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Sex and Human Values

Riane Eisler
Sacred Pleasure: Sex, Myth, and the Politics of the Body
San Francisco, Harper San Fransisco, 1995
495 pp. ISBN 0-06-250293-X (hardcover-$15), 0-06-250283-2 (paperback-$21), Canada

Review by Daniel S. Levine

Riane Eisler, codirector of the Center for Partnership Studies in Pacific Grove, California, is known for her multidisciplinary work in evolutionary studies; human rights, and peace, feminist, and environmental issues. Eisler is a fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science and of the World Business Academy; recipient of the 1996 Humanist Pioneer Award; author of The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future and Women, Men, and the Global Quality of Life; and coauthor, with D. Loye, of The Partnership Way. P Daniel S. Levine, Professor of Psychology, at the University of Texas - Arlington, is president-elect of the International Neural Network Society and serves on the editorial board of Psychline. Levine is author of Introduction to Neural and Cognitive Modeling and the forthcoming Common Sense and Common Nonsense and is coeditor, with S. Leven, of Motivation, Emotion, and Goal Direction in Neural Networks.

This volume is a sequel to the same author's widely read The Chalice and the Blade (1987), and like its predecessor, boldly advances the thesis that much of what is regarded in contemporary folk psychology as "immutable human nature" actually arose from ecological and social circumstances in the remote past. Specifically, Riane Eisler argues in both books, with many compelling and accessible examples, that social systems based on dominator_subordinate rankings, strict gender role divisions, and institutionalized war are not the only possible systems. Rather, she evinces archaeological proof that societies based on partnership, cooperation, and equality in fact flourished during Paleolithic and Neolithic times. Moreover, there was a cataclysmic change in most societies in Europe and Asia, spurred in Europe between about 4300 and 2800 B.C. by invasions from groups based in the harsh Asian steppes and variously called Kurgan or Indo_European. This moved each society away from a partnership toward a dominator orientation, which caused a fundamental shift in many common categorizations and beliefs.

Sacred Pleasure deals especially with the historical shifts in categorizations relating to sex and love, and how they still affect us all in ways both the author and I consider harmful. The title refers to the ancient blending of sex and spirituality, particularly related to goddess worship, and the efforts of some modern visionaries to recapture this connection.

Eisler's is not a standard psychology book, but it is recommended for different groups of psychologists for many reasons. Behavioral psychologists will be particularly interested in the arguments it advances against sociobiology and related paradigms such as social Darwinism. Against the animal studies that sociobiologists rely on to justify dominance hierarchies and sexual double standards, Eisler cites studies of bonobos, African pygmy chimpanzees who have a much more peaceful society. Bonobos use sex (between all combinations, male_female, male_male, and female_female) both for social bonding and to relieve potential tensions. Cognitive psychologists will be interested in what Eisler hints about the wide capacity of humans for categorizations and associations that differ from standard ones; for example, the fact that modern societies often associate sexuality with violence or sin, whereas earlier societies associated sexuality with the sacred. Social psychologists will be interested in her debunking of some cultural cliches about relationships, such as the belief that love requires pain and is enhanced by jealousy.

Eisler defines her goal as one of advocacy as well as research: my aim has not been to accumulate knowledge for its own sake. I was strongly motivated by the increasingly critical need for transformative knowledge: for the new tools for personal and social transformation that our time of mounting ecological, political, and economic crises requires if we are to have a better future, perhaps a future at all. (p. 2)

After examining the interpersonal roots of our many social crises, she concluded that attitudes about sex have critical implications for attitudes about many other things: peace and war, dominance and submission, gender roles, pleasure, and love, for example. In particular, she argues that violent or loveless interpersonal and institutional relations feed on cultural notions such as "pain and pleasure are two sides of the same coin," "spirituality and sexuality are at opposite poles," and "the war of the sexes is inevitable" (p. 3).

Eisler broadly discusses two competing frameworks for social cohesion. One is the dominator model, based on superior_inferior rankings between males and females as well as between social groups, and enforced by the fear of pain or death. The other is the partnership model, based on cooperation, equality, and mutuality between the sexes and between individuals, and held together by the rewards of pleasure and affection. The very existence of a partnership model has only been accepted in mainstream psychology since about the 1970s. Sigmund Freud, as Eisler pointed out, believed in the need for "man" to control nature, including his own inner nature, and for men to dominate women. The neurobiologist Antonio Damasio (1994) asserted the primacy of emotion in human decision making, but concluded that only negative emotions and not positive ones can effectively motivate people. Yet Damasio's pessimism is refuted by recent data of psychologists such as Edward Deci, Richard Ryan, and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, indicating that intrinsic motivation based on enjoyment is effective in many work and personal situations. This basic premise is also supported, for example, by Alice Isen's results showing that positive affect enhances creativity and cognitive flexibility. Eisler's historical studies of partnership societies further strengthen the broad implications of such findings.

