Sex at Dawn

(2010) Christopher Ryan & Cacilda Jethá


So this is a rather ballsy work.  In varying depth, Ryan & Jethá aggressively attack several scientific consensuses, all orbiting within the broad ambit of human sexuality.  A light-hearted writing style makes this a highly accessible work.  Below, I focus on some of the key assertions and arguments of interest.

Primary amongst the traditional views attacked, and the books main target, is the idea that humans evolved from a monogamist prehistory – a period the authors peg as the 200,000 years immediately prior to agriculture and writing. (It is interesting to note how this disparate pair of technologies is often conjoined by use of this sense of the term).  In strong contrast to todays western nuclear family, the authors posit that “the ‘natural’ family structure of our species” is one that enjoys “easy acceptance between adults and unrelated children, the diffuse nurturing found […] where children refer to all men as father and all women as mother, […] small and isolated enough to safely assume the kindness of strangers, where overlapping sexual relationships leave genetic paternity unknowable and of little consequence …”.  The modern pair-bond is painted as a distortion brought about by recent transition to sedentary agriculture.

To support their outlying view of multiple male-female intercourse as ‘natural’ human sexual behaviour, the authors have to do three things: (i) paint a correspondingly untraditional picture of hunter-gatherer (‘immediate-return’) societies in which such behaviour would arise and be stably maintained, just as the evolution of monogamy many take as characteristic of our species [in my view uncritically] is often supported by stories such as ‘when climate change caused savannas to spread at the cost of shrinking forests in eastern Africa, longer hunting distances motivated absent males to enter into proto-marriages’ [my summation]; (ii) explain how such behaviour would fit the more mechanical chapters of the Darwinian narrative – how would natural selection operate, if the standard sexual selection story in which males compete with one another for females is false?; (iii) garner any empirical evidence they can find.

Immediate-return Society

Compared to sapiens modernicus, were anatomically modern paleolithic peoples war-faring?  Did they have much spare time?  How old did they get? How much power did women wield?  To these questions about key aspects of bygone foraging days,  the authors come out strongly in favour of a relatively peaceful, egalitarian and long life in societies more matriarchal than typically encountered today.  With the exception of their discussion of prehistoric longevity, the authors bring insufficient evidence and references to bear, and tend towards downplaying the depths of controversies.

Their case for paleolithic matriarchy, for example, is limited to the assertion that anthropologists have been blinded in their search by looking (unsuccessfully) for a mirror-image of patriarchy, an image in which oppression of men by women is evident.  In contrast to anthropological consensus, we are told, true matriarchy is  and was widespread in foraging societies, but has remained obscured from academic view because female power manifests itself in different ways than that of males.  This interesting and promising argument is greatly in need of elaboration and support, whose absence is understandable given the authors academic backgrounds.

Natural Selection and Multiple Pair Bonding

Prior to the distorting influence of agricultural life, natural selection was largely fought out during and after intercourse, through sperm competition, or so it is asserted.  This explains, it is contended, several traits of humans that flatly contradict the monogamist paradigm: unusually loud female sexual vocalization (a call to other other males to join in on the fun), functions of ejaculant (biological warfare agents against competitor sperm), and penis physiology (a sperm-removal tool), to mention a few.

Empirical evidence

Because the archaeological and palaeontological records stand  largely mute in the face of questions concerning past behaviour, the authors have to look elsewhere.  In addition to physiological arguments mentioned previously, heavy weight is placed on comparisons with other primates, particularly our closest extant – and highly sexual – relatives.  A few case studies of sexual openness in the anthropological record, including the famous Mosuo from southwest China, are also brought to the table.

Is marriage ‘natural’?

For marriage to be ‘natural’, within the Darwinian narrative, it must constitute an arrangement in which the survival and reproductive prospects of progeny are maximized.  According to the standard narrative, sex and the commitment of resources represent gender-specific incentives in what then becomes something like a biological bartering mechanism.  Extra-marital affairs threaten each partners ‘evolutionary success’: a threat to the husband because they would cast doubt on his paternity, a threat to the wife because they would endanger her (and any infants) resource security.  In this picture, marriage represents something akin to a compromise position between a female proclivity towards mating with fitter males and a male proclivity towards sexual opportunism.  These assymmetric proclivities are rooted in our species sexual dimorphism, and imbue human heterosexuality with an ever-present inner tension.

For my own part, since the age of sixteen, I have only once entered into a strictly monogamist (‘closed’) relationship, and did so only after mounting pressure from my female partner.  From what I have observed in my own relationships and those of others around me, it has usually [I stress: usually] seemed that women tend to pay the price for ‘open’ arrangements.  That is, it has more often been the women that compromise in response to male partners’ request for sexual openness.  This part of the standard narrative at least enjoys the support of sociological studies.

