. I don’t know how much of a factor these people are, butI doubt they matter much quantity wise to society.
      4. It follows that banning gay sex would be a mistake in your hypothetical, unless you count accidental pregnancies as a societal plus, or you are banking on the genetic potential of those who decide against having children because of gay sex being allowed.

  23. Purplehermann says:

    Worth noting that even the Old Testament only expressly forbid penetrative homosexual sex- “משכבי אשה”

  24. onyomi says:

    I am curious to hear from straight women and gay men the extent to which they feel any sort of “gross out” in response to the idea of a male sexual partner who has had a very large number of previous sexual partners. My impression is that it’s very weak, if it exists at all, for many of those who are attracted to men (indeed being a “player” seems like it’s often viewed as attractive because of the element of social proof?), but as a straight man it could be I underestimate it.

    • ilfautcultivernotrejardin says:

      For gay men, it depends. HIV fear and stigmatization certainly introduced puritanical thoughts into the gay world. This could be viewed as an example of the cultural evolution described by Scott, but IMHO isn’t. It’s more an appropriation of the “look at those wicked homosexuals with all their sex and diseases” trope than a strategy against infections. In my experience, young gay men are more conservative in their own sexual and romantic behavior than previous generations (but this could be heavily skewed). Personally I don’t think there’s a number where I’d feel grossed out in any sense, but it also isn’t a mark of attractiveness either. If anything, I might think of people with a high number of sexual partners (which I’d put at something like (age-15)*30) as not having particularly high standards.

      • vV_Vv says:

        (which I’d put at something like (age-15)*30)

        That’s one partner per month since sexual maturity. That number would not be high, it would be enormous for heterosexuals.

        • a reader says:

          Yes. If it was about a woman, even without any multiplying, “age-15” (one different partner each year starting at 16, 10 different partners before 25, 20 partners before 35) would probably be considered way too high by most heterosexual men – maybe not for dating, but for long term relationship and marrying.

    • Enkidum says:

      Straight man, so can’t answer your question, but I’m curious to hear the reverse. I do know a few guys who are very specific about wanting a virginal wife, but by and large it doesn’t seem to be much of an issue for people under, say, 50. Personally I’ve never understood the idea – wouldn’t you want your partner to be, you know, good?

      • Would you be okay marrying a woman with 50 or 100 previous sexual partners? My impression is that the vast majority of men under 50 wouldn’t, even if they wouldn’t say this openly. People tend to want what they can have: unless you’re willing to marry into a weird religious community, wanting to marry a virgin is unrealistic. It’s not that the standard was eliminated, it just moved.

        • Ozy Frantz says:

          Obvious selection effect is obvious, but I’ve met rather a lot of men who are enthusiastic about dating promiscuous women, for the reason that she likely has a high sex drive and will have sex with them often.

        • Enkidum says:

          All things being equal, I think I would have been ok with that? But frequently all things are not equal: a high proportion of the men I know who have slept with that many women are kind of skeezy, and I would imagine the same is true the other way around. But if they weren’t actively unpleasant or crazy, yeah, I think I’d be fine. They’d probably have a lot to teach me.

      • Viliam says:

        @Enkidum

        I do know a few guys who are very specific about wanting a virginal wife … Personally I’ve never understood the idea – wouldn’t you want your partner to be, you know, good?

        For a one-night stand, it makes sense to optimize for someone who is good at sex right now. But if the marriage is supposed to last for decades… both of you will get years of sexual experience soon.

        Is the experience your wife would get from sex with someone else statistically better than the experience she would get from sex with you? Because if not, then having sex with you should be enough to make her “good”. Probably even better for you, because you will practice things that you both enjoy (as opposed to her maybe having a lot of practice in something her ex enjoyed, but you don’t).

        I believe that the “dangers” of sexual inexperience are exaggerated. Some virgins are quick learners. Some people have a lot of experience, which didn’t translate to superior skills. If someone is sexually inexperienced, and the sex doesn’t become good in a few days, I would suspect this is more about their personality than about the lack of practice per se.

      • John Richards says:

        The idea that you have to have multiple sexual partners to be good is such a joke. What it takes to be good in sex is to be attentive to what feels good to your partner and to care about their experience. The ideal sexual coupling is one in which both partners, at the same time, are working together to give of themselves to their partner. I can say personally that I got worse as a sexual actor as I got more partners, not better, and this was the result of me caring less.

    • ana53294 says:

      It’s not so much “gross out”, as I don’t see the point in dating such men.

      I want to get married and have children, preferably lots of them. For this, I want a highly commited guy who will stay with me, invest in our kids, and who will not go around spending his time and resources with other women, when he could be with me and, when we have them, with our kids. And I am not interested in dating with a man who is not husband material; I see this as a waste of my fertile years.

      Men who don’t have too many sexual partners show that they care about things other than sex, and they seem like much more trustworthy partners.

      I also associate a highly sexual life with other things I would find troublesome: higher likelihood that likes partying, drinking, experiments with drugs, is not serious about money, is a spendthrift. Not husband material.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        What she said sounds normal to my ears. Male virginity in Current Year may be a red flag, but Chad Thundercock is a male insecurity/fantasy: fewer sexual partners per unit of attractiveness is a good thing.

      • onyomi says:

        But it’s noteworthy that what she finds unappealing about Chad Thundercock is not the “grossness” of knowing his penis has previously entered a great many vaginas, but rather the probability that this habit correlates with being an unreliable husband and father.

        It seems some men find “gross” the idea of having sex with a very promiscuous woman, but the question is whether that’s primarily because of STIs or primarily because of the fear of unknowingly raising a child not one’s own and/or future cuckoldry.

        Personally I find the idea of having sex with a woman I know has had a very large number of sexual partners (like a prostitute) mildly “gross,” though primarily because I imagine possibly catching an STI. I don’t know if I’d have this sense of “gross” if I didn’t know about germ theory, etc. which might partially explain the greater social acceptability of men patronizing prostitutes in times past.

        If I had some guarantee that a given prostitute I otherwise found attractive was definitely STI-free then the knowledge of a large number of other penises having previously visited said vagina per se would not be especially “gross” to me.

        This may seem to speak in favor of the STI thesis, but I actually think it’s the opposite: such taboos developed before the germ theory so should not be vulnerable to elimination through the simple knowledge provided by e.g. blood tests. I don’t think most people’s sense of revulsion about incest can be eliminated, for example, by the knowledge of use of effective, redundant forms of birth control.

        My subjective appraisal of what Scott’s missing here is that both men and women have notions about “good spouse material” separate from “good for short term fun.” For a lot of women “good husband material” means dependable. Thus we’d expect him having a lot of sexual experience not to be perceived as unappealing unless it’s interpreted as a sign of being undependable.

        For men, I think, “good wife material” probably also includes a strong element of dependability, but maybe with more emphasis on the sexually faithful aspect of dependability because, unlike women, men run the risk of spending resources on children they don’t realize aren’t their own. The stereotype is that men are more bothered by sexual infidelity and women by emotional infidelity and this makes perfect sense: on the model where the man is the primary resource provider emotional infidelity may be a stronger signal that a man is going to withdraw such support than a one-night stand after an office party.

        In premodern China and probably a lot of other premodern civilizations as well, there was definitely a certain “division of labor” where you didn’t have to find your wife (who was chosen in an agreement between your parents and her parents) particularly hot or interesting so long as you provided for her and her children and your wife was, in theory, not supposed to mind if you spent time and money hanging out with prostitutes you did find hot an interesting so long as there was no risk of you marrying one of them and running off. The double standard arises because a man can have women on the side without calling into question the parentage of his wife’s children, while the wife cannot have men on the side without calling that parentage into question.

        My subjective impression of cultural taboos against promiscuous women isn’t that such knowledge renders them sexually unattractive to men, but that it lowers their status from “wife material” to “fun material,” or, even worse, “prostitute material.” Re. Ozy’s comment above: I think the fear for women is not that being too promiscuous will cause them to become unattractive sexual partners to men, but that it will cause them to become the sort of women men only want to have sex with but not commit to. This also makes sense because, assuming he doesn’t catch a disease, there’s no risk to a man, in terms of resources, having sex with a woman if there’s no expectation he will take care of her or any resulting children well into the future. There is such an expectation with a wife, but not with a prostitute. Hence, what’s gross is specifically marrying, or otherwise committing to, a prostitute or “loose” woman.

        • mdet says:

          Everything you said here sounds right to me, but it doesn’t touch on the “[sexual] taboos usually explicitly reference ideas of ‘pure’ vs. ‘gross’; in most other cases, these are disease-related taboos.” No one explanation is going to fit perfectly, but I thought that “Pure/Gross vocabulary means disease risk” was a pretty strong point.

          Edit: To clarify, the question I’m asking is “If pre-germ-theory peoples didn’t base their sexual norms in disease prevention, why DID they all settle on describing sexual norms with pure / gross language?”

          • onyomi says:

            Well I don’t think it’s quite accurate to say that feelings of revulsion are all about disease prevention. That might be one of their primary functions, maybe their original or “central” function, but I think that function definitely gets extended to other behaviors that are adaptive but not primarily about avoiding disease, such as the above-mentioned desire to avoid incest.

        • whereamigoing says:

          In premodern China and probably a lot of other premodern civilizations …

          In modern Japan, a non-negligible percentage of people don’t consider visiting a prostitute one time cheating.

        • Thyle says:

          I think your mostly right. Here’s some data to back it up: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-4085758/Experts-reveal-sexual-partners-ve-determine-likely-DIVORCE.html

          But I don’t think cultural norms happen so intentionally. I think they evolve much like species evolve: through random chance. Ideas spread because the people who embrace them prosper and have more children.

          The upshot is that the feeling that something is gross isn’t dependent on your knowledge of diseases.

        • The original Mr. X says:

          The stereotype is that men are more bothered by sexual infidelity and women by emotional infidelity and this makes perfect sense: on the model where the man is the primary resource provider emotional infidelity may be a stronger signal that a man is going to withdraw such support than a one-night stand after an office party.

          I think there’s been at least one study dealing with this topic, wherein a group of students were given two scenarios, one relating to physical infidelity (“Your boyfriend/girlfriend went to a conference and had sex with someone there, although they say that they still love you and they have no emotional connection to this person”) and one to emotional (“Your boyfriend/girlfriend went to a conference, had this amazing personal connection with another attendee, and stayed up all night talking about their intimate personal details, although they say that they still love you and they never had sex with this person”). As the stereotype would predict, the male students tended to say that they’d be more distressed by the first scenario than the second, whereas female students tended to give the opposite response.

    • RalMirrorAd says:

      <- Gay guy here:

      "Grossed out" — possibly.
      I don't date for sex [I discovered that I don't enjoy it that much]. My concern with people with many previous partners is lack of self-control and/or infidelity issues.

      Infidelity is less of an issue for me because i don't have to worry about pregnancy issues but

      ______

      That said i don't know to what extent my own feelings are common.

  25. Hackworth says:

    I would like to offer a paternity argument for (3): In many [citation needed] societies, widows are expected to not get a new man for at least half a year or a year. This is considered a “griefing period”, and to be fair it often is, but on a traditional society level it could just as easily be considered a reassurance for her future partner that she was not in the beginning of pregnancy at the time of her husband’s demise. At least in societies where widows can be expected to have some sort of financial safety net, like a widow’s pension, widows getting a partner right after their husband’s death are considered dangerously close to prostitue levels of moral standing.

    • Steve Sailer says:

      Right. Enforced mourning periods ensure the paternity of the widow’s next husband. For example, there’s a funny scene in “Gone With the Wind” where Scarlett O’Hara is in mourning for her first husband, but Rhett Butler bids for a dance with her at a charity ball:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P4c5AoqUIZU

    • Purplehermann says:

      It is explicitly stated in the Talmud that widows need to wait for this reason

  26. Dan says:

    Also, the taboos usually explicitly reference ideas of “pure” vs. “gross”; in most other cases, these are disease-related taboos.

    Disgust seems pretty common in sexual psychology. Incest is disgusting but there’s no reason to think that that’s disease-related. It’s just that when evolution wants us to avoid having sex with someone, disgust is its preferred tool.

    There’s obviously an evolutionary advantage in being disgusted by the idea of you, personally, having gay sex: men who have a gene for “gay sex is gross” are going to end up having more accidental children than men who are cool with sleeping with another guy when they’re horny (and they will pass on their “gay sex is gross” gene to those children).

    From there, it’s an easy move for genes or culture to coopt that base “gay panic” and apply it to family members too: parents who force their gay kids into unwanted heterosexual relationships will have more grandchildren than parents who don’t (and will pass their genetic or cultural prejudices on to those grandchildren). And there’s probably a little bit of advantage in applying the rule to other less-closely-related people in your society, but that could also just be a maladaptation. (Both the reproductive fitness argument and the STI prevention argument suggest you should be happy when your enemies are gay, but we don’t seem to have gotten there.)

