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reprinted from Full Context, September 1997


The Generation of Life:
The Primacy of Sex in Human Existence

by Laura J. Rift, ljrift@earthlink.net

The Nature of Sex

Ayn Rand stated that "productive work is the central purpose of a productive man’s life, the central value that integrates and determines the hierarchy of all his other values."[1] She also stated that romantic love is the productive man’s "greatest reward."[2] When I was younger, before my son was born, these two statements were obviously true and needed no clarification or qualification. Obviously, productive work is primary because it is necessary for life—after all, how are goods and services going to be produced if not by work? And romantic love? That was mostly a psychological issue. Beyond the physical pleasure involved, it feels good to be in love and engage in sexual relations—it fulfills one’s needs for close companionship, for visibility and for validation as a man or woman.

After my son was born, this formulation—work as primary purpose and value, love as secondary reward—became problematic. And even more so after my divorce. My son—at least for now—is the most important value in my life, equal in value to my own continued existence. I would not gladly give up my life for him, but if I had to risk my life in order to save his, I think I would do so.

But where would this devotion to my son fit in Ayn Rand’s bifurcated world of work and romance? Productive work? Raising my son has been, along with my writing, the most difficult—and satisfying—work of my life. Romantic love? My son was not only the product of romantic love but in nurturing him I was able to realize an element of my sexuality I did not even know I possessed. So it appears that children belong in both of these categories and at the same time in neither.

What’s going on here? What’s going on is that Ayn Rand tended to minimize reproduction and its role in human life. The way she did this was to treat sex as an issue entirely separate from reproduction. Rand felt that sex was important, not for the obvious reason that it is how life is generated, but because it serves a psychological function as "an expression of a man’s sense of his own value"[3] and as a "celebration of himself and of existence."[4] But in treating sex as a physical capacity that could be explained in purely psychological terms, she failed to understand that sex evolved as a method of reproduction and that the nature of human reproduction preceded and determined the basis of sexual psychology. This, I believe, was her central and most important error. Sex should be treated like any other aspect of human existence. Its importance should be defined objectively, in accordance with its relationship to the ultimate standard of value—life.

We do not, for instance, define work primarily as a psychological feel-good, celebration-of-life phenomenon, just because productive work is pleasurable, deeply emotionally satisfying, and increases self-esteem through pride in a job well-done. It is not the need for psychological rewards that created the primary motivation for work, rather it was the requirements of survival that made productive work a necessity in human life; the good feelings that accompany such work developed as a means of reinforcing and furthering this essential activity.

Similarly, sexual love evolved among human beings not because we have a need or capacity to have some special emotional/physical experience of an intense and celebratory nature, but because the demands of human motherhood are so great that successful reproduction is greatly facilitated by the formation of families, and the formation of families is only possible if romance—or at least some form of pair-bonding between the sexes—replaces simple mating as the standard and ultimate goal of sexual behavior. It is true that sexual love exists without reproduction and is experienced as a value and end in and of itself—I have no quarrel with this. But much of the nature of human sexuality—not just the biology, but the psychology and ethics of sexual behavior—is derived from and grounded in the nature of reproduction.

For instance, it is a rather well known truism that men are more promiscuous, more casual about sex than women. This is true horizontally across cultures and vertically throughout time. It is one of the most significant facts of sexual behavior and has enormous implications morally and socially. Yet no published work of Rand’s (to my knowledge) even mentions this well-known fact or comments on its possible implications for sexual relations between men and women. Instead, casual sex is treated as if it is equally interesting and tempting to both men and women and as if the consequences of casual sex are the same for both sexes.

This, of course, is nonsense. Men and women perceive and experience sex differently as a result of their dissimilar reproductive roles. What can be a momentary encounter for a man with no more significance than a meal can be a momentous event for a woman with lifelong and even life-threatening consequences. Put simply, ejaculating semen is not the equivalent of bearing and rearing a child. That this disparity would lead women, in general, to be much more selective than men in their choice of a sexual partner and more careful about the context in which sex occurs, ought to be obvious and is obvious to most people who are inclined to look at facts and not ideology.

