“Sex at Dawn”: or Why I Prefer to Get It On at Sunset

By Anna

SEX AT DAWN: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality (July 1, 2010, 384 pages; $25.99; ISBN 978-0-06-170780-3

Sex at Dawn has been a bit of a hit in the sex positive community due to dramatic support by sex advice guru Dan Savage. PoDGE discussed it last weekend at their monthly meeting, and as a member that misses my friends dearly, I read along with them, even though I’m far away.

Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá set out to:

reassess some of the most important science of our time.  We question the deepest assumptions brought to contemporary views of marriage, family structure, and sexuality . . . show that human beings evolved in intimate groups where almost everything was shared . . even sexual pleasure . . . demonstrate that contemporary culture misrepresents the link between love and sex.  With and without love, a casual sexuality was the norm for our prehistoric ancestors. (6)

They cover much scholarship on primates, ancestral humans and modern hunter-gatherer societies, revealing the bias that scientists have consistently had for the pair-bond and showing  how questionable conclusions made from scientific research have been utilized to claim that the monogamous couple and marriage is the most natural family arrangement, flying in the face of experience and individual desire.

This was quite the reading experience.  I can’t say I enjoyed it.  For every moment I wanted to close the book and find an Amazon Marketplace buyer, some logical fallacy or outrageous claim ( the worst were blaming  gay teen suicides on testosterone!! – p.282;  fetishes are treated like diseases – p.281 ) had me yelling at it and kept me reading out of anger.  And I’m glad for that.  Along the way there were many (if small) gems to be found as well as food for thought. To top it off the extensive reading that went into writing the book has fattened my reading list considerably and well.

Let’s start with the good parts. The authors have some fabulous moments in criticism.   I really appreciated the way they took apart Tim Birkhead’s version of the Male Parental Investment theory on pages 54 and 55. My favorite moment had to be the discussion of the  film March of the Penguins and how conservative pro-family groups went all gaga for it. Ryan and Jethá expose how the film misleads about penguin sexuality (serial-monogamy on speed, anyone?). The suggested pairing of March of the Penguins and Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World was a fine one.  Another high-point occurred during the discussion of jealousy and of how it can be exacerbated by culture.  So often people assume that their feelings – especially their intensely-felt ones – are natural and don’t realize how manipulated they are by cultural scripts. This moment was one of the few, good moments, when the authors really took the middle road. Rather than completely dismiss jealousy, which would have fit their thesis best, they find an account which better fits human experience. Plus they educated the readership on how fucked up the song “When a Man Loves a Woman” is while proving their point! The section on female sexual fluidity was quite enlightening and drew on evidence from several sound sources, though it peters out with the inclusion of girls kissing in public as a performance that is purely about female desire, ignoring the role that male visual pleasure has played in the social acceptability  of make-out sessions between women (with socially-sanctioned good looks).

Ok – moving on to the many things that pissed me off about this book. No – I’ll just write a few of them. You don’t have all day and I don’t have all night (I’m 7 hours ahead of you).

Sources are used sloppily.  And I mean really sloppily. They aren’t contextualized at all.  I’m familiar with a couple of them and I can’t help but wonder if  ‘convenient quotes’ have been extracted and taken out of context, ignoring larger arguments.  Along the vein of non-contextualization, some works are scholarly and some are popular and with a clear political agenda (for example Edgerton’s Sick Societies and Goldberg’s Why Men Rule).  Yet the authors don’t differentiate between the two and allows the works that are more political than scholarly to represent entire disciplines (sociology, evolutionary psychology, etc.). That feels like dishonesty to me – and it really undermined the general trust and goodwill that academic or expert authors of popular non-fiction need to cultivate in their readers if we are to learn from them.  In the way Sex at Dawn deals with sources, especially the sources with which it disagrees,  I have the impression that there is more interest in refutation and discrediting than in enlightening readers.

The thing is, it isn’t clear what the purpose of this book is.  Is it a refutation of evolutionary psychology/primatologist/anthropologist monogamy narratives?  Or a social call to action? If it is the latter, it doesn’t spend nearly enough time suggesting ways forward (seriously, non-monogamy has come a long way since key parties). If it is supposed to be the former, then sources need to be handled far more carefully than they are.

The structure of the book is repetitive. Really, the whole book could have been 2/3 to 1/2  of its actual size.  The same general information is given in the introduction, then again in the first 3 chapters (this is normal). But then we get the same points made again, with similar kinds of evidence, the 4th section.  It feels like the authors wanted to include every scrap of evidence that supported their thesis, whether it was helpful or not.  So the poor dead horse got beaten even deader, and this reader got bored.

My broader more philosophical criticism of this book:  the assumption that there is a such thing as the ‘natural’,  that we can know what it is, and that it is somehow good for us, or conducive to our happiness.  Every animal has to make trade-offs in order to find the kind of life and practices that represent the best fit between themselves and their environment.  Just because certain feelings, values  and desires are culturally constructed, does not mean that they are not important, or that they are not adaptive. Our job as humans is to be conscious of the trade-offs that we are making, constantly analyzing and revising them, so that we do what is best for us in a given situation.

Monogamy is ONE strategy among MANY that humans have devised for managing attachment, sex and reproduction.  It seems to have arisen along with agriculture.  Maybe it was adaptive for agricultural societies. Maybe it was a mistake. We do know that one of the trade-offs those societies had to make was in the relative equality that women had enjoyed before the agricultural revolution.

Regardless of the choices that those in the Fertile Crescent circa 5000 years ago should have made, this is the 21st century.  Most readers of Sex at Dawn and this blog are people living in Western, late-capitalist societies and are not primarily working in agriculture. Oh yeah, and since 1789, us Westerners have been concerned with human rights too.  As time has gone on, ‘human’ has even started to include people who aren’t white, or male, or able-bodied. So a patriarchal strategy that might have been perfect for the farm, makes no sense for highly- mobile populations that mostly work in the service sector.

We gotta figure out some other options y’all. But I’m not sure that Sex at Dawn is going to help us too much. It’s a great warning about the cultural biases in scientific scholarship.   But its generalizing approach doesn’t support nuanced solutions.  While I recognize that Ryan and Jethá were aiming at a general (monogamous) audience, this same general (monogamous) audience, sees the Ethical Slut on the shelves at Borders. At the Borders in Germantown, TN.  Seriously, the general public deserves better (even if they are monogamous). And so do us perverts.

Posted in Anna, books, Dan Savage, monogamy, non-monogamy, polyamory, sex positive media and tagged , , , , , , .


  1. You make some fair criticisms.
    Personally I thought it was fabulous. I think there’s certainly a place for such non-fiction that targets a mainstream (mostly hetero-monogamous) audience that lies somewhere in between rigidly, academically scientific and politically-charged, revolution-inspiring propaganda. I think this book fits nicely in that median.

    I honestly don’t know how to argue whether or not sources were sloppy in this case. Sources were cited pretty thoroughly I thought. I looked up a few, but I’m not personally going to look each one up to judge the context or the bias with which the authors presented it. I particularly agreed with their criticisms of Professor Steven Pinker though for instance after reading more about his views. I don’t think much of that was taken out of context. If this book was touted as some compilation of purely scientific journal writing organized for general consumption that’d be one thing, but it’s not. The way I see it, this book was meant to pique the interests of those of us stuck in this mind trap of “the standard narrative of human sexual evolution” by suggesting some alternative ways of thinking about how we might be better adapted to living out our sexual lives. While it’s not an outright manifesto against monogamy as practiced by our culture, I do think this book is sort of a “social call to action” as you hinted. It could have gone farther along that vein, but I can imagine reasons why they might have chosen not to go there as well.

    Speaking of our sexual adaptations I do agree with you there’s a problem with implying one way of living is more “natural” than another—there are passages in this book that could be taken as verging on that implication. The authors probably ought to be more careful. I agree “natural” in this sense in a useless adjective. One should probably consider statements regarding “natural” behaviors in human sexuality, with as much skepticism as a bold faced “All ‘Natural’ Ingredients” label on the top of a tub of hydrogenated margarine.

    However, the point I do agree this book could have made a little more clearly was that as one current member of the human species (a ridiculously miniscule snapshot in evolutionary time) you or I need to make decisions daily by determining what is best for us as individuals …what is best for us to eat for instance …or how often, who and how many other people it’s concurrently best for us to fuck for our own personal happiness and mental as well as physiological well-being. In that effort, we probably ought to take advantage of all the science we’re so lucky to have at our disposal in making those determinations about what we’re more likely to be best adapted for. There are certainly tradeoffs to be considered in these decisions. And there’s the fact that our modern lifestyles have changed us dramatically and fairly rapidly over the past 10,000 years since we started flirting with agriculture, but there seems little sense to me in denying the much greater impact of HUNDREDS of thousands of years of adaptation to nomadic lifestyles that made us mostly who we are today. In that way, Sex At Dawn presents a pretty damn good case for our more deeply ingrained adaptations towards hunting and gathering over our current food production and hording dietary practices. In much the same way the book addresses it’s central thesis that we’re more “naturally” adapted to multi-partner, relaxed, tribal sexual/social habits. No reason we can’t more consciously adapt ourselves towards monogamy over the next 100,000 years in thousands of generations if we set our minds to it. Seems most of us in the bible belt at least are blindly hell-bent on that course.