    In Rome, it was considered acceptable for a man to be the penetrating partner, but shameful to be the receiving partner

    As I understand it, this is a consistent part of a larger set of sexual mores that aren’t all as easily explainable in terms of STI prevention. (eg, fellatio is cool, but cunnilingus is disgusting).

    • Purplehermann says:

      Recieving anal sex is much riskier in terms of STIs.
      Having most homosexuals take one role only you have 1:M spread in society as opposed to unrestricted where you get M:N spread, obviously any structure that pushes homosexuals into one or the other helps reduce STI spread.

  27. darkwingduck says:

    Minor edit: in the paragraph beginning with “Goodreau et al”, “responsibility” should be “responsible”.

  28. bsrk says:

    Sexual misconduct—when indulged in, developed, & pursued—is something that leads to hell, leads to rebirth as a common animal, leads to the realm of the hungry ghosts. The slightest of all the results coming from sexual misconduct is that, when one becomes a human being, it leads to rivalry & revenge. – AN 8:40 Results Discourse

    And what is sexual misconduct? By today’s modern viewpoint it is:
    1) sexual non-consent
    2) preventing sexual relationships when there is sexual consent.
    That is what is classified as sexual misconduct. This makes them take up arms against anyone:
    1) who has sexual relationships without consent
    2) who prevents sexual relationships, even when there is consent.

    But the ultimate law is this: sexual misconduct -> rivalry & revenge. This is the standard of judgement to be used in deciding the worth of a formulation. And the modern world is full of rivalry & revenge. It is formalised into rape sentences and rape acquittals. When a rape sentence occurs, some are full of vindictive joy. When a rape acquittal occurs, others are full of vindictive joy. There is a big ongoing fight to adjust the rules for determining sentences & acquittals. Similarly with the rules governing cakes baking.

    What is the teacher’s (Buddha) way of defining sexual misconduct?

    “He engages in sensual misconduct. He gets sexually involved with those who are protected by their mothers, their fathers, their brothers, their sisters, their relatives, or their Dhamma; those with husbands, those who entail punishments, or even those crowned with flowers by another man. – MN 41

    I think that this rule, when followed will prevent rivalry & revenge much better.

  29. Anatoly says:

    >(3) doesn’t seem paternity-related; if it’s been more than nine months, you shouldn’t care who they’ve slept with before.

    Consider telegony.

  30. Murphy says:

    One note: How do the cultural evolution claims tie in with the surprisingly prevalent virgin cleansing myth.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virgin_cleansing_myth

    The virgin cleansing myth (also referred to as the virgin cure myth, virgin rape myth, or simply virgin myth) is the belief that having sex with a virgin girl cures a man of HIV/AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases.

    A survey by the University of South Africa (UNISA) in South Africa found that 18 percent of laborers thought that having sex with a virgin cures HIV/AIDS. An earlier study in 1999 by sexual health educators in Gauteng reported that 32 percent of the survey participants believed the myth

    This seems like the exact opposite of what you’d expect in any kind of cultural evolution … but it’s apparently a super common belief.

    You’d expect any coherent culture to basically take an axe to this belief in the most brutal way possible.

    yet it apparently dates back at least to the 1600’s.

    • ARabbiAndAFrog says:

      That’s magical thinking. A virgin can’t have HIV, so if you have sex with her, you will be like her.

      However, you probably wouldn’t want your virgin daughter to have sex with HIV-positive men, or if you were virgin yourself, you wouldn’t want that either – so now it’s now time to find a resolution to this conflict. I don’t think men would often seek virgins from their in-group for this purpose.

      • Murphy says:

        Sure, of course it’s magical thinking, but for the culture as a whole this belief is massively massively maladaptive since it points a load of older guys riddled with STI’s directly at young healthy women in a way that’s likely to leave them infected with STI’s.

        If the virgin cleansing myth can survive in the culture then it sets a very very low bar for how good for the host society a memeplex has to be for a society/culture to allow it to grow and thrive.

        It may kinda put a hole below the waterline of the general belief in cultural evolution.

        Cultural evolution sorta implies that beliefs that spread and thrive over hundreds or thousands of years must be doing something good for their host culture hence there must be some kind of coherent **point** to such beliefs. Scotts whole post is looking for such.

        But if things like the virgin cleansing myth can survive and thrive right alongside those same memeplexes… then they could be equally maladaptive memeplexes that provide a similar lack of benefit and it opens the possibility that there **may be no real point** and they may be no more good for their host societies than the “I can has cheesburger” cat memes.

      • @Murphy

        If the virgin cleansing myth can survive in the culture then it sets a very very low bar for how good for the host society a memeplex has to be for a society/culture to allow it to grow and thrive.

        It may kinda put a hole below the waterline of the general belief in cultural evolution.

        Biological evolution weeds out small faults that would lower reproductive fitness, so over time more of the relevant breeding population have those genes. Cultures aren’t locked into reproductive competition in the same way, at least not on anywhere near as quick a timescale, and so long as the bad stuff harming the culture doesn’t outweigh the good stuff propping it up, everything is perfectly fine as regards that culture’s “fitness”. Sounds right.

        Cultures propagate, but they don’t breed. The selection pressures are lower because it takes a lot more to eradicate a culture entirely than it does for people with certain genes to fail to breed as much as people with other genes. A social meme of virgin cleansing doesn’t threaten the survival of the society much at all, even though it’s very harmful to the individuals within it; it simply means that the society is riddled with STIs. Virgin cleansing is less maladaptive in the cultural evolution sense than the social memes that led Norsemen to give up their previous beliefs in favor of Christianity.

        • Murphy says:

          Sure, but then anything on as short a timescale as mere tens of thousands of years is basically irrelevant.

          pointing to something that’s merely been around since the bronze age and attributing it to cultural evolution would be absurd.

          Also I’d argue that a meme that massively increases inter-generational transmission of STI’s from the societies most disease-riddled to the societies least disease riddled young healthy girls would likely have a larger effect size than many of the taboos that we’re discussing.

          If it can’t kill virgin cleansing then it probably isn’t the origin of a lot of other random stuff and makes the claim that they’re cultural evolution look more like trying to dress up personal beliefs and foibles and preferred memeplexes with false authority: claiming it to be product of evolved optimization.

    • Purplehermann says:

      1. If the virgins don’t generally have sex with diseased people unless in marriage to high status men, the myth would matter little on a societal scale.
      2. Each virgin girl would have sex for this reason at most once (unless they are raped by strangers I guess), and the chances of getting a nasty STI or a few from a single incident of sex aren’t ridiculously high even with diseased individuals.
      3. Is there any reason to think that people generally took this myth seriously?
      4. This myth seems to be a side effect of the general purity/abstinence taboo, if the taboos and the myth go together and are a net positive it would make sense for the small negative of the virgin myth to exist- it is adaptive to have taboos & virgin myth compared to neither, and getting the taboos creates the virgin myth

  31. entognatha says:

    The main argument that it’s more STI than paternity is that (3) doesn’t seem paternity-related; if it’s been more than nine months, you shouldn’t care who they’ve slept with before.

    Seems reasonable, except if you remember that calendars are a fairly new invention. Pre-historic peoples, which is majority of our evolutionary history, probably didn’t have a reliable way to measure pregnancy length reliably and didn’t have a number system. Any explanation that relies on modern cultural knowledge existing when we evolved these instincts is suspect.

    Plus I must point out we’re culturally flexible enough to have lost this prohibition, to a certain extent, now that we *do* have a reliable way to measure pregnancy length. Whereas this increase in promiscuity has lead to an increase in STI transmission, at least the incurable ones. If it were all about STIs, why would the stigma be lower than it was historically?

    But the clincher here is that STIs don’t explain why the sexual purity taboos applies to women but not men.

    Nope, it’s all about paternity.

    • Purplehermann says:

      1. They did know more or less, any culture that could count to 10 could measure by moon cycles, any culture that couldn’t could guess by seasons, and would know that from sex to baby there is less than a year.

      2. Women are more susceptible to STIs in general, but not in long term relationships. Hence their “purity” matters more.

    • Enkidum says:

      I would imagine people have known how long pregnancy takes since there were people. Not roughly or ballpark, but pretty much exactly. It’s a pretty simple thing to figure out, as Purplehermann says. That being said, counting to 10 is not something that pre-historic societies could do easily.

      • Purplehermann says:

        How would they know exactly? Seasons?

        • Enkidum says:

          I shouldn’t have kept the “exactly” in that sentence. I think they’d have a pretty close idea based largely simply on observing bellies, seasons, etc, and I suspect there is a lot of highly domain-specific porto-counting even in cultures that don’t count (e.g. they would be able to do something fairly close to counting of periods, but might not be able to transfer that to another domain).

          That being said, I’m close to entirely ignorant about this, so don’t trust me.

        • John Schilling says:

          Lunar cycles and their possibly coincidental frequency match to human reproductive cycles. There’s this bloody obvious thing that happens to most women every moon when they aren’t pregnant, then skips nine cycles while some other interesting stuff happens, then a baby comes out just before the tenth moon. Once you’ve got a tribal smartypants who can count to ten, they’ll figure it out and tell everyone else.

          • Enkidum says:

            Yes but most prehistorical human societies probably couldn’t count to ten.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            Yes but most prehistorical human societies probably couldn’t count to ten.

            Erm, what?

          • Enkidum says:

            Counting is hard. The idea of numbers as abstract entities is probably comparatively recent. There are still today a number of societies whose counting system, as near as we can tell, consists of “one, two, many”.

            I suspect this may be over-stressing what qualifies as “counting”, and perhaps as I suggested above there are domain-specific analogues to counting in all societies. But it’s not clear that this is true.

            Consider a chimp. I’m pretty sure it does not have a good concept of how long pregnancy takes (and I’m pretty damn certain it can’t count to ten). Prehistoric humans aren’t chimps, but it’s not apparent that they just suddenly flipped on a light switch and were able to use complex abilities such as counting. This stuff is hard.

          • John Schilling says:

            Tally sticks have been a thing for at least twenty thousand years, and probably quite a bit longer.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            Counting is hard. The idea of numbers as abstract entities is probably comparatively recent. There are still today a number of societies whose counting system, as near as we can tell, consists of “one, two, many”.

            And there are far more societies, including ones which are (or were, until very recently) themselves prehistoric (in the sense of having no written history and being technologically on par with what we think of as prehistoric societies), which have more than three numbers in their counting system. I don’t think it’s safe to assume that the “one, two, many” tribes represent “most prehistoric societies” without further evidence.

            ETA: Also, I’m not sure that the idea of numbers as abstract entities is strictly necessary for counting. I’ve seen it claimed (though admittedly I’m not sure with what accuracy) that before Pythagoras the ancient Greeks tended to think of numbers as adjectives rather than entities in their own right, although it’s pretty obvious that they were capable of counting to ten.

        • theredsheep says:

          When I was a child, I read Larry Gonick’s first Cartoon History of the Universe, where he repeated with a straight face (or as close as he ever came to that) the notion that primitive peoples did not know where babies come from. Years later, I read a Margaret Mead paraphrase explaining how the “theory” came to be. It seems, she said, that whoever you are, anywhere in the world, if an adult stranger comes up to you and sincerely asks you to explain how conception occurs, it is extremely difficult to resist the temptation to answer imaginatively.

      • Jaskologist says:

        Why are we speculating about prehistoric societies at all? We don’t know their sexual mores. There’s no evidence to be found there that we didn’t imagine up ourselves.

        As for everybody who did leave us records, they all had timekeeping. And they all seemed to know where babies come from as far back as we can find sources that touch on the subject. (Onan was practicing the withdrawal method in the very first book of the Bible!)

  32. egalitarianjackalope says:

    Also in support of your point, as I understand it most cultures have tended to have much stronger taboos and harsher punishments toward male homosexuality than female. Given that STI transmission between women is very low (significantly lower than between even opposite-sex partners), it would stand to reason that female-female sex would be a low priority in civilizations seeking to stamp out behaviour that was risky to sexual health.

    • Enkidum says:

      Japan has a much stronger taboo against female homosexuality than male, and I believe this is the case for much of East Asia.

      • ajfirecracker says:

        There are potential reproductive explanations for a stronger anti-female-homosexuality taboos. The obvious one being you only need a few straight guys to get a whole generation of babies but you need a lot of straight women to get a whole generation of babies.

        • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

          Technically speaking, you can get by without even one single straight woman in your society. It’s uglier but there’s plenty of historical precedent.

          After all, it’s not like the sexual preferences of the Sabines were a big impediment to the founding of Rome.

      • egalitarianjackalope says:

        Enkidum, your examples may be more exception than rule, but I’m not an expert on the topic. As I understand it, most Abrahamic religions and most of the western world have been much harsher toward male queer people than female.

