Monday, August 30, 2010

Sex At Dawn

"Like bonobos and chimps, we are the randy descendants of hypersexual ancestors.  At first blush, this may seem an overstatement, but it's a truth that should have become common knowledge long ago.  Conventional notions of monogamous, till-death-do-us-part marriage strain under the dead weight of a false narrative that insists we're something else."
--Sex At Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality by Christoper Ryan and Cacilda Jethá

Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern SexualitySex at Dawn, you had me at 'hello'. 

Now, I must state a bit of a disclaimer before I continue on with my discussion of this book.  I may be a little biased on my views of the book because it mostly fits into what my thinking on the matter of love, sex and relationship currently is, and has been for some time.  The other caveat I offer is that, although I've read a number of titles in recent years from the field of evolutionary psychology, I am not grounded enough in the science to know how well the arguments made in Sex at Dawn are supported by evidence, although the authors do provide a pretty hefty amount of evidence therein.  That said, I do hope you'll continue to read my review and engage with me in the comments.  I'm always happy to hear your point of view.

The basic argument made by Ryan and Jethá is that the story we've been telling ourselves about how natural sexual monogamy is to human beings might not be as accurate as we've been lead to believe.  From the Hardcover edition's description of the book:

"Ryan and Jethá's central contention is that human beings evolved in egalitarian groups that shared food, child care, and, often, sexual partners.  Weaving together convergent, frequently overlooked evidence from anthropology, archaeology, primatology, anatomy, and psychosexuality, the authors show how far from human nature monogamy really is."

This book is a fascinating read.  I was particularly astonished by the notion that our early ancestors may not have been the brutish, short-living, defensive sort as I was taught in my High School ancient history class.  But that, perhaps, our earliest relatives were communal, cooperative, and possibly even longer-living than we first thought. And that, it wasn't until the widespread practice of agriculture that the notions of strict possession (of land, property and mates and offspring) became the "norm".  Of course, religion and culture added to the monogamy ideal as well.  Of course it did; control people's sexuality and you've got yourself a very strong power structure.  But I digress. 

Sex at Dawn looks at the physical structure of the male and female reproductive systems as well as how we have sex and gives some very new and interesting takes on what this tells us about our early ancestors and ourselves today.  For example, human male penis length and sperm production seem to indicate that the human male has evolved for promiscuity (the book defines this word as "a number of ongoing, sexual relationships at the same time").  And a look at the female orgasm and a woman's ability to have multiple orgasms along with her intense vocalization during sex seem to indicate that the human female has also evolved for promiscuity.  Of course, I'm simplifying here and you would need to read the whole book (which I highly recommend) to understand the depths of the arguments being made. 

I learned some interesting tidbits along the way in this book that I will share with you.

"Going back a bit farther, we find that in the biblical books of Genesis and Exodus, Jacob's children sprang from his thigh.  Most historians agree that "thigh" is actually a polite way of referring to that which hangs between a man's thighs.  "It seems clear," writes Friedman, [David Friedman in A Mind of Its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis] "that sacred oaths between Israelites were sealed by placing a hand on the male member."  The act of swearing on one's balls lives on in the word testify."

Wow, I don't remember hearing that at my Jehovah's Witness meetings. I'm sure your Sunday School teachers missed that one too.  It seems they missed a lot of things, if you accept the arguments made in Sex at Dawn. 

The other thing I found notable is that, studies seem to indicate that women have greater erotic flexibility than men do.  While men's sexual preferences are generally more fixed, women's tend to be more fluid. 

"Sexologist Lisa Diamond spent over a decade studying the ebb and flow of female desire. In her book Sexual Fidelity, she reports that many women see themselves as attracted to specific people, rather than to their gender.  Women, in Diamond's view, respond so strongly to emotional intimacy that their innate gender orientation can easily be overwhelmed.  Chivers [psychologist Meredith Chivers] agrees: "Women physically don't seem to differentiate between genders in their sex responses, at least heterosexual women don't."" 

I've seen this play out in the lives of some women I know.  They consider themselves heterosexual, but, at this moment in their personal history, they find themselves in love with a woman.  And enjoying sex with that woman.  It seems that the sexual life of the human female, when not under cultural, religious or societal suppression, is an incredibly open and diverse thing.  Personally, I have not yet explored sex with a woman, but have found myself aroused in female presence on more than one occasion and have kissed women before.  I have no doubt that I will one day find myself in a sexual relationship with a woman.  It feels inevitable and natural to me that this will eventually be the case. 

