Published On: Sun, Feb 3rd, 2013

Lets talk about Sex: Does the separation of pleasure and procreation mean the end of people?

Everybody knows that the world’s population has increased dramatically since 1930 – population 2 billion – to today – population 7.1.  Most people also know that, excluding immigration and children of immigrants, the fertility rate of women in most of Europe and parts of east Asia is lower than replacement level – which would suggest that over time the population – excluding immigration – will peak and then fall.  Japan’s population, at 128 million, has been falling by a few hundred thousand per year for the past 6 years.

Historically, people always had a lot of children.  The institution of marriage, and a lack of birth control, meant that women had a lot of pregnancies.  Many pregnancies ended before their term, or resulted in still births, or children who died shortly after.  Catherine of Aragon, King Henry VIII’s first wife whom he cast aside for not bearing him an viable heir for Anne Boleyn, actually bore him six children, including three sons. Only Mary survived.

The natural philosophers of the 1700s, who became the scientists of the 1800s, set aside the four humours of black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood, (which formed the core of western medicine from ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome) and brought scientific rigour and statistics to providing an understanding why people got sick and died.  Basics of clean water and clean spaces when conducting operations saved millions of people who would have otherwise died.


Healthy children needed to be fed…

This science-led health bonus of survival ushered in a new crisis.  Children who would have died now lived and became mouths to feed.  That required more food.  It also meant that any concept of a beneficial inheritance disappeared.  Families that did not follow the practice of primogeniture, where the eldest son inherited almost all and his siblings almost nothing, found that farms and estates were divided into such small parts that they became unviable as farms within a few generations. For many Europeans the vast expanses of north and south America provided a solution to this crisis – allowing the populations there to swell with second, third and fourth sons.  More food become available at home as well, as a result of scientific advances on the core drivers of food production: better information, mechanisation, fertilisers, irrigation and high yielding seeds.

Many of those who could not take the expensive and risky trip to the New World moved to the expanding cities where factory labour replaced farm labour. Large families on farms could spread out, outside.  Food could be plucked from trees or dug up from the ground.  In cities families were crammed in together, inside.  The only way to get more food was to earn money to pay for it, steal it or be given it.  And while disease helped to temper the size of the city population, it was not enough to stop them expanding rapidly.  These cities of the late 1700s and the 1800s provided the literary backdrop to the great works of Victor Hugo (Les Miserables) and Charles Dickens.


…this caused widespread misery

The stresses of city life changed things in the bedroom too.  The human need for sex – for pleasure – was resulting in too many surviving children, which resulted in misery.  Too many children caused stress on family income.  Children were sent out to work in factories at an early age and mothers did their best to either deny sex, lest risk pregnancy, or prevent it with herbal remedies or clumsy abortions.  Large numbers of women living in the confines of cities also resulted in levels of prostitution that would never have been seen in the country.

Condoms have been used for centuries.  Syphilis, a horrible sexually transmitted disease brought over by Europeans from Central America in the 1490s (Europeans gave the Americas small pox, which was far more deadly) could be be stopped by the use of condoms – typically made from sheep’s gut.  Typically the use of condoms was restricted to the upper and middle classes, but by the 1820s poorer people were using them as well. Made-to-measure, re-usable rubber condoms that just covered the glans became popular from the 1850s, to be later replaced by mass produced one size fits all “all in ones” sold in pharmacies.  While use and sale of condoms had political and religious impacts, it was the Pill, which became widely available in the late 1960s, for married women, and early 1970s, for unmarried women, that definitively ended the union of pleasure and procreation.


Condoms and the Pill allowed for the separation of pleasure and procreation…

Without condoms and the Pill the population is likely to have been significantly higher than it is today.  It also allowed for a social revolution that is still unfolding.   The separation of pleasure and procreation allowed for far greater promiscuity than previously.  Sex could be seen as a “recreation” without risk of pregnancy.  Young people in the 1970s could have sex without the need to commit to marriage and those in marriage could have affairs without the risk of getting caught out by a surprise baby.

On a more serious note, women were far more able to study at university and stay in the workforce for longer, bringing in the rise of the career woman and greater gender equality at work.  Many women delayed so long that it then brought in a new wave of issues – infertility.  With that, science stepped in once again, with in vitro fertilisation.  The first successful birth through this route took place in 1978.  Surrogate mothers and other developments have allowed women to have their own children well into their 40s and 50s.  Neonatal medical improvements have also increased the survival rates of pre-term babies, shortening the overall time required to be in the mother’s womb.  In the 1990s adoptions of children from former Soviet block countries also became popular, only to be supplanted by adoptions of children from China in the 2000s.  Procreation has become so divorced from the act of sex that these changes are now socially normal and acceptable.

Which also perhaps explains the widespread acceptance of homosexuality among people under 30.  If sex is for pleasure, and not children, and you can have children whether or not you can actually produce them biologically as a hetrosexual couple, why should this be denied to homosexual couples?  If a hetrosexual marriage is no longer linked to having natural children, why should this be denied to homosexual couples?

