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Book Review: Sex at Dawn
#1
It's taken me a while to get this review put together, the book is long and complex and I read it with several breaks to try and go back and re-read different sections.

So, Sex at Dawn, now a cited classic amongst the polyamorous crowd, written by a married pair of psychiatrists/psychologists Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha. This book has managed to become renowned as the go-to for defence of non-monogamy and for irking the entire academic world.

In a nutshell the book sets up the standard narrative of monogamous human mating systems and then proceeds to demolish it wholesale using evidence from anthropology, biology, anatomy, neuroscience, archaeology and psychology.

The standard narrative is well known to anyone who has read something along the lines of 'Men are from Mars', that there are two sexes and they have mutually incompatible goals when it comes to sexuality and causes a 'war of the sexes'. Typically human mating is described as assymetrical, with women looking for long term commitment and men looking for multiple partners. This is explained away by saying that women have to gestate and give birth to a child from a single sexual encounter therefore they are selective about their mates, whereas men can have multiple partners so they are less fussy and more horny. This is the classic evolutionary psych view and on some level most people subscribe to it.

Ryan and Jetha early on in the book set up their major criticism with this model, something they label the 'flinstonisation' of human sexuality. They argue that researchers have a blind spot in their biases and tend to project conventional morality about monogamy backwards onto prehistory. Concepts like 'marriage', 'family' and 'fidelity' are laid over the actual evidence from the past and tries to defend what Ryan and Jetha call an agricultural morality. They quickly divide human history into pre and post agriculture, esp the agricultural systems that have led to Western civilisation, and they point to the patriachal and property based systems that farmers create and inherit. They argue that hunter-gatherers do not live by these conventions and therefore a more unbiased view is necessary to find out what our sexual history actually was.

They identify a number of weaknesses in the standard narrative including: the prevalence of infidelity, primate behaviour, sexual dimorphism, hidden ovulation, various anatomical phenomenon and different human societies amongst others.

They argue that infidelity is a widespread and universal feature of enforced monogamous societies, which flies in the face of monogamy as a natural behaviour. They point to actual monogamous species as needing no social enforcement to maintain fidelity, whereas the list of punishments for human infidelity (which includes stoning to death) still fails to maintain faithfulness.

Its clear throughout the book that bonobos are the favourite species for Ryan and Jetha. Bonobos are famously highly promiscious animals who engage in sexual activity almost every hour. They form the counterpoint to the classic interpretation of primate comparative behaviour with humans - chimpanzees. The authors find academic obsession with comparing humans to chimps to be part of the cultural blind spot. Chimps are aggressive and socially manipulative animals, whereas bonobos are relaxed and socially cohesive. Ryan and Jetha rake over studies of bonobo behaviour and find the comparisons to humans to be highly similar, especially in regards to our sexual behaviour.

Primates which use a 'one male - many females' model tend to have anatomical variations which support this. The males tend to have small testes and penises but be physically much bigger than the females (Male gorillas are 50% larger than the females) and so control multiple females in a harem. Primates which are socially non-monogamous are the opposite, the males tend to have much larger testes and penises and be much closer to females in their size. This accepted spectrum would put humans at almost the far end, down with the bonobos, but as the authors point out, human sexuality seems to be exempted from the evidence.

The model which Ryan and Jetha work towards in their discussions of anatomy and group dynamics is the following: humans have sacrificed competition at the level of individual males for the sake of group cohesion and harmony in favour of what biologists call 'sperm competition'. They develop their argument that humans have mostlly been hunter-gatherers throughout history, and to survive we have become exceptioonally good at sharing resources. Therefore it makes little sense to promote group discord by having males compete over female attention and instead sexual selection happens post-copulation.

Human genital anatomy, as they discuss at length, has evolved to allow women to have multiple sexual partners and essentially allow the healthiest most compatible sperm win. They point to evidence from the biochemistry of sperm that male ejaculates contain chemical to both degrade any foreign sperm they find and defend themselves from other competitors. They also discuss penis length, cervix biology and a whole host of other topics which uphold this argument. In the end the whole system has one function in mind, which forms, to my reading, the crux of the argument - the whole point is deny paternal identity.

Paternal knowledge is unnecessary in hunter-gatherer groups, and only serves to undermine group cohesion. Here Ryan and Jetha spend a long time discussing and highlighting various social systems that anthropologists have discovered which have at their heart the denial of paternal identity. In brief many hunter-gatherer groups have belief systems in multiple fathers, the need for multiple sexual partners to concieve and the freedom of women to choose ther partners. One particularly fascinating example comes from a group in North China who have a system as follows: when the girl in a household is sexually mature she is given a room in the house with an exterior door and told that she can have as many sexual partners as she wants provided they are gone by morning. The girl can therefore have total freedom of choice over who and how often she has sex. Any children resulting from her partners are raised by her brothers in her household. Her brothers are free to visit other women at night in their rooms but they are not to raise the children of those encounters. Again the point being to deny paternal knowledge.

Their argument fits together nicely with the hard to explain fact that human females are sexually available all year around and that ovulation is hidden from watching males. This would only happen if the females are having multiple partners and would not happen in monogamous or harem centred species. Ryan and Jetha also have fun with the wonderfully named phenomenon of 'female copulatory vocalisation' - or in other words women make a ton more noise during sex than men! Biologists who actually study this stuff know that this doesn't happen in monogamous species - why would you indicate to others when you were having sex? But it does happen for species who have lots of partners, eg bonobos.

The authors also pull out some facts and studies from porn use and psych studies involving attraction. Apparently men tend to enjoy watching one woman having sex with multiple guys, but not the other way around. Studies into sexual attraction also show that women can be aroused by almost any sexual imagery (even if the arousal is unconscious and the unknown to the participant) whereas men tend to know what they are attracted to and it correpsonds with their sexuality. The authors also talk at length about the role of novelty in sustaining male sexuality into old age and how homosexuality fits nicely with their theory.

Overall the arguments they put forward create an image of a group of hunter-gatherers whose women have multiple sexual partners and the children raised by the group.

Ryan and Jetha finish the book with a fairly weak look at what modern alternatives there are for people outside of monogamy. They cite the surging trend in polyamory and open marriages but little else.

In summary - the authors present a fairly decent challenge to the standard model of human mating. They rely heavily on primate behaviour and some anthropological descriptions. I was left wondering if there were alternative hypothesis to the biological phenomena they cited. Overall though they performed as a good defence in a trial in creating reasonable doubt in the mind of the reader about monogamy and its supposed naturalness. I thought they were correct in describing the transition from foraging to farming as needing to control human reproduction and the intensity of paternal lineage for property rights, which was a fascinating side note. I was disappointed with their lack of alternative ideas other than the obvious and reading some of the academic responses its clear that they have created somewhat of a strawman with their standard model. However, the book is well written, light-hearted and enjoyable but most of all thought-provoking.
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#2
Thanks for this! I've had Sex at Dawn on my book wishlist for quite a while. I confess I remain suspicious of genders, and find it curious that the book does not seek to address anti-gender-essentialism implications. Though I haste to add that it sounds interesting regardless!
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#3
From my understanding gender would be the performance required by a culture which associates with your sex, but it doesn't say anything to the biology. I think Sex at Dawn has its focus on the biological sex categories and reproductive strategies as opposed to the cultural standards imposed, but there is an overlap I admit. Its true that the authors don't address it at all, they do briefly talk about different sexualities nothing on essentialism.
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