Sex at dawn

by Hamish McKenzie / 07 August, 2010
When it comes to sex, we've got it all wrong, according to what's being touted as the most important book about sexuality since Kinsey.

Here's the truth about sex: monogamy isn't natural, most libido-deprived marriages are no one's fault and we like to do it in groups. A new book says we have been at war with eroticism for centuries, suppressing biological imperatives while attempting to abide by a societal structure set down by religious, political and scientific forces that have misinformed us about our sexuality. In service of the monogamy myth, marriages have been needlessly broken, families torn apart and political leaders from Bill Clinton to Don Brash humbled and humiliated.

"By insisting upon an ideal vision of marriage founded upon a lifetime of sexual fidelity to one person - a vision most of us eventually learn is highly unrealistic - we invite punishment upon ourselves, upon each other, and upon our children," writes psychologist ­Christopher Ryan in Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality. Internationally syndicated sex advice columnist Dan Savage has called it "the single most important book about human sexuality since Alfred Kinsey unleashed Sexual Behavior in the Human Male on the American public in 1948".

In 300 pages laced with witticisms and pop culture references, Sex at Dawn lays down a framework for understanding the roots of our sexuality, arguing that today's concept of sexual monogamy is a result of the advent of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, when private property led to paternity becoming a crucial concern. Before that, Ryan says, humans lived in small egalitarian groups, surviving by sharing everything: food, shelter, care of the young and, yep, sex partners.

In the mid-1990s, Ryan was at San Francisco's Saybrook University casting about for ideas for his PhD thesis in evolutionary psychology. At the time, Republicans were tearing President Bill Clinton to shreds for the misuse of a cigar in the Oval Office. Ryan, an American now based in Barcelona who possesses the gravitas of a scientist but writes and speaks with wry humour, had just read The Moral Animal, Richard Wright's best-seller on evolutionary psychology. The book presents what Ryan now calls "the standard narrative": since the beginning of time, men have made a trade with an individual woman, giving her protection, meat and status in return for sexual fidelity and therefore paternal certainty.

A fan of the book, Ryan, like most others in the field, bought into this theory. But it didn't mesh with the Clinton he was seeing on the evening news.

"I was struck by the fact that here we have arguably the most powerful man in the world who is being publicly humiliated for having a consensual sexual relationship with an adult woman," Ryan says during a Skype call from his temporary base in Amsterdam. "All this despite the fact that for the entire existence of our ­species, men had supposedly held all the levers of power, from physical strength to economic power to political power to military power ... and yet they created a world in which the most powerful man could be humiliated for simply being a man. It just didn't make sense."

He started to see that the standard narrative was naive in many ways. "It equated human beings with birds while ignoring the sexuality of chimps and bonobos, who are right next to us on the evolutionary tree."

Ryan figured if he took that narrative and shifted it so the core principle became that humans evolved in groups that shared everything, including sexual pleasure, then everything started to make sense.

"All of the different things, which in the standard model have individual, mutually contradicting explanations - in our model they all fit into the same argument, and they're mutually reinforcing."

To turn his dissertation into a book, he spent five years reading up on primatology, anthropology and anatomy. What he ultimately found challenges or contradicts a slew of heavyweight intellectuals, including Steven Pinker, Helen Fisher, Napoleon Chagnon, Thomas Hobbes, and even Charles Darwin, who, though otherwise unimpeachable on evolution, apparently didn't know much about sex.

A male and a female bonobo are sitting on their haunches under a leafy tree, enjoying each other's company on a still, sunny day. The female stretches out a crooked, hairy index finger and prods at her companion's leathery nose, and then curls up her fingers and lightly boxes him under his chin. He puckers his lips and lets her knock him around a little. All the while, his eyes regard her with what looks like an accepting, contented expression. Later, the video shows the two rolling around together in the grass, embraced in a hug. Eventually, the male leads the female by the hand away from the watchful eyes of human onlookers.