Eisler attacks the popular notion, supported by many religious institutions, that human sexuality is related to the "animal" side of our nature and inferior to our "highest" human capabilities. Rather, citing work of the biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, she argues that human sexuality is advanced over that of other animals in many ways that encourage elaborate social bonding. These include the capacity of human females for multiple orgasms (based in the clitoris, which separates sex from reproduction) and for sex all year long, not just in estrous periods, and of partners to face each other during intercourse. All these changes, combined with the long period of childhood in humans, foster emotional bonding between sexual partners and active involvement of males in child_rearing. Hence, she argues convincingly, far from being "animalistic," our capacity for sexual pleasure is intimately bound up with our highest mental, social, and spiritual capacities.

Moreover, Eisler states that religious authorities (Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or any other) who advocate rigid sexual morality really only condemn sexual pleasure. They have been curiously silent, she says, about sexually_related pain, including wife_beating, abusive relationships, and marital or other rape. In this age of AIDS, she shows that the disease is spread not so much by sex per se as by uncaring or impersonal "dominator" sex, and many religious leaders have been silent about this as well. All this suggests to Eisler and myself that the agendas of these religious authorities are really based in preserving patriarchal rankings between the sexes, rather than moral sexual behavior as such.

Eisler gives excellent examples of trends over three thousand years of history: the decline or perversion of partnership sexual customs such as the sacred marriage, and the growth of other sexual institutions and customs that support a dominator society. She describes the ancient shift from partnership to dominator orientation as a shift of a large nonlinear dynamical system from one attractor to another, and discerns a growing world_wide movement (much of it invisible in the mainstream media) toward return to the earlier partnership attractor. This is based on many factors including the greater spread of democracy and the rise of feminism. Yet another influence is the rise of psychology in the last century:

But a major factor in these vast changes has been the continuing awakening of masses of people from their dominator trance — an awakening further accelerated by the emergence of the social sciences, particularly by the gradual acceptance of modern psychology as both a new scientific discipline and a new therapy. For what this particular change brought us is an insight we today take for granted: that we need to understand painful events in our childhoods, particularly within the psychodynamics of our families, if we are to understand, and successfully change, the way we think, feel, and act. (p. 191)

The book's later chapters describe many current efforts in different parts of the world at enhancing partnership in economic and political spheres, noting that political movements are increasingly integrated with movements to improve personal life (e.g., reproductive rights and empowerment of women). Eisler also describes the increasingly strident resistance to change on the part of threatened dominator elites, but expresses a hope, based on the evolution of her own consciousness, that the partnership movements stand a fair chance of success. In the process she calls for creativity on the part of all men and women, and decries the conventional, dominator_based perception of creativity as something that is only possessed by a few and above "ordinary" people and "ordinary" life. Also, she calls for a conceptual distinction between being "creative" in devising weapons of mass extermination versus devising means of enhancing the quality of life. These are issues worthy of serious research by the growing number of psychologists studying creative processes.

Eisler reminds us that a return to partnership is not inevitable but depends on human efforts. What remains unsaid is whether such a change would actually be going back to ancient versions of the partnership society, or instead moving toward a type of society not quite like any from the past. Eisler leans toward the latter: she hints, without developing the point, that the ancient Kurgan invasions actually interrupted the further evolution of the partnership society and that it is our responsibility, with the help of modern technology, to resume this evolution. One might take issue with any glorification of the past based on psychological interpretations of incomplete findings. Yet her conclusion is not that violence was totally absent in Neolithic times, just that it was not institutionally entrenched as it is now. This conclusion is solidly based on the findings of widely respected archaeologists, such as Marija Gimbutas, James Mellaart, and Jacquetta Hawkes.

Also, the notion that centrality of a goddess in ancient religions promoted equality of the sexes, and never female dominance, will probably be controversial. Yet for psychologists, the interpretation of what actually happened in past societies is not the most central part of Eisler's message. What is more central is her conviction that many unpleasant aspects of modern society (not just in the West but all over the globe) that we often take for granted are not human universals, but are the product of historical factors and can be changed without destroying social stability. These include, for example, fear_based dominance hierarchies, male oppression of women, eroticization of violence, repression of sexual pleasure, overpopulation due to restrictions on contraception, religious glorification of self_induced pain, and cultural glorification of war.

Eisler's book is recommended reading for both specialists and nonspecialists interested in the roots of human motivation and the extent of human potential. It provides hopeful visions in place of widespread folk psychological notions that have imposed limits on human potential. Hence, both academic and clinical psychologists interested in applying their discipline to the benefit of society will derive inspiration from the many insights and stories in this ground_breaking book.


Damasio, Antonio (1994). Descartes' error: Emotion, reason, and the human brain. New York: Grosset/Putnam.
Eisler, Riane (1987). The chalice and the blade: Our history, our future. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

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