An excerpt from the upcoming book, Recapture the Rapture: Rethinking God, Sex, and Death in a World That's Lost It's Mind by Jamie Wheal.
If you really want to see how powerfully these primitive mating signals shape our desires, consider how ingeniously we modify what we’re given. More now than at any other time in the past, we’ve hacked the mating game. In today's sexual marketplace, sellers have so thoroughly blurred the lines between honest and deceptive signaling that buyers literally have no idea what they’re getting into.
What used to get doled out by the dumb luck of natural selection can now be worked into an outpatient procedure. Born bird chested with a big nose, pale skin and mousy hair? No problem! That can all be swapped out for flashier features over an afternoon.
Today, women artificially augment their breasts and buttocks, lighten their hair, darken their skin, and even wear colored contact lenses, all the better to conform to shifting notions of idealized beauty. To say nothing of changing the shapes of their noses, plumping lips, sculpting cheeks and erasing wrinkles--the linkage between healthy genetics and desired aesthetics has broken down entirely. A gullible suitor might think he’s bedding Barbie, only to end up fathering a little Troll.
We’re approaching a cosmetic singularity where all looks are converging into one uniform appearance. “What seems likely to be one of the oddest legacies of our rapidly expiring decade,” Jia Tolentino recently acknowledged in the New Yorker, "[is] the gradual emergence, among professionally beautiful women, of a single, cyborgian face.”
Her assessment of how radically beauty standards are mutating and converging is worth quoting in full: “It’s a young face, of course, with poreless skin and plump, high cheekbones. It has catlike eyes and long, cartoonish lashes; it has a small, neat nose and full, lush lips. It looks at you coyly but blankly, as if its owner has taken half a Klonopin and is considering asking you for a private-jet ride to Coachella. The face is distinctly white but ambiguously ethnic—it suggests a National Geographic composite illustrating what Americans will look like in 2050.”
Tolentino concedes that impossible beauty standards for women have always been around, from foot-binding in China to tiny-waisted corsets in Europe. But she then points out how pervasive and pernicious the role of “self as selfie” digital presentation has made things.
“Social media has supercharged the propensity to regard one’s personal identity as a potential source of profit—and, especially for young women, to regard one’s body this way, too,” she says. “For those born with assets—natural assets, capital assets, or both—it can seem sensible, even automatic, to think of your body the way that a McKinsey consultant would think about a corporation: identify underperforming sectors and remake them.”
It’s not only women. In an increasingly competitive workplace, male tech executives in particular take great pains to maintain youthful appearances, so as not to seem over the hill to their twenty-something co-workers. The end result is that faking young, hip “alpha male” status, which was damn near impossible in the era of hunter-warrior societies, is now only a Tag Heuer watch and a Tesla away. For any aspiring beta male looking to fudge his reproductive bona fides, chest implants, a tummy tuck and some Botox are increasingly welcomed.
That’s not all. Guys are constantly tempted to tinker with their junk. Ads for non-surgical penis enhancement fool up to half of all men into believing that kind of change is possible (PLOSOne). Creams, pills and pumps abound. But there are some even more insightful field studies we can review to understand the signalling power of a large package. Specifically, what happens when men have the chance to design their own?
In Papua New Guinea, the men of the Ketengban tribe collect an array of penis sheaths the same way a businessman might manage his tie rack. Ranging in size up to two feet, these “phallocarps” vary in decoration and even angle of erection. Without them, the otherwise stark naked men report feeling undressed. For the Ketengban, penis sheaths are essential clothing.
It’s not just exotic islanders that have augmented their jocks. In renaissance Europe, the codpiece--a padded cup covering the penis and testicles--became mandatory fashion. One two and a half pound steel version featured prominently on Henry VIII’s royal armour. Rabelais, the French satirist, took the piss out of the whole trend, working a sly reference to On the Dignity of Codpieces into the foreword to Gargantua and Pantagruel.
Even though codpieces fell out of fashion, they’ve never entirely gone away. Within the past few years, they’ve made a return to haute couture, gracing runway exhibitions for Gucci. Between the Marvel and DC Comic universes, there are plenty of superhero bulges to go around as well. Batman sports an especially daunting one. Rockstars do too. Guns and Roses frontman Axl Rose and the lead singer of Jethro Tull both wore them. Derek Smalls, the fictional bass player for the British spoof band Spinal Tap, took matters into his own hands with a DIY “trouser helper.” He crammed a zucchini into his pants to “put the expand back in his Spandex.” “Certainly less painful than collagen,” he conceded.
All this adjusting and manipulating our bodies to boost our desirability--from fillers to dyes to surgeries--highlights how motivated we are to optimize our reproductive fitness. We’ve nurtured the hell out of our natures, just to boost the chance of getting laid. And while we can’t help trying to increase our chances of standing out, the fact is that as a species, we are already far more sexualized than any of our nearest relatives.
Concealed fertility, abundant recreational sex, permanent female breasts, frequent female orgasm, and larger penises occur nowhere else in the animal kingdom. We are so different in fact, that any accounting of our rapid acceleration into homo sapiens has to consider our divergent sexuality as a prime candidate fueling that change.
“Within the relatively short period during which our ancestors and the ancestors of our great ape relatives have been evolving separately,” Diamond explains, “along with posture and brain size, sexuality completes the trinity of the decisive respects in which the ancestors of humans and great apes diverged...Recreational sex...was as important for our development of fire, language, art, and writing as were our upright posture and large brains.” [emphasis added]
The reward circuitry that prompted romance at the Blue Lagoon encourages us to go back to those waters, again and again. Over time, those altered, more expansive and connected experiences became a permanent part of our thinking and being. Norepinephrine energizing us and sharpening our focus. Dopamine rewarding our explorations and new discoveries. Endorphins easing our aches and providing brief relief from the grind of life. Oxytocin bonding us to our lovers and offspring. Slower brain waves allowing subconscious thinking and inspiration. Our altered states became altered traits, one orgasm at a time.
Read more in Recapture the Rapture: Rethinking God, Sex, and Death in a World That's Lost It's Mind (Coming April 2021)