    …but it’ll be an up hill battle, and boy’s you better not be too attached to your big nuts, cuz they’re gonna keep shrinking. 😉

    Such culturally constructed values are indeed important and we are definitely adaptive to them. The book argues this point very eloquently throughout actually! Furthermore, I think it responsibly suggests that the best way forward is for our society at large and for individuals to be conscious of the tradeoffs, constantly analyze them and adapt appropriately. We’ve tried monogamy now for a pretty good while and the data suggests that it’s mostly been a ghastly train wreck.

    Quickly and with all due respect to the other two points you thought were outrageous:

    Actually, I think gay teen suicides can partially be blamed on testosterone levels. Not the testosterone levels of the gay teens, but perhaps those of the jocks and bullies who violently and mercilessly harass them to the point of suicide in an effort to gain/maintain popularity within their intolerant social circles.

    And in response to this comment: “fetishes are treated like diseases – p.281” I’m not sure what fetish you’re talking about. (I have the eBook version on an Amazon Kindle app which I do NOT recommend because when your book discussion buddies cite page numbers like this you have to guess at what location in the hardcover book that refers to because there are NO page numbers. Stupid Kindle! There’s no technological reason they shouldn’t be able to map page numbers to the text—it fucks up the indexing too! I’ve digressed.)
    Are you talking about the paraphilia imprinting on young males? If so I think this passage is just acknowledging that imprinting certainly seems to happen during this developmental window. There’s no inherent judgment I sense in that, unless as the authors point out that it’s personally destructive or predatory and virulent as in the case of the Catholic pedophilia. Or were you talking about the “man who suffered a hormonal disorder that left him with almost no testosterone for four months” thereby destroying his identity?

  2. WOW I was surprised to read this critical review. I went to the PoDGE poly group meeting the other night where we discussed the book and it was well-received, gave us amazing conversation fodder. I really liked it, so much food for thought! Reminded me of Guns Germs & Steel but with more apes. I felt like I was encountering old friends while reading the book (Hi Jared Diamond! Hi Jane Goodall! Hi Desmond Morris!)

    We need to stop the cycles and setting ourselves up for failure. I think we CAN change society for the better. I’m ready to live in a tribe!

  3. @Kendra: I think this would have been great to read in a group. There’s a lot worth talking about for a group of people who are actively skeptical of conventional sex and relationship models. But if I were just an educated reader who hadn’t really questioned monogamy too much, I’d probably already agree that American society’s approach to sex is unhealthy (as most liberal, readerly types do), but I wouldn’t see much viable alternative here. How do you think you would have experienced Sex at Dawn if you had read it when you were married?

