Image: Group of bushmen or san in their village. Tsumkwe, Otjozondjupa, Kalahari, Namibia. Censoring nipples is only for reasons of sharing on social media.
In our tribal roots, all children were children of the community; we know this not only through observation, history, and speculation, but because childhood dependence could not have evolved otherwise.
The extended childhood dependence of humans is one of the most noteworthy features of our species: because depending on a single parent for resources for so many years would be highly unreliable in nature, the capability of taking such a long time to reach viable independence can only have evolved with a robust system of caretakers in place.
When we say a system of caretakers, furthermore, we are referring to something very different from the nuclear family (mother, father, and children) that we are accustomed to now.
In ancient times, women of a tribe all worked together to support one another and care for one another’s children, sharing everything from breastfeeding to caretaking to teaching. Cooperation, not competition, was the norm and the biological (and psychological) imperative.
We can trust in this evolutionary imperative toward cooperation amongst women because, unlike men, the maximum rate at which women can have children (i.e., make a genetic contribution to the subsequent generation) is only about once per year (and usually closer to 2-3 years, as breastfeeding naturally inhibits fertility to give the current infant time to utilize the mother’s resources).
As a result, women cannot substantially increase their own rate of gestation and reproduction by slowing other women down (unlike men, whose every success is a chance another man missed), but they can substantially increase the chances of their offspring’s survival over many years by having other adults invested in its wellbeing. This distributed investment both serves as a backup plan in case the mother is killed or incapacitated and allows for higher risk/reward efforts by sharing the burden of acquiring resources across the group.
This rooted knowledge of women as supporting and cooperating with one another is still present in our consciousness, though we sometimes have to dig deep to find it underneath the layers of change that have occurred in society since these ancient times.
In this tribal system, who the child’s “father” was, was unknown and irrelevant. Instead, women came to utilize sexuality in novel ways to maximize the number of people invested in the care of the whole tribe’s children, thus superseding the need (or ability) for the single biological father to know where to direct his resources.
Women did this by concealing paternity through continuous sexual receptivity and constant signals of potential-but-uncertain fertility, while simultaneously evolving a sexual attraction not only to a man’s physical display of good genes but to his overall contributions to the good of the tribe.
By keeping men’s attention constantly aroused, and by her own attraction to his investment of resources in the betterment of the whole tribe and all of its children, men and women each got more of what they wanted: men who showed investment in the good of the tribe were rewarded by the regular and enthusiastic sexual receptivity of the women who were pleased and impressed by that investment.
As a result, men would quickly learn that, although their biological imperative to compete for reproductive opportunities remained strong, one of the best ways to compete was to impress the women by how cooperative and generous and nurturing you could be. This was the most powerful positive feedback loop our species ever experienced, and our sexual enthusiasm became a magnificent barometer for the state of society.
And then came the agricultural revolution.
THE AGRICULTURAL REVOLUTION
As agriculture made possible the ability to grow food in one location instead of relying on nomadic hunting and gathering, everything changed. Now, one man could grow enough food to single-handedly feed a woman and all her children. Now, we could be self-sufficient individuals and build walls that allowed us to accumulate property and direct it toward our own children at the expense of others.
At this point in time, women made a fateful choice.
Because of having developed our attraction to men not only for their good genes but also as providers, the enterprising provider gave us an offer we couldn’t refuse. He proposed that if we allowed sexual access only to him, so he would know that all his efforts were going to support his direct offspring, he would take care of us and give us all the resources we ever needed. We took this offer of monogamy, not realizing what we were giving up.
The strong attraction to male providers, and their innovative ways of answering this call, led to our downfall. It overrode our desires to maintain our social network of sisterhood and female cooperation. As we built walls between our houses, our networks of women eroded. Now, our household began to compete with our sisters’ households. We were coming undone.
Men also did not know the dangerous situation that was brewing. When the man invited us in, it was because he was attracted to our joyous, vibrant, sexually abundant energy and wanted to experience more of that for himself. At the moment of accepting the invitation, we arrived with enthusiasm, believing his offer would only add to the abundance in our lives. None of us knew what we were about to cut ourselves off from.
