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
Patrick Stewart in the classiest ice bucket to date
people
News
The current recommendation from Britain's Chief Medical Officer, is that people refrain from drinking on at least two days a week
food + drinkTheory is that hangovers are caused by methanol poisoning
News
Australian rapper Iggy Azalea was left red faced but, thankfully, unhurt after taking a few too many steps backwards, sending her tumbling off the stage.
peopleIggy Azalea was left red faced but apparently unhurt after taking a few too many steps backwards
News
newsComedian Lee Hurst started trend with first tweet using the hashtag
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
Arts and Entertainment
arts + entsWe have created an infogaphic that looks back over the previous incarnations of the Doctor
Sport
Romelu Lukaku scores during Everton's 3-0 win over Arsenal last season
LIVEFollow all the action as Everton take on Arsenal in the final Premier League game of the day
Life and Style
A nearly completed RoboThespian robot inside the Engineered Arts workshop is tested in Penryn, England. The Cornish company, operating from an industrial unit near Falmouth, is the world's only maker of commercially available life sized humanoid robots
techSuper-intelligent robots could decide destroying the human race is the kindest thing to do
News
scienceExcitement from alien hunters at 'evidence' of extraterrestrial life
News
newsRyan Crighton goes in search of the capo dei capi
Life and Style
techConcept would see planes coated in layer of micro-sensors and able to sense wear and tear
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

    Software Developer (Java /C# Programmer)- London

    £30000 - £45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A global investment management fi...

    Senior Network Engineer-(CCIE, CCNP, Cisco, London)

    £65000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior Network Engineer-(CCIE, CC...

    Senior Network Analyst - (CCIE, Cisco, CISSP)

    £70000 - £80000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior Network Analyst - (CCIE, C...

    Senior Network Engineer-(Design, Implementation, CCIE)

    £60000 - £80000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior Network Engineer-(Design, ...

    Day In a Page

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition