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Celebrating sex? Why some people find promiscuity immoral and others not so much

Gustave Caillebotte was sleeping with this woman. And the artist, a married man, got quite the scolding from 1880s Paris upon showing this painting of her, his infamous “Nude on a Couch” (now in the MIA’s collection)—not because he was sleeping with her, of course, but because she didn’t appear particularly ashamed of her sexuality and neither did he.

Why didn’t the bohemian artist share the public’s propriety? Why didn’t she?

Researchers probing attitudes toward casual sex think they’ve found the answer: morality, like so many things, is tied to money. As recently described in the Atlantic, the researchers asked people whether they agree with statements like “Promiscuous women are not worthy of much respect.” Then the researchers asked whether the women they know are financially dependent on men. Turns out, in communities where women are economically dependent on men, everyone—women and men—disapprove of casual sex. Where women are more independent, most people shrug.

What’s the explanation? The researchers speculate that we’ve evolved to avoid uncertainty of parenthood. That is, in a world of few resources—as humans found it for most of their existence—no man wanted to support a child he hadn’t necessarily fathered. And no woman, needing that man for support, was going to risk losing him.

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“The King of Goats: A Satire on Cuckolds,” a 15th-century engraving in the MIA collection.

In Gustave’s world, this wasn’t really a concern. Within bohemian art circles, everyone was sleeping around and no one thought much about resources—in any case, Gustave had plenty of money to throw around.

Here’s a more contemporary example: the Kardashians. Much of the world loves to boo and hiss the family’s sexual exploits, but in Hollywood—where the Kardashians and other actresses support themselves just fine, thank you—those exploits aren’t a liability.

Many the MIA’s older depictions of casual sex, from a time when women’s financial independence was not even a possibility, are unambiguous in their view of promiscuity: it’s women’s fault. Try “The King of Goats: A Satire on Cuckholds,” circa 1460–1464. This surreal engraving shows a group of men sprouting goat horns, a common symbol of rampant promiscuity at the time—and even today among some Italians—derived from goats’ perceived horniness. To be clear, it’s not the men who are the adulterers in this scenario, it’s their wives. To be “with horns,” as the Italian saying goes, is to be a cuckhold.

The inscription reads, “Who is not dead will die, who is not a cuckhold will be,” a fatalistic assertion that just as we’ll be dead some day sooner or later all women will cheat. Indeed, a naked woman cavorts among the horn-headed men, unashamed of her lust. And the men, uncontrollably, give in: some ask for their horns to be sawn off—Italians thought it better to overlook a wife’s infidelity than to be known for making a stink about it—while one young fellow returns her admiration, the next victim.

Which suggests the limits of the economic theory of prudishness: women certainly were not independent in 15th century Italy. But the reaction to promiscuity in this scenario isn’t so much moralizing as resignation. People fool around, eh, what can you do? Researchers, it seems, haven’t accounted for Italians.