        Ajfirecracker, good point. From a reproductive standpoint, a civilization can stand to lose more men than women from the marriage pool. So it could be a question of which regions had larger problems with reproduction, and which with STIs.

  33. theredsheep says:

    Possible correlation I noted in the comments of the thread where this started: homosexuality taboos were strong in Jewish and Christian societies during the ancient world and in the Middle Ages. Both halves of the Christian world, East and West, were dominated by nuclear families, while the ancient Roman world was not–marriage was typically arranged as an alliance between families. I don’t know about the family structures of the Jewish world; Jesus’s quote about a man leaving his father and mother to become one flesh with his wife would seem to indicate that, if extended families did exist there, they were based on a man joining his wife’s household.

    Islam inherited the taboo against homosexuality, but Islam was, at least at its beginning, a tribal society, with the extended family wielding a great deal of power. And the taboo seems to have at least partially faded away during the middle ages; they appear to have been pretty relaxed about pederasty, for example. Modern Islamic feelings on the matter are, per Wiki, an import from the West. Other societies likewise absorbed our taboos under colonial rule.

    Hypothesis: in a traditional nuclear society where men and women marry partners of their own choice, homosexuality is a detriment. A man who’s having sex with other men, or little boys, is a man who’s either neglecting his wife or not getting one in the first place. Whereas in a society where marriages are arranged family alliances, it may provide a stress outlet for a man who frankly can’t stand the woman his parents picked out for him. But I don’t know if Jews follow this pattern.

    • a reader says:

      Both halves of the Christian world, East and West, were dominated by nuclear families

      Extended families (with 3 or 4 generations living under the same roof) were quite common in rural Eastern Europe; they still exist today. I’ve seen cases both in real life and literature, in Chekhov’s short stories that describe Russian peasants (Muzhiks) for example:

      https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Peasants_(Chekhov)

  34. NoRandomWalk says:

    I worry this is all random theorizing without value until we involve some math.
    The best analogy I can think of is group selection, and biologists hoping that altruism could be heavily selected for. Unless we take a basic look at the math, it’s plausible, and once we do it’s absurd. I think the same thing might be going on here.

    As I understand it, for any effect to be caused by selection pressures, you need random variations arising over a timescale much smaller than the environment changes. But this is the exact opposite of what’s going on here!

    First, the ‘strengthening/weakening’ of cultural taboos does not happen on a much smaller timescale than does the ‘strengthening/weakening’ of effect of selection pressures from STIs that affect homosexuals, so we can’t posit that the first is explained by the second.

    Second, we don’t have ‘random variation’ at the level of tiny cultural units that can result in random selection. Individual countries are too large, and the cultures we are discussing are too widespread, and both of these replace each other too slowly. The frequency with which any country A gets eliminated and replaced by country B, and same with culture, is simply too infrequent for us to observe that of the countries that continue to exist, many do behavior X, and conclude that X was genetically selected for through cultural evolution even if we think we have a nice plausible story.

    Basically, let A be genetic selection pressures that result in cultural evolution as Scott has been talking about it, and let B be all the other forces that cause culture to change (politics, technology, wars, etc). In the modern world A is orders of magnitudes smaller than B, because the environment doesn’t change about 100-1000 times slower than culture does which would be necessary for a large subset of present behaviors to be explainable by genetic style random variation->selection->reproduction patterns.

    • Eponymous says:

      Yup, I’m pretty suspicious of the “cultural evolution” idea for roughly these reasons. Clearly cultural evolution happens at the level of selection on specific cultural memes within a given cultural milieu; but I doubt it happens very much at the level of whole cultures, except in extreme cases — I can imagine certain very bad ideas that become fatal to a group, or rare very powerful ideas that lead to massive expansion (e.g. agriculture); but I suspect this accounts for only a small fraction of what people are trying to attribute to “cultural evolution”.

      And it seems that large expansions of peoples are often the result of a combination of several cultural (and biological) traits that happen to work well in that environment, which allows a lot of cultural ideas to become common through linkage disequilibrium — i.e. hitching a ride on a group that’s successful for other reasons. Like I doubt the Indo-European languages are better than other language families.

      But I haven’t been following the current discussion too closely, since I’m pretty busy with other things right now, so maybe these concerns have been addressed.

  35. MartMart says:

    One way to distinguish between these possibilities would be to see how taboos changed as STIs became more common. This paper did some computer modeling and finds that STIs probably started becoming a problem around the rise of agriculture, which was also when a lot of restrictions on female sexuality became stricter. They tie this in with the triumph of monogamy over polygyny, which is especially interesting because false paternity doesn’t have a good explanation for this.

    At some point, McArdle talked about how societies that rely on hunting (where luck plays a huge role in the ability to acquire food, as even the best hunter can’t do much when there is no pray) tend to form strong communal safety nets, where food is shared by ritual, and how the rise of agriculture (where the role of luck is reduced, and there is a more direct relationship between effort and reward) brings about a stronger belief in property rights.

    False paternity is a big problem when coupled with property rights. It’s much less of a problem in a society that believes on communal property.

  36. Nara Burns says:

    Like you, I think that STIs influencing sexual mores is very likely, much as I suspect that illness influenced the development of food taboos.

    It seems like much of the pushback you are getting is grounded in the ubiquity of promiscuity, but presumably in the absence of germ theory and given the strength of many young peoples’ sexual drives, this is one of those cultural evolutions that inspires some learners to discard accumulated wisdom, sometimes discovering that there are “no consequences” for doing so, but other times suffering fairly significant consequences.

    And like you, I have gone looking for anthropological discussion of these and not really found it.

    However, there is one very well-known example that has long intrigued me, and that is the story of the man born blind found in the Christian New Testament at John 9:1-12. In this story, the Disciples of Jesus ask of a blind man, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

    The rest of the story is about miracles, or maybe a denial of the notion that God visits the sins of parents onto children. But what intrigues me about the story is that the Disciples don’t ask, “Why was this man born blind?” They just ask, “Who sinned?” It seems obvious to them that sinning parents = kid born blind, they appear to just take it for granted. Or, even if we assume the New Testament is largely fictitious, the author of this story must have known some number of people who thought it obvious that sinning parents = kid born blind. So far as I am aware, there are no other questions like this in the New Testament–nobody asks, “Which parent sinned?” in connection with other ailments.

    Anyone who has had a baby in the U.S. (or, I assume, any other developed nation) will, if they were paying much attention, be familiar with the antibiotic ointment that goes into the eyes of newborns. It goes there because more than one STI is known to cause blindness if transferred from the birth canal, and even though doctors ask about sexual histories the treatment is so trivial and inexpensive, and the risk sufficiently costly, that babies get antibiotic ointment in their eyes. I don’t know how many infants were “born” blind (i.e., born seeing but struck blind shortly after birth) in the ancient world as a result of STIs, but the anthropological question would be, what percent of infants were likely born blind as a result of STIs versus other causes?

    Since reliable birth control didn’t really exist in the ancient world, if you lined up a hundred children of prostitutes and compared them with a hundred children of (presumed) virginal mothers, how would they compare? Again, in the absence of germ theory, what would you conclude about the consequences of promiscuity? And given the number of apparent counterexamples to a conclusion like “promiscuity is bad for children,” why wouldn’t a certain percentage of people be sufficiently skeptical of the conclusion to ignore it in favor of indulging their preferences? And if sexual promiscuity does anything to raise birthrates, then you would have some competing reproductive strategies manifest; if healthy children have more offspring than sick children, but promiscuous mothers have more children than non-promiscuous mothers, it’s not obvious to me how many generations it would take for one of either purity taboos or sexual promiscuity to out-compete the alternative.

    But I would expect the advent of germ theory and STI treatments to give a boost to the reproductive fitness of the children of promiscuous mothers. So maybe a follow-up question to your title is, is penicillin (etc.) “curing” us of purity taboos?

    Now, pressures related to e.g. purity of bloodlines or disgust are, I think, also relevant. I would not suggest otherwise. But for the Jews of the Roman occupation, at least, I think the New Testament account implies the existence of a fairly particular way of thinking about sexual purity and related taboos.

    • Purplehermann says:

      The “did he sin or his parents?” question isn’t about sexual sin in particular, the trope of horrible things happening because of sin, and children dying or whatever else because of their parent’s(‘) sins is applied to many things, specifically idol worship in the torah if I’m remembering right.

      • Mary says:

        Especially since the claim was that the baby could sin in the womb, thus justifying such a punishment.

  37. robirahman says:

    “This is Your Brain on Parasites” by Kathleen McAuliffe has a great section on this, comparing historical sexual purity taboos to the prevalence of STDs in different areas.

  38. empiricalisticexpialidocious says:

    The main argument that it’s more STI than paternity is that (3) doesn’t seem paternity-related; if it’s been more than nine months, you shouldn’t care who they’ve slept with before.

    But how do you know it’s been more than nine months? In the case of a virgin it’s obvious, but otherwise it’s a reasonable heuristic to believe that a “proper wife” who has been a widow for nine months has not had sex recently, unlike a prostitute. And even in the case of marrying a one-month widow, if she’s pregnant with her dead husband’s child it would be more akin to adoption than cuckold-like false paternity. Given death rates at the time I believe adopting orphans was a common occurence?

    So it seems to me that (3) still makes sense as a paternity-related purity taboo. Of course that doesn’t take anything away from the STI hypothesis. Like you said, it seems likely that purity taboos stemmed from both paternity issues and STIs; and at that point trying to figure out if it was more paternity or more STI is really splitting hairs.

    • Purplehermann says:

      There was generally a period where a new couple wouldn’t have sex, similar to engagement vs marriage (for religious folks at least).

      Your point about adoption would support paternal fraud notfactoring into the taboo, leaving STIs as a more likely explanation.
      Though even a few months is enought to know if it’s the husband’s child.

  39. Eponymous says:

    I think you are erring in attributing to culture what is really the consequence of biology. Given the threat of false paternity, I would expect evolution to hard-wire men to be jealous: the thought of their partner sleeping around would be terribly upsetting. Social norms follow biology in this case.

    Also, a few quibbles:

    around the rise of agriculture, which was also when a lot of restrictions on female sexuality became stricter.

    How could they possibly know this?

    They tie this in with the triumph of monogamy over polygyny

    I thought monogamy was standard among HGs, who are pretty egalitarian, whereas polygyny became more common after agriculture, since this enabled more hierarchy and income inequality (due to certain people owning more land/animals), and thus enabled certain men to be able to afford to support more wives/kids.

  40. Kyle Rowland says:

    Can anyone think of cases where groups with loose sexual mores out-compete groups with strict sexual mores? It seems to me that loose sexual mores lead to very low standards in all sorts of areas, both for men and for women. All of our success seems to be built on extracting provision and protection from men, and loyalty and childcare from women. You extract those things through strict control of sexuality. I don’t see any community succeed outside that formula, defining ‘success’ as prosperity alongside decent birthrates. Perhaps some novel solution can be found through technology – perhaps surrogacy and artificial wombs will provide a way out – but it seems like this post ignores the elephant in the room, which is that all successful communities so far have stuck pretty closely to a formula which excludes freewheeling sexuality.

    There may be many secondary reasons for this, but the obvious primary reason that screams forth is that men outside of communities with strict sexual norms don’t cooperate particularly well, and women outside communities with strict sexual norms don’t reproduce particularly well. That means you’d expect communities with strict sexual norms, all else being comparable, to eat laissez-faire communities’ lunch when it comes to prosperity, success in war, and reproduction, and that’s exactly what has happened most places, most times.

    • Tohoya says:

      What are you talking about? The most powerful and prosperous and yeah, successful, civilization that has ever existed is also dramatically more sexually free than either its neighbors or its predecessors. The truly great civilizations – Rome and Breece and renaissance Italy and France to name just a few – have also been dramatically more libertine than their contemporaries. Sexual repressiveness is always a crouched, defensive posture; the first sign of decline is always intellectuals’ preoccupation with decadence and softness, not the existence of the things they critique.

      Sexual conservatism is inimical to artistry, free inquiry, and the life of the mind. It may be suited to small tribes trying to defend their tiny hunks of rock, it it can only stifle the potential of a great civilization.

      • Mary says:

        Dramatically more libertine than their contemporaries? Citation needed.

        (Current-day United States is too short a time period to offer a good comparison. Besides, it could just be a symptom of falling apart.)

      • Purplehermann says:

        I think the intent of the question is (and this is not the intent, this is the related question that interests me:)) was to ask about more sexually liberal groups outcompeting sexually conservative groups where the conservative group had at least similar levels of power, resources etc...
        I think it’s pretty well accepted that when a group becomes powerful enough it starts becoming more liberal, the question though is if we can find examples of a group outcompeting an otherwise similar group while being more liberal (sexually, otherwise capitalism is an obvious liberal advantage).

      • The original Mr. X says:

        Sexual conservatism is inimical to artistry, free inquiry, and the life of the mind.