It was not, however, obvious to Ayn Rand. In her writings casual sex is deemed wrong not because of its consequences—i.e., not because it can lead to misbegotten children, interfere with the creation and maintenance of a marriage (and hence family life), or subject a woman to an increased likelihood of violence and both sexes to disease—but because of its cause: a lack of self-esteem.[5] In reality, the question of whether casual sex is caused by a lack of self-esteem is irrelevant in deciding if it is wrong. It is irrelevant because it neglects the most readily apparent and fundamental harms of casual sex as mentioned above. It is just as irrelevant as an evaluation of murder would be if it ignored or minimized the fact that a life was destroyed and instead condemned the murderer because he didn’t want to deal with the root cause of his rage and therefore acted on the basis of evasion.


The Choice to Reproduce

There is no point in arguing with those who state that sex is a secondary aspect of life because, unlike the production of wealth, reproduction is not necessary for any given individual’s survival. Wealth is produced by individuals who are themselves the product of the reproductive labor of others. In a very real sense, the production of goods and services begins with the production of human beings as much as the production of human beings begins with the production of goods and services. To argue otherwise is as foolish as arguing which came first, the chicken or the egg—and which is more important.

The simple fact is that none of us would be here without the reproductive labor of others. We are the product of a long line of choices—the choice to mate, the choice to sustain a pregnancy and to therefore give birth, the choice to nurture an infant and raise a child. At any point, that enterprise can be avoided, destroyed, or abandoned, and if it is, no person will come of age to go about the business of producing wealth. Just as the ability of numerous individuals to refrain from productive work, yet survive supported by others, does not change the necessity of work for the survival of the species and ultimately every member of it, so the current and continued existence of life, including one’s own life, depended on and will continue to depend on the fundamental choice of many to engage in the work of reproduction.

To take this a step further, it is true that if each of us, as adults, stopped engaging in reproductive labor each of us would continue to live. But we could also stop working and live on the store of goods produced by previous productive efforts and also live. In either case, life would end with our generation and rather miserably at that. In the latter case, most of us would die of starvation, exposure to the elements, or from disease—how quickly would depend on the degree and kind of wealth accessible to us. In the former case, we would live longer, but old age would be far more precarious and difficult than it is now, and no doubt, the life span of many would be greatly shortened.

With no younger generation to do the bulk of the productive work, as old people we would be left in a state of helplessness that no amount of wealth could negate. After all, it is not 80-year-old doctors who do open-heart surgery, 80-year-old nurses who lift patients and empty bed pans, or 80-year-olds who plant and harvest food, drive trucks, fix cars, shovel snow, and repair furnaces. Just as the very young depend on the old, so the very old depend on the young.

The dependence of one generation on another is a result of the biology of human life. It is in our nature to develop through a process: to be born helpless, to grow up strong and fertile, to grow old and become helpless again, and to die leaving our young to take our place. The process of reproduction and the process of wealth production represent the two great categories of activity that define life.

This being the case, contrary to Rand’s opinion that "...family life and human relationships are not primary in a man’s life,"[6] they are primary—in a proper context. No, you don’t derive your purpose in life from "serving the species" as an act of self-sacrifice. There is no moral obligation to reproduce. Since the job of being a parent is difficult even for those committed to it, the individual who does not want to do so would not benefit from being forced or pressured and neither would anyone else. However, the urge to mate and bond with a member of the opposite sex and to nurture, protect, provide for, and (I might add) enjoy one’s helpless offspring are not secondary values to be put in a mix with other secondary values, or "rewards" for being a productive person or having high self-esteem. These drives are fundamental, biologically-based, and hugely selfish, crucial if life is to begin and be sustained, and are experienced by most people as such. Given this reality, there is little chance that the human race will cease to exist because people will choose not to reproduce.

