What is “sex,” the activity? Most adults think they know the answer to that, but the definitions are slippery. If a massage parlour offers “legitimate massage” as well as a “happy ending” (an orgasm for the customer), why is the massage of the customer’s neck, back, arms, legs, and even buttocks considered non-sexual, but attention paid to genital organs makes the whole transaction sleazy and illicit? If two lovers give each other massages that end in intercourse, with no money changing hands, are the massages part of the “sex?” Why not?

The man who shot eight people in several massage parlours in Atlanta, Georgia, on March 23 claimed he wanted to eliminate the “temptation” that had let him to have “sinful” (sexual) thoughts which caused him to commit sins: specifically, he had been a customer of those businesses, which means that he had paid for some sort of erotic service. Much has been said about the combination of sexism and racism in his targeting of Asian women as scapegoats for his white patriarchal (and southern Christian) belief that his own desire was the symptom of a harmful addiction.

When righteous white men focus public attention on “dens of sin,” everything that takes place in them is seen as part of a social problem, even though the “sex trade” in an era of advanced technology combined with a pandemic doesn’t necessarily involve sex in a traditional sense. People who perform in their bedrooms for customers who pay to watch on their computers are considered sex workers. People who provide in-person sexual services without taking off their own clothes, or who take off their clothes for customers who are not allowed to touch them, are also considered sex workers.

Very wide-ranging conceptions of what is included in “sex” raise questions about a traditional explanation for sexual desire in general: it’s nature’s (or God’s) way to encourage males and females to make babies so that the human race can continue. Yet the only activities that result in pregnancy are penis-in-vagina fucking or “artificial insemination,” which does not involve direct contact between the father-to-be with the mother-to-be. In fact, conception can take place even when the sperm-provider doesn’t experience much pleasure, and the person with the womb is either numb or traumatized. (Mass rape during war usually results in unwanted babies.)

So the connection of lust with reproduction seems inexact, to say the least. A lot of human behaviour that falls under the definition of “sex” is not intended to result in pregnancy, while reproductive behaviour is not necessarily fun. This situation can be visualized as a Venn diagram in which peak sexual arousal followed by mutual pleasure that results in pregnancy can be seen as a very small piece of the pie.

If sexual desire is in service to human evolution and the survival of the species, reproductive inefficiency seems to be part of the design.

The claim of most Christian clergymen that God wants all humans to pair up in male-female couples to produce as many children as possible and that same-gender attraction is therefore “unnatural” comes from the same delusional mind-set that sees the earth and its resources as unlimited.

Consider the biological facts: girls begin to menstruate at approximately age thirteen, more or less, and then have a menstrual period every lunar month until they either get pregnant or run out of eggs, when they go through menopause. This happens at about age fifty, but often later. Pregnancy takes 38 weeks, or approximately nine calendar months. The mother doesn’t ovulate immediately after giving birth, but within a year, she is usually capable of conceiving her next baby. Consider the number of babies one woman is capable of having if she is paired with a man who expects her to be available for sex most of the time, and if neither of them does anything to prevent conception.

Then consider the length of time it takes for a human baby to mature enough to be capable of surviving without constant attention. Humans are not insects, who can hunt their own food right after hatching, or even bears, who can hunt their own food a few years after birth. We are very high-maintenance animals.

An English economist in the late 1700s, Thomas Malthus, saw the results of uncontrolled population growth. He became famous for his “dismal theory:” that the human population will always outrun its food supply until something drastic happens to reduce the number of people: famine, natural disaster, a war over resources. This theory was criticized at the time, which isn’t surprising. Conservative thinkers couldn’t have welcomed a theory that either undercut their most cherished beliefs about the purpose of life, or implied that God hates us. In more recent times, Malthus’ theory has been criticized for being unnecessarily fatalistic, since birth control can be balanced with improved methods of food production and distribution.

I still think Malthus was onto something.

It is undeniably true that if no one on earth ever had heterosexual intercourse again, the human race would die out in one generation, but how likely is that outcome? The conception of a baby doesn’t require a conscious intention on anyone’s part. If the general lesbian/gay/transgender population expanded to nightmare proportions (by conservative standards), how likely is it that all heterosexual couples would give up sex, or that no horny teenagers with different, complementary plumbing would ever fool around and start something? The chances of that seem exactly zero.

We are currently living in a time when the birth rate has dipped to historically low levels for several logical reasons. Many people in the industrialized world can’t afford to raise many children, if any, so they are taking precautions to avoid having them. Conservatives would like to turn back the clock to a time they consider more wholesome. They miss the sound of children’s voices and the relative absence of women from professional work places because most of the adult female population was cooking, cleaning, and changing diapers.

Would they like to return to the age of Malthus? We’re all descended from people who lived in that time, and the earth is already overpopulated. Even though the birth rate has slowed recently, several centuries of excessive baby-making have stretched the earth’s capacity to support us.

At Eroticon 2018 (a fabulous annual conference in London, England, on all things erotic), I attended a workshop given by a man who studied anthropology before “coming out” as gay. He asked whether same-gender attraction is inborn or instinctive in any sense, and if so, what purpose does it serve? The question of whether any aspect of individual personality comes from “nature” or “nurture” is too complicated for me to resolve. However, I suggested to the anthropologist that it would actually make sense if “nature” (or the universe, or God) wanted some people to avoid making babies at all, for even the “breeders” to limit their breeding, and for the non-reproductive types to be involved in helping to raise the next generation. A ratio of several adults (including grandparents, aunties and uncles) per child would guarantee that individual mothers wouldn’t have to bear all the responsibility for raising the youngest generation to adulthood, and that orphaned children could have quality childhoods.

To put it more simply, I believe that sexual diversity is not simply a good thing. I think it is crucial to the survival of humans in general, and always has been. Over two thousand years of patriarchal Christian thinking have distracted us from recognizing that excessive population growth could lead to mass extinction more quickly than a reduced birthrate could possibly do.

Note that same-gender desire is not the only factor in limiting the number of conceptions in a population. According to a recent theory, menopause in women is an evolutionary advantage that ensures the presence of grandmothers who can help raise their children’s children because they are no longer producing their own. A desire for non-reproductive sex among heterosexuals is another factor that tends to slow down reproduction.

So the next time someone tells you that the only “natural” sex is monogamous, married, and reproductive, bring Thomas Malthus into the argument and ask whether the current state of the world doesn’t confirm at least some of what he feared for the future.