        *cries in Patristics, Scholasticism, illuminated manuscripts, Gothic architecture…*

  41. ajfirecracker says:

    Obviously you have limited space and can’t go super deep into everything in a single post, but it frustrates me to see an article about where taboos come from and “sexism” given as a possible explanation. I don’t find it to be a good explanation because it seems like the same sort of thing as taboos themselves, so it feels descriptive rather than explanatory.

    Doctor, what caused the patient to have a heart attack? Well nurse, it was the spasming of the heart.

  42. whereamigoing says:

    Like China, Japan also historically had little discrimination against gay people, until the Western influence in the Meiji era. (Lesbianism was somewhat less accepted, though I’m not sure how much less — there aren’t so many historical records mentioning it. Maybe it’s less that lesbianism was looked down on and more that it didn’t exist as a concept — even in contemporary Japan, it is sometimes thought of as a phase that teenage girls go through before having relationships with men.)

    (There was no gay marriage (as far as I know; at least it was rare), but this was because marriage was for raising children rather than individualistic love, not due to discrimination. Homosexual men were often still expected to marry and have kids.)

    Before reading this post, I thought the historical lack of discrimination against gay people in China and Japan was due to them not being so obsessed with masculinity and not looking effeminate (though again, in the last few years this has changed a bit due to Western influence). One could hypothesize that there is the opposite causal relationship — China and Japan both had few STIs, so homosexuality was accepted, which made looking masculine less important — but it seems to me that the more likely explanation is that in a collectivistic society, it is important to signal fitting into a group, so signalling aggressiveness and masculinity in a Western sense is not so useful.

    It’s not the most authoritative source, but Yuta Aoki has some simple videos on the topic.

  43. sfoil says:

    low-status receptive partners (slaves or young boys) (except wouldn’t the young boys eventually grow into adults? Maybe the ten year delay is important in slowing the spread of epidemics)

    Probably the young boys were generally from lower-status strata. In the Symposium dialogue, Phaedrus remarks:

    From this point of view a man fairly argues in Athens to love and to be loved is held to be a very honourable thing. But when parents forbid their sons to talk with their lovers, and place them under a tutor’s care, who is appointed to see to these things, and their companions and equals cast in their teeth anything of the sort which they may observe, and their elders refuse to silence the reprovers and do not rebuke them-any one who reflects on all this will, on the contrary, think that we hold these practices to be most disgraceful.

    In other words, the affections of a would-be pederast may be frustrated by a boy’s guardians and peers who aren’t open-minded about the benefits of such relationships. Boys without such guardianship are thus more likely to end up as “lovers”.

    My experience in Afghanistan, where frankly sexual pederastic relationships are common, reinforces this. Most of the bacha bazi boys were, if not outright orphans, detached from their families by one means or another. If this practice is related to preventing the spread of STDs, then it’s the boys’ expendability that’s the operating factor, I think.

  44. MattH says:

    I always assumed that taboo’s on homosexuality would be unnecessary in hunter gather societies. There were likely homosexuals, but given the low prevalence they would be unlikely to find a partner. If a tribe has 80 people and two are gay, one is probably young and the other old. Just by chance.

    In agrarian societies the need for labor was was such that a son or daughter who didn’t procreate was useless. So the taboo on non-procreative sex of all kinds.

    • ThomasStearns says:

      Henry Harpending didn’t think homosexuals even exist in hunter-gatherers, which, if true, brings up a host of really interesting questions.

      • a reader says:

        There are tribes, cultures – I don’t know if they are hunter-gatherers or know agriculture – where (temporary) homosexual behavior is universal and mandatory, being ritualized:

        In the tropical forests of New Guinea, the Etoro believe that for a boy to achieve manhood he must ingest the semen of his elders. This is accomplished through ritualized rites of passage that require young male initiates to fellate a senior member (Herdt 1984/1993; Kelley 1980).
        In contrast, the nearby Kaluli maintain that male initiation is only properly done by ritually delivering the semen through the initiate’s anus, not his mouth. The Etoro revile these Kaluli practices, finding them disgusting. To become a man in these societies, and eventually take a wife, every boy undergoes these initiations.

        source: https://www2.psych.ubc.ca/~henrich/pdfs/WeirdPeople.pdf

        • ThomasStearns says:

          That sounds like a hazing ritual…not men preferring men to women as sexual partners.

  45. Ozy Frantz says:

    It is not super clear to what extent the Greeks had taboos on role versatility. My read of the evidence is that they did not. Dover’s Greek Homosexuality, the source of this belief, makes the argument “everyone in every culture thinks that being a receptive partner is shameful, so the Greeks must have also thought that being a receptive partner is shameful,” which I don’t think is a super-valid argument. Most of the other evidence people cite can fit equally well with a story that sexual license is shameful whether it involves being penetrated or penetrating others: for example, Aristophanes has many jokes about men being receptive partners, but the characters who are the butt of those jokes are also mocked for their interest in penetrative sex (e.g. going to the gym to look at the imprints boys’ butts make in the sand).

    The Greeks also practiced intercrural sex (between the thighs) which has ~zero risk of STI transmission.

    The Roman taboos seem somewhat uncorrelated with STI transmission risk: for example, performing cunnilingus has very low STI risk, but is shameful because you’re allowing a woman to penetrate your mouth.

    • Purplehermann says:

      Intercrural sex seems like a mark in favor of the STI account to me

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        Very much so. To the extent this rule was observed (how would we know what lovers actually did in private?), it could reduce the dangers of male homosexuality down around that of F/F.

    • a reader says:

      @Ozy:
      Probably the role depended on and changed with age, because the ancient Greek homosexual relations were typically between an adult man (the lover) and a teen boy (the beloved – passive word).

      Both words derive from the Greek verb erô, erân, “to love”; see also eros. In Dover’s strict dichotomy, the erastês (ἐραστής, plural erastai) is the older lover, seen as the active or dominant partner,[15] with the suffix -tês (-τής) denoting agency.[16] […] The erastês himself might only be in his early twenties,[18] and thus the age difference between the two lovers might be negligible.[19]

      The word erômenos, or “beloved” (ἐρώμενος, plural eromenoi), is the masculine form of the present passive participle from erô, viewed by Dover as the passive or subordinate partner. An erômenos can also be called pais, “child”.[20] The pais was regarded as a future citizen, not an “inferior object of sexual gratification”, and was portrayed with respect in art.[21]

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pederasty_in_ancient_Greece#Terminology

      @Le Maistre Chat:

      how would we know what lovers actually did in private?

      Some erotic paintings, on Kylix-es (drinking cups) for example, can give an indication (although they may not reflect reality very accurately, like nowadays porn movies.)

  46. Freddie deBoer says:

    There seems to be some effort to deny that the homosexual acts common to the ancient Greeks were really homosexual, I think tied up with this revanchist and revisionist “back to the glories of Western civilization” movement that would prefer to keep gay stuff out of their Western history. Men fucked men in the cradle of Western civilization, guys.

    • vV_Vv says:

      You should be wary of projecting the modern Western concept of “being gay” to an ancient civilization. AFAIK it doesn’t even exist in modern Asia.

  47. DS says:

    A women who has had sex for money in the past might do it again. If you marry a loose woman, you have to be nervous whenever you’re not in the house and she is.

    Therefore, a woman’s reputation, but not a man’s, is a false paternity issue. Whereas both male and female reputations would be an STI issue.

    By the 1800s, huge numbers of women in London, Venice, etc. were prostitutes. Yet parents of daughters rarely turned down potential husbands on the grounds of the man’s use of prostitutes, even though parents of sons were obsessive about any bride being sexually pure. And parents of sons complained much less about their son keeping a mistress than about his marrying one.

    That asymmetry fits false paternity, not STI risk.

    So parents cared about wealth and birth in both male and female suitors for their kids, but only cared about sexual history in the females. Plus they only cared about their son’s lover’s sexual history if he was likely to marry her, not if he was just using her as a mistress. Those asymmetries are strong Bayesian evidence families are selecting against false paternity, not STIs.

    This makes sense, as false paternity is a potent driver of genetic selection, and it’s one that’s always present even in a society with no strangers to bring disease. We don’t have to make up any forgotten genital plagues to justify selection pressure towards paternity control!

    But even where there’s no paternity issue, the disease orientation is kind of weak. Homosexuality taboos seem to center on protecting the status hierarchy, not disease transmission. People were mocked for being in thrall to their low-status male lover, or being the penetrated “female” one, far more than for the *quantity* of their lovers.

    In general the mildness of complaints about male promiscuity, when so many other kinds of male sex are taboo, is bad for the STI theory. Why do we have so many tales of doom for loving the wrong woman, yet loving too many women is considered a mere weakness of self-control, good for a laugh not doom? Why was the Trojan War about stealing a single wife and not Paris being a general horndog? Why was it a deadly insult to tell an ancient Roman man that he had the wrong kind of sex (being penetrated), and yet nobody stabbed each other over “wow, dude, you’ve slept with a lot of women?”

    Society has been totally willing to sentence men to death for the wrong kind of sex. So there’s no excuse, if it were STIs, not to have a true taboo against male promiscuity. Yet societies have never done that – except when it might compromise someone else’s paternity control.

    The sex taboos definitely have that weird “disgust” quality, and I’m sure it means something. But in practice the taboos seem to center around maximizing family paternity, while not triggering feuds with other families or letting strangers alienate you from your family. The STI effect isn’t showing where you’d expect if it were strong.

    • Purplehermann says:

      A women is likely to have a larger number of STIs than a man with a similar number and (STI wise) quality, so a guy would care more about his wife sleeping around than vice versa, while a woman with an STI usually isn’t such a big risk – unless he’s marrying her, then he’ll eventually catch most everything she has

      • Simon_Jester says:

        See, this would make sense if the question was “why did these societies consider a woman with one prior sexual partner ‘ruined for marriage,’ but not consider a man with one prior sexual partner similarly ruined?” Because then the statistics would hold true and you could argue that enforcing the taboo had beneficial effects in the long run even if most people couldn’t easily measure those effects on the population as a whole.

        Thing is… that’s not what’s being asked.

        What’s being asked is- well, several things, but the biggest is:

        Why was “this woman had one prior sexual partner” being treated as a bigger deal than “this man had ten prior sexual partners?”

        The risk of a man catching an STD from a woman may be lower than vice versa. But it’s not so low that it makes sense to treat any woman who’s had sex as “soiled,” while largely ignoring the sexual history of a prospective husband in a society where single men having relations with prostitutes was so common. That wouldn’t be upheld by the statistics, and would not be promoted by cultural evolution.

        This doesn’t make sense in terms of the “sexual purity evolved as a proxy for STD avoidance, that is what it’s for” explanation. Such an explanation might justify female chastity being prized more than male chastity, but it would be a difference in degree, not a difference in kind.

        A man who could establish that he didn’t spend five years between ages 18 and 23 patronizing the seamy red-light district of the regional capital might have less of a marriageability advantage over a man who did, than a virgin would over a female prostitute working that same red-light district. But he’d still have an advantage. By the same arguments advanced all over this thread, he’d be less likely to accidentally render his new bride infertile with an STD, more likely to stay true to his wife rather than deserting her for a woman he found more attractive, and so on.

        • The original Mr. X says:

          A man who could establish that he didn’t spend five years between ages 18 and 23 patronizing the seamy red-light district of the regional capital might have less of a marriageability advantage over a man who did, than a virgin would over a female prostitute working that same red-light district. But he’d still have an advantage.

          Wasn’t that the case historically, though? Yes the odd trip to a brothel wasn’t going to ruin a man’s prospects if he was good husband material in other respects, but there were still limits to what was considered acceptable. Lots of 19th-century romance novels feature caddish men whose superficial charm the heroine has to see through before she can marry her true love.

          • Simon_Jester says:

            As I recall, the problem with such men is typically presented as “they are a cad who will run off with your life savings,” not “they are a dirty man-slut who will give you STDs and leave you infertile and sickly.” And even then, the problem with the cad often isn’t that he’s ineligible by society’s standards. Quite the opposite. The problem is that just because he’s considered eligible according to the customs of his day, doesn’t mean you want to marry him.

            But that’s all a bit beside the point.

            I’ll admit that there is some threshold of raging man-sluttery that could seriously harm a man’s marital prospects in a traditional society. But the disproportionate quantity of man-sluttery required, compared to the extreme sexual abstemiousness expected of women under “madonna-whore” logic, simply doesn’t line up with the statistical facts of STD transmission.

            Especially not when the ‘solution’ to extramarital sex that most societies converge on involves punishing the woman (who is less likely to transmit disease) than the man (who is more likely).

            I’m not saying that fear of STDs plays no role in sexual purity taboos and customs. What I’m saying is that it is nowhere near a sufficient explanation to carry the primary role.

