Monday, June 13, 2011

Sexting and its Evolutionary Antecedence

The recent spate of politicians getting caught using social media to entice or titillate identified and/or potential suitors will continue to rise as technology becomes more accessible and ubiquitous.  In its most recent iteration of this trend, Representative Anthony Weiner (D-NY) was caught with his pants down (literally and metaphorically) as he sent semi-nude and suggestive tweets, texts and emails to women he met over the Internet. 

While this is fodder for the news media and comedians alike, the reality is, this man is doing something extraordinarily primal. Although, we may be too detached to acknowledge our own evolutionary or natural selection needs, or as a society, too moralistic and suggestive that Rep. Weiner’s behaviors are maladaptive in some way. Certainly in American culture, where religious-based standards of action are enlivened or castigated depending on the behavior of individuals it should come as no surprise that reaction and calls for Rep. Weiner to leave office are coming from all corners of political and lay society.

I am not making any excuses for Rep. Weiner or the cavalcade of politicians, businessmen or anyone who decides to send risqué images or texts. Indeed, instead of lying or obfuscating as he did a week before his mea culpa, Rep. Weiner’s strategic error politically was his lack of honesty when the news first came out about his online affairs.

Certainly, making the choice to send these messages will have its political costs, but perhaps Rep. Weiner was not so much trying the answer the call of public service, as he was attempting to answer the call of nature.  I believe his behavior has as much to do with evolution as it does with his psychological state and now political destiny.

Preening, or the action of grooming one’s body to attract mates for copulation has existed as long as carbon-based life forms have existed on the planet.  This preening can take place through motion (in the case of human’s dance); calls (human language or singing); coloration or markings (Dress, tattoos, piercings, body shape or size); smell/scent markings (perfume, cologne, body odor); and dominant/submissive relationships (money; politics, other trappings of power) to attract a mate. 

It should come as no surprise that males of most species are the most colorful, large or aggressive. In evolutionary terms, the biological imperative to copulate produces pressure on males of any given species to appear more attractive to their intended mates to improve their chances of successful and successive live births. This is the basis of natural selection, to ensure one’s genes are delivered into future generations. Sex is that delivery mechanism.

What humans have been able to do with technology is extend the range of potential suitors through the use of multimedia.  We have adapted common and useful visual, auditory cues to size up one another over vast distances, effectively setting a new standard for who, what, when and where we desire to find sex or relationships to spread our genes into successive generations. Enter e-harmony, jdate, or the host of websites which promise eternal marriage bliss.

But just like not every preening ritual will eventually lead to copulation and conception, so too, not every suggestive email, sexting message or sexy tweet will lead to fornication either.  However, attempting to use this technology to expand one’s chances to mate should not be seen as unusual in the sense that if two consenting individuals wish to carry any relationship via the Internet, that it should be their business and no one else’s.

However, we as humans live in societies where violations of codes of conduct, mores and values can have negative effects on one’s social standing. We also assume that our elected officials, or those who have power over others, like the clergy, or business leaders, will follow a stricter moral code of honesty and integrity to protect others.

Therefore, it is important that those who wish to perform sexting or have an affair be aware of the social dangers of taking such action.  In the case of sexting, it can certainly start as a private affair between two consenting adults, but it can easily become a public issue once the messages or images are sent. These digital representations of body, thoughts or actions may become the entire community’s property. 

Indeed, sending pictures of others, especially minors who may be unaware that their images are being used in a sexual way, can and should be illegal.  But it is no wonder that sexting began as an issue for human teenagers. Teens are considered at their reproductive height biochemically, and they are also the group which is extremely open and adaptive to new modes of communication. Therefore, they were the first pioneers to use social media to induce attraction in their potential mates.

The Internet is an undefined open environment filled with competing spaces to communicate, play, learn, carry on relationships and yes, to find a mate, if even just to copulate. The Internet is an extension of our reality and no different than any physical environment humans have created for ouselves to survive into the future.

In the case of Rep. Weiner, he made the decision to take to the virtual airwaves to perhaps find a mate or connect with a potential sexual partner. Indeed, the Internet was made for men whose visual and evolutionary focus is to watch and then react, be sexually aggressive when necessary or within a particular environmental niche, and preen or watch others copulate.

These are hard-wired primate attributes which make us human. These aggressive attributes succeeded in some aspects to bring us out of the trees and into the savannahs. They helped us form hunter-gatherer and then more complex societies. 

In our more complex societies, however, we are supposed to rely less on our instincts or marginalize instinctual behaviors. We are to manage our way through culture or through following rules of behavior learned from our families and communities.  But the impulse to share our genes tends to overwhelm our cultural sense of behavior or sensitivities at times.  Hence, the individual, moral, cultural conflict that we find ourselves in modern Western society in general and certainly with regards to technology, is displayed as we attempt to define human behavior by articifial rules meant to maintain a society's stability.

Therefore, I believe we can expect more and not fewer of these types of scandals as technology becomes an even greater part of how we define our tools, our culture and our connections to each other over time and distance.

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