The Science of Love

Why has it taken us so long to learn so little about how and why we have sex?

The languages, especially the dead,
The sciences, and most of all the abstruse,
The arts, at least all such as could be said
To be the most remote from common use,
In all these he was much and deeply read;
But not a page of any thing that’s loose,
Or hints continuation of the species,
Was ever suffer’d, lest he should grow vicious.
—Lord Byron, Don Juan

“So, Andy,” said Dad with a twinkle. “How do you fancy staying up late tonight?”

I was 11 years old. Bedtime on school nights was 8pm, 10 at the latest at weekends. To be allowed to stay up after Mum went to bed was a treat on a par with a personal visit from Tom Baker.

The reason for this break with protocol, it emerged, was that Dad wanted me to watch a film with him: Barbarella, the 1968 comic-book adaptation starring Jane Fonda as an interstellar explorer with an uncanny knack of losing her clothes. I enjoyed the film more for the robots and monsters than for Jane’s wardrobe malfunctions, although the semi-nudity did coincide with some stirrings which, at the time, I put down to Mum’s shepherd’s pie.

It was years before I worked out what was going on that night. Roger Vadim’s kitsch sci-fi romp was, I realised, the sum total of my parents’ efforts to explain to me the myriad complexities of human reproduction. No awkward birds-and-bees talk, no 1950s government information booklet “accidentally” left by my bedside; just a scantily clad spacewoman being pecked to death by budgerigars.

The state didn’t do much better. We had one sex education lesson, at the end of my second year, which consisted of two indecipherable diagrams, some vague mumblings about AIDS, and a five-minute video of a gruff-looking German woman unrolling a balloon over a stick. It was like teaching Mandarin from a takeaway menu. There was nothing about feelings; no clue as to whether this was roughly average size for a stick; and most importantly, no pointers on how to persuade the German woman to touch your stick in the first place.

In 1982, John Farley, in his book Gametes and Spores, wrote: “Sex remains almost as complete an enigma today as it was 300 years ago when Dutch microscopists discovered minute ‘animalcules’ swimming about in human seminal fluid.”

The internet and self-help literature were years away. If I’d had any brothers or sisters, I might have gleaned the odd snippet by putting my ear to their bedroom door; as it was, the only scraps of information available were the eye-boggling fisherman’s yarns of the playground and the odd scrunched-up jazz mag abandoned in the woods. And with coordinated teams of torch-wielding teenagers combing for them in overlapping eight-hour shifts, those were hard to come by.

But I wasn’t too worried. Everyone else seemed to get by without an instruction manual. Sex obviously comes naturally to humans, as it does to the animals. I would instinctively know the right thing to do when the time came. Wouldn’t I?



As you read this, a million people are having sex. (The World Health Organisation estimates that 100 million sex acts take place every day, and as the average duration of intercourse is 7 minutes, at any one moment, there are about 500,000 couples making whoopee.)

And when we’re not doing it, it’s never far from our minds. The oft-touted statistic that men think about sex every nine seconds is a myth, but various studies put the figure at anything between several times a day and once a minute. It’s reckoned that there are about half a billion pages of porn on the internet, and sexual images are everywhere, in newspapers and magazines, on TV and advertising billboards.

Yet for a species seemingly so obsessed with sex, mankind has been remarkably slow to learn about it. The derisory state of sex education in the 1980s isn’t actually that surprising when you consider that sex and love and relationships, were, until roughly that time, a mystery to everyone. Whether it was because sex was taboo, or because we felt the subject somehow beneath our attention—everyone knows how to have sex, don’t they?—there was practically no research into the field until the alarmingly recent past. In 1982, John Farley, in his book Gametes and Spores, wrote: “Sex remains almost as complete an enigma today as it was 300 years ago when Dutch microscopists discovered minute ‘animalcules’ swimming about in human seminal fluid.”

Sure, we’d figured out the nuts and bolts—but even they were a long time coming. Sperm (as opposed to semen) were only discovered in 1677, and it was another 150 years before anyone clapped eyes on a human egg. Until the mid-18th century, most scientists still held to the ancient Greeks’ theory that male semen contained complete human beings, and women were just a sort of incubator.

Things didn’t move much quicker in the early 20th century. In 1933, Sigmund Freud advised those who wished to learn about women to “turn to poets, or wait until science can give you deeper and more coherent information”. Alfred Kinsey published his reports on human sexual behaviour in 1948 and 1953, and while they revealed a lot about what people did, they offered no explanation of why they did it.

