Sex at Dawn
Our Promiscuous Prehistory
By Dr. SUSAN BLOCK
What is it about the nature of human sexuality that virtually all civilizations throughout history have tried like the dickens to suppress? Why is sex so often such a problem when it really *should* be a pleasure? Why might your otherwise devoted husband rather masturbate to porn than have sex with you? Why might your normally modest wife fantasize about being consensually gangbanged by the Brazilian soccer team? Why do so many happily married people risk everything they love and cherish to go off and have an affair?
These are some of the big questions that Drs. Christopher Ryan, Ph.D. and Cacilda Jethá, M.D. address in their hot new book, Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality. With provocative wit, yet intense seriousness of purpose, they gather together up-to-date research from various scientific disciplines to reveal a side of ourselves that is wild, scary, exhilarating, egalitarian and, without a doubt, non-monogamous.
Sex at Dawn also addresses some of the little questions like: Why does a man tend to thrust during intercourse (to displace a rival’s sperm through active suction)? Why does a woman tend to moan (to let other possible partners know she’s hot)? Is there a way to understand our non-monogamous sexual urges and fantasies as natural and useful instead of perverse, immoral or dysfunctional? Ryan and Jethá say yes.
The evidence is voluminous, but the repression of it is tremendous. So…are we ready to confront such scandalous biological truths about our hunter/gather sexual nature? Since Sex at Dawn recently hit the the New York Times Best-Seller List, it seems that yes, by golly, we are. At least, some of us are, from Newsweek’s Kate Dailey, who calls the book “a scandal in the best sense,” to Seattle-based sex guru Dan Savage, who has dubbed Sex at Dawn “the single most important book about human sexuality since the Kinsey Report.” Then again, Australia’s Sunrise on 7 tried to paint the book as a threat to marriage, morality and all that society holds dear, which, considering the source, only proves the irrefutable power of its message.
A Promiscuous Dawn
I discovered Sex at Dawn on Twitter—where the cyber-hunter/gatherers meet and feast on each other’s tweets—thanks to Bonobo Handshake author Vanessa Woods (a previous guest on The Dr. Susan Block Show). It’s appropriate that our kissin’ cousins the bonobos led me, swinging from Twitter tree to tree, to Sex at Dawn. In fact, the bonobos themselves, as well as the Bonobo Way of peace through pleasure, all but embody Ryan and Jethá’s concept of a prehistoric human forager community where “fierce egalitarianism” once ruled, war was virtually unknown, paternity was not an issue and possessiveness was not a problem—after all, what is there to possess when you’re always on the move and U-hauls haven’t been invented?
Most otherwise topnotch evolutionary psychologists, primatologists and anthropologists—like Drs. Helen Fisher, David Buss, Frans de Waal, Owen Lovejoy, Matt Ridley, Steven Pinker, Robert Wright and such notables—come up with flip, vague or convoluted ways to explain away unpopular evidence. They seem to be trying to squeeze the square peg of monogamy into the round hole of humanity. Ryan and Jethá have chosen a more well-rounded term to characterize the essence of human sexuality as practiced by our prehistoric progenitors: promiscuity.
That’s a loaded word in common parlance, but when Ryan and Jethá say “promiscuous,” they don’t mean reckless, uncaring, libertine screwing around. Rather they impart the sense of its Latin root, “miscere,” which means “to mix,” implying that our ancestors enjoyed what biologist Alan F. Dickson called “multi-male/multi-female mating systems,” involving ongoing erotic, caring relationships with a mix of selected members of their close-knit tribe. I imagine this promiscuity could take many different forms; perhaps one approach might involve serial romances with three or four partners at any given time, erotic skin-to-skin encounters with several others and an orgy around the fire every Saturday night. Sound like fun to you?
