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.