In a section disappointingly barren of references, Ryan & Jethá gloss over contemporary women’s self-reported preference for monogamy by writing of womens sexual pliability: unlike men, whose sexual desire gets rigidly imprinted in youth, women’s sexuality supposedly molds fluidly in response to sexual culture – and in sedentary life, this means monogamy.  (All this is vague and problematic, and worked out in insufficient detail: sedentary agriculture leads to property ownership which leads to hierarchization which leads to [how?] male domination, and somewhere along the way the squirreling of resources makes monogamy the only viable option.)  All the while, however, men are cursed with an unsuppressible taste for novelty: “To avoid genetic stagnation that would have dragged our ancestors into extinction long ago, males evolved a strong appetite for sexual novelty and a robust aversion to the overly familiar.”  And voilà, out comes modern life, with its astronomical divorce rates, internet pornography ‘epidemic’, and unhappy and bored marital couples.

In my view, the forgoing is the weakest part of the edifice.  Within this new framework, why would men be more driven towards novelty than women?  And how is this to be reconciled with supposed sexual versatility and rigidity in females and males respectively?  And how then to explain how these latter traits arise?  All of this is not to say that Ryan & Jethá may not be right in asserting that it is security and stability, rather than monogamy per se, that guides female sexual choice.  That is a tempting hypothesis.

Altogether, the authors success at pointing out glaring inconsistencies in the standard narrative of human sexuality is highly commendable.  Meanwhile, the alternative narrative they offer as a replacement is thought-provoking, ambitious, and as yet incomplete.

4 Responses to “Sex at Dawn”

  1. Jessica says:

    It is impossible to know what all cultures, all peoples, and all individuals have thought and felt for the last 200,000 years. I think it’s biosciopsyco masturbation to try and figure it all out. The big question in the moment, is what do I really feel, and what do I really want. How is the essence of me, a trite mere expression of a vast divine expression embodying life pulsing any bit of the authenticity that surely I am pulsing from the menu of cosmic patterns. We are beyond hunter-gatherer, beyond nomadic, beyond industrialized mayhem… and yet we are in it , and part of all of it. Humans are interesting. We come in all colors, tastes, emotions, expressions, etc., and we can find expressions in the natural world that we can identify with as we try and understand and identify ourselves. How divinely stupid that we are in a place to NEED to look outside ourselves so much to know ourselves. That is the challenge. To know our self, and learn to make clean, clear transactions with those we are attracted to and those that we love each and every moment, in a respectful way. Ambiguous, I admit. It takes learning the language of the opposite sex. To say that we are all one or another is crazy making. I think the call for individuals (that part of ourselves that separates itself from nature) is to be altruistic to ourseleves and the world because that’s what we have the capacity to do, rather than only acting on impulses and drives. It’s not the evolutionary time we live in. So, a note for presence. We are in a time of making apologies rather than asking permission to engage in matters of the heart. It’s a short life. What is your, my, any body’s vision? Make a choice if you believe you have one. Philosophically, I think the compass is happiness. What makes one happy and how can you, I, anybody do the best to make it honorable for others who are blessed to be a part of our presence and choices. It is no small task, and sexuality is core to our biology and our consciousness… a difficult marriage or tribal affair, no matter how you slice it.

  2. Beth! says:

    coincidentally, I am reading the ‘historical’ novel “Clan of the Cave Bear” (Jean M Auel, 1980) right now, in which the characters engage in open sexual relationships while still maintaining some degree of partnership with one specific mate. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the book (I’ve exhausted the more readable bits of the ship’s library already), but it is an interesting behavior pattern to consider. I’ll try to get my hands on a copy of Sex At Dawn and get back to you on that topic.

  3. Jessica says:

    My previous comment on Sex At Dawn had a statement that I didn’t consider before submitting, and possibly my tone was condescending, which it wasn’t meant to be: it was reflecting my own angst on the subject too, and specifically the way [we] (the authors in this instance-an assumption since I haven’t read the book) go about organizing and defining truths – the research (the M word would have fit here nicely)., looking at eons past and animals for some universal truth for wo-man now, in present time. No right or wrong, really, just possibly ineffective. I got caught up judging the methods of inquiry –AND, I was in a rambling and salty mood. I believe, trust, am acting “as if” there are better ways to uncover some mysteries.

    Biosociopsycho – great word by the way.