It did to me, so I asked Ryan to send me a review copy in preparation for our radioSUZY1 interview which would take place, appropriately enough, at dawn in Barcelona where he and wife/co-author Jethá reside. As soon as the 400-page tome arrived at the Institute, I devoured it like a hungry forager who had just stumbled upon the Tree of Knowledge, laden with luscious fruit. Then I read it again, slowly, savoring the pages like an after-dinner liqueur. Sex at Dawn is a sheer pleasure to peruse, and not only because it eloquently backs up theories I’ve been espousing for years with mountains of carefully compiled evidence (which I can now use to thwart enemies of pleasure). This is a book whose time has come…and with all the reverberating tweets, excited postings and passionate reactions (I’m not the only one who’s reading it twice), it seems to be coming again and again…
Farmers and Golddiggers
But back to Ryan and Jethá’s thesis: homo sapiens (that’s us) did not evolve in monogamous, Flintstonesque, nuclear families, with or without the white picket fences, as so many people, corporations and institutions in the “Marital Industrial Complex”—from couples counselors to congressmen, religious preachers to science teachers—preach and teach. Rather, we evolved in 20-150 person hunter-gatherer groups in which nobody owned property (nor much of anything at all), and normal adults would have been engaged in multiple ongoing sexual relationships with different group members at any given time, quite like our closest living relatives: common chimps and bonobos.
Why is the sexuality of our ancestors some 100,000-200,000 years ago such a huge deal to us now—even to those of us who don’t care about history, let alone prehistory? Because the human body (featuring, of course, the human brain inside that body) evolved under these prehistoric conditions to be, essentially, what it is today: a highly social, communicative and very sexy beast.
So how in civilized tarnation did we come up with monogamy? With blood, sweat and a lot of tears. After hundreds of thousands of years of nomadic, promiscuous foraging, some 10,000-12,000 years ago, a human revolution took place that spread throughout the planet. This was a revolution like no other before or since; though it didn’t alter human anatomy, it fostered a monumental change in the human way of life. This revolution was the advent of agriculture.
With agriculture came a relatively reliable source of food for which you didn’t have to hunt or search. You simply had to cultivate it. Sounds awesome, huh? Seems like it would make life a lot easier now that you didn’t have to chase down your lunch through the bushes every day. That’s a fine theory. The reality is that farming didn’t make life easier at all, say Ryan and Jethá. On the contrary, the Great Agricultural Revolution spawned a much more demanding, oppressive, property-oriented, greed-driven, envy-stricken, brutal, stressful lifestyle.
Of course, it also meant that a lot more babies would survive than did in hunter-gatherer days. Farming increased fertility and lowered the rate of infant mortality, generating population explosions that led to the creation of great cities and elaborate cultures. Yet, the host of new diseases farming unleashed, coupled with the less varied nutritional diet, actually worsened adult human health.
Farming also generated a need for a military, to protect “your” property and/or make war on your neighbors if you felt like taking their property. It spawned governing bureaucracies to make property-conscious laws against stealing and adultery. And it favored certain aggressive individuals (almost always men) who took “possession” of land, resources and animals, including their fellow homo sapiens. Yes indeed, the agricultural revolution involved the domestication of human beings—a farmer’s slaves and hired workers, as well as his “own” children and his “own” wife or wives—right along with his other domesticated animals.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, this time while standing up on Ryan and Jethá’s mammoth mountain of evidence: Farming is the root of all evil.
Or as Sex at Dawn so eloquently explains: The Bible got it backwards. Adam and Eve weren’t kicked out of a Garden into the wilderness as punishment for their sins. They were kicked into one. Upon eating from the Tree of Knowledge and learning the mysteries of agriculture, humanity was swept out of the wilderness, the wild jungles, forests, savannas and untamed coastlines and plopped down behind a Neolithic lawn mower in a garden, aka: The Family Farm.
With farming, the “family” was born, complete with Father knowing best and Mother being barefoot and preggers, presumably with only Father’s offspring. Before the agricultural revolution, paternity was not an issue. Since prehistoric human females, like bonobos, hid their estrus, the mechanics of conception were a mystery. Nobody could be sure whose father was whose, just as no chimpanzee male knows whose baby his current favorite female is carrying (this, by the way, is how chimp kids escape infanticide).
Ryan and Jethá theorize that our prehistoric ancestors may have believed that it took several men’s sperm to make one baby (studies show that some forager tribes still believe this). Thus, all the men in any given tribe felt more or less the same level of responsibility for and kinship with all the children (also like bonobos and common chimps).
As soon as farmers started breeding plants and domesticated animals, learning exactly how “sex makes babies,” they applied this knowledge to their own sexual relationships. Paternity went from being a great unknown to being a great big deal. One of Ryan and Jethá’s main points here is that the male obsession with paternity and the female obsession with finding a breadwinner are not innate human sexual nature. They are not as old as humanity. They are a reaction to the modern, post-Neolithic world.
