Language of Sexes

Every human male and female has an efficient set of biological gender signals, but the cultures in which they live cannot leave these alone. They modify them in a thousand different ways, exaggerating some and suppressing others, changing them and making them more and more elaborate, translating the biological  language of the sexes into a cultural babel.
            Today, when human beings display their genders, instead of quietly transmitting their basic reproductive signals they noisily proclaim their adult status with all the complexity that modern life can offer them. We have grown accustomed to this and have fine-tuned ourselves to respond to the latest beauty fashions with all  the subtle details of make-up, hairstyling and clothing. When looking for a partner we take into account a thousand tiny details of cosmetics, costumes and other visual elements. The amazing computers inside our skulls perform lightning calculations every time we set eyes on an attractive member of the opposite sex, instantly accessing their partner appeal. If someone scores a perfect ‘ten’, we know this immediately, but if we were asked to analyses the separate factors involved, we would find it extremely difficult because our assessment is based on such a long and complicated set of cultural influences.

Sex and Beauty

Why have we made pairing so hard for ourselves? If a member of the opposite sex has the basic gender signals, the basic physical properties and reasonable intelligence, what is to stop us pairing off with them?  The answer lies in what has been called ‘the beauty trap’. We have applied a whole series of sophisticated standards to what we consider to be a suitable mate for ourselves in our modern social context. We may not be aware of the way we have done this it is simply what is ‘in vogue’ or ‘on our wavelength’. We are caught inside the strands of the cultural web which the spider of social custom weaves around each one of us from the time we are born. And to make matters even more complicated, this differs in detail for each of our societies.
            Every human society has its own special standards of beauty. When a careful study was made in 200 different cultures to find out what was especially appealing, there were hardly any qualities that were found everywhere. Many of the obvious sexual signals were not as universally accepted as previously believed.
            For every culture that favored large female breasts, another liked small ones. If one culture liked white teeth, another  preferred black teeth or filed-down teeth. If one liked long, flowing hair, another insisted on shaved heads. If one liked skinny bodies, another preferred fat ones, and so on. Sometimes the preferences were almost arbitrary, or based simply on the opposite of the tribe next door, to create a distinctive difference. More often than not, they were exaggerations of one or other of the many human gender signals. What made them different was that one culture would focus on, say, the lips, while another would concentrate on the neck or the feet. In each case they would take a particular feature and then push it to extremes. They were in the business of creating what has been called ‘ super-normal stimuli’.
            Nothing could be more super-normal than the amazing lip-plates worn by certain African tribes women. If it is sexy for a woman to have large fleshy lips, then why not make them even bigger? Cut a slit in them when she is young and push a small plate into them to stretch them out. Then, as she grows older, replace the plate with a bigger one and keep making them bigger until she ends up with super-lips that should, in theory, be super-sexy. Usually the first plates are only coin-sized, but they eventually become large enough to serve a meal on. In some tribes there are even double plates, one for the upper lip as well as for the lower, which makes eating, drinking and smoking extremely difficult. What it does for sexual foreplay has not been recorded.
            In the Surma and Mursi tribes of Ethiopia the lip-plates of the women are so important as ways of making the young women sexually attractive that the bride price will be determined by the size of the plate. The bigger the plate of an unmarried girl, the more she is worth, the largest plates of all fetching 50 head of cattle, a fortune in local terms. Needless to say, this stretches the elasticity of human flesh almost to breaking point. Local rules allow that the lip-plates can only be removed when in the company of other women, when eating in private, or when sleeping, but they must always  be worn when in the company of men.
            Amazingly, this particular facial improvement which, to Western eyes, looks so much like a facial deformity, has developed independently in several different cultures as far apart as tropical Africa and the forests of South America. We may find it bizarre, but it is worth remembering that, in a very modest way, out own culture employs a similar lip exaggeration. Women frequently make their lips look a little larger by painting them with bright lipstick and allowing the painted edge to stray outside the real edge of the lips. This fashion was introduced by prostitutes in ancient  Egypt to make themselves more appealing to their customers and has since spread to become a major industry. More recently, collagen or fat implants have been used to produce permanently swollen ‘bee-sting’ lips. So the difference between the ‘deformity’ of lip-plates and the ‘beautifying’ of Western lips is only a matter of degree. In both cases there is an exaggeration of a female sexual response the response that sees a marked swelling of the lips during intense sexual arousal. Culture extends what nature intends.
            A similar process is at work in other regions of the body. The female neck is longer and more slender than that of the male. It follows that, if something can be done to make the female neck look even longer and thinner, this will increase the femininity of the gender display. The most extraordinary example of this is to be found among the amazing giraffe-necked women of Burma. These remarkable women, from the Padaung sub-group of the Karen people from eastern Burma’s Kayah state, start putting brass rings which push their shoulders down further and further. This gives the impression that they have immensely long necks. The goal is to reach the maximum number of rings, which for some reason is generally agreed to be 32.
            The origin of the neck-rings is said to date back to a time when the women were threatened by a tiger that would bite their necks and kill them. The rings were thought to provide adequate protection against these attacks. Younger Padaung women give a simple explanation for their strange custom: ‘Wearing brass rings around your neck  makes you beautiful’. The problem for these women is not, as one might think, a practical one of how to keep active, but how to find the money to play for the expensive rings. Their solution in recent years has been to move across the border into Thailand where they can sell themselves to be photographed by tourists at $ 10 a time. To some this is deplorable as an example of ethnic exploitation, but it does at least keep the ancient tradition alive.     

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