Book notes: Sex at Dawn
I suppose I’m the most likely culprit here to read and comment on the recent book Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What it Means for Modern Relationships by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, but I feel a bit awkward doing so because I’m also probably the target audience for the book. Being in a marriage that’s a respectable 90% monogamous (depending on the season. I think the PC term is a “slutty marriage”) many of the conclusions the book comes to are ones that I responded to with a shrugged, “Yeah, well, duh.” This doesn’t make for nearly as lively posting as picking apart and spitting on other people’s conclusions; in fact, the book itself is filled with such lively conclusion-bashing. However, I was actually somewhat underwhelmed by the whole thing; it would have been more fun if it ticked me off.
You can see where their argument would be controversial and one assumes there are plenty of others rushing to debunk it, if only for the children. Essentially, Ryan and Jethá take to task the idea that homo sapiens are a naturally monogamous species in which the men are randy until they mate and jealous lovers afterwards, while the women are coy and sexually disinterested, aiming mostly for a mate who can provide security to their offspring. The authors believe that some embarrassingly Victorian assumptions are part and parcel of evolutionary psychology (hardly its biggest problem!), anthropology, and biology. They think this argument doesn’t add up. Probably, if you have any amount of relationship experience, the argument won’t add up.
Instead, they compare humans to our closest (?) cousins, chimps and bonobos, whose males and females have sex with all and sundry. They note that various human characteristics, such as penis shape, testicle size, and the loud vocalizations of females during sex, are associated in our cousins with sexual promiscuity, and certainly not with monogamy. Finally, they bring in examples from hunter gatherer tribes that aren’t nearly as critical of female promiscuity as the tribes of Israel were. The book seems to suggest the somewhat contradictory conclusion: researchers are likely wrong to claim monogamy as more “natural” than any other human sexual behavior, given that said behavior is so variable over time and space, however promiscuity actually is a bit more natural.
From there, they set the speculation machine to 10o,000 BC. Basically, they claim that researchers likely got prehistory wrong all along. The authors suggest that, contrary to Hobbes’s bellum omnium contra omnes, war was the exception instead of the rule among prehistoric people and not a particularly “natural” state of affairs; something that seems fairly plausible after all, how many warlike people do most of us ever encounter in our lives? You can look at the late Andrew Breitbart and get a sense of what heightened states of stress and anger do to the human body. Similarly, the European explorers’ accounts of continuous tribal war might have been exaggerated; Jean de Léry believed the Tupinamba of Brazil fought rather limited wars in comparison to Europeans, while Bartolomé de Las Casas thought the New World tribes only fought defensive wars (certainly, he’s exaggerating for rhetorical effect though, since he includes the Aztecs in his indigenous who wouldn’t hurt a fly).
At any rate, modern folks do fight wars over religion, resources, and romance. According to the writers, what put the kibosh on the state of grace in which foragers lived in peace and plenty was the development of agriculture, which lead, surprisingly enough, to a common life of misery and toil; if this sounds familiar, Genesis tells the same story. It also corresponds to modern foraging tribes, who spend considerably less time securing food and shelter than we do. In fact, much of the book glamorizes the conviviality of tribal communities; their communalism, easy living, and sexual promiscuity. The writers are a bit like sex-positive Rousseaus.
The (perhaps a bit odd) question I have is if these tribes require fairly small numbers to remain so tightly knit socially, which the writers claim, while supposedly being sexually uninhibited in many cases, does this mean that infanticide is the norm as well? The authors write much about “partible paternity”, in which a child is considered the offspring of several male semen “contributors” and is raised by most of the tribe. Do entire tribes have a say in which infants will be adopted and which will be killed? This seems unworkable today, although clearly exposure wasn’t abnormal through much of human history.
Then there’s the most-likely question monogamous readers will have: “Isn’t jealousy a natural behavior too?” Actually, in my experience, this is usually phrased as a statement: “Everybody gets jealous!” Ryan and Jethá would say it all depends on the cultural context and its view of women, although they also use the example of rugby teams, who aren’t exactly known for their positive view of “birds.” At any rate, people in certain times and places have escaped the net of jealousy, and not all of them were French.