    @Justin: I agree with you. If you want to do monogamy, especially the life-long kind, you’re asking for an uphill battle. In addition, I agree with Jetha and Ryan in that creating a culture and policies that promote such an uphill, angst-filled personal and relational battle as ideal is dangerous, irresponsible and irrational. I think I also made clear that if monogamy was ever adaptive, it no longer is for most Westerners.
    But in my reading of Sex at Dawn, the authors seem to have set up an opposition between pair-bonding/monogamy/marriage/female sexual exclusivity (which they’ve lumped together) and casual sex as the normative sexual practice.
    I think this is where a lot of the less-than-careful use of sources comes in. He sticks scholars either on one side of the fence or the other (though Frans de Waal seems to be an exception to this)Steven Pinker was one of the authors that I thought was dealt with badly. Helen Fisher was another. In sticking them both on the ‘wrong’ side of things, the really progressive aspects of their work (as Fisher definitely does not promote life-long monogamy as the only ideal) were ignored, especially considering that some of the texts mentioned were published 15 or 20 years ago.
    Another red light that went off with me regarding sources was the fact that the authors for the most part either used popular or old (20-30 years old) sources for their main characterization of the ‘Evolutionary Psychology Narrative.’ I don’t know Evolutionary Psychology well, but I know it’s a burgeoning field, and wonder if more recent sources were taken into consideration, if a different picture would emerge.
    Also, I don’t want to make it look like I’m poo-pooing popular works as sources. It’s just that non-fiction(even the well-written kind) aimed at a mainstream audience but on kind of an academic subject and written by academics or other kinds of experts tends to either focus on the more conservative strains of the discipline, or on more sensational ones. This makes sense: people want to read things that show that ‘expert findings’ support what they’ve thought all along, or they want to be fascinated with something new. So you have to be careful when using popular non-fiction to characterize a discipline, especially some of the more pernicious and politically-motivated works like the ones mentioned in my post.
    I know these may seems like little issues, but in some ways they’re little dishonesties, and made me more skeptical of the validity of the information they were presenting and the conclusions they were drawing from it, which resulted in a more critical reading overall.
    About paraphilias (p.281)”Purely psychological treatment for paraphilias and pedophilia have shown little success. The most effective treatments for the latter tend to be based upon biological approaches . . . Once beyond the age of malleability, males seem to be stuck with whatever imprint they’ve received , latex or leather, S or M goat or lamb. If the influences during this “developmental window” are distorting and destructive, a boy may grow into a man with an unalterable, nearly irresistible desire to reenact the same patterns with others.” – Jehtha and Ryan are writing as mental health professionals. There’s very little in Sex at Dawn about fetishes, and in this part they are put in the same class as pedophilia, and it’s hinted that they require (but resist) ‘psychological treatment.’ There is already so much prejudice towards people with fetishes. A sentence or two, or even a well-formed clause could have subverted that, but this perpetuates that prejudice, and in a review on a sex positive blog, that issue is worth being sensitive to.
    As for the next page, “Testosterone levels correlate to the likelihood of a young man (or woman) getting into trouble. In the United States, adolescent males are five times more likely to kill themselves than females are. A government study found that homosexual youth are two to three times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. Among Americans between fifteen and twenty-five, suicide is the third leading cause of death, and teenage boys kill themselves at a rate double that of any other demographic group.”
    The reader has to add a lot of information to make that bolded (by me) sentence meaningful. We don’t know if these youths are male or female (though it was always a male that popped into my head). You added some testosterone-fueled jocks, I added the idea that the authors were assuming that homosexual youths have more testosterone than their heterosexual peers (which is not stated, and I don’t know whether it is true – the authors don’t say), and that is why their suicide statistics are included among statistics about the correlation between testosterone and suicide. Maybe there’s something to be said for that, but to focus on testosterone and not mention homophobia plays into the hands of homophobics and homophobia deniers, and seems irresponsible to me.
    I don’t think that Ryan or Jetha wanted to give these impressions. Both of these issues are likely problems that could have been fixed by a good editor. That said, there should have been a good editor – this hardback retails at $25.99 and has been heavily promoted (Ryan has his own blog at PsychologyToday.com at which he mostly promotes his book).

    I’d be curious to understand the reasons why Sex at Dawn couldn’t have had further discussion of ways in which people in Western countries are rejecting monogamy and the pair-bond model. In my view, Sex at Dawn has little to say that The Myth of Monogamy didn’t already say. Yeah, there’s the Evolutionary Psych angle, but the Myth of Monogamy was already questioning some of those assumptions in 2001. In fact I remember several of the cases mentioned here were also used to make the same points in The Myth of Monogamy. There’s been a reasonable amount of public discussion about non-monogamy (hello – polyamory was on Oprah), and with Opening Up and the Ethical Slut among other things, the community has a lot to offer in the way of education and support. Sex at Dawn could have been a way to take it further mainstream. I think that a big reason why people cheat or stay unhappily monogamous is because there aren’t models for doing anything else. The authors tell people to come out of the closet with their sexual desires, but they don’t do that themselves in the book (On the Savage Lovecast, Ryan did suggest that he and Jetha were in a non-monogamous relationship), and they don’t give the reader much of an idea of what it means to live out of the closet by talking about what other people do that challenges conventional ideas about relationships and the pair-bond. If they had done that, they would have taken the discussion beyond the Myth of Monogamy – which would have been awesome.

  4. I hate books that look into human evolution and search for answers to questions about how we should live in our current era. Last I checked, we didn’t evolve in a land filled with civilizations complete with family structures and the internet. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t know about our past, but it’s time people stopped trying to stretch an ancient “is” into an awkward “ought”.

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