Choosy or Floozy?
With this newfound knowledge of paternity, men cultivated ownership of “their” women and children. The elite practiced polygamy while the majority developed monogamy, in order to “guarantee” paternity. This way, you knew your kids were “yours” and you could force them to work on your farm and then pass that farm down to them—the lucky little bastards—so that you might feel some sense of immortality, as you died prematurely, victim of diseases from which your forager ancestors never suffered.
With the Agricultural Revolution, the natural promiscuity of “mixing” lovers was turned into the grave sin of “cheating” or “infidelity,” for which the punishment—especially for women—ranged from ostracism to torture to public execution.
Thus chastened, ladies learned to hide their desire, along with their lovers. And civilization developed the notion that human females are naturally “choosy” and reserved about sex. Ryan and Jethá reference Advice Goddess Amy Alcon’s over-confident statement that “ancestral women who successfully passed their genes onto us...[were] choosy [about] weeding the dads from the cads” as a prime example of an ill-informed “sexpert” writing about sex; they then proceed to utterly demolish it with illustrations and recent studies from 12 different branches of science.
Though you’d think it would have been dashed by common sense. If females are indeed the “choosier,” more sexually reserved gender by nature, why would men throughout history have gone to such great lengths to control the female libido?
And isn’t it funny how we generally don’t assume that motherly love should be confined to one child. So why do we believe that sexual love must be confined to one lover?
Pleasure, Violence & The New Promiscuity (Much Like the Old Promiscuity)
Sex at Dawn doesn’t present any brand new findings or even any particularly new ideas. It’s the way in which Ryan and Jethá bring together old and recent findings and ideas to support their thesis that is so valuable and extraordinary.
I was particularly delighted to read their reference to my favorite developmental neuropsychologist and mentor, Dr. James Prescott, whose landmark 1975 paper, “Body Pleasure and the Origins of Violence,” demonstrated that the deprivation of pleasurable physical touch, especially during the infant and adolescent years, leads people to violence and war in 49 cultures.
Ryan and Jethá also quote The Lifestyle: Erotic Rites of Swingers, by my old friend Terry Gould, with regard to the WWII Air Force officers and wives who started the modern swinging couples “lifestyle” in 1940s suburban America with their secret “key clubs.” (Gould devotes another chapter in The Lifestyle to following me and my Bonobo Gang of friends and lovers around a 1996 Lifestyles Convention as we party and discuss Ethical Hedonism and the Bonobo Way.)
That same year, Gould introduced me to the concept of the “sperm wars” that go on inside a woman’s vagina (explained more thoroughly in “Sperm Wars: Cuckolds, Hot Wives and Evolutionary Biology”). So even if women aren’t so “choosy” about with whom we have sex, at least our reproductive tract is somewhat selective. That is, through a series of biological hurdles and the phenomenon of sperm wars, the female genital system only allows the strongest—or best positioned—sperm to win the prize of fertilizing the egg. Of course, this assumes that a woman has sperm from more than one man inside her—or, at least, that she is anatomically built for that purpose—which flows right into Ryan and Jethá’s thesis that the human body has evolved to practice promiscuity.
And they weave it all together—stats and studies on everything from porn to prairie voles, balls to bukkake, vibrators to vampire bats, cuckolds to cougars, Melanesian Wedding Orgies to Victorian morality, instant lust to lasting love—to support their idea (which holds very close to my idea) that the human body and the human mind and that general all-around crazy thing that we call human behavior all reflect both our true highly sexual nature and our very promiscuous prehistoric past—one which seems to have also been a relatively peaceful past, much like the Bonobo Way of peace through pleasure suggests that it would have been…
This is not to suggest that we should all live in polyamorous households. Personally, I love being married—to just one husband. And the Sex at Dawn authors, themselves married for over 10 years, aren’t overtly advocating anything except opening our minds to the evidence of our innate promiscuity and the way in which it influences our lives.
But that doesn’t mean that others won’t use Sex at Dawn to validate their open marriages and polyamorous adventures.
More power to them.
Dr. Susan Block is a sex therapist and author of The 10 Commandments of Pleasure, occasionally seen on HBO and other channels. Commit Bloggamy with her at http://drsusanblock.com/blog/ Email your comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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