Okay, fine- sorry, but I don’t get jealous either, and surely I’d know at this point if I do. I don’t know why my jealousy response is turned off. It might be because I saw the ill effects of such behavior on my parents’ marriage; at some point, I came to the conclusion that jealousy is an irrational and useless reaction that poisons relationships in small doses and leads to murder in extreme cases. As a friend once put it, “If you want to get a woman to leave you, get jealous with her; it’s about as sure a bet as hitting her.” So it is possible that jealousy is akin to racism with me- I just don’t go there mentally.
It might also have something to do with the fact that I see lust and love as a bit like peanut butter and jelly: they go pretty well together, but they’re not the same thing.
Finally, there’s the uncomfortable fact that women really are sexually superior to men; lacking the annoying refractory period, attracting countless mates, and capable of having an ungodly number of orgasms; honestly, one reason I never considered monogamy with my last few female partners was that it seemed a bit silly to ask anyone born with a clitoris to pretend they weren’t.
So, clearly, I’m going to agree with the book. Still, I have some gripes. First, Ryan complains in an attached interview that some critics describe “the writing style as ‘sophomoric’ or ‘unserious’.” So, why use it? A typical quote: “It’s no accident that the man who famously observed that power is the ultimate aphrodisiac was not, by a long shot, good-looking. Often (in what we might call the Kissinger effect), the men with the greatest access to wealth and resources lack the genetic wealth signified by physical attractiveness. What’s a girl to do?” The entire book is written in this cutesy style! It’s like reading People Magazine- or, more accurately, a blog- which certainly suggests the writers want to reach a popular audience, but not that they’re trying to seriously prove a controversial theory. It’s pretty easy to dismiss a book whose style suggests its writers don’t take its thesis very seriously.
Next, I was somewhat surprised that they went so light on the historical sources. They mention Madame Bovary, but only in the last ten pages discuss the well-documented tradition in certain European countries of politely overlooking married people’s love affairs, particularly if they’re still young. Certainly, living in Spain, the writers have some familiarity with this concept. They tell us that “the first swingers in American history” were “crew-cut World War II air force pilots and their wives,” an interesting anecdote that actually doesn’t go back far enough in American history; try the 1840s Oneida community at least. Also, it’s small beer, but scholars will tell you that speculating about the attitudes and personality of Marco Polo, as they do, is a fool’s errand.
Then there’s the problem of trying to make conjectures about prehistoric people at all, which the authors both acknowledge and criticize as “Flintstonization” when other writers do it, and then make big conjectures about the open relationships of prehistoric people, which we could perhaps call “Emmanuellization”. Their thesis is more than plausible, but at some point, you still have to wonder how far it is from looking at prehistoric teeth and saying, “Well, of course they weren’t monogamous”.
Finally, while monogamy might be a perverse and unnatural behavior, it’s not entirely clear why that’s a problem. Plenty of human behaviors are totally unrelated to primate norms and certainly this one seems to work for the vast majority of people. As much as people in slutty relationships might like to see ourselves as more natural or unrepressed than those folks, it still seems unlikely. Also, Ryan and Jethá have presumably encountered the sexual partner who’s philosophically and intellectually opposed to jealousy, but unexpectedly (and annoyingly!) gets jealous when the chips and underpants are down. Let’s be honest: couples might screw up monogamous relationships all the time, but non-monogamy is high level relationship stuff and not for everyone, or even most people. Jealousy certainly seems sufficiently widespread as to be second nature at this point; maybe it’s just a triumph of the imagination to live without it.
What Jethá and Ryan would say here is that the problem with culturally enforced monogamy is that married people keep getting divorced for dumb reasons. Admittedly, what seems perverse and twisted isn’t that most couples in the first world live in monogamous relationships, nor that they’re averse to open relationships; it’s when they’re willing to end a perfectly good relationship because they can’t deal with their partner fantasizing about or having a sexual fling with some cute co-worker or friend. If the message most people take away from Sex at Dawn is something like, “Lighten up. You’re doing pretty well at relationships for a primate,” I’m okay with that.