    Anyhow, my previous comment was in no way personal and was not to suggest that your review or your interest in the topic were “masterbatory” because I think you are very sensitive and intelligent and courageous to be seeking to understand and balance your own sexuality. Sex and it’s creative consequences (think big – all of it!) may be the root and only question we are here to ponder, given we have been doing it longer than anything else, and keep trying to figure it out, and so we keep doing it …. come what may.

    Still rambling, not so salty. I am curious about the book, but. maybe I’ll rather open myself to be met in ongoing sensuously intimate, happy and healthy sexual experience, and enjoy some research~

  4. Sea says:

    One of the main assumptions of the authors is that their readers believe pre-agriculture humans to have been violent, short lived, monogamist, and starving wretches. I have never held this view, very likely because of my relative youth. My generation, or perhaps only the young ones who grew up in my very liberal childhood community, was not taught to believe these things. I was also not taught that polygamy is sinful or bad in any way (as the authors also assume) though my many caregivers and my parents ‘survived the sixties’ as they said, and strongly advised me against free love based on their experiences. I certainly was not taught to repress my sexuality, though again based on the prior experiences of my mentors I was advised to wait until I was fully sexually mature. So, my experience reading was that of being told how I think and then having my alleged thoughts argued against. While in my experience the arguments for non monogamous relationships, happy healthy prehistorical peoples, and even prehistoric peacefulness are fairly mainstream. I wish they had simply said what they thought and not presumed anything about their readership.

    I found their arguments that basically all men are essentially polygamous fairly seamless. They mention sky high divorce rates, huge percentages of infidelity in marriages and high male testosterone levels related to ‘casual sex.’ The authors discussion of the female experience however is highly unsatisfactory. Their basic premise is that women report and been tested to show a much wider range of things we find sexy. Therefore, we are the more sexually malleable of the sexes and will be able to adapt to societies in which polygamy is the norm. To this I protest, a wider range of sexual response does not mean more malleable, it simply means a bigger envelope. Secondly, many women find themselves faced with the choice of their man or polygamy and find themselves emotionally unable to choose polygamy, should it not be easy to change their response if they are malleable and polygamy is the ‘natural’ option? The authors seem to be saying women cannot trust our instincts because they are controlled by society, therefore (!?) our polygamous reluctance is not natural. Furthermore, as we are the more changeable of the sexes we should change ourselves to fit the male perfect world. What if, as in the society I grew up in, polygamy is not stigmatized and yet women still can’t stomach it? Why would woman would be so ‘malleable’ if there is only one ‘natural’ way to live. And as you say, why then would ‘men be more drawn to novelty than women‘ if this story is complete?
I was irritated by their comparisons of ‘society‘ and what they see as better, small groups of 100-150 polygamous individuals. They actually really grossed me out, reason being I grew up in a small group of 100-150 individuals and the reality is, if you live in a group like that, you know everyone really really well! The authors argue that men cease to be attracted to their monogamous wives over time because they begin to resemble family, setting off an anti incest reaction. If the cure (as they say it is) is ‘casual sex’ then why should polygamy return that loss of attraction? They still spend their lives with their wife so adding other women should not detract from her decline into family relation. And why exactly don’t women feel the same loss of attraction? Not to mention how on earth are they supposed to find non ‘family‘ in a group of 100-150!? I was born in a kind of communish set up, in a group of 100-150 there are only a tiny handful of other children, there were in fact 2 other children in my grade at school and dating in our little band of hooligans was rare, we were like siblings. So, who’s left? The adults who raised me, I’m sorry NO!!! Even if adult men gradually do become immune to the charms of their wives as they become ‘sisters‘ (again, then why don’t the husbands become ‘brothers’) there is nothing at all that can compare to growing up from a baby within a community. I can safely say that I will never ever find the older men and women in my childhood village attractive. So what’s the solution? Were teens sent out to other tribes when sexually mature? Elders would have to do the same as their familiarity to their tribal partners grew. These would not have been stable community groups as suggested, but ones constantly in flux as new partners cycled in and out. That’s the only solution I see for a problem the authors didn’t seem to notice, one example of many which made me think neither had actually lived in a 100-150 group.

