Book Review: Sex at Dawn

The Savage Love podcast pointed me to the book Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá. It takes a critical look at traditional assumptions about men and women and their actual behavior when it comes to sex and relationships. If monogamous marriage is the ideal, then why does it fail with such alarming frequency and make even a lot of the people who stick with it unhappy?

The book provides the following answer: men and women are not naturally monogamous and centuries of being in denial about this has culturally put our psyche and sex drives through the wringer. The authors quite convincingly posit that scientists throughout the centuries have been guilty of ‘Flinstonization’: projecting their opinions into the past and distorting things to make them fit the worldview of their own era, which generally was seen as far superior. For instance: primitive (‘savage’) cavemen were supposed to have lived short and violent lives. Likely not true: since groups of hunter-gatherers had large areas to forage, with a plentiful supply of food, there would have been no need for violence. The short life-span is a statistical distortion caused by adding child mortality into the total average, dragging the life expectancy of adults way down. A very similar thing happened with the calculation of how tall people used to be thousands of years ago: not as big of a difference as is now generally assumed. We did not come as ‘far’ as we may want to think.

The pop culture cliché of a caveman dragging a woman into his cave by her hair is baseless. The authors theorize (again, quite convincingly) that it is far more likely that men and women lived in a sort of commune, on equal footing if not in a matriarchy, in which both men and women had various sexual partners at any one time and raised children together. The fact that it wasn’t clear who the father was in any given case, meant the children belonged to the group as a whole and everyone felt responsible for them. There are some interesting indicators for this. Why, for instance, do men generally last a lot shorter in the sack than women, the man needing recuperation when the woman is just getting warmed up? And why are women a lot more vocal than men, as if to call attention (and maybe further partners) to the activity going on, even if in the wild this would have been at the risk of attracting predators as well? And at the risk of getting too graphic: why are the heads of penises designed to suction out the semen previous partners may have left behind and why does semen have elements in it that would neutralize that of another man while protecting the own team from one that might drop by shortly after? This kind of sperm competition is generally seen in polygamous species.

The coming of agriculture and personal possessions to be passed on ‘within the family’ changed a lot of things and not in a good way: to make sure the children doing the inheriting were not ‘bastards’, women suddenly needed to be controlled, their sexuality vilified or simply denied. Masturbation – a natural and even (by current research) healthy drive – was seen as Evil for centuries, through various forms of rationalization by some deeply twisted ‘scientists’. Reading the chapters about this, you can’t help but feel angry at the physical and mental torture people went through in the name of pious morality.

That’s not to say the authors end the book with a plea for us all to run into the woods and resume living in communes like those we lived in thousands of years ago. Culturally speaking, in any case, we are too far removed from those roots. But they point out that society has expectations that run contrary to our natural drives and that this has to be acknowledged if nothing else. Being honest about our drives and feelings can actually help marriages and save people a lot of heartache.

Example of a relationship going horribly wrong: a woman may fall in love and couple up with one type of guy while on the pill, go off the pill to get pregnant and then find her hormones uninterested in her partner but interested in an entirely different type of guy. Often by this time there will be a marriage and kids to deal with. Meanwhile, her partner may feel frustrated by his lack of sexual variety and lose sexual interest in his wife. Happiness does not ensue.

Sex at Dawn is a fascinating read and I have just scratched the surface in this review. (For instance, I didn’t get to mention that, while lesbians, gays and straight men have a generally pretty fixed sexuality past the formative age, (mostly-)straight women’s sexual response turns out to be highly unpredictable and all over the map. And don’t get me started on the Bonobo’s…) The book is written in a very accessible way and though the middle bit feels just a touch dry compared to the rest, there is humor and a large amount of interesting factoids to keep you reading. (Random quote: ‘Darwin says your mother’s a whore.’) Sex is not always the big deal it is made out to be and confusing love and sex can lead to dramatic complications for all involved. Open discussion is key. So: discuss. This book makes an excellent starting point for that.

Note: The paperback edition of Sex at Dawn will be published in June.

(Written for the ABC Blog.)

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