So, what do Ryan and Jethá propose we do with this new version of the human sexual/relationship narrative?  Interestingly, they don't have any proposals.  They're as surprised by this new take on our prehistoric history as anyone else.  And that's what I so love about this book.  It's not anti-monogamy.  It's not pro-promiscuity.  What it is is a shocking jolt to our finely crafted narrative about who we think we are and how we got here.  And that is enough. 

If Sex at Dawn can get us talking about sex and love and relationship in an open, honest way I think it will prove to be a significant addition to the great tomes of history.   It is about time that we look at the stories we tell ourselves about our relationships and reconfigure our lives to decide what a working relationship looks like to us and how best to execute that. Maybe, just maybe, if we can lose the stories that don't work and replace them with ones that do, our species will be forever changed, not just in matters of sex, love and relationship, but in all matters.  One can only hope.

tall penguin


Dave said...

You've certainly whet my appetite for this book. Unfortunately, the library is apparently dripping with others' whetted appetites, as I'm 35th in line to get it. :-)

Anytime you're bucking what's natural, you're going to suffer for it. You paint a pretty fantasy and reality keeps getting its muddy fingerprints all over it. This approach, of figuring out what we're naturally inclined to do, like, and deal with, makes so much more sense!

When I can (finally) read it, I'll stop back by. Thanks for the review/recommendation!

Anonymous said...

And what of jealousy? A social construct? (I think it must have some biological basis.)

It seems to me that we all want to make our cake and eat it too. We want the security of monogamy and the freedom and excitement of promiscuity. Different drives for different purposes.

You have an interesting blog, btw. I was raised a JW too and really appreciate some of your stories (which, of course, resemble mine). Keep up the good work.


tall penguin said...

Brad, thanks for stopping by and commenting.

RE: Social construct/jealousy. The book suggests that since our early ancestors lived in small tribes/communities, and everything was shared (including sexual partners and parenting), there was no concept of ownership, and without ownership the idea of jealousy is non-existent.

In many of the tribes on this planet that still live this way, one is shamed if one tries to claim ownership of someone or something; it is a social taboo. The ideas of cooperation, sharing and community trump the idea of individual possession.

Re: "the security of monogamy". I would ask what you mean by the term "security"?

An interesting point is made in the book about the "promiscuity" of our ancestors. It's quite different than the way we see promiscuity today. Although they may have had sex with a number of different partners, they knew them all intimately, as they were all community members. It wasn't like the random sexual encounters we classify as promiscuity today. In fact, if you consider society's recent penchant for "serial monogamy" it's quite possible that most of us have already had more sexual partners than our "promiscuous" ancestors.

It's worth reading the book. I'm really not doing it justice here.

Anonymous said...

Of course, there is no guarantee of absolute security in a monogamous relationship. Clearly. But, the idea that you have committed to staying sexually and romantically exclusive with your partner does carry a sense of security and safety with it. The idea that you might be left all alone after your mate has gone after some hot new thing is not a pleasant thought. There also are other, material, advantages that go along with monogamy that could be taken away: home, income, etc. Plus, need I mention the threat of disease that comes with having multiple partners? Clearly monogamy has it's advantages.

That being said, I have not been monogamous in the strict sense of the term: one sexual coupling for your life. Hasn't harmed me. But, on the other hand, I kind of like the idea of committed sexual fidelity with one partner. Just not yet. :)

I'll have to read the book. Looks interesting.


tall penguin said...

Hey Brad, I fully understand the security you speak of in traditional monogamy and the advantages that go along with it. It is this sense of security that perhaps has made monogamy such a compelling tradition, regardless of how "natural" it may or may not be.

"The idea that you might be left all alone after your mate has gone after some hot new thing is not a pleasant thought."

Umm...I'm not sure I agree with your understanding of what "promiscuous" is. I think this conversation will make more sense after you read the book.

Re: STDs. "Sex at Dawn" doesn't really go into this in much detail. Again, it's not a self-help book. It's a book that's taking an alternative look at our collective sexual history.

Having said that, Christopher Ryan, in an article comment states:

"Because of the small group sizes and diffused populations, epidemic disease was pretty much a non-issue before agriculture and the associated stable, dense population centers, domesticated animals, and so on. STDs would also have had difficulty gaining hold because of these settlement patterns. We hypothesize that people would have had several lovers at any given time, but fewer over a lifetime than do many of us today (certainly among more promiscuous groups).

Specifically referring to syphillis, it seems those in the New World had developed immunity well before Europeans arrived."


If you're interested in delving further into the topic of promiscuity, "non-traditional" relationships and the issues raised by being in them and how to deal with those issues, I'd also recommend reading "The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships & Other Adventures".

I've just started reading it and find it incredibly fascinating. There are so many ways to be in relationship. It all comes down to what works for the parties involved. If monogamy works for you, great. If not, what will work? I think these are valid questions to be asking.