to home
to other topics menu

Is there a Universal Theory of Sexuality? A Book Review Commissioned by The Journal of Sex Research, Examining a Well-Researched and Provocative Explanation of Human Sexual Behavior.

By Alex Gross, Journal of Sex Research, Vol. 22, No. 2, May 1986. This review stems from a period when the author and his wife were presenting workshops on Taoist and Tantric Sexuality to the general public and to scientific societies.

MUELOS: A STONE AGE SUPERSTITION ABOUT SEXUALITY. Weston La Barre. New York: Columbia University Press; 1984; 140 pages, $22.50, $10.95 (paper).

This is a brilliant book marred by a few major flaws. Where we are used to anthropologists limiting themselves to gathering data about a single society and even then hazarding few final conclusions, La Barre has broken out of this mold and attempts to sum up virtually all cultures everywhere and throughout time, using sexual attitudes as his foundation.  His is a daring syncretic leap—and of course it fails. The author has used his enormous erudtion as an all-embracing net to haul in living and fossilized specimens from the broad seas of culture; hence, it is not surprising that he has also landed a few multi-tentacled creatures he cannot quite handle. The value of his book may well lie in how much he has truly brought to the surface—any errors committed in so great a task may perhaps be seen as minor, even incidental.

La Barre's basic thesis resounds with a deep cultural ring of truth, even though it may well sound almost frivolous on first hearing. The author holds that virtually all cultures on this planet, including our own, have to one degree or another endorsed a view of human sexuality originating in the Stone Age, before the migration of nomads and the submergence of land bridges. According to this view, semen is held to be of one substance with bone marrow (myelós in Greek, variantly transliterated muelos in La Barre's title), which in turn is regarded as similar in substance to the kidneys, spinal fluid, and even the brain itself, for if the brain is viewed as a single spheroid bone, its "marrow" would in fact be brainstuff.

The consequences of such faulty physiological knowledge have been, La Barre holds, disastrous for humanity. Since losing sperm is tantamount to losiing part of one's bone-power and brain-power, sexual energy is viewed as limited, and sexual activity held up as debilitating/wrong/evil/sinful, depending on the culture. This Stone Age superstition still lives on among us as an archosis, claims La Barre, predisposing us to a false view of the universe and even the lunacy of war. But the author is quick to provide a solution for the dilemma he delineates: We have only to teach all peoples everywhere the latest scientific theory on the precise function of the prostate gland, so that everyone understands that semen is virtually unlimited and independent of the brain, and all our problems concerning sex and aggression will recede.

If La Barre's argument amounted to no more than this, it would be easy enough to refute. But the author presents such a wealth of data to justify his reasoning that one is drawn to the conclusion that some unifying law may indeed connect many of his examples, even if it is not the one presented by La Barre. Among the cultural phenomena he manages to enmesh in his thesis:

  • Head-hunting, so as to drink the sexual power of the brain;

  • Shrunken heads, for the same reason;

  • Taking scalps, as a ritualized remainder of the above practices;

  • Reverence for animal horns, as an extension of the head, hence their use as aphrodisiacs;

  • Wild-boar and pig hunting and worship, including the Boar's Head custom at Yule/Christmas;

  • Severed animal heads as trophies;

  • Sacred sodomy in various tribes to initiate a boy into  manhood, which would otherwise not occur, the anus being seen as the root of the brain-spine-penis system;

  • Analogous beliefs and practices, philosophically justified, in ancient Greece;

  • And many other examples, including American Indian ceremonies; Da Vinci's famous drawing linking brain, spinal coulumn, and penis; specific instances of brain-marrow-sperm confusion in the language of Shakespeare; the contributions of Tissot, Acton, and later European theorists; and the usual genuflections in the direction of Freud and his early followers.