            Metaphorically speaking, we’re talking about cultures where a few ounces of woman-slut status could relegate a woman to “trash” status, whereas it would take gallons and gallons of man-sluttery to have the same effect. If the main causative factor here really were “cultural evolution causes people to develop customs that are optimized for avoiding STD transmission,” then the effects would be a lot more balanced.

            Because realistically, there are a LOT of ways to lower STD transmission compared to the ‘traditional’ solution of “men have promiscuous sex with a specific class of ‘fallen women’ who sooner or later predictably catch every disease under the sun, routinely catch the diseases themselves, and then proceed to stick it in their ‘unfallen’ wives and infect them too.’ ”

            A custom of (for instance) punishing johns as harshly as prostitutes would be an obvious way to do this.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      Why was the Trojan War about stealing a single wife

      Because Sparta was matrilineal. Helen was queen of Sparta because she was the daughter of Leda, the previous queen. Menelaus was only king through his marriage to her. Helen’s brothers, Castor and Pollux, did not inherit.

  48. The original Mr. X says:

    If purity taboos were related to STIs, we would expect them to get stricter and stricter through history, from the ancient through the classical and medieval worlds, maybe a sudden jump around the arrival of syphilis, reaching their peak in the 1800s, and then dropping precipitiously once good public health made the threat of STIs recede. I don’t have any real data on this, but it fits my impressions.

    Really? It seems to me that the situation was more like a pendulum. Late Republican/Early Imperial Rome was more promiscuous than Early Republican Rome (at least if Cicero can be believed), but things started getting more straight-laced during the third century (before Christianity became the state religion, NB). The mediaeval period saw similar oscillations (the Carolingian period was apparently quite accepting of [heterosexual] extra-marital intercourse, for example), as did the early modern period (the Restoration/18th century being notably libertine).

    And of course, there’s the well-known Classical trope of backwards barbarian tribesmen being more sexually restrained than the corrupt and decadent city-dwellers of Greece and Rome, although admittedly it’s difficult to say how far this reflected reality and how far it was just “noble savage” myth-making.

  49. andagain says:

    I’m writing this from the male perspective because most of the cultures I know about thought that way

    Surely the women in most cultures would care about not dying of syphilis as much as the men? Having less power to enact your preferences is not the same thing as not having preferences. So we should still see some evidence of women having these preferences.

  50. thisheavenlyconjugation says:

    They tie this in with the triumph of monogamy over polygyny, which is especially interesting because false paternity doesn’t have a good explanation for this.

    Wallowing in the mud of baseless speculation: polygyny makes it harder for men to find partners, which makes adultery/rape more appealing, which makes false paternity more likely.

  51. vV_Vv says:

    One way to distinguish between these possibilities would be to see how taboos changed as STIs became more common. This paper did some computer modeling and finds that STIs probably started becoming a problem around the rise of agriculture, which was also when a lot of restrictions on female sexuality became stricter. They tie this in with the triumph of monogamy over polygyny, which is especially interesting because false paternity doesn’t have a good explanation for this.

    Without enforced monogamy few powerful men tend monopolize most women, in part because they can an in part because women are hypergamic and naturally flock to them.

    In a hunter-gatherer society, there is a limit on how powerful a man can be compared to the average: a strong, skilled hunter can individually beat up any man of the tribe, but if two or three of them team up they can beat him up. He can be momentarily richer than the others because he hunts better game, but he can’t accumulate this wealth, invest it or pass it to his children.

    In an agrarian society social differences explode: wealth is now mostly dependent on land, which produces surplus that can be used to buy more land or hire thugs to protect you and beat up your rivals, futhermore land can be passed to children as inheritance, resulting in accumulation. Thus you end up with a few landed aristocrats who are order of magnitudes richer than the average man. But they still need average men to work in their fields rather than steal or start riots, and young, unattached men tend to become idle at best and violent at worst.

    Therefore it’s likely that monogamic marriage was invented as a form of sexual redistribution of women from rich, powerful men to average men. The deal was that if you worked hard, played by the rules and did not stir troubles, you had a good chance of getting a wife and having children, which in turn made you more committed in the stability of your society.

  52. John Schilling says:

    Do we even care, and why?

    From the male perspective, a prospective bride who has been sleeping with other men (or worse, will continue to do so during the marriage) is a risk factor for both reproductive cuckoldry and STIs, with the risk fading over a period of ~6 months if there aren’t any conspicuous babies and/or open sores and if you can be sure the woman has been abstinent through that period despite having slept with other men beforehand. These will motivate the same social norms or rules(*), and reinforce each other in doing so, making it difficult to sort out the “true” or “most important” cause.

    From the female perspective, sleeping with any man other than your husband or committed fiancee is a risk factor for being stuck with a baby but no husband and, to the extent that your lover du jour is almost by definition the sort of man who sleeps around, STIs. And the man who is going to sleep around, faces less risk of both STIs and being stuck raising someone else’s baby if he seduces the farmer’s mostly-chaste daugher rather than hiring a prostitute.
    Again, these motivate and reinforce the same social norms for both genders and good luck pinning down one or the other as the prime cause.

    The answer is almost certainly “all of the above”.

    * For both genders, because women who anticipate wanting high-quality husbands in the future will be incentivized to avoid behaviors that make them less appealing as brides.

    • Purplehermann says:

      Minor nitpick- the STI risk doesn’t fade similarly to pregnancy risk over time, with 6 month abstinence, if she isn’t pregnant, (which is easily deterelmined) yet she’ll need to have sex again to get pregnant. As for STIs though, she could be a carrier, he might miss symptoms/she might conceal symptoms, some STIs show up over longer periods of time or show up cyclically

      • John Schilling says:

        It doesn’t fade all the way to zero, but it fades substantially and will drive approximately the same behaviors, e.g. it’s OK to marry a widow who has been in mourning for a year but not OK to marry a prostitute.

  53. pacificverse says:

    I don’t quite understand what you mean by triumph of monogamy over polygyny.
    Polygyny was standard in China up till the 1950s (as many concubines as you can afford!). It has been eradicated since, but the timeframe doesn’t seem to correspond to your point.
    It was common in the Mideast.

    • Nornagest says:

      It was accepted in the Mideast (and still is in much of it), but I don’t know about common. The sources I’ve read tend to turn up prevalence numbers in the single digits for having >1 wife, and usually low in the single digits. Overrepresented in elite families, though, which might lead to an unrealistic impression of its prevalence elsewhere.

      The thing about being able to have as many wives as you can afford is that that usually works out to one wife. Or zero.

      • pacificverse says:

        Oh, certainly. That’s why I specifically said “afford”. But an economic limit that means there’s no cultural taboo against it, and that it thus was not selected against through cultural evolution, or faced limited selection pressure from STIs, etc due to economics being the limiting factor.

  54. Robert Jones says:

    I think you need to set out more clearly how you understand cultural evolution to be operating. In some places you seem to be saying that cultures compete depending on the effects of their norms, independent of the intentions of the humans involved. But if you expect the strength of sexual taboos to vary with STI rates over periods of a century or so, that would require some intentionality. If we want to know what people in the past thought about sexual taboos, we should start by reading what they wrote.

    To the extent that you identify “cross-cultural” taboos, cultural evolution seems like a bad place to look for an explanation, and I would consider straightforward evolution. Diana Fleischman has written about sexual disgust as an adaptation to selection pressures including the disease burden from STIs.

    I note that you began section I saying that you previously thought it was “obviously true” that cultural evolution created sexual purity taboos to prevent the spread of STIs and ended by saying “it’s fair to speculate that STIs played a part”. It is fair to speculate that, but there’s a huge epistemic gulf between that and “obviously true”.

  55. deciusbrutus says:

    It seems like your research came up with a dearth of information about the strength of various purity taboos over time as well as the prevalence of STDs over time.

    That said, for the most important STDs, are the transmission rates to receptive partners different from the transmission rates to penetrating partners? That makes sense to me, but I generally distrust intuition.

  56. Yaleocon says:

    To offer some narrow knowledge about this: I took a class a while ago which assigned Randy Shilts’ acclaimed book “And the Band Played On”, which chronicles the rise of AIDS and its impact on the American gay community. Early on, before the rise of AIDS, it talks about the impact of that time’s sexual culture on gay men’s health (p. 18 and 19 in my edition). One-tenth of San Francisco’s gay men were suffering Hep B at any given time; two-thirds had suffered it in the past. In New York, one-third had intestinal parasites (“amebiasis and giardiasis”). One in eight people who went to the bathhouses (eupemisms, essentially, for sex clubs) had gonorrhea and syphilis.

    These numbers were among a population who may have suffered the least stigma against gay sex in all history, and who actively sought medical care (they visited clinics). Laws against gay marriage could have been an ultimate cause, but only by creating a culture of promiscuity. What shouldn’t be doubted is that a culture of promiscuity among gay men was the immediate cause of a huge rise in STI prevalence, even strictly prior to the rise AIDS.

    • Steve Sailer says:

      Right, it’s been memory-holed that the main cause of the AIDS epidemic in the US was Gay Lib, which is why AIDS rates were the worst on Castro Street, Christopher Street, and Santa Monica Boulevard rather than in, say, West Virginia.

      • Simon_Jester says:

        Part of the reason it got “memory-holed” is that whatever the AIDS rates may have been in Castro District versus West Virginia then, they’re a lot closer to converged now. The disease is now quite capable of remaining endemic in America even if not a single gay man catches it ever again.

        The early Reagan-era reaction to the AIDS epidemic was to think of it as a “gay disease” that only degenerates could catch. And, implicitly, that made it not a very important disease to worry about. Because who cares if degenerates die?

        That is an incredibly poor decision from a public health policy stand point.

        If your response to a plague outbreak among the dirty untouchables is “let it kill them,” then while in the short run that may mean plague among the untouchables, in the long run it means plague among everybody.

        • The Nybbler says:

          Part of the reason it got “memory-holed” is that whatever the AIDS rates may have been in Castro District versus West Virginia then, they’re a lot closer to converged now.

          No, not really.

          • Nornagest says:

            I don’t find a comparison between SF and West Virginia very telling — there’s plenty that could be going on there besides sexuality — but the gender distribution for AIDS patients in SF should raise some eyebrows. 94.2% male, 5.8% female.

            Diving deeper into that dataset paints a more complex story, though — nationwide, it’s more like 75% male. The map for prevalence looks basically like a map of population density [even though these figures are already adjusted for population], but the other high-density areas I’ve sampled, even with absolute prevalence like SF’s, tend to have gender distributions more like the nationwide averages. SF’s AIDS population is also much whiter — nationwide, it’s more prevalent among black and Hispanic people.

            Interestingly, while AIDS among black and white people tracks density well, AIDS among Hispanic prevalence is much higher in the Northeast, especially upstate New York. No clue what’s going on with that.

          • Simon_Jester says:

            What was the disparity in the 1980s.

            Right now new HIV diagnoses occur in San Francisco at a rate of about 27.4 per hundred thousand per year; in West Virginia, 4.3 per hundred thousand.

            What were they in the 1980s during the timeframe Steve Sailer was talking about? Was the disparity the same then, or larger?

            Furthermore, this still doesn’t address my point, in any event. The point is, ignoring a plague among the filthy untouchables because it only affects the filthy untouchables, or because you think they deserve to die anyway for being untouchable and filthy, eventually means plague among everyone.

            In nations that, for whatever reason, did not or could not take effective steps against the AIDS epidemic as a public health measure, we see up to double-digit percentages of the adult population infected. The sexual abstemiousness of a nation’s people does not appear to be a particularly strong predictor of how many AIDS patients the nation as a whole has.

            The US, fortunately, removed its head from its colon and began taking AIDS seriously before it was too late for the epidemic to be brought under control. But if the official government policy had remained “no, no AIDS problem, it’s just killing off queers and homobortionists and drug addicts as God intended,” we’d be in a much worse position.

          • John Schilling says:

            Furthermore, this still doesn’t address my point, in any event. The point is, ignoring a plague among the filthy untouchables because it only affects the filthy untouchables, or because you think they deserve to die anyway for being untouchable and filthy, eventually means plague among everyone.

            Unless the plague is actually spread by contact with filth, and your defining filthy people as untouchable means you’ve effectively implemented a quarantine.

  57. Jay Searson says:

    While it’s conceivable that the origins of purity taboos are either paternity or sexual health, I feel like it’s weird that you’re leaving out a third, very reasonable possibility: that they existed to control women. History is rife with examples of one group maintaining considerable institutions for no purpose other than to exploit another, weaker group — see for example the spartans, who effectively ran a slave society, the american pre-civil-war south where it wasn’t just slavery but weird racist slavery, all of feudal Russia where the serfs were slaves, most of feudal Europe where the serfs were sharecroppers at least, communist Russia, communist China, ancient China, ancient Rome…it’s kind of a long list. In a lot of these societies the slaves even had relatively equal numbers, or even superior ones; they were kept down by institutions and their weakness. Women are much physically weaker than men, and have other weaknesses in premodern societies, such as the burdens of pregnancy; they also have a history of being exploited. Why is the consideration that these purity taboos were purely one of the instruments of that exploitation absent?

