The Purpose of Pleasure

I recently read a remarkable book by Margaret Atwood called Oryx and Crake. Without giving too much away, one of the characters creates a race of post-human beings that are, according to him, more perfect creatures than humans.

One key characteristic he designed into these new creatures is that they don’t have sex for pleasure. Although they derive pleasure from sex, they only do it once every couple of months when it’s time for a female to conceive.

This, coupled with what seems like a constant stream of adultery on the news, got me thinking: Would the world be a better place if humans didn’t have sex for pleasure?

Other than humans, only bonobos and dolphins have sex for pleasure. So obviously we’re the exceptions to the rule. That would indicate that there’s very little evolutionary purpose to having sex for pleasure.

Of course I see the benefits of sexual pleasure. But think about all the downsides that come with it: Wars have been fought over lust. People lie and cheat and defile and do all sorts of horrible things to have sex for pleasure. All the pain and suffering the pursuit of sexual pleasure causes.

The flipside is that dolphins seem pretty darn happy. They’re doing something right.

All of this is just hypothetical, of course. I’m not at all saying that people (including myself) shouldn’t have sex for pleasure. I’m just pondering an alternate evolutionary history of the world and how things would be different. What do you think?

9 thoughts on “The Purpose of Pleasure”

  1. i’m no scientist, but it seems to me that sex does two things. one, it gives you (jamey) purpose. there’s a social theorist named brian pronger who suggests that all human interaction is based on sex. although i don’t necessarily agree with him 100 percent, i am convinced that sex underlies much of our daily interaction. why? masculinity and femininity is defined through sex; therefore, we are defined through our interactions with others. if there was no basis for these characteristics, then our entire conceptions of masculinity and femininity would be based on…..something else?…..and the central component of our identities (whatever *that* means) would be something else. don’t ask me what that something else is, now… two) there are articles every now and then–usually on the horribly written–that say such and such is, for karen, better than sex. although a lot of those articles are written by morons and seem to imply all too often that relationships are ruined because the woman wears her sweatpants around the house a little too often, i think there’s validity in WhatEver taking the place of sex as a source of pleasure and gratification. i wonder, then, if no sex for pleasure would mean no pleasure in general.
    if such a world were to exist, it would be a world where jamey wouldn’t stick his head out of his car to gawk at a woman mowing her lawn. and that’s just not a world i want to live in.

  2. Oryx and Crake is one of the many books I bought last year, but never finished because I got too wrapped up in my own writing. I did like the book, but have no idea of the ending. It’s been so long that I’ll have to go back and start it over later. Did you read her next one? I think it was Year of the Flood?

    • I loved Oryx and Crake. It builds and builds, details emerging in a precisely plotted structure. I’m looking forward to reading Year of the Flood.

  3. So… Oryx and Crake… is that a suitable book club book? Sorry, I’m in a book and wine club, so I’m always thinking of book recommendations.
    But anyway…I’m gonna disagree with you and say that pleasure does have an evolutionary purpose for us as human beings, in that it makes us want to have sex. Our more evolved frontal lobes (which define us as “human”) let us reason why we wouldn’t want to reproduce (“It’s not the right time to make a baby”…”I’m not ready for a child”…blah blah). So for the betterment of our species, our passion drive kicks in and urges us to have sex anyway because it feels good. So I guess my thoughts are that passion overrides rationale thinking to make sure that humans continue to reproduce.

    • I loved the book and think it’s great fodder for book club discussion.

      You have a very interesting point regarding our brains being structured for logic and pleasure. I can see that. Read Oryx and Crake and see if you agree with Crake’s explanation of why he took away pleasure from his creations.


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