    Here’s another problem with the small group, infanticide. In order to keep groups small the authors readily admit infanticide would have been virulent. Terrific. So, I’m supposed to fuck lots of men I know starting from from childhood, get pregnant, be pregnant, give birth (in the wilderness!!!), kill the baby, and if I have survived, repeat. So natural… so good… Oh, young foraging women start to bleed later you say? So its okay, they won’t start having babies until they are 17, but we will still marry them when they are children, because you know, pedophilia is not a problem in small groups.
    The authors quote Theroux ‘if I had to chose my place of birth, I would have chosen a state in which everyone knew everyone else, so that neither the obscure tactics of vice nor the modesty of virtue could have escaped public scrutiny and judgment.‘ Obviously living in a small community lying and dishonesty, jealousy and poor sportsmanship are not prevalent. Woah, someone didn’t grow up in such a community! Lying, alcohol abuse, stealing, even rumors of child rape, I loved growing up where I did, but these and more were certainly a part of the experience.

    There is hardly any mention of the big bad word, Jealousy. Why does it exist? How does one get around it? How does it work? The authors answer these questions the same way they answer everything they don’t appear to understand, society. In their view jealousy is completely sociological. Oh? 

Society is also their answer to almost all questions of female sexuality. We, they say, are actually best suited to having many sexual partners one after the other. The vast majority of questions about female sexuality arise from society programing us away from this natural state. They note that Bonobo females have sex with double digits of male Bonobos per day. Bonobo sex lasts fewer than ten seconds, need I say that human sex lasts in general about 10 minutes. They give an example from the Marind-anim people of Melanesia who marry their females as children (yet again these child brides), to ensure their fertility they must have intercourse with every male member of their husbands family as part of the marriage ceremony, great… have you ever lost your female virginity… and at 12 years old? Women’s sexual response is extremely varied (again, not changeable, just varied) some respond to vaginal stimulation, others to cervical, and the majority to clitoral, we are not all wired for the same kind of physical pleasure, as men are. The authors spend chapters and chapters on penises but mention the female pussy (yes thats an unfortunate word, I here use it because ‘vagina’ does not include many important features of the area) mainly in regards to sperm warfare. This only to say that chemicals in our bodies select favorable sperm for fertilization. Okay, if the penis tells such important stories they require several chapters, why not the pussy?

Here’s another unanswered question, why the majority of written history has been male dominated (as they constantly reiterate), yet men have, in their power, created a world opposed to their fundamental desires. If men are not supposed to care about the paternity of their children, as argued, why exactly have they spent so much time and energy insuring that their wives are clean of other mens ejaculate? If they are the ones who benefit most greatly from polygamy why have they made it such a no-no? Society, say the authors again, but who controls society?

    What did I get out of this book? A lot of very shoddy writing/theorizing, for example, 
‘Social forces that convince people to stretch their necks beyond the breaking point, schmush the heads of their infants, or sell their daughters into sacred prostitution are quite capable of reshaping or neutralizing sexual jealousy by rendering it silly and ridiculous.’ Excuse me? Flat heads are an example of a physical change, jealousy is an emotional one, these are not examples of emotional changes. Or ‘The deadliest infectious diseases and parasites that have plagued our species could not have spread until after the transition to agriculture,’ because wild animals don’t spread disease? I even spotted a slight mistake in their transcription of the results of another study, causing me to doubt the veracity of their other transcriptions. This sort of small blunder mixed with bigger ones made this a very difficult read for me. 

The problems they outline in the ‘standard’ story are real, why do men who love their wives throw it all away for a fleeting and in their words ‘meaningless’ sexual encounter with a different woman? I simply don’t think the authors did a very good job of untangling the mess me are looking at. How can something ‘meaningless’ cause so much drama? In love, betrayal, or reproduction, sex means, and it means a lot. Just take the number and length of comments to this post, not to mention the unusually long post itself. From a purely physiological standpoint, in healthy adults not on birth control sex results in babies within the year, or one of the sexual partners is classified as infertile. We do it for other reasons than babies, but they are the natural result. I’m not even going to go on about the emotional reasons sex means something, there is no argument you can make against, sex means something because society says so. Since everyone who can read is part of a society then I guess we are none of us qualified to speak on it, sadly this includes Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá.

    For me the major failing of this book is similar to yours, ‘In my view, the forgoing is the weakest part of the edifice.  Within this new framework, why would men be more driven towards novelty than women?  And how is this to be reconciled with supposed sexual versatility and rigidity in females and males respectively?  And how then to explain how these latter traits arise?  All of this is not to say that Ryan & Jethá may not be right in asserting that it is security and stability, rather than monogamy per se, that guides female sexual choice.  That is a tempting hypothesis.‘ Though I am not sure what exactly what you are putting forward as a tempting hypothesis (explain?). But in short, I found their delving into the female experience rudimentary at best. This shallow dig made me rather suspicious of what they said of men as well. We have some issues here, I’m glad these two wrote about them, but I hope the next writers do better.

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