    Again, to be clear — I’m not saying that that IS the reason. But if we’re going to throw up possible causes, and paternity gets in — well why not keeping women controlled?

    • Simon_Jester says:

      As an illustrative thought experiment, imagine a society where the representative example of “normal” punishments for extramarital penetrative sex was a round of shaming for the woman involved… and summary castration for the man.

      [Yes this is obviously terrible and disproportionate and unreasonable and unfair. Bear with me.]

      “But Simon,” you may ask, “who would sire the next generation?” Well, as we are often told, it doesn’t actually take that many fertile males to repopulate the next generation. That wouldn’t be a show-stopper. Certain men would just keep it in their pants until marriage, and that would be a big evolutionary advantage for them. And for society as a whole, too, because it’d lower the STD rate. Men are more likely to pass these diseases on to their partners after all, so enforcing extreme caution and discretion on their exercise of penetrative sex should greatly lower the transmission rate. Especially if the punishment diminishes their capacity for recidivism.

      Now, there may well be arguments that ultimately this would not survive under cultural evolution. But I figure it’s no more maladapted than, say, the South African superstition of “virgin cleansing,” the idea that a man can cure himself of STDs by having sex with a virgin, as if her purity wasn’t merely the absence of disease but a magical aura that could transfer to his genitals or something.

      The catch is, nobody seems to have gone so far as “extramarital penetrative sex is punishable by castration” when it comes to purity customs designed to lower STD rates by enforcing male chastity. Very few societies that I know of even punish the male more harshly than the female at all. This, even though logically the consequences of male sexual promiscuity has the potential to cause far more STD spread around the population!

      Now, in reality we all know why this is the case. Men, for most of the history of most settled human societies, had more power over which sexual customs would get established than women did. A society where men are punished much more harshly for sexual indiscretions than women would be a very rare development, almost inevitably a society that is female-dominated in other ways. Given that such a society would be heavily outnumbered by male ones, simple “genetic drift” (or rather, memetic drift) would make it very unlikely for the “punish males more harshly for sexual indiscretion” meme to survive. A meme doesn’t have to be maladaptive to die out, any more than a gene does.

      And so societies where it is normative to punish unchaste males by castration and unchaste females by scolding are very rare. While societies where it is normative to punish unchaste males by scolding and unchaste females by jealous swains splashing acid in their faces are less rare.

      We see evo-psych deployed to explain the observed phenomenon (intensive efforts to enforce female chastity until a virgin marriage) and to justify it. Even though the same evo-psych style logic would support brutally harsh punishments for unchaste males (threats to paternity, chronically likely to seduce a man’s wife out from in front of his nose, STD threats to the community in a way an unchaste female never can be).

      A theory that explains counterfactual scenarios just as well as reality, is not a complete or comprehensive theory with full explanatory power in and of itself.

      • quanta413 says:

        Even though the same evo-psych style logic would support brutally harsh punishments for unchaste males (threats to paternity, chronically likely to seduce a man’s wife out from in front of his nose, STD threats to the community in a way an unchaste female never can be).

        It doesn’t necessarily though because the human pattern involves parental care or provision from the male as well as the female. Humans aren’t a perfectly monogamous species, but they’re very rarely a harem species either. Human groups also war against each other which favors the ones with more or stronger males. Castrated males are not going to be as useful in war and are less likely to want to provide for someone else’s children.

        We do know castrated males were sometimes used to guard the harems of the rare ultra-powerful males who could command enough resources to have a harem, so it can happen.

        You’re right though about power mattering. Men are physically stronger. This means they can enforce rules more easily and it’s harder to enforce rules against them.

        The non-paternity rate among human couples has been pretty low for a long time in a lot of places though, so there has definitely been significant success in preventing men from sleeping around too much even if it’s less obvious how it was enforced.

        • Simon_Jester says:

          It doesn’t necessarily though because the human pattern involves parental care or provision from the male as well as the female. Humans aren’t a perfectly monogamous species, but they’re very rarely a harem species either. Human groups also war against each other which favors the ones with more or stronger males. Castrated males are not going to be as useful in war and are less likely to want to provide for someone else’s children.

          I mean maybe, but we can take this same kind of logic and spin it around and around in circles all day.

          For instance, we can imagine a world where somehow male genital mutilation was a normalized (if not always enforced) punishment for extramarital penetrative sex in traditional societies. Not all of them, but enough that it was a cross-cultural phenomenon, something you wouldn’t be at much of a competitive disadvantage for adopting. Of course, we today would no longer live in traditional sexual mores. Sure, subconsciously we mostly would think it’s a fitting comeuppance when a ‘tomcat’ type gets a good swift kick in the shorts for hitting on a woman he’s not in a stable relationship with. That’s just a watered-down holdover of the old traditional values, though. In this parallel universe, we today would be far too enlightened to implement outright MGM as a punishment for philandering in any consistent way, and almost no one except the Internet scorned-woman femcel community would think of enforcing such practices in law.

          In this counterfactual world, we might look at a hypothetical alternate ‘tradition’ of scolding men and regarding women as ‘ruined’ in the aftermath of extramarital sex. And we might say:

          “Wait, that doesn’t make sense. You’re taking a lot of women, many of them in their prime childbearing years, and leaving them in a position of artificially depressed social status- below even what they’d normally be stuck with as single mothers in a society where by custom men own all the property. That cannot possibly be good for overall fertility rates, or for the health and welfare of children who are born to these “fallen” women. And surely lots and lots of women would wind up “fallen,” because it’s only natural for women to want sex and they wouldn’t be able to restrain themselves, whereas most men sensibly cross their legs and wince at the idea of sex outside a committed relationship!”

          And in this parallel universe, I strongly suspect most of us would find this argument to be, if not ironclad, at least credible. It might actually be a bad argument based on the numbers, but it’d be hard to tell without running those numbers based on experimental data from a society where such rules were enforced.

          The problem with evo-psych style arguments is that in the absence of calculations, it’s pretty easy to craft a narrative to justify any desired conclusion. Logic that proves everything, proves nothing.

          So to evaluate any given argument of this type, we have to dig deeper. How well does it align with the facts? We are told that men are more likely to transmit STDs to women than vice versa, and that men are most likely of all to transmit them to other men via penetrative sex.

          This suggests that restraining male penetrative sex is by far the most important component of limiting the spread of STDs… which is supported by the fact that the single most effective thing you can to do stop STDs is widespread distribution of condoms, a tool for “neutralizing” one of the main infection vectors of male penetrative sex, along with providing some protection for the male.

          But traditional sexual purity rules actually do relatively little to restrain male penetrative sex (at least with women). And in many cases they may make the infection risk WORSE by inducing a disproportionate number of men to have penetrative sex with the same (fallen) women.

          Instead, traditional sexual purity rules seem very rationally and efficiently designed to maximize female chastity, at least in the majority of the female population. Which makes sense if you imagine that the rules evolved as mechanisms by which men could assert control over paternity and prevent women from leaving them for more appealing competitors, but not if you imagine them as being there to protect silly women from STDs “for their own good.”

          • quanta413 says:

            For instance, we can imagine a world.. And in this parallel universe… it’d be hard to tell without running those numbers based on experimental data from a society where such rules were enforced.

            What I’m saying is that there are more constraining facts that you have ignored that would push against a tendency to castrate all the men who slept around even if STD’s were the sole explanation. Which I doubt. I think it’s probably mostly what you said (paternity), but that STDs are still relevant in some time and places (post agricultural transition). Even when trying to prevent STD’s, it’s harder to control men because they’re stronger and more aggressive. Also stupider in a certain sense.

            The problem with evo-psych style arguments is that in the absence of calculations, it’s pretty easy to craft a narrative to justify any desired conclusion. Logic that proves everything, proves nothing.

            I don’t find the other story great either, but you are making up alternate worlds with different observed facts that are incompatible with observed facts about the actual world and then “saying but in this alternate world this unseen strategy would be even more efficient for preventing STDs”. But we don’t live in that alternate world so there are additional constraints. Like having enough men willing to stab people from the other tribe/city/nation and take their stuff.

            Or

            “But Simon,” you may ask, “who would sire the next generation?” Well, as we are often told, it doesn’t actually take that many fertile males to repopulate the next generation. That wouldn’t be a show-stopper.

            The problem is that this is false in our current world (or was until very recently). Humans aren’t fish or buffalo. Until very recently, it took many fertile males to repopulate the next generation because of parental care, because males don’t take much care of non relatives. Even if men were strongly controlled by women it wouldn’t necessarily behoove the women to castrate promiscuous men because of this and other issues.

            Instead, traditional sexual purity rules seem very rationally and efficiently designed to maximize female chastity, at least in the majority of the female population. Which makes sense if you imagine that the rules evolved as mechanisms by which men could assert control over paternity and prevent women from leaving them for more appealing competitors, but not if you imagine them as being there to protect silly women from STDs “for their own good.”

            Saying the patterns are there to ensure paternity is still an evo-psych explanation. I agree it’s probably a much better one for chastity taboos, but it can’t explain taboos against homosexual acts at all.

          • Simon_Jester says:

            What I’m saying is that there are more constraining facts that you have ignored that would push against a tendency to castrate all the men who slept around even if STD’s were the sole explanation. Which I doubt. I think it’s probably mostly what you said (paternity), but that STDs are still relevant in some time and places (post agricultural transition). Even when trying to prevent STD’s, it’s harder to control men because they’re stronger and more aggressive. Also stupider in a certain sense.

            Idly, I can think of forms of MGM that might have evolved as a way to enforce male chastity outside of marriage which would have less radical effects on males’ suitability for warfare and labor than castration, but I’d rather not discuss it in too much detail lest things get very squicky. That’s a side topic anyway.

            The point to be made here is, it makes HUGE difference whether your narrative of where traditional sexual purity customs come from if you say:

            “The taboos exist to protect people, mainly women, from the spread of STIs. STIs that would otherwise wreak havoc among the population, if people were allowed to be sexually licentious and women weren’t expected to be virgins at marriage…”

            Or if you say:

            “The taboos exist because society needs some way to keep men acting constructively, but men are big and horny and unlikely to keep it in their pants even to contain the spread of disease. So societies developed customs that catered to men, often putting very harsh restrictions on women, who are easier to subjugate, even when that’s an inefficient way to solve an object-level problem like “minimize STI transmission.” ”

            The way one presents things here makes a huge difference, and the part where “yes, there’s clearly a set of ways we could more efficiently limit STIs by restraining male sexuality, but traditional soceties didn’t do that because men were running the show” should not be tacked on as an afterthought.

            The problem is that this is false in our current world (or was until very recently). Humans aren’t fish or buffalo. Until very recently, it took many fertile males to repopulate the next generation because of parental care, because males don’t take much care of non relatives.

            I don’t disagree, but if so then we need to make sure everyone’s on the same page about this, not just you and me. 😉

            Because it’s 2019 and not that long ago I ran into someone who earnestly tried to explain to me that the reason men got lots of privileges in traditional societies was because men are the expendable sex and did all the dangerous stuff that could get them killed, and so ‘earned’ all those privileges by having a higher risk of death because society demanded it of them as the expendable sex.

            That’s the kind of thing that makes me very wary of this kind of excuse-forging style of argumentation about traditional gender relations and sexuality in general.

    • Nornagest says:

      the american pre-civil-war south where it wasn’t just slavery but weird racist slavery

      I’ve heard this a lot, but I’m less convinced than I once was that there’s anything to it. It might be true if we’re comparing slavery in the antebellum South to slavery in Classical Greece and Rome, but historical slavery in the Arab world had strong racialized components — there’s an Arabic slur for black people that translates simply to “slave”. And while slavery in early medieval Western and Northern Europe wasn’t racially stratified by our standards, it was sure as hell ethnically stratified — our own word for “slave” shares a root with “Slav”, as in “Slavic”.

      • The Nybbler says:

        The term “slave” is itself from the ethnicity “Slav”.

      • sfoil says:

        “Weird” and “racist” in this context are defined in such a way as to uniquely delineate slavery of Africans in the United States pre-1865 and nothing else. It’s not some conclusion that was arrived at in good faith.

        • Simon_Jester says:

          No I mean there’s actually pretty solid support for it.

          If you go back to say, the Middle East under the Ottomans or earlier, yes, the typical inhabitant didn’t see much of people from sub-Saharan Africa except for enslaved victims of human trafficking. Inasmuch as they enslaved people they believed to be inferior, it wasn’t about race or ethnicity, it was about religious and cultural identity. Sub-Saharan blacks who were Muslim and successful (e.g. the Malian Empire) got respect instead of just being treated as subhuman ape-men. And the Arabs, Berbers, and Turks would just as happily enslave, say, Irishmen or Ukrainians instead of blacks. Because it didn’t matter if you were white or black; it mattered whether you were a foreigner and/or whether you were right with God.