In fact, we’d split the atom, invented the laser and landed on the moon before anyone had even begun to address many of the fundamental questions of sex.

Why do we have sex? Why does attraction fade? Why do people cheat? Why are there so many female prostitutes, and so few heterosexual male ones? Why is it always men who propose? Why are so many women attracted to men who treat them badly? Why do you often see beautiful women with ordinary-looking men, but never the opposite? What is beauty anyway? Why is it more acceptable for men to sleep around than women? Why is it easier to meet a partner when you already have one? Why are there so many single mums and so few single dads? What’s so attractive about a sense of humour? And what, exactly, is chemistry?

Many of these questions hadn’t even been asked by the time I was born, and none of those that had had received satisfactory answers.

The first breakthroughs to cast light on these issues came in the 1970s—although they were building on a theory that was more than 100 years old.


This was originally published on Womanology.

Read more by Andy Bodle: I Might Be a Father, But I’ll Never Know for Sure

Image credit: Lauri Väin/Flickr

About Andy Bodle

Andy Bodle is a journalist, scriptwriter and blogger who has written for the Guardian, the Times, the BBC, and ABC. He lives in mortal fear that his greatest achievement will remain winning Channel 4's Countdown in 1993. You can read more on his blog, Womanology, and follow him on Twitter: @_Womanology_.


  1. These questions have baffled me since I entered my teens.

    It is really amazing (and unfortunate) how little sociological, psycholgical and philosophical thought has gone into trying to find the answers to these questions that relate to such an important aspect of human life.

    These questions are so thorny and surrounded by so much political correctness that any attempt to answer them is met by severe resistance.

    • I’ve noticed that its mostly women who dont like it when someone attempts to answer these questions. They become very uncomfortable and defensive.

      I think serious scientific thought is never put into answering these questions because it is feared that there will be a backlash from women. It is feared that the conclusions drawn would make women uncomfortable.

      I have also noticed that women are of the view that such questions should not be answered.

    • Tim and Herschele…I believe there is much truth in what you say. If we were to be open about this subject, because the facts don’t affirm our beliefs, we would have to reorder how we deal with each other around issues of sex. Women would have a hard time with this because having secrecy and mystery about sex works to her advantage. The facts are that for men and women, the person who has a history of having many sexual partners is more likely to be unfaithful or to have a problem with being monogamous.Biologically, men need to have some way to ensure that the child he thinks is his actually is his child, which is why paternity tests after birth should be mandatory.

  2. I might add to your comment Julie that people don’t have or at least don’t demonstrate often the courage b necessary to be authentic sexually. Some responsibility;ity has to be taken by people themselves.

  3. Andy…I don’t imagine that the world of human sexuality is all that confusing .It appears to be confusing because we, as humans, are supremely calculating and disingenuous. It is such a natural way to be most don’t realize their are being that way. We hide behind many veils and the more charged the subject, the more likely we are to be false with ourselves and others. Furthermore, how could anyone take Kinsey’s reports seriously since he famously contaminated his results by having sexual relationships with men and women of his team.

    The the question, “Why do women have sex?” has, outside of the confines of the frustrations of men, been seldom researched. We have just assumed that the reasons are simple and straight forward: We have sex because it feels good.and we have sex because we are in love. The latter reason is usually more attributed to how wand why women have sex, not men.

    Dr Buss and Dr Meston, sexual researchers from the University of Texas, have found at ;east 200= reasons that women choose to have sex and they found that sex is highly marketable even in marriages. According to them women use sex in a variety of ways to produce various results. To get chores done around the house,to get other favors, to get gifts, to have things paid for—There is a business that hooks up pretty college girls with “successful” men who pay for their tuition, for cars, for trips. all for sexual companionship, so please don’t say that it doesn’t or rarely happens..Clearly, there are forms of legal, culturally approved, sex for money and favors attitudes among mainstream women that is never openly discussed.
    Do women have sex for love, of course, but that isn’t the point. The point is that women have sex for many reasons,not all of which fit nicely into the preferred perception of women.

    • I figure there are as many reasons to have sex as there are people. It’s a form of communication, bonding, entertainment, reproduction, trade, etc. Religion has made it into this “pure connection always” thing when really, it could be for hundreds of reasons. It’s just not culturally allowed to be.

  4. My guess is because a lot of people aren’t going to like the answers to these questions so we maintain a state of willful ignorance when it comes sex.


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