Specialists in all these areas may well object to specific points, and yet the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. If human beings are driven by some deap-seated belief that sexual energy is inherently limited—and La Barre presents more than enough data to show that they may be—surely we need to understand why this is so. In some areas La Barre's data is lamentably thin—for East India he presents only the usual tantric citations, and for China he provides only a few brief sentences by another non-sinologist.

But the Chinese part of his argument must be far more crucial to his thesis than La Barre himself is aware, even if it did not affect a third of the world's population.  Far from being a part of any primitive belief pattern, La Barre's basic theis is codified in China as a basic part of the high classical medical system. The sui hai or "Sea of Marrow," one of the four major networks upholding bodily functions, in fact, perfectly confirms La Barre's view by consisting of marrow, spinal column, kidneys, sperm, and brain. And whether or not its roots go back to the Stone Age, hundreds of new and and traditional medical texts still being published in China continue to use the Sea of Marrow as the basis for treating sexual and other urogenital problems with such therapies as acupuncture, moxabustion, massage, herbal and dietary remedies, and traditional forms of exercise. Far from dying out as a Stone Age remnant, this theory is being taught as the basis for practical therapy at a dozen U.S. acupuncture schools and is slowly re-emerging in our own society.

Much of this book's fascination lies in the challenge of providing alternate explanations for the phenomena La Barre presents. Responding to this challenge could sooner or later prove to be a task consuming considerably time and many minds. Among the questions La Barre's book poses: Precisely how are we today as scientists to treat the ethnological data concerning sexuality provided by anthropologists, whether it is a weird belief about puberty held by a few hundred Amerindians or a classical system practiced by myriad millions?  Are we to abandom either of them totally in favor of Western rationalism, as La Barre seems to suggest, and simply impose "scientific truths"  upon their remaining exponents? 

If so, which scientific truths? Those of 50 years ago or 50 years hence are not—and will not be—identical to those of today. Are we merely to sift through such ethnographic material as quaint tangential tales that need not really concern us?  Are we to rationalize them, as do the French structuralists (whom La Barre excoriates), as being basically valid as a cognitive—though foreign—system? Or, will we undertake the rigorous task of determining if they really have anything of value to offer us? And finally, a basic  knowledge of French and German were at one time required for advanced research—how long will it be before a basic knowledge of Chinese is required of all those who seek to generalize about humanity at large?

It is of course possible to suggest a counter-thesis for the data La Barre provides in such plenitude—the belief that semen is limited need not have a Stone Age origin. It may in fact have been continually relearned—despite the author's resistance to this idea—by basic  observation and learning processes. Many men and women come to believe that semen and/or sexual energy, for either sex, can be somewhat limited, as those of us who do some form of sexual counseling are aware, whenever such men and women try to re-enact the latest Playboy or True Romance fantasy. The claim that semen/sexual energy is virtually unlimited may turn out to be as hysterical as the Stone Age or Victorian counter-claim, that it is not only limited but must be preserved at all cost.

On the physiological side, although the brain is obviously no homologue for sperm, the hypothalamic, pituitary, and central nervous functions are clearly located in or near the brain or spinal cord, so Stone Age physiology may not have been that far off after all. In fact, La Barre tends to use "Stone Age" as a synonym for "benighted," and his book sometimes lapses into a paean of praise on how clever we all are now that we understand everything. But even if he is mistaken about the Stone Age origins of these phenomena, he has performed a great service in showing the univerality of these beliefs.

The scholarly apparatus of this book, provided by 369 notes following its seven sections, is quite adequate for its length, and an additional bibliography would probably have been superfluous, though an index would have been useful. I believe that this book will interest all who wish to explore different sexual lifeways, question their own assumptions about sex and culture, or contend with a challenging set of generalizations. Ideally, this ought to be everyone.

This article is Copyright © 1992
by Alexander Gross. It may be
reproduced for individuals and for
educational purposes only. It may
not be used for any commercial (i.e.,
money-making) purpose without
written permission from the author.

to home
to other topics menu