As we lost touch with our women’s support networks and began competing against other women to keep resources within our individual households, our needs for more than just resources failed to be met. He (and most likely we) didn’t know that our sexual openness hinged on our deeper sense of community and connectedness, and that these would be undermined by physically separating ourselves from and competing with the other women in our lives.
On top of this, because we entangled our romantic/sexual relationship with the stability of our domestic environment, we could no longer negotiate on our own terms. He expected our sexual availability and abundance, or he wouldn’t have invited us in; it was certainly a negotiation from his standpoint, and if we didn’t find a way to bring these qualities to the table, we would jeopardize our ability to continue receiving his support.
This was critical, because we could no longer go back: now that all our sisters were living with their own husbands, we were on our own (unless we decided to become sister wives to the same man). So we stopped listening to our true sexual desires (or lack thereof) to tell us when things were and weren’t right with the world, and we started convincing ourselves that we were supposed to have sexual energy in this new, constrained environment; if we didn’t, we would lose our only source of support. Without the wisdom of women who remembered the old ways to guide us, we came to believe the problems were in us, not in mistakenly agreeing to a system that could not deeply sustain us.
Through these choices, we gave away our independence. But, at least we had one thing going for us: the feminine qualities and sexual access we provided (even if we were now pretending at them), the qualities that motivated the man to work so hard in the first place and then to invite us in to what he created, was being compensated for by his investment in providing for us and our children.
DOMESTIC LABOR AND SEXUALITY IN THE 20TH CENTURY
In the mid-twentieth century, women made another grave, consequential choice.
Recognizing that regaining our independence was worthwhile, we decided it was no longer ideal to have women dependent on their husbands for all financial support. But, it had been a long time since we were independent. We didn’t remember what that looked like for women. So, we decided to follow the model that was most familiar to us.
We decided to embark outside our homes and acquire jobs in the labor market.
This was well-intended, but it had catastrophic consequences. In accepting the role of non-domestic labor for financial freedom, we implicitly stated that all the work we had been doing for all of human history in building homes and families and communities had no monetary value and was not worth compensating.
In addition, our entry into the workforce doubled the number of people who were seeking jobs. As a result, wages since the mid-twentieth century have not kept up with inflation, such that our purchasing power with that money is nothing compared to what it used to be. On top of that, we now have to spend most of it to pay for childcare instead of spending time with our children ourselves.
Instead of gaining independence, we became chained even further to our relationships (as one income is now barely enough to support children) and jobs that take us away from our homes and families and undermine all the feminine values we wanted to cultivate in the world.
And what about femininity and sexuality? On one hand, we have an epidemic of sexual dysfunction and crushed libido. Instead of using sexuality, as our female ancestors did, to strengthen communities and motivate men to invest in positive social efforts, we use it to get a quick high to escape from the depression of the situation we have created for ourselves. And, not knowing how to be sexually empowered and responsible for our own choices and boundaries, we have created the environment of the #MeToo movement, which has made men terrified of women and colored both femininity and masculinity with shameful overtones.
It’s a mess.
Go ahead, call me crazy; but, I believe there is an answer to this.
It lies in remembering far enough back to what life looked like before we started defining ourselves in terms of nuclear families, biological parents, and monogamous relationships.
What if, instead of changing the labor model as we had in the mid-twentieth century, we changed the domestic model instead?
What if we said that women, wanting independence for ourselves and the ability to support and raise our children on our own terms, should stop focusing on finding a husband, and start building female support communities?
What if we said that, instead of only getting paid for work we do outside the home, that we should also be getting paid for everything we do to create supportive, healthy home environments that contribute to a better society, with the option to choose either as it suits us?
What if we said that, instead of finding a biological father to support our children based on one moment of conception in the past, we said that we expect men who want to enjoy our company in the present moment to help support us and provide positive male role models for our children, regardless of who fathered them?
What if we said that, instead of our sexual choices being the bedrock of our domestic stability, we’ll create a domestic environment of women who can make whatever sexual choices they want, whenever they want, on their own terms, and still have a healthy, happy home to come back to and rely on every day?
Welcome to Amazonia.