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.