          Furthermore, in most slave societies your [i]ancestry[/i] had little to do with whether you yourself were a slave, except insofar as it was an economic class thing and not a race thing. A freeborn black man would have a much better hope of becoming the Emperor of Rome than the President of the Confederate States of America, even though both societies happily owned lots of slaves, including lots of black slaves.

          By contrast, the system of slavery in the American South was deeply entwined with an unusually, historically rare form of overt racism. The idea of a white man becoming a slave was unthinkable, while the idea of a black man not being a slave so discommoded Southern political authorities that they did just about everything in their power to prevent black slaves from being freed, and to expel freed blacks from the South.

          There were plenty of enslaved ethnic Italians among the Romans and enslaved ethnic Turks among the Turks. I am not aware of a single instance of an enslaved white in the antebellum South, and indeed the antebellum South indulged in positively torturous redefinitions of the word ‘white’ to ensure that no person trapped in slavery would ever be considered ‘really’ white.

          This is how, while Thomas Jefferson’s wife Martha was indisputably ‘white,’ his mistress/sex-slave Sally Hemings, despite being Martha’s half-sister and at least three quarters European in ancestry, was definitively ‘black.’ Not just ‘a little black,’ but black.

          Because practically by definition, a white could not be a slave.

          Now, it hadn’t always been like this. In the 1600s, widespread use of indentured servitude and convict labor blurred the lines between free and slave labor, and between the social and economic status of blacks and whites. That ended over the course of the 1700s and early 1800s, though- in no small part because white indentured servants were fairly likely to align with blacks in a servile rebellion, whereas impoverished whites set up as overseers over enslaved black populations could be relied upon to help the aristocracy control its own human property.

          By the time of the Civil War, everyone on both sides was quite clear that US-style slavery was a system by which the white race dominated the black race in America. There was little or no place in the system for either enslaved whites or free blacks. The Confederates were quite overt about this in their own writings.

          Nobody was trying to blur that issue in those days- we only see attempts to blur it now, because now people have a vested interest in recasting slavery as “not actually racist” or US-style racism as “not actually related to slavery” for one reason or another.

          • A freeborn black man would have a much better hope of becoming the Emperor of Rome than the President of the Confederate States of America

            And, in fact, a freeborn black man (in the current sense of “black”) made a serious try at becoming Caliph, although not a successful one.

            After which Ibriham ibn al Mahdi, son, brother, and uncle of caliphs, had to go back to being a musician, gourmet, and general high status cultural type.

    • John Schilling says:

      While it’s conceivable that the origins of purity taboos are either paternity or sexual health, I feel like it’s weird that you’re leaving out a third, very reasonable possibility: that they existed to control women.

      Obviously they exist to control women. Control is what social taboos are for. But it isn’t just women who are being controlled by the taboos around sexual morality – the eponymous firearm in a “shotgun wedding” isn’t being aimed at the bride.

      The question is, what controls are being imposed and why? Many of these controls do appear to be nigh-universal even across cultures that have been separated since before the invention of agriculture. Everybody keeps coming up with approximately the same rules, for men and women both.

  58. ejmoncrieff says:

    The STI theory of sexual taboos predicts that there should be a much weaker taboo, or no taboo, against forms of sexual activity that have little risk of transmitting STIs (e.g. mutual masturbation, heavy petting, frottage, intercrural sex). Is that what we observe?

    My own view is that a primary source of the taboo against male homosexuality (not the only source) is straight men’s fear of being treated the way many straight men treat women. This theory predicts that the taboo against male homosexuality would decline when gender equality increases. That is what we observe!

    • The original Mr. X says:

      The STI theory of sexual taboos predicts that there should be a much weaker taboo, or no taboo, against forms of sexual activity that have little risk of transmitting STIs (e.g. mutual masturbation, heavy petting, frottage, intercrural sex). Is that what we observe?

      I don’t think so. In medieval Europe, for example, intercrural sex between men was considered worse than penetrative sex between a man and a woman, although the former is less likely to either spread diseases or result in false paternity than the latter.

      My own view is that a primary source of the taboo against male homosexuality (not the only source) is straight men’s fear of being treated the way many straight men treat women. This theory predicts that the taboo against male homosexuality would decline when gender equality increases. That is what we observe!

      That’s what we observe in the west over the last five or six decades, but I’d hesitate to call it a universal trend. In lots of societies or subcultures, tolerance or embrace of male homosexuality is associated with a low regard for women rather than gender equality (ancient Greece, for example).

      Also, “straight men’s fear of being treated the way many straight men treat women” seems kind of vague. Do you mean fear that their male lovers would clear spiders out of the bath for them, get the lid off the jam-jar, and mow the lawn every so often?

      • ejmoncrieff says:

        That’s what we observe in the west over the last five or six decades, but I’d hesitate to call it a universal trend. In lots of societies or subcultures, tolerance or embrace of male homosexuality is associated with a low regard for women rather than gender equality (ancient Greece, for example).

        Fair point about ancient Greece. But note that in ancient Greece (or at least in Athens, in Plato’s time), the form of male homosexuality that was socially accepted involved unequal relationships. One of the partners was either significantly younger or of much lower social status than the other. Same-sex relationships between men of the same age and status were not widely accepted.

        Here is a modified prediction (which fits my view of the main cause of the anti-gay taboo): the taboo against egalitarian forms of male homosexuality should decline when gender equality increases.

        Also, “straight men’s fear of being treated the way many straight men treat women” seems kind of vague. Do you mean fear that their male lovers would clear spiders out of the bath for them, get the lid off the jam-jar, and mow the lawn every so often?

        Of course that is not what I mean. In the era of #MeToo, do I really need to explain further?

        • The original Mr. X says:

          Of course that is not what I mean. In the era of #MeToo, do I really need to explain further?

          If you mean that straight men are worried of being harassed by homosexuals, then it’s not clear why this fear would go away just because of greater gender equality. Also, it’s not actually clear that sexual harassment was a worse problem in the past than it is now. For one thing, open displays of sexual desire were considered far more gauche in the early 20th century than the later 20th century, which would tend to reduce the amount of such displays; for another, there was generally less unsupervised male-female mingling, which would reduce the opportunity men would have for harassment.

          • ejmoncrieff says:

            Along with increasing gender equality comes a greater understanding that “No” really means no.

            Sexual harassment is not a new phenomenon. Consider Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            Sexual harassment is not a new phenomenon.

            Who ever said that it was?

  59. danjelski says:

    I always thought that the origin of the homosexuality taboo was the disgust response. Selection of a proper sexual partner is key to animal reproduction, and choosing the wrong partner can be fatal (at least to the gametes). Since homosexuality isn’t reproductive, it’s disgusting to heterosexual men. Since women are used to having sex with men, they are less disgusted by it.

    I think I read that somewhere. Sex & Reason by Richard Posner?

    There’s nothing about this theory that discredits a role for STIs.

    • Simon_Jester says:

      I always thought that the origin of the homosexuality taboo was the disgust response. Selection of a proper sexual partner is key to animal reproduction, and choosing the wrong partner can be fatal (at least to the gametes). Since homosexuality isn’t reproductive, it’s disgusting to heterosexual men.

      Wouldn’t the same logic apply more strongly to masturbation than to male homosexuality? Masturbation seems far more likely to cause a male to waste gametes and pass up opportunities to reproduce than male homosexuality.

      After all, the ancestral environment probably contained a lot more quiet places to jerk off behind a tree than it did beckoning eager yaoi cavemen.

      If evolution didn’t build men with a deep instinctive revulsion at the idea of masturbating, something as intense and universal as our revulsion against being covered in feces… Well, I don’t see why it would build them with a similar deep instinctive revulsion at the idea of sex with other men.

    • ARabbiAndAFrog says:

      Most of sexual practices you aren’t into you would probably find disgusting. There’s no need to create some extra justification for homosexuality. That said, yes. I would imagine homosexuality is much more visible and widespread paraphilia than some weird fetish a man can enjoy with his wife in private – so there’s easier to build consensus among my fellow men on how disgusting it is.

      I would be pretty disgusted about having sex with another male, and when I think of gay men, my empathic responses is to be disgusted as if I was having gay sex, the same way the mere act of reading “Jon ate dog shit” would nauseate you by making you imagine it. In less enlightened times, I might feel justified to prosecute disgusting people just for that.

  60. carvenvisage says:

    Seems to me like the OP and most of the comments are ignoring some very obvious and basic (primitive) reasons to be disgusted with it. (And you would expect them to basic and obvious and primitive seeing as such reactions have cropped up all over the world, starting very far back).

    I need to pack for a flight, so apologies that this comment will be even more basic-dumb-crude than it would normally have to be:

    1. According to unbiased observers (e.g. children too young to have been whacked upside the head by hormones), sex is like totally gross. Two snails fucking can be a beautiful thing, -if david attenborough’s soothing voice casts them in the proper context. This correspondingly implies that if you lose that sheen then, falling from the pedestal, they are liable to fall past the floor.

    2. In our world, sex is a special, intimate, bonding ritual which is generally reserved for prospective partners. (At least, it works for swans and wolves, and we like to imagine it works for us.) — Consider an alternative world where instead [the-thing-you-were-supposed-to-reserve-for-your-life-partner-to-help-you-bond-with-them-special-closely] was instead, -*spins wheel*- cooking candy canes for one another and eating them together in a pillow fortress. Would a strong aversion to candy sluts not be an obvious way to counterbalance the heedless inbuilt biological drive to cook bitches candy and get them under the (couch-)pillows? — This is from an individual perspective. From society’s perspective, it’s generally agreed that paired off lifetime-special-partners social units are good ones for child rearing, and we’d like to encourage them. Hence: no fucking around with the lifetime-mating bonding ritual. Naughty! Bad!

    3. To extend the metaphor… not everyone is an equally good chef. if I’m a michelin starred chef, (or delusional enough to think I am) then shit, lets have a candy free for all. -More candy, more pillow forts, no downsides! Fuck yeah! — But if I am an ordinary schlub who’s best dish is some not-bad but unspectacular pasta, then I don’t want all my prospective girlfriends being encouraged to sample all the best candies in the village (or as esteemed bardess Kelis has it, milkshakes in the yard). — Furthermore, seeing as I’m a descendant of apes, who scientists (and/or what my bros tell me scientists say), have social positions like “silverback” and “alpha”, then why, -but for altruism, wouldn’t I take take those candy canes and shove them through cassanova’s through that bastard jamie oliver’s eyeballs?, nice guy and all that I might think him? — That’s from the individual perspective. From the societal perspective, melodramatic young males who imagine they’ve got nothing to lose are a dangerous, destabilising influence, and there’s basically two ways (universal sex education won’t become available for another few ten-thousand years) to deal with them: 1. reduce them to chains 2. arrange things to give them a stake (Hence even for the 0.1%, it’s not really in their interests to allow a free for all.)

    _

    From another tack why disgust and condemnation? Can’t you just be rationally disapproving? One reason that occurs to me is simply that the sex drive is itself so strong:

    1. disgust is one of the most basic and strongest human reactions. (is this bullshit though? I saw this on an episode of Liar. – Rage and rejection certainly are though, right?)

    2. girls are pretty, hence liable to discombobulate the senses, so if available a stronger or comparably strong reaction would be an obvious way for it to be regulated.

    • The original Mr. X says:

      1. According to unbiased observers (e.g. children too young to have been whacked upside the head by hormones), sex is like totally gross. Two snails fucking can be a beautiful thing, -if david attenborough’s soothing voice casts them in the proper context. This correspondingly implies that if you lose that sheen then, falling from the pedestal, they are liable to fall past the floor.

      I guess that would explain the taboo against (at least some forms of) male homosexuality as well. Poo is, as any child can tell you, gross. The anus is where your poo comes out. Hence sticking a part of your body into somebody’s anus is both gross in itself, and likely to get you into direct contact with that person’s poo.

  61. Huzuruth says:

    The main argument that it’s more STI than paternity is that (3) doesn’t seem paternity-related; if it’s been more than nine months, you shouldn’t care who they’ve slept with before.

    You’re missing something obvious: a promiscuous woman has a weaker pair-bond instinct and is thus more likely to bore of monogamy, more likely to be infidelious, and thus more likely to risk your paternity.

  62. Majuscule says:

    I just want to say thank you for tackling this subject. On multiple occasions in anthropology or history courses, sexual taboos and purity rules came up, and my immediate instinct was that disease was an incredibly important factor. But usually it was downplayed in the discussion and given less weight than social, religious or economic factors. This has always bugged me, but all I had to go on was my own anecdotal experience of myself and my friends avoiding promiscuity largely because of STIs. Surely a significant number of other people throughout history thought similarly? And knowing what disaster incurable STIs could bring upon a woman in a prior era, why wouldn’t women participate in stigmatizung promiscuity? To me, that always made sense.