This apparently happy union, however, is almost certainly just one of many partner­ships the bonobos will form during their lifetimes. They are fun-loving, highly social animals with some eerily human habits: they look deeply into each other's eyes before sex; they show affection through holding hands and hugging; and perhaps most significantly, they occasionally stand up to walk and carry food. In fact, we are so similar to bonobos that it has been only five to six million years since we split from the ancestral line that links us with them and our chimpanzee cousins.

In the past, human behaviour has been compared closely with that of chimps, which have shown war-like tendencies under certain settings as well as numerous redeeming characteristics. But the often-overlooked bonobos, an endangered species found only in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, are a decidedly more peaceful and loving bunch. They are also spectacularly promiscuous within their groups.

"For them, sex is really a mechanism to defuse tension in the group," says Vanessa Woods, an Australian scientist and writer who has just released a book called Bonobo Handshake. "And I think one of the most important things is they don't have any war." To ignore the bonobo in a consideration of human evolution is to neglect some of the best available evidence, says Woods. "We do share 98.7% of their DNA and they have sex in much the same context that we like to have sex."

That extends to the noise the females make while copulating. It turns out that bonobo females at the height of their fertility, not unlike their human counterparts, can be very loud in expressing their carnal pleasure. Ryan, who shines a spotlight on the similarities between bonobos and humans in Sex at Dawn, says there's a clear explanation for this "copulatory vocalisation": they're advertising their fertility to all the males in the area, most of whom are only too happy to make their own contribution to a competition among sperm that is fought out within the female's reproductive tract, rather than in a bar between a bunch of rowdy Larrys.

A legacy of this behaviour is seen in a 2005 Australian study that showed that guys who view porn depicting two men with one woman produce ejaculates with more effective sperm than those viewing porn showing only women. It also explains why men reach orgasm quickly and then temporarily lose interest in sex, while women have developed the capacity for multiple orgasms.

The bonobos' benevolent promiscuity isn't exclusive to apes or prehistoric humans. Even today, many societies have an open approach to sex, marriage and parenthood. One such group is China's 55,000-strong Mosuo people, who allow their daughters to choose their male sex partners at whim - with no strings attached. The daughter's extended family and others in the village then take collective responsibility for any offspring.

In the Amazon, meanwhile, dozens of independent societies believe a fetus is an accumulation of semen, contributed by multiple males over a period of a woman's life since she first starts menstruating. Because of this belief, prospective mothers will often have sex with the best of the tribe's hunters, thinkers, lookers and so on, in the hope of producing a well-rounded child. The men then all take on a father role in raising the child.

New Zealanders, as you may have noticed, are not Mosuo or Amazonian, and we're a few million years removed from bonobos. So the idea that monogamy isn't natural might not come easily to us.

"It's normal that people are going to feel threatened by this," Ryan concedes, "because a lot of people, especially people who haven't read the book, think we're saying, 'Hey ladies, you should just let your husbands screw around and go back to the 50s when nobody made a big deal of it' - which isn't quite what we're saying."

On the contrary, Ryan presents strong arguments for preserving marriages and useful advice for saving them. He talks about the power of "soul passion" over "sexual passion" and points out that all available statistics show single-parent kids do worse in life than kids with two loving parents. He is, in fact, married - to ­psychiatrist Cacilda Jethá, a Mozambique-born Indian with a Portuguese passport who shares an author credit for Sex at Dawn.

Ryan and Jethá are simultaneously comforted and unsettled by the book's conclusions, but they hope they help, rather than hinder, marriages. "We're not advocating anything except a candid and honest assessment of what we are, as animals," says Ryan. "Our greatest ambition for Sex at Dawn is that it will encourage and empower people to clarify their sexual nature and their sexual compatibility before they sign on to a long-term commitment that can't be renegotiated later without a huge amount of suffering for everyone involved."

American psychologist and addiction specialist Stanton Peele, who calls Sex at Dawn a "very significant" work, supports this view. "We're constantly dealing more than ever with how human beings are drawn apart, what an effort marriage is, and it's almost as though we have no tools to recognise the stress that those relationships produce," he says on the phone from New York. "If you can't recognise the forces that work against that, then you're going to have a hard time being realistic in facing marriage as an individual, or in dealing with people and their marital problems and everything else, because you don't have a firm foundation for understanding what the forces they're confronting are."

As it stands, too many people attribute a declining sex life to falling out of love, but it needn't be that way. "They beat themselves up, they think it represents a failure of their relationship, or one of them," says Ryan. "It's not at all. It's just a natural dissolution of something that's served its purpose. The purpose of sexual attraction is to bring two people together. Once they are together, there's really no reason for that feeling to persist, and so it doesn't. It can't be morning all day."

So, what to make of love? If all that stuff Hollywood has peddled about Mr Right and The One turns out to be just an excuse to get us rutting to perpetuate our DNA, is there any hope for the starry-eyed among us? Surely Mills & Boon built an empire on something more substantial than vicarious orgasm (oh, wait ...).

But here Ryan offers a sharp distinction between love and being in love. The former is deep and real, he argues, while the latter is probably just pleasantly delusional, a hasty misinterpretation of the hormonal frenzy that comes with initial, and ultimately fleeting, sexual passion (which lasts about two to four years).

Part of that, at least on the male side, can be attributed to the increased levels of testosterone experienced when a man finds a new sex partner. Sadly, Ryan says, as a man's testosterone levels sag with age, he can experience a loss of energy and libido, which flows on to other reported symptoms, such as a loss of ambition and passion, even sense of humour.

The renewed vitality and stronger sense of being alive that a man gets from a novel lover, however, is hard to replicate. Despite the advice from various glossy magazines, a few candles, some crotchless panties and a handful of rose petals are not going to have a long-lasting effect on the areas that testosterone so adroitly targets.

But none of this is to say that love is doomed and there's no hope of finding a meaningful lifelong companion with whom to share intimacy. There are still strong forces within us that can accommodate the vagaries of our sexual biology, Ryan says.

"We equate being in love with building your house on December ice," he continues with Northern Hemisphere-centric metaphor. "It's going to shift. It's not a very good idea. You're building on something that's not going to last very long. That's sexual passion. But there's a passion of the soul that doesn't dissipate with age and isn't touched by sexual attraction to other people or viewing pornography, or any of these other transient biological impulses.

"If people are lucky enough to find love, then I think they've found something that lasts much longer and is much more solid ground for building a family than being 'in love'."

Ryan allows that his book's premise may not necessarily be right, but he did spend five years looking for a reason it was wrong and didn't find one. "If it is truth," says Ryan of his theory, "then it's completely predictable that the process of arriving at a life that incorporates that truth is going to be disruptive, because what you're doing is replacing one paradigm with a different paradigm, and that's always disruptive." But coming to terms with our sexual nature is, Ryan concludes, "ultimately liberating and invigorating".

If he is right, then Western society, among a few others, may need to do some serious soul-searching. Perhaps that disgraced politician deserves another chance. Perhaps that failed marriage can be revived. Perhaps Tiger Woods's biggest failing was actually insincerity. Whatever the answers, at least the questions are now being asked.

Of course, one of the big unanswered questions is why is jealousy such a powerful emotion, especially if monogamy was never meant to be such a big deal, and paternity certainty isn't as paramount as we at first thought. The standard evolutionary explanation holds that jealousy helps to ensure paternity certainty - making a man more sure about whether a child who emerges from a new mother's loins is his own. But Ryan argues this is a cultural construct with an economic justification. In its basic form, he says, jealousy is just fear of losing something that seems essential.

"If you look at sexuality as a commodity - as it is now and has been for 10,000 years, more or less - it makes perfect sense that people are very afraid of losing it, because like all other commodities, it exists in the context of scarcity," he says. "So we fear losing our lover or relationship because we can't imagine ever replacing that feeling that we get from that person - that feeling of security, that feeling of intimacy.

"If you imagine a society in which sexual pleasure - and intimacy and companionship and help with the kids and all the rest of it - was not a commodity and was not a scarce commodity, then people wouldn't be scared of losing it."

And yes, such a society exists. Those Mosuo people of China, whose women take on multiple sex partners and who share responsibility for the young, consider openly expressed jealousy aggressive because of its "implied intrusion upon the sacred autonomy of another person", notes Ryan. Jealousy for the Mosuo "is thus met with ridicule and shame".

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