Life without sex ... it just seems longer

If men had as little sex as pandas, they could live as long as women. Great news. You give it up first and I'll follow later, says William Hartston

Have you ever met a happy eunuch? That question must be uppermost in the thoughts of us all after reading a report in the current New Scientist magazine entitled "Does lust for sex kill males in their prime?" It's all about some new research on worms that challenges long-held views about sex and longevity. The traditionally held belief, supported by huge amounts of evidence across a wide variety of species, is that females live longer than males and are genetically predisposed to do so. David Gems, of University College London, however, has suggested that it is not so much the sex you are that determines your lifespan but, in the case of males, the amount of sex you have.

His conclusions are based on a number of experiments in which worms lived lives of varying debauchery. In an all-male commune, worms were found to die in about 10 days, which was less than if they were allowed female companionship. But if you leave a male totally on his own, he will go on living for 20 days, which is even longer than the usual female lifespan of 16 days.

Dr Gems attributes the short lives of sexually-active male worms to the strain of crawling around in pursuit of women and having to compete with other males and defend their territory. That theory was supported by measuring the lifespans of worms with a genetic mutation that made them pathologically idle. Such dozy male worms lived for 30 days, but - and here is the crucial point - the same genetically-induced laziness in female worms did not result in their living any longer at all.

The conclusion is that males have evolved a naturally longer lifespan than females, in order to compensate for their more active lives. But they are all overdoing it to such an extent that they fornicate themselves into an early grave.

In support of his thesis, Dr Gems mentions two earlier findings. The first was a study in 1969 claiming that eunuchs live for an average of 13.5 years longer than non-eunuchs; the second showed that castrated marsupial mice can live for years, compared with their intact male colleagues who spend five to 11 hours a day copulating and die in just a few weeks.

But to come back to our opening question, have you ever seen a happy castrated marsupial mouse?

Whether the worm research carries over to humans, however, must be highly debatable. First, there is the little problem that most nematode worms - Caenorhabditis elegans, on which the experiments were performed - are hermaphrodite. The females can produce sperm for self-fertilisation; which could easily give a sexually active true male nematode a life-shortening feeling of redundancy.

There is also very little evidence to suggest that sexually hyperactive human males die younger than celibates. Admittedly Mozart's Don Giovanni, who had seduced 1,003 women in Spain alone, was carried off to hell when still in his prime, but Giovanni Casanova, who filled 12 volumes with his sexual conquests and still had time to found the French lottery, lived to the age of 73.

Only this week we have had news of Giulio Paggi, a 101-year-old Italian who has attributed his longevity to "lots of sex". "I still feel like a little boy," he said, "and the secret of this youthfulness is that all my life I've put a lot into lovemaking."

He is not alone in this diagnosis. George Burns, shortly before his death last year at the age of 100, also confessed his secret of long life: "I dance close to young girls and smoke 15 cheap cigars a day."

There is, however, certainly some evidence in the rest of the animal kingdom that sex can damage your health. Anyone doubting this should consult "Head damage due to mating in Ophiogomphus dragonflies", a 1984 paper by SW Dunkle. In that piece of research, however, it was the females who were damaged by sex, when their ommatidia were dented by their lovers' epiprocts.

Lady dragonflies, of course, may have only themselves to blame. Their ommatidia could easily have been dented while they writhed in sexual ecstasy. The injuries might have been prevented by a bit of judicious bondage, as researchers into the sex lives of butterflies and goats have clearly realised. In "Courtship behaviour of the gulf fritillary" (by Rutowski and Schaefer, 1985), experiments were reported in which male butterflies were filmed while courting tethered virgin females, while the previous year an experiment with a tied-up nanny goat had shown that the sexual performance of male goats is enhanced if he knows he is being watched by another male goat or if another male goat has just mated with the same female. Sadly the longevity of the goats and butterflies in these experiments was not recorded.

And before we start castrating our males to give them longer lives, we should consider the results of research on birds which has shown that castrated starlings are liable to become aggressive. It could all be a waste of time anyway, since certain strains of laboratory mice have been shown to be just as active sexually after castration as before it.

But even if sex, with or without bondage, is harmful to the individual, there is no doubt that abstinence can damage the species. Only yesterday, researchers at the Chengdu Giant Pandas Reproduction Base in China were reported to be looking for ways to make giant pandas "enjoy and engage in" sex. "Only 10 per cent of giant pandas are able to mate naturally," one researcher was quote as saying, "so it's very difficult to have them make love and get pregnant naturally."

On the whole, the scientific approach does not encourage us to believe that worm-sex and human sex have a great deal in common. Where scientists cannot proclaim, however, poetry may have its say. In Ted Hughes's Crow cycle, the origin of sex is explained: a worm, who was God's only son, was cut in two, one half inserted into man, the other into woman. The female half burrowed deep and can now be seen peering through her eyes, begging the male half to unify them again: "... calling to its tail-half to join up quickly/Because O it was painful."

And it does, after all, come down to a question of pain. For even if a man's life is longer without sex, what is the joy of abstinence? As Dr Johnson wrote in Rasselas (1759): "Marriage has many pains, but celibacy has no pleasures"

Suggested Topics
News
news

Emergency call 'started off dumb, but got pretty serious'

News
people

Britain First criticised for using actress's memory to draw attention to their 'hate-filled home page'

Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge
booksJK Rowling to publish new story set in wizard's world for Halloween
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites those Star Wars rumours
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
News
Russell Brand was in typically combative form during his promotional interview with Newsnight's Evan Davis
people

Thought you'd seen it all after the Jeremy Paxman interview?

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch
tv

Greatest mystery about the hit BBC1 show is how it continues to be made at all, writes Grace Dent

News
i100
Life and Style
tech

Voices
Funds raised from the sale of poppies help the members of the armed forces with financial difficulties
voicesLindsey German: The best way of protecting soldiers is to stop sending them into conflicts
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'
film

"History is violent," says the US Army tank commander Don "Wardaddy" Collier

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    General Cover Teacher

    £120 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Luton: The Job:SECONDARY teachers need...

    Behaviour Support Work

    £60 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Behaviour Support WorkerThe JobTo...

    English Teacher, Aylesford School

    Competitive Salary: Randstad Education Group: Randstad Education is working in...

    EBD LSA required - Vale of Glamorgan

    £60 - £65 per day + plus free travel scheme: Randstad Education Cardiff: The J...

    Day In a Page

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker