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Tea and Strumpets

Guest Post: Sex at Dawn, Patriarchy at Dusk – Max Rose

I finally got around to reading Sex at Dawn, and while I knew that some of its themes would resonate with me, and there’s enough interesting scholarship to make it a worthwhile read, the final chapters struck a strangely discordant and disappointing note. Without wanting to make this a full review, here is my response to what I think is a potentially liberating but ultimately problematic book.

You probably know the outline by now. The “standard model” of human sexuality in evolutionary psychology is that humans are naturally monogamous, but that men cheat on their wives and spread their seed with young fertile women whenever they can, and that while women generally have no sexual desire, they’ll occasionally shag young studs when ovulating, thus cheating their good-provider husbands into providing for genetically superior offspring. Familiar, depressing and self-serving.

In contrast to this, Ryan and Jethá posit that until the invention of agriculture, our nomadic foraging ancestors were promiscuous and egalitarian, using sex for pleasure and social bonding, with group parenting, multiple stable sexual relationships and occasional guilt-free invigorating dalliances with strangers from other tribes. Then we settled down to farm, which provided surpluses and required the definition of private property, leading to economic and sexual inequality, monogamous or polygynous marriage, possessiveness and the suppression of female desire. In other words: patriarchy.

There may be as many leaps of faith and plausibility arguments as in standard evolutionary biology, but the combination of anthropological, archaeological and anatomical evidence is enough to convince me that we may “naturally” be more like our randy, carefree bonobo cousins than the guilt-ridden failed monogamists that we’ve become. And they’re also clear about the failure of monogamy: adultery exists in every culture, as does its punishment, and why would we need social stigma, guilt trips and even stonings to enforce a monogamy that is supposed to be natural to us?

Along the way, they take some surprisingly bold potshots at other cornerstones of “civilised” culture, including the idea of progress and the flawed Malthusian logic behind neoliberal economics. It all seems poised for a clear call to dismantle the dismal infrastructure of a social and economic system that inflicts the misery of sexual guilt and/or denial on so many men and (even more so) women.

But then … they seem to lose their nerve. The final chapters swerve into bisexual erasure, unsubstantiated essentialism about the male need for novelty, kink-phobia (either they’re lazy or they seem to equate BDSM and mild fetishes with paedophilia) and end up with hazy self-help talk about “confronting the sky together”. They talk in a vague yet resignedly practical way about couples negotiating their own boundaries of fidelity, but while they flirt with advocating polyamory (including one brief example of a MFM triad), in the end there’s a distasteful emphasis on dealing with powerful middle-aged white men’s need to have affairs with younger women. The message seems to be: “Ladies, don’t take sex so seriously when you have the love of a good man, just let him have his affairs (and maybe take a lover too if you feel like it, but we’re not going to say that out loud).”

That’s very much a parody, based on one reading, but even if their closing examples had been more even-handed, there’s still a fundamental problem with this couple-by-couple approach. The trouble of “negotiating boundaries” is that negotiations come down to power, and in a patriarchy men and women do not have equal power. In most cases, it’s not enough to advocate couples to make their own changes, but to change society as a whole.

Just for a start, here are some things we’d need before we can even start to see an equal expression of sexual desire among all people (in no particular order, and if my feminism were beyond pre-101 stage I’d add others):

  • an end to slut-shaming
  • an end to rape
  • an end to cissexism and homophobia
  • pay equity
  • easy, cheap and guilt-free access to contraception and abortion
  • frank, non-judgemental education on sex, relationships and sexual health

We might even need to discuss whether it’s possible to have truly free, pleasurable and equal multi-partner sexuality without returning to some sort of anarcho-syndicalist pre-agrarian society with shared parenting and no private property. Without that, while their cute talk of Socio-Erotic Exchanges (S.E.Ex for short) “forming a durable web of affection, affiliation and mutual obligation” might sound delightful and achievable for an affluent childfree subculture (and it does sound a bit like parts of my social circle), it presupposes a whole lot of privilege.

I get the feeling that they’d want to say more. As well as using an often cutesy, folksy, jokey tone throughout (as if “writing for non-specialists” requires “writing for 10-year-olds”), they often seem to be defensive of their way-out wacky ideas: “before you think we’re Marxists”, “no, we’re not hippies!” But of course, they’re writing for a mainstream, largely American audience, and perhaps a more radical book would not have had the same impact. Maybe it has helped open up the debate about the universal expectation monogamy as part of a web of social oppressions to people who would otherwise run a mile, but I think it’s time to move the debate on further.

15 responses to “Guest Post: Sex at Dawn, Patriarchy at Dusk – Max Rose

  1. Moz July 19, 2011 at 3:32 pm

    I do think they’re trying very hard not to end up banned, or even controversial in the USA, especially the more conservative parts. ideally they’ll slide under the radar and the easily offended will see “sex” in the title and not read it. I suspect that “of course powerful men will have affairs” is supposed to gel with “of course sexual equality is desirable” as a coded way of saying “of course everyone is polyamorous”. Or maybe I’m just optimistic.

    An alternate way to get equal expression of sexual desire seems to be psuedo-anonymous forums, and especially dating and kink sites. The retrosexual side of me is amazed at how many women on free dating sites list casual sex as one of the things they’re interested in. And they seem to be real women (in one case I’m having an entertaining chat as a result of asking “are you poly or do you just play one on the internet”… if she’s not real I will have to re-evaluate my definition of fake).

    I am pleasantly surprised at the number of people to whom polyamory is a new and useful way to describe how they feel rather than a new concept.

    • Max Rose July 19, 2011 at 4:54 pm

      The anonymity is an important point. One of the studies they point to is that women* gave significantly higher answers to the “how many sexual partners” question when they thought that not even the anonymous researchers would read the results, and higher again when they thought that they were under a lie detector test. Maybe all those dodgy studies that the Herald keeps trotting out just show that NZ women are more honest?

      [* actually very young women. They also emphasise the demographic bias of so many psychological studies, since it’s so easy to get students as subjects. Quite apart from the socioeconomic bias, people at that age are likely to have relatively limited sexual experience and confidence, and may not have entirely “come out of their shell”, so to speak.]

  2. Deborah July 19, 2011 at 7:39 pm

    in the end there’s a distasteful emphasis on dealing with powerful middle-aged white men’s need to have affairs with younger women

    Which all sounds like a bit more gender essentialism to me.

    I dunno about all this sexuality stuff. I’m the monogamous, incredibly boring one around here, so what I say doesn’t come from experience at all. But I’m here, rather than at other blogs, because I have a huge commitment to the notion of consenting adults. If everyone involved is a consenting adult, then it’s (a) none of my business and (b) completely morally and socially acceptable.

    But there’s a hell of a lot to be read into both ‘consenting’ and ‘adult’. Which I guess plays into your list of what might be required before we can see “an equal expression of sexual desire among all people”.

    I’d probably change that phrase a little, because I know that there are people for whom sexual desire is not a big thing in their lives, or is even non-existent. I’d like to see an equal ability to express differing levels and types of sexual desires among all people.

    To be sure, in our society it is much easier to be quietly low sex/sexually expressive than it is to be out there with respect to BDSM/polyamory/fetishes/multiple partners/whatever. Vanilla is very much the easier route to go. I suppose this book is serving a valuable purpose in opening up the field of socially acceptable expressions of sexuality. It’s just a shame that it seems to have ended up in a socially sanctioned position (i.e. powerful older men with younger lovers).

    /meandering thoughts

    Many thanks for the great post, Max.

    • Jackie Clark July 20, 2011 at 11:53 am

      Thanks Deborah – very valuable meandering thoughts indeed.

    • Max Rose July 20, 2011 at 7:35 pm

      “Which I guess plays into your list of what might be required before we can see “an equal expression of sexual desire among all people”.

      I’d probably change that phrase a little, because I know that there are people for whom sexual desire is not a big thing in their lives, or is even non-existent. I’d like to see an equal ability to express differing levels and types of sexual desires among all people.”

      Yes, that’s what I meant, though my words didn’t convey it very well. By “equal expression” I meant “equal ability to honestly express”, rather than expecting everyone’s desires to be equal.

  3. Christopher Ryan July 20, 2011 at 2:47 am

    Hi. Thanks for this discussion of our book. Here’s a link to a special “note to readers” we added to the just-released paperback version in the U.S. that responds to some of the points you made here.

    • Emma July 20, 2011 at 12:49 pm

      Interesting. From that page:

      In addition to these internal factors, women tend to be more responsive to external conditions (Are the kids grown and out of the house? Is she financially independent? What would her friends and family say? Does she suspect that he’s having an affair?). Men—even highly intelligent, otherwise cautious and calculating men—often blunder into these situations blinded by something that doesn’t seem to render women quite so helpless.

      This is surely, as Max has pointed out, due to the simple fact that women are punished far more harshly by the general state of society for having affairs than men are. How many men are actually in a position where, if their marriage breaks up, they’ll have dependent children and no income?

      Finally, we actually know “Phil,” who was willing to discuss his experiences with us. If we know any women who are having affairs as we write this, they’ve chosen not to share their secret with us, perhaps wisely.

      Well, as a woman who’d had “an affair”, I’d have been perfectly happy to talk to them about it, and for the same reason I do the polls on the Families Commission website. I do love skewing people’s data.

      • tallulahspankhead July 20, 2011 at 12:56 pm

        Yeah, I call bullshit.

        For example, when Shirley Glass and Thomas White anonymously interviewed 300 men and women about their extramarital affairs, they found that men tended to see their affairs as more sexual, while women were motivated more by emotional considerations and reported greater levels of dissatisfaction with their marriages.

        Are we not just falling back here on some more excellent gender essentialism? Women are motivated by love, while men just want to shove it anywhere they can?

        Having also been involved in my fair share of extra-marital affairs, I would utterly dispute that. Emma and I alone could skew that data, and we’re not _actually_ that unrepresentative.

        • Moz July 20, 2011 at 2:12 pm

          Sex-positive feminist bloggers from New Zealand… “we’re not actually that unrepresentative”.

          I do love a good taking-out-of-context.

          When i read this stuff I do tend to wonder just how odd my friends are. And not just Emma 🙂 I find that when I hang out with the “normal” people it’s only a matter of time before something comes up that makes me go “gronk?” Whether it’s breast milk yoghurt or advice on the best batteries for sex toys (RC aircraft ones with low internal impedence, BTW), I just don’t seem to be able to find the sort of people books like this present as normal.

      • tallulahspankhead July 20, 2011 at 9:52 pm

        (this is from Max, who is having trouble posting.)

        I don’t want to give the impression that they only ever look at male infidelity. There is a general thrust towards the idea that everyone can unlearn jealousy as well as come to openly express and explore their desires beyond monogamy. And that is something that I’d wholeheartedly support (with the usual proviso that not everyone will have desires beyond monogamy). But that bold resolve falters somewhat when dealing with actual relationship problems in contemporary society, and they end up operating on the premise that men are still driven by a lust for variety, whereas most women in relationships wouldn’t want sexual freedom even if it were available without social or economic risk. I’m perhaps trying too hard to connect up different threads in the book, but I think that this is where the concept of “erotic plasticity” (discussed in Chapter 20) comes in.

        In a nutshell, it’s the idea that sexual desires and behaviours are formed to varying degrees by social, cultural and situational factors. There’s some evidence that women have higher plasticity than men (for instance, that sexual orientation seems to be more fluid for women), and while the quality and interpretation of that data is open to debate, I’ll take it as read for the purpose of this argument. Thus the changes in society have had more influence on women’s underlying sexual impulses than on men’s.

        The story would go like this. Men and women were once both happily polyamorous, but that changed in post-forager societies. Now men are allowed to be promiscuous before marriage but then expected to settle down into monogamy, though with a tacit assumption that they will stray, or at least want to, and feel guilty for it. Women are expected to be virgins before marriage and dutiful, loyal wives afterwards. We know about these cultural forces. But what I’m reading from the book’s interest in erotic plasticity is the idea that men may have (imperfectly) changed their behaviour by suppressing their desires, but women have had their desires actually eliminated by these social conditions. Men will keep on wanting to bonk everything in sight even if they’re otherwise happy with their partner, but women will only want to stray if they’re not happy.

        Now that sounds like bollocks, and based upon my experience it’s far from universal. But that’s based upon my warped and skewed sample (which is not to say that the people I’ve sampled have been warped and skewed), and I do know plenty of people for whom it is true. Also, that Glass and White study, while indeed subject to essentialist interpretation, does seem to be actual data. And there’s another aspect to plasticity that’s mentioned in the book and that may come in here: inconsistency between attitude and behaviour.

        One example that they mention is an experiment (just one of many fascinating topics in this article) that attempts to measure the difference in stated and felt arousal. Men and women of various sexual orientation were shown a wide variety of sexual scenes (MF, MM, FF, solo naked people, bonobo pr0n) and asked to indicate their arousal via a keypad, while their physiological arousal was simultaneously recorded. Men tended to report being aroused by what got them hard, and were pretty much only turned on by what their orientation would predict. Straight women, on the other hand reported more arousal from the heterosexual porn than their bodies showed, but reported less arousal to other scenes even though it physically got their juices flowing.

        Now, that could just be a socially-conditioned inability to admit to what they’re turned on by, but the authors interpret that as something deeper, as a “disconnect between what these women experienced on a physical level and what they consciously registered”. If that is true, then women in our society might indeed physically desire extramarital sex, but it doesn’t consciously register as lust. Or perhaps when they lust after someone, in most cases their socially-modified conscious responses dress it up as love. Which would be one way of explaining what those studies (as well as anecdata and cultural narratives) say about women tending to be motivated by emotion more than physical desire.

        But this still leaves several holes in the argument. If men have less plasticity, then why have they changed from generous polyamorists, happy for their sex partners to have other lovers, into jealous philandering hypocrites? Is a woman’s apparently greater “attitude-behaviour gap” not the result of some innate plasticity but simply the fact that women have to be changeable because there is more pressure on them? And if women are supposed to use their plasticity to come to terms with their men’s irrepressible desire for novelty, why can’t it be through rediscovering their own sexual adventurousness rather than through meekly unlearning their jealousy?

        To be fair, the book gives the strong impression that open, warm-hearted polyamory is both “natural” and ideal. However, as their Note to the Reader says, they concentrate on “the scenario married couples confront most frequently: the middle-aged man who strays”. That sounds pragmatic enough, but consider this: the plasticity theory might suggest that there’s an equally common scenario, that of a woman who physically and subconsciously craves as much variety and adventure as men, but cannot allow herself to feel that consciously. Which is perilously close to a false consciousness argument, but most would acknowledge that the threads of love, lust, physical arousal, social pressures, imagination, curiosity, ethics and fantasy are tangled so tightly inside us that “knowing what we want” so often eludes us.

        • Emma July 21, 2011 at 1:17 pm

          If men have less plasticity, then why have they changed from generous polyamorists, happy for their sex partners to have other lovers, into jealous philandering hypocrites?

          I’d add to this the lower incidence of bisexuality among men. Because if there’s one area where male sexual behaviour is more strongly disapproved of and policed than women’s, it’s homosexuality. Lesbianism was never actually illegal (yes, partially because that would have meant admitting it existed) and nor have lesbians been seen as child molestors. For most of us, consenting sex between men was only made legal in our lifetimes. So there is still, I think, quite a lot of social pressure on men to not admit same-sex attraction. And that denial gets easier if you also experience admissible opposite-sex attraction. Whereas a woman has a much greater freedom to say, “Wow, she’s pretty.”

          It boggles me that we see jealousy almost as a virtue, as quite an attractive quality, as a sign that someone cares about you, which of course it isn’t, it’s a sign they care about themselves.

          Lately, I’ve talked to two people in long-term relationships (teenage kids, the whole show) who’ve just had affairs for the first time, and they both mentioned the enormous erotic appeal of simply being desired, of feeling actively sexually attractive after so long. One male, one female.

  4. Curvaceous Dee July 20, 2011 at 4:18 pm

    Having gotten my hands on a copy the other week, I’m currently reading Sex at Dawn myself. I’ll be back to comment once I’ve finished it.

    xx Dee

    • Max Rose July 20, 2011 at 9:34 pm

      Yes, don’t let me put you off! It’s mostly fascinating and sometimes inspiring, but watered down by the ending.

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