  63. a reader says:

    To me it seems obvious that the purity taboo was mainly paternity related, not disease related: those 19th century men had no problem sleeping with promiscuous women, only against marrying them. In the 19th century, most girls were virgins at their wedding, but most men weren’t – they usually had sex before with prostitutes or other men’s wives. It was quite common for 17-18 year old high school boys to go to brothels and adultery was probably more common then than now, at least if we take literature (and history of literature) as evidence: Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, Kreutzer Sonata, Le Rouge et le Noir, lots of Balzac’s novels etc.

    It seems it was easier for a young man in his 20’s to convince a married woman to sleep with him, than an unmarried girl.

    • In the 19th century, most girls were virgins at their wedding

      I don’t think that is correct. As I remember the figures I have seen, calculated for several 19th century European cities by comparing date of marriage to date of first child, about a third of brides were pregnant.

      What may be true is that most women either were virgins at their wedding or had only slept with the man who was going to marry them.

      • The original Mr. X says:

        I don’t think that is correct. As I remember the figures I have seen, calculated for several 19th century European cities by comparing date of marriage to date of first child, about a third of brides were pregnant.

        Yes, but that was more a case of “Alice and Bob are going to bet married, but first we’ve got to check that they’re actually capable of having children.” So there’s still a purity taboo, it’s just that betrothal is taken as the signal for a woman to have sex rather than the wedding itself.

    • The original Mr. X says:

      at least if we take literature (and history of literature) as evidence:

      I’m not sure that would be a reliable procedure.

      • a reader says:

        I think it is, because literature reflects life, even if not perfectly accurately. As the paintings of the time give us a general idea how the people looked and dressed back then, even if they were not as accurate as photographs.

        Maybe not if we take a particular book or a particular author, who may have had their idiosyncrasies – for example, if we were to use only Jane Austen, we might believe that lovers back then never kissed – but many of them put together can give us a general idea of the life and mores of the time, at least of the classes the authors belonged and knew well.

        • The original Mr. X says:

          Literature tends to be about interesting, exciting things, which is going to skew its subject matter quite a bit. A story about two people having an illicit affair is going to be more interesting than one about two people living a life of respectable monogamy, so the former are going to show up in literature a lot more than the latter, even if the latter is vastly more common in real life.

          • a reader says:

            “Literature tends to be about interesting, exciting things” now and then – but the stories about illicit affairs were a lot more frecvent then than now.

    • hroark314 says:

      Under the common law, a man’s wife’s children are legally his children. So, at least in common law countries, a married woman would have face less risk from an affair than an unmarried woman. The unmarried woman would have little recourse to seek help from the father, while the married woman knew the law would force her husband to take care of her children regardless of suspicions about paternity.

      Amazingly, this is still the case in some U.S. states.

  64. JoelP says:

    Why are these the two main options (STIs and paternity)? Why not emotional pain? The key thing that really drove the acceptance of homosexual sex, for instance, was the acceptance of the (new) fact that the primary people engaging in it are now gay or bi. That fact shouldn’t be expected to make much of a difference if it’s mostly paternity or STI-related. But if it’s emotional harm related, it should be considered extremely relevant. If people feared that the recipient of gay sex was likely straight and coerced into it or raped, it’s easy to see how a taboo would arise. If we now have a large and connected enough society that gay sex is easy to achieve with only genuinely consenting partners, we can easily see how the taboo would fade quickly.

    • John Schilling says:

      1. There’s no shortage of cross-cultural sexual mores and taboos that inflict great emotional pain in order to ensure two reliable parents per baby. Arranged marriages with marital rape and no divorce is not a recipe calculated to maximize the emotional comfort of brides in particular. It is certainly true that marital infidelity causes emotional distress in addition to increased STI risk and uncertain paternity, but of the three, protection from emotional distress is the traditionally jettisoned when the other two are at risk.

      2. Side point, but MSM homosexual intercourse really is associated with a greatly increased STI risk, so having a community of gay-ish men who unless full Kinsey-6 will probably take wives and father children for socioeconomic reasons is going to put women and children at greatly increased risk as well.

      • JoelP says:

        Arranged marriages and no divorce certainly were a recipe calculated to maximize the emotional comfort of brides and grooms alike. Many people still believe that’s the best road to happiness, even after we’ve dramatically improved kids’ ability to match themselves.
        Failure to recognize marital rape is presumably a failure to value women enough – no surprise, we’ve valued men’s happiness more than women’s for quite some time.

        Arranged marriages (and their eventual abandonment by most societies) can’t be explained meaningfully by STDs or paternity concerns. Only a focus on happiness can explain the debates over that issue.

        >Side point, but MSM homosexual intercourse really is associated with a greatly increased STI risk, so having a community of gay-ish men who unless full Kinsey-6 will probably take wives and father children for socioeconomic reasons is going to put women and children at greatly increased risk as well.

        Only in the modern context of large cities where gay men can easily find one another. Rules against gay sex long predate that context – to have an STD explanation, they would have to be reinforced rather than weakened by time in the context of relatively homophobic societies where there aren’t large numbers of potential gay partners. We would have to see gay men in ancient times getting large numbers of STDs despite their inability to obtain many partners. We don’t really have oral or written histories of that happening by the societies resolving to reinforce their codes. We *do* have written tales of men (gay or not) preying on other men and boys, with the harm tending to be described by the people at the time in emotional terms (“shamed”) rather than terms of disease.

        • Purplehermann says:

          My understanding of arranged marriage was always that it was more of a strategic arrangement- for political, economic, or military power, status (these were sometimes onesided, with the giving side simply desiring the other as a mate), or for raising quality children, or when these weren’t on the table being connected in some way and both needing to be married.

          Where did you find the idea that arranged marriages were made for happiness?

          • JoelP says:

            Who knows about the origins of arranged marriages; the switch away from arranged marriage was clearly made for happiness reasons.

            But it’s possible that arranged marriages themselves were as well. Many people discussing whether to switch from arranged marriages to love marriages (recorded historically as well as currently in say India) say they believe arranged marriages may afford greater happiness. That a love marriage demands love before marriage (which may fade) while an arranged marriage demands love after marriage, and will be less likely to fade. That people make dumb decisions when young, but that parents know better for their children. Especially as “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” and they see the potential spouse’s future potential while the child overvalues the potential spouse’s present existence.

            It is obviously impossible to really make predictions based on people starting arranged marriages. Could be happiness, could not be. But the shift away clearly has had debates (and still has debates) centered around the happiness of the spouses. We don’t hear the defenders of either position discussing STDs or discussing the likelihood of impaternity the way they discuss happiness.

        • The original Mr. X says:

          Failure to recognize marital rape is presumably a failure to value women enough – no surprise, we’ve valued men’s happiness more than women’s for quite some time.

          I think it was more an attitude of “You promised to have sex with your spouse when you got married, now stop complaining and do what you promised to!” IOW, the act of getting married was taken as consent to future sexual relations. Note that in at least some cultures (I believe @DavidFriedman knows a bit about this) men were also expected to have regular intercourse with their wives, and could be held legally liable if they deprived her of it. Also, whilst having sex with your wife was not considered rape, a man who physically forced himself on her could still (at least in the UK) be charged with battery, so it’s not like wives had no legal protections whatsoever.

          Only in the modern context of large cities where gay men can easily find one another.

          I don’t know — having anal sex is a bigger health risk for biological reasons (the anus is liable to tear from having things shoved into it, providing an easy way for STDs to enter the bloodstream, not to mention blood poisoning due to the close proximity of excrement and bleeding wounds), so I wouldn’t be surprised if pre-modern homosexuals weren’t also more likely to carry STDs.

          We would have to see gay men in ancient times getting large numbers of STDs despite their inability to obtain many partners. We don’t really have oral or written histories of that happening by the societies resolving to reinforce their codes.

          To be fair, I don’t think we really have many oral or written histories of STDs in general, at least until syphilis came along.

          • JoelP says:

            >I think it was more an attitude of “You promised to have sex with your spouse when you got married, now stop complaining and do what you promised to!” IOW, the act of getting married was taken as consent to future sexual relations.

            Certainly an argument (concerning the question of emotional comfort of the married couple not so much STDs or paternity) that’s made, yes.

            >Note that in at least some cultures (I believe @DavidFriedman knows a bit about this) men were also expected to have regular intercourse with their wives, and could be held legally liable if they deprived her of it.

            Primarily Judaism, yes. Judaism also gives women significant power to say no to their husband via ritual impurity rules that the husband and other men can’t check. Presumably not coincidentally, Judaism seems to be one of the religions most concerned with womens’ wellbeing in many other areas as well.

            >so I wouldn’t be surprised if pre-modern homosexuals weren’t also more likely to carry STDs.

            Maybe a bit, especially in larger cities. Do we see anti-MSM taboos primarily in larger cities? Plato believed that the Greeks practiced it more while barbarians abhorred it. Other nations with particularly large ancient cities (for instance in China and India) didn’t have huge taboos while the strongest ones seemed to have arisen from desert farmers with far lower risk of STDs.

            And we’d expect to at least see the disfavored men in those taboo areas described as “sickly”, I don’t know that we see that.

            In contrast, if it’s about men worrying they’ll be the victims of gay sex, we’d see the ancient traditions that accept some MSM having rules ensuring the victim would be someone else (or ideally not a victim, but someone who can convincingly say they like it). And we do. In many cultures (around India/Pakistan/Thailand/Persia, and among Native Americans) we see a special social group of “third gender” or “two spirited” people who are not necessarily trans but have some commonality. They’re separated out from society, seen as sacred or shamanic, not necessarily persecuted, but clearly they’re marked apart as distinct from regular men. This is a recipe for more STDs and not fewer if all kinds of men are sharing these same bottoms. But what it does do is make it clear that straight men won’t have to worry about being violated. Likewise the Greeks and Romans (at times/places when they accepted gay sex) accepted it only when the bottom was a social inferior. Again, a recipe more for protection against being violated. Or -as in the Theban band- if both participants are clearly marked out as special.

            >To be fair, I don’t think we really have many oral or written histories of STDs in general, at least until syphilis came along.

            We certainly have written histories of what people *believed* to be the cause of diseases, and of which people were described as “sickly”.

  65. hf says:

    We ran an experiment, in the US, to see if extreme social inequality was compatible with what are laughably called “traditional” sexual mores. We made the situation as favorable as possible to monogamy – according to the “great chain of being” and “white man’s burden” perspectives, at least – by calling the slaves subhuman animals and verbally condemning intercourse between the races. Since people don’t suddenly get a lighter skin color by living in the American South, we know the result: high inequality and monogamy are incompatible.

    (I guess we technically never tested strict matriarchy.)

    Now, in principle, we could imagine a scenario where high-status men have their own non-intersecting sets of victims, and male homosexuality could add to the health risk. (Clearly female homosexuality would do no such thing, but never mind that now.) I can’t prove this wasn’t the case in the Roman Empire. However, I don’t think this explanation passes the smell test, considering that prostitution was legal, accepted, and might have increased when Christianity (nominally) forbid having concubines.

  66. hroark314 says:

    I suspect paternity must be a stronger driver of those taboos than STIs. First, people used to die pretty darned young. Even if you had syphilis, there was a very good chance something else would kill you. The other STDs that existed prior to HIV had an even smaller impact on human health. Second, death is less important than reproduction, from an evolutionary perspective. If your mate cheats on you repeatedly, it’s likely you’ll never have kids. It’s even more likely you’ll spend scarce resources on another man’s kids, which decreases your own kids’ chances of survival. Kids may not be everything in life, but they’re everything for evolution. Third, I think there is a paternity explanation for the taboo against marrying a prostitute. She’s demonstrated she’s open to sleeping with many men and it’s not crazy to assume she’d therefore be more likely to cheat on you.

    I will agree that taboo against marrying prostitutes in Victorian England probably did have a strong STI element. As the author notes, “receptive” partners are far more likely to contract STIs than penetrative ones. I’d guess virtually all prostitutes in Victorian England had one or more STIs within a few months on the job.

    • wiserd says:

      “First, people used to die pretty darned young.”

      Yeah, but assume that they survived all the childhood diseases and made it to sexual maturity.

      “Second, death is less important than reproduction”

      STIs can cause infertility as well.

  67. wiserd says:

    1. You’re correct that time between infection and transmission is relevant to epidemics. Ewald’s theories on the evolution of infectious disease point to rapid transmission of fluid-borne diseases tending to lead to the evolution of increased virulence. (The pathogens which replicate fastest are transmitted.)

    2. Women with higher numbers of sexual partners (assuming honest reporting) are more likely to have failed marriages than men with comparable numbers. Perhaps if someone violates a taboo they’re more likely to have mental illness. A lot of sexual taboos are somewhat spurious. In some cultures you can show cleavage but not legs. In others the reverse is true.