I recently concluded reading Sex At Dawn, How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships, written by the husband and wife duo Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha. I found it to be an interesting read, very witty, informational, and thought-provoking. In this book, the authors attempt to debunk many ideas and culturally accepted standards of human nature, monogamy, and sexuality. They do so by first looking at the prehistorical sexual evolution of humans by comparing them to their common relatives in the animal kingdom, like chimps, bonobos, and gorillas. According to the book, humans have equal genetic similarity with both chimps and bonobos, which both exhibit polygamous sexual behavior. Evolutionary theorists often cite chimps’ displays of aggressive, war-like behavior to justify these impulses in humans. However, when it comes to human sexual behavior, the polygamous behavior of our closest animal cousins is often disregarded, as well as the observed peaceful existence of bonobos.
Another interesting idea confronted in the book is the idea of the “standard narrative,” in which society tells us that humans evolved to be monogamous, to have one sexual partner for life, and the role of the male is to protect his wife, support the material interests of her and her child, and to ensure that the wife will not cheat, because then the man would be unsure of the paternity of the child. Also, according to the “standard narrative,” women trade sexual favors for the financial and material security provided by the man. This implies that women, by nature, are coy, passive, and possess a low libido, an idea which is challenged in the book. When we look at the “standard narrative,” it seems overly simplistic, or obvious, or just the way things are. However, upon a closer inspection, these commonly accepted and practiced ideas are actually social and cultural roles that have been impressed upon us, and shame is brought to those who do not fit this cookie-cutter notion of sexuality and societal roles. It forces us to try to fit into this mold, despite the fact that it may not be right for everybody.
Sex At Dawn attempts to break down the “standard narrative” by offering an alternative perspective. Humans may have evolved to have many sexual partners. Sex is a natural part of the human experience, which can be used to create bonds within communities, as well as to increase peace and harmony. Both females and males possess innate sexual drives that should not be repressed by outdated cultural conditions. I found it interesting that in many non-Western societies in the world, and certainly in humans’ pre-historical past, people lived in communities with many partners, where sex was not only freely accepted, but celebrated, as a way of life, and a means to form bonds to strengthen the community. In these societies, women do not have to worry about being abandoned by her husband and left as a single mother, because the entire community shares responsibility for the raising of children. I found it most surprising that in these and other prehistorical communities, paternity was not a huge concern, because women often had numerous sexual partners and each of the men had some sort of a responsibility to help the rearing of children. This idea is pretty unthinkable in our present day society. Sex At Dawn also asserts that it was not until the advent of agriculture that humans developed the notion of private property, in which men now had to protect their property from others, and this concern extended to their wife and children. Why has our concept of marriage now become a legal agreement, where there can be winners and losers, more than anything else?
This book brought up many controversial ideas. I enjoyed looking at cultural standards from a different perspective. What I took most from this book was the idea that we should no longer repress our natural, innate sexuality. It should not be shamed, hidden, or controlled. Just as if you repress hurtful thoughts or emotions, they will eventually explode, rising to the surface and causing even more pain. The repression of sexuality has many harmful effects, such as within the Catholic Church or even seen as a cause of violence and hostility in society. Perhaps, we can learn to not take sex so seriously. Sometimes, sex can just be sex, and it does not necessarily mean it is an act of love. Sex does not equal love or intimacy.
As a woman, I’ve been getting conflicting ideas about my sexuality my entire life. I live in a culture where sexual images are rampant, yet I receive messages, both consciously and unconsciously, that my sexuality is dangerous, that it must be controlled, and I must fall into the sweet little role of a demure, passive female to be controlled by a man, that my only hope to have love and wealth is to be dependent and attached to one person for the rest of my life. Something about culture’s standard narrative does not to add up to me. It is my belief that attachment is the primary cause of all suffering, including attachment to a romantic partner. I refuse to subscribe to the idea that one person will always make me happy. I do not give away that power to anybody else, because the truth is, I am the only one who is responsible for my happiness.
What Sex At Dawn offers, above all, is the invitation to have meaningful conversations about our true sexual selves, to feel our emotions without judgement or repression. Every emotion that comes up is legitimate, and it should be completely okay to share whatever it is we are going through in the important relationships in our lives. To be truthful, honest, and accepting, to not grasp at relationships or cling to the idea that we must find this one person to make us happy and stable. It is my hope that we can work together to open up this dialogue, leave behind judgement, repression, and cultural conditioning, and connect with our true, authentic selves.