Sex at Dawn (Book, 2012)

Books are the containers in which we place ideas for safe keeping. Often these ideas can be mostly harmless. Other times, they give birth to entire worlds worth exploring. Some, however, are quite dangerous – the sort that root themselves deep in your core. Then, from that deep vantage they expand and expand until your soul quakes and the landscape of your mind has fundamentally shifted.

From the outset, Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha aims to be dangerous. Many of us come from two parents who raised us to one day go out, meet someone worth being with forever, and propagate marriage to our future children. We live in countries around the world that believe in the nuclear family with politicians concerned about maintaining family values. We define our familiar existence with marriage as its principal pillar.

At the same time, we’re told that marriages exist because people are meant to be monogamous. It is scientifically in our nature to find a true love, settle down, and start a family. It’s also our social and moral duty. Marriage exists because the human narrative has long-held that people are capable of being monogamous, willingly submit to being monogamous, and ought to be monogamous.

Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha challenge that. In one of the most accessible books on the topic I have read (admittedly, not a ton). It’s easy to follow, not bogged down by scientific terms or concepts, and contains pleasantly self-aware humor that spawns quips like “Yes, a few candles here, some crotchless panties there, toss a handful of rose petals on the bed and it’ll be just like the very first time!” If you have any curiosity in arguments against marriage, then not only does this book present its evidence clearly for almost any audience, it presents a lot of it.

Their argumentative table-setting rests on two big ideas. First, Western civilization has the wrong view of pre-Agricultural Revolution hunter-and-gathering society. Second, that of the two closest DNA relatives to humans, chimpanzees and bonobos, meeting chimpanzees first has drastically altered how we view natural human social structure, especially since we are slightly closer to conobos.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t recall anyone ever saying anything negative about the Agricultural Revolution in college. I took courses with professors who fired off opinions from their pulpit with a conviction that would make some ministers blush. I never strayed away from classes that attempted to explain away man as something not ripped from the mind of a perfect God. All the same, the Agricultural Revolution was always painted as a triumphant moment of human industry – a shining example of us lifting ourselves from chaos toward a long run of technological innovation and civilization construction.

Ryan and Jetha have none of that in Sex at Dawn. To them, the Agricultural Revolution was a dramatic shift in human history that forever altered our course as a species for the worse. On women, “Clearly, the biggest loser (aside from slaves, perhaps) in the agricultural revolution was the human female, who went from occupying a central, respected role in foraging societies to becoming another possession for a man to earn and defend, along with his house, slaves, and livestock.” For them, pre-agricultural humans were not living in a Hobbesian state of nature defined as being ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’, constantly starving or fighting off enemy tribes.

Instead, these early people lived in fiercely egalitarian bands. “Hoarding or hiding food, for example, is considered deeply shameful, almost unforgivable behavior in these societies.” Women were treated far more equitably than they would later be in agrarian societies. Rather than a strict mother figure, children were raised largely by the tribe as a whole. In one of the more fascinating examples, Sex at Dawn mentions several modern hunter-gathering groups still in existence today. One in particular practices a sort of ‘group paternity’ where the woman tries to mate with as many different men as possible, believing that each will contribute particular traits to the eventual child.

“Modern man’s seemingly instinctive impulse to control women’s sexuality is not an intrinsic feature of human nature. It is a response to specific historical socioeconomic conditions—conditions very different from those in which our species evolved. This is key to understanding sexuality in the modern world.”

I am no expert in the subject, but the different viewpoint offered by Sex at Dawn has forced me to reconsider and re-explore the long term impact of agriculture, especially when it isn’t the good alternative to a very evil scavenger-based lifestyle. It makes sense that the rise of agriculture led to private property which led to war over the more fertile areas and eventually developing a concept of family that sustainably provides more soldiers and workers, i.e. the nuclear family.

The second major focus of Sex at Dawn pertains to bonobos as a close DNA cousin to human beings. This is also the part of the book where Ryan and Jetha talk about human promiscuity, sperm competition, and sex as a social (not reproductive) activity first and foremost. Given a serious lack of knowledge in this area, it was a fascinating read filled with many excellent quotes.

Here are three of my favorite examples on human sexuality specifically:

“Reproductive biologist Roger Short (real name) writes, “The great size of the erect human penis, in marked contrast to that of the Great Apes, makes one wonder what particular evolutionary forces have been at work.”

“It bears repeating that the human penis is the longest and thickest of any primate’s—in both absolute and relative terms.”

“A scrotum is like a spare refrigerator in the garage just for beer. If you’ve got a spare beer fridge, you’re probably the type who expects a party to break out at any moment.”

Ryan and Jetha argue that bonobos are an even closer DNA match with humans than chimpanzees, which leads to some interesting comparisons when it comes to relating the human animal to bonobos. Bonobo social structure rests on a peaceful matriarchy. In fact, the pecking order when it comes to food starts with the mothers, then the children, and finally the fathers. There’s also a ton of observational evidence that a child bonobo derives their status within the group from their mother’s position in the social hierarchy, even well into adulthood.

It’s not like male bonobos are treated cruelly. They still get to eat, for instance. It happens that there is another contributing factor to the peacefulness of all bonobos, that also keeps the males especially docile: they have lots of sex.

That’s right: bonobo sex happens often and everywhere. Seriously, I watched a documentary and the Kama Sutra could learn a few things from these promiscuous apes! When two tribes of bonobos meet, there isn’t warfare. Instead, the females clean one another and eat together while the males stare each other down, then they all have sex. Often afterward, the two tribes stick together for a bit, foraging and sexing their days away.

Chimpanzees are more or less the exact opposite of bonobos. They are patriarchal, warlike, and rape is more likely than a promiscuous quicky in the trees. Given their DNA proximity to our own and the fact that we discovered them first (bonobos live in very remote areas in Africa), Ryan and Jetha argue that these factors have contributed to a scientific view of the natural human as being innately patriarchal and warlike. If we had discovered bonobos first, then we might see ourselves differently.

The latter chapters also include some fascinating discussion on human sexuality specifically. Their argument is that female copulatory vocalization promotes sperm competition by attracting other males. The male penis specifically seems to be adapted for sperm competition as the vacuum it forms while inside the vagina can push out previous ejaculates, but when the penis ejaculates it shrinks slightly enough to break the seal.

This area of the book is fascinating, but from the little I have researched about these topics outside the book, there are many competing theories on the various aspects of human sexuality. As with the rest of the book, there are scientists who argue that these mechanics exist to reinforce pair-bonding (monogamy).

I am no expert, but Sex at Dawn has convinced me to reconsider marriage and monogamy from a purely cultural perspective. Their arguments make a lot of sense. That’s not to say I am going to outright avoid marriage for the rest of my life or that I think it is silly to get married at all, but I do believe we need a more open dialogue about marriage and relationships, possibly entertaining the idea that we aren’t monogamous creatures. As Ryan and Jetha say, “We aren’t designed to make each other miserable.” I couldn’t agree more.