In Review: Why I Wanted to Hate “Sex at Dawn” But Couldn’t
I could barely believe it when a new acquaintance who I have grown to respect deeply insisted, repeatedly, that I read Sex at Dawn. This book by Christopher Ryan, PhD, and Cacilda Jethá, MD, has been described as “the single most important book about human sexuality since Alfred Kinsey unleashed Sexual Behavior in the Human Male on the American public in 1948” by the most read sex columnist in the US, Dan Savage. Savage also had Ryan on his podcast and has championed the book repeatedly. Sparking debate and controversy, Sex at Dawn challenges many widely held assumptions about evolutionary psychology. Issues raised include:
- why long-term monogamy is difficult for many;
- why passion can fade even as love deepens (see my recent blog post on bisexuality and the different parts of the brain engaged for different kinds of love);
- why a middle-aged man might risk everything for an affair;
- why homosexuality persists in the face of standard evolutionary logic; and
- prehistoric origins of modern sexuality as they relate to human bodies.
Why did I hate such a book before reading a page of it? Primarily, because my ex-boyfriend read the book upon a vague reference I made to it (without having picked it up myself), and offered it up as evidence that no human being is wired for monogamy. Bearing in mind that my ex was not exactly the world’s greatest emotional communicator, I developed an unhealthy rage towards this book and could not bear to hear it mentioned for the next few months—a problem since he quoted it most days.
Funny thing is once I got around to reading it, I actually found myself nodding along. And I quickly realized that the authors themselves had a much more complex interpretation of their data and research than the snippets I was afforded through my past partner.
Ryan and Jethá describe the lives of our foraging ancestors, who lived in egalitarian groups that shared food, childcare, and, often, sexual partners. The book details how attitudes around sexual monogamy changed with the advent of agriculture and the ownership of property—and then it offers several ideas as to why. In particular, the book introduced me to the term Male Parental Investment (MPI). It notes, “The standard narrative insists that paternity certainty has always been of utmost importance to our species…Why, then, is the anthropological record so rich with examples of societies where biological paternity is of little or no importance?” In cultures where all of the tribe cares for all of the young, it becomes less important who fathered whose child, and thus “where paternity is unimportant, men tend to be relatively unconcerned about female’s sexual fidelity.”
Drawing on anthropology, archeology, primatology, anatomy, and psychosexuality, the authors make the case that monogamy is not necessarily as wired into human nature as other sociologists, cultural theorists, psychologists, and politicians would have you believe. At the same time, they underscore again and again the innate human capacity for love and generosity of spirit, and regardless of gender or sexual orientation. The authors refer often to the bonobo monkeys, who have peaceful communities, a range of partners, high incidence of homosexual activity, and tons of joyful sex. (A wonderful man I know recently quipped about “homo-bonobos” when I was talking to him about the book, to my amusement.)
Sex at Dawn was engaging from start to finish and chock full of surprising information. For example, there is a chart about the relative body size of different types of male and female primates, along with descriptions of their sexual behavior. I was startled to learn that male gorillas only have one-inch penises, largely because the males of the biggest body mass are usually the ones breeding with multiple females and apparently they don’t need to be well endowed to impress the ladies. We also learn about a remote Chinese community in which brothers assume responsibility as the male providers for their sisters’ offspring, and young women control access to their bedrooms for an array of lovers they may choose to receive. While the larger Chinese government has attempted to alter this small community’s norms and practices, so far they have continued, happily and healthily, year after year.
I recommend this book to anyone who ever puzzled over relationships, sex, or how the two intersect. Looking back, I wish I could have had a more informed discussion with my ex about its contents—it clearly had a lot to offer both of us. So grab the book and check out Ryan’s contributions to Huffington Post and Psychology Today. He regularly makes public appearances, tweets items of interest, and develops ideas and discussions to continue this very important conversation.
Katy Otto is a social justice activist, writer and musician who grew up in the DC area. She works in nonprofit management and development.
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