In turn, this has implications on the western institution of marriage itself.  In the Christian West, marriage has become synonymous with a church wedding.  In fact, prior to the 1550s when the marriage ceremony was introduced in the Common Book of Prayer in England (the now famous words: “To have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part”) marriages did not need to take place in a church or need to be officiated by a church official.

Civil weddings form the legal contract with marriage in most European countries today, with a church service being seen as an add-on with no legal basis – but with a strong social and religious basis.   Today, more couples live together and have children, without bothering to get married at all – even under a civil partnership.  In Holland, there is a legal status of “samenlevingscontract” (“living-together-contract”) which co-habiting couples can apply for which give some legal protections, but is not technically a marriage.  The agreement sets sets out how the couple will share the costs of living together, pay rent, raise children and divide property if, and when, they separate.


…which had far reaching implications on the concept of marriage

So if sex is for pleasure and not necessarily linked to procreation and hetrosexual couples live together without being married or under civil partnerships, you can see it makes very little logical sense to be against homosexual marriage.  The “yuk” factor is relatively transient.  When the first marriages of whites and blacks took place in the US there was also a feeling of outrage and disgust.  To many people, to this day, while interracial marriage seems undesirable, it is no longer deemed “unnatural”.

But where do the boundaries of marriage end?  If interracial marriage and homosexual marriage have become acceptable, why not other concepts?  In the Muslim world multiple wives – polygamy –  is not only widespread but also legally binding.  Mormons were famously polygamous until 1890 when they abandoned the practice – allowing for the admission of Utah as a State into the United States of America.  If Dutch style “samenlevingscontracten” were to be adopted outside Holland, they could be modified to incorporate a whole range of legal co-habitations, ranging from one male to many women to many males to many women and everything in between.

So, far, so very conventional: the advent of modern contraceptives and fertility treatments has resulted in the separation of pleasure and procreation.  This has led to the downfall of the concept of hetrosexual marriage to manage the raising of their children.  But there is another change in society which will have a further impact on the number of children being born in developed or Western societies: jobs.

For the first time in history more people live in cities than they do in the country.  One key consequence of this, as mentioned earlier, is that in a city there is no such thing as a free lunch: it is impossible to live off the land in a city, everything belongs to somebody.  To get food you need money. If you have no money, you cant get food.  Money can be earned, given – essentially a form of charity- or stolen.


Our jobs crisis will push out parenthood even later…

To earn money, you generally need a job. Modern technological changes have the possiblity to make billions of people unemployed, in a similar way that the agricultural and industrial revolutions of the 1700s-1800s brought large scale unemployment and poverty to millions (see article).  Many service jobs can either be outsourced to cheaper places – such as India – or to computers – using better voice recognition and artificial intelligence (see article). Many manufacturing jobs are already being outsourced to low cost countries – even China is getting expensive – and those that are coming back  are likely to be done by new, low cost robots (see article on low cost robots for small businesses) or by 3D printers (see article).  Even distribution jobs are at risk (see article on warehouse robots and article on Google cars).

A lack of food and money has historically delayed the time that people got married.  A delay in marriage reduced the number of children a couple would have.  A shortage of money also encouraged intergenerational marriages: a man who was 10-20 years older than his bride had accumulated sufficient wealth to be able to afford a wife and subsequent children.  With the ability to “bank” female fertility, same age couples may chose to delay having kids until their forties or fifties to ensure they have enough money to do so, or you may see more older women marrying younger men, after the women have accumulated enough wealth to make it affordable to have kids.

Gay marriages, delayed marriages and delayed pregnancies due to desired deferment due to a career or the inability to afford children all have one thing in common: a decline in the number of children per female of childbearing age.  Many advanced countries are already seeing the average number of children per female dropping from the replacement level of 2.1 to 1.2-1.3 range.  These trends are likely to push this level to a number lower than 1.0.  Native born populations are likely to continue to expand for decades as those that are alive today remain alive and they have additional children of their own.  But at some point, in 3 -4 decades hence, we should expect a rapid decline of native populations as those alive today start to die off.


…resulting in another crisis.

This will create a crisis that has some historical precedents: the plagues of the Roman empire in the 300s and 500s or the plagues that struck Asia and Europe in the 1300s.  Between 30% and 50% of the population was wiped out during those periods, depending on the location.  After several decades during which the value of labour is likely go into free fall and capital is likely to be ascendant, this process should reverse itself by the latter part of this century. Countries that adopt large scale immigration policies to counter this population crisis will see a radical change in the ethnic, religious and social make up of their lands, with Muslims forming the main immigrant population in Europe, and Hispanics and Asians in the US and Canada.  Countries that do not accept large scale immigration will be transformed socially anyway, with a very large population over 60 and increased levels of robotics (see article about Japan and its ageing population).

All this thanks to the invention of the Pill and the condom.



History Future Now, ebook edition, is now available from the Apple iBookstore!  So if you have a iPad or iPhone click on this link to download it.  It is currently on at a special offer of 99c.   The Kindle version has been submitted to Amazon and should be available shortly.

HFN on Twitter