I wrote this review in 2011 when Sex at Dawn had just come out. Yes, I know some of my academic colleagues have problems with the book, and I don’t think it’s perfect… but I still maintain that it makes an important contribution to the conversation about the intersections of sex and culture. Enjoy!
Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships is one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read in a while… and I read a lot. I feel that it’d be difficult to do this book justice, as it covers an expansive range of topics related to human sexuality, so I’ll try to summarize its main points and touch on some of my favorite tidbits. Short version, though, is that this book is a magnificent rethinking of human sexuality in light of recent (and not-so-recent) research that suggests that humans are far more generous and able to have fulfilling sexual relationships than we’re lead to believe.
The authors, Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, promise in the beginning to reveal what is wrong with current conceptions of monogamy and why, to tell us “how seismic cultural shifts that began about ten thousand years ago rendered the true story of human sexuality so subversive and threatening that for centuries it has been silenced by religious authorities, pathologized by physicians, studiously ignored by scientists, and covered up by moralizing therapists.” They begin by listing the myriad problems plaguing Western sexuality: the high divorce rates, the massive amounts of money spent on porn, the sex crimes of Catholic priests and those who profess that sexuality can be cast off or ignored… the list goes on and on. Moreover, in cultures around the world with stringent penalties for having sex outside marriage (or at all), people repeatedly break the rules and suffer horrific punishments. If, as so many paradigms claim, monogamy is natural and inherent to human beings, why are we so bad at it?
In order to address these questions, the authors examine closely related primates, prehistorical and current cultures, and human anatomy. It has long been held by primatologists that humans are most closely related to chimpanzees of all other primates, so it’s to chimpanzees that we look for clues to human development. Chimpanzees, it turns out, are quite violent and competitive. Enter the bonobo, a lesser-studied primate that seems to be as closely related to humans as chimpanzees are. Bonobos are peaceful, living in non-monogamous social groupings. They have non-reproductive sex a lot, and for varied reasons: for fun, to ease social tensions, to make up after fights, and so on. In fact, most primates closely related to humans aren’t monogamous, at least if they’re ground-dwelling and social (the tree-dwelling, non-social gibbon is the only monogamous primate). These facts, and others, suggest that humans may not be wired for monogamy, if our closest primate relatives are any indication. Then there’s some interesting information about relative genital size and placement, and what that means for the ability of humans to be sexually active outside of reproductive cycles… basically, since we’re able to get aroused and be ready for sex at nearly any time, it’s possible that our ancestors were highly sexually active with multiple partners, and that sperm competition within the woman’s cervix is what sorted out the most fit genes to reproduce.
(There were also some fascinating facts about male gorillas having testes the size of kidney beans; well, I found these facts fascinating, but few of the people I conversed with seemed to share my enthusiasm for this kind of trivia.)
Drawing on archaeological and anthropological research, the authors argue that there in no single prevalent definition of “marriage” that spans every culture. Some cultures don’t even have the concept of marriage, in fact, like the Muosuo in China, where women choose their partners on a nightly basis. Evidence like this, paired with how we think many ancient cultures worked, suggests that the Western concept of “til death do us part” marriage is actually quite recent, and was introduced when agriculture was, along with a host of other social ills like property and war. In revisiting these traits that are assumed to be common to all humanity, the authors deconstruct Thomas Hobbes’s famous saying that early human life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” demonstrating that instead, the opposite was likely true: hunter-gatherers of the past and present lived in a state of abundance, survived to old age with great frequency, and had fewer encounters with systematized violence and warfare. Early humans, and some humans not living in the West today, might well lead lives free of hunger, fear, and oppression. Yet for some reason, almost every “expert” in fields like history, political science, economics, psychology, and anthropology, insist that humans are selfish at heart, have no morals, have only self-interest and greed. Read this book, and you might be open to thinking otherwise.
However, one can only build a shaky argument based on prehistory, since we know so little from the archaeological record and since history is traditionally written by the winners (in this case, the monogamist paradigm that has prevailed and thus represented itself as the only true way). The authors acknowledge this, and hence turn to human anatomy as another tool for telling us about ourselves. They present cutting-edge research from various renowned institutions around the world to demonstrate that between the existence of female orgasm and female sexual vocalizations, and the shapes of our genitals, it’s quite likely that early human sexuality was multi-partner.
There’s so much more I could go into about this book, but I’ll leave it at that and hope that this post inspires you to go read it for yourself. One last word, though: the authors are refreshingly clear in their writing and not pedantic at all. They don’t conclude with a call for everyone to start having multi-partner sex right.this.second but rather suggest that we all would benefit by rethinking the assumptions fueling our love lives. Certainly, some people might want to choose open relationships or a relationship style modeled on figuring out alternatives to monogamy; but in the end, everyone would benefit from questioning why we believe what we believe about human sexuality and human nature. Asking these kinds of questions will ultimately benefit you, no matter what style of relationship you choose for yourself.