In short, sex is not fundamentally how one celebrates life—it is part of how one lives life and is every bit as important as any other life-sustaining activity. It may be more important for some, less important for others, but should not be regarded as secondary to the work one does in creating material wealth.


The Second Sex

For much of human history, however, sex has been regarded as secondary, with grave implications for women. This is because any philosophy that holds sex—including reproduction and family life—as secondary devalues the feminine and therefore devalues women, as the historically low status of women well indicates. An old saying to the effect that men are the race and women are simply those who reproduce it, is an example of this sort of reasoning. Implicit in this notion is the idea that real life and real work consist of activities above and beyond the "animal" activities involved in procreation. By "merely" reproducing the race, women became looked upon as inferior second-rate men, or even worse, as rightless animals with a status as low as that of slaves.

This separation between the "masculine" world of production and the "feminine" world of reproduction—the outside "primary" world of work and the inside "secondary" domain of home and family—is part of a much larger mind-body dichotomy. This dichotomy devalues the feminine and elevates the masculine by equating the feminine with the sexual—the "base" body—resulting in the denigration of women as inferior and sub-human; and equating the masculine with the spiritual—the "noble" mind—resulting in the glorification of men as superior and prototypically human. There are probably many complex reasons for evaluating the sexual as "low" and the spiritual as "high" (an examination of which is beyond the scope of this article), but the historical equation of man with mind and woman with body becomes easy to discern upon reflection.

Throughout human history, it was easy to define a woman as a purely sexual being, since her life was dominated by expressions of her sexuality—chiefly by the bearing and nurturing of children. Conversely, since a man’s sexual life occupied but a small portion of his existence, he was not defined by his sexuality and was often free to engage in intellectual pursuits. Perhaps in an effort to "balance out" the lack of symmetry in reproductive roles, it seemed reasonable to him to view his greater mental accomplishments as proof of his greater mental aptitude, and perhaps less reasonably, to evaluate these mental accomplishments as more worthy of esteem than the "labor of love" called motherhood.

Only in this century, as increasing numbers of women entered the traditionally masculine world of wealth production, have women gained anything close to equal rights with men. In effect, only when women became more like men did they achieve the status of being considered fully human, a status that men have always taken for granted. Establishing the primacy of sex will go a long way towards ending the insidious mind-body dichotomy that devalues the feminine and will help keep secure the great gains in social status and legal rights women have only recently achieved.

Let me sum up by stating that sex is important in human existence first and foremost because of its metaphysical nature as the means by which an individual’s life is generated. Because of its metaphysical importance, sexual needs—including the need to form intimate bonds, principally between man and woman, and between woman and child—came to be perceived and experienced as compelling, and the fulfillment of such needs as both physically pleasurable and emotionally satisfying. This explains the psychological importance of sex as a central value in human life. Because human beings come into the world as helpless dependents and remain helpless for many years, an enormous investment of values, both material and spiritual, must be made to bring this helpless life to successful maturity. The nature of the bonding between parents largely determines if and to what degree fathers will contribute to that investment and explains much of the importance of sex as a specifically ethical concern. Lastly, whether sex is regarded as primary or secondary has implications for the status of women, how women are viewed by men, and how women view themselves.

(click [^] to return to body)

1. Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: New American Library, 1961), 25. [^]

2. Playboys Interview with Ayn Rand (New York: The Intellectual Activist), 7. Originally published as Alvin Toffler, "Playboy Interview: Ayn Rand," Playboy (March 1964). [^]

3. Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (New York: Random House, 1957; reprinted, New York: New American Library, 1992), 489. [^]

4. Ayn Rand, "Of Living Death," The Objectivist 7 (October 1968): 530. [^]

5. See note 3 above. [^]

6. See note 2 above. [^]

Authors note: I would like to thank Peter Saint-André for his editorial assistance on this article.

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