Sexuality Resource reviews “Sex at Dawn,” by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha

Sexuality Resource reviews “Sex at Dawn,” by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha

We moderns tend to think of sexuality as the province of more-or-less monogamous couples, bound together by bonds of love, romantic possessiveness, and jealousy.   But according to Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha, at the “dawn” of mankind — the vast era dating from 200,000 to 10,000 years ago – things were quite different.

In their new book, Sex at Dawn, Ryan and Jetha argue that for hundreds of thousands of years of human prehistory, the basic sexual unit was not the couple at all, but rather small groups of hunter-gatherers — perhaps 50 to 150 individuals in each.    These small groups, argue Ryan and Jetha, enjoyed a life of leisure, harmony, and sexual freedom that we can only dimly imagine.

Because they roamed to wherever food was plentiful, these early tribes neither had nor needed many possessions.   Because nature provided for all their needs in abundance, they had no modern concept of ownership or property.   All resources were shared with the group, and there was nearly always enough.

In these prehistoric cultures, according to Ryan and Jetha, the absence of a sense of ownership extended to personal relationships as well.  Sexual enjoyment, like everything else, was a bountiful resource to be shared with everyone.  There would probably have been little or no sexual jealousy.

Sexual autonomy and freedom were a natural birthright for both men and women.  One could mate with as many partners as one wished.  Sexual promiscuity was the rule rather than the exception.

How about monogamy?

Sexual monogamy might have struck these ancients as a silly and selfish idea.   No one in such a group could lay exclusive claim to anything, including a mate’s sexual enjoyment.   Instead, sexual relations served to bond all members of the group together.   The more sex, the happier and more cohesive the tribe.

“OK,” you’re thinking.  “A weird but interesting story.   But is there any evidence to back up this notion of how our prehistoric ancestors lived?”

It turns out the evidence for it is surprisingly strong.  Accounts of actual hunter-gatherer societies, from Captain Cook’s Polynesians to recent inhabitants of the Amazon rainforest, confirm the above narrative in all respects – including the endless sexual buffet.

The evidence from comparative anatomy is even more compelling.  As one of the authors, Christopher Ryan, summed it up in a recent article in Psychology Today online, “. . . women’s breasts, orgasms and reproductive anatomy echo the same story told by men’s testicles, penises, and seminal chemistry. It’s an X-rated tale of the orgiastic origins of our species.”  I won’t have space here to go into the details — but the anatomic evidence strongly suggests that we are built for non-stop partying, rather than monogamy.  (For all of you who are still hesitating about whether to buy the book:  the figure at the end of chapter 15 is not to be missed).

“So,” you’re wondering,  “What terrible wrong turn did we take, to get from there to where we are today?   What awful thing did we do as a species, to get us expelled from this delicious Eden?”

One word:

Agriculture.

The dawn of agriculture 10,000 years ago was an economic and cultural catastrophe from which we have never recovered.

When humans stopped roaming, and instead settled down to work the land, one’s sustenance now became dependent on how hard one worked.  The organizing principle of human existence changed from abundance to scarcity.

Since resources were now scarce, competition became the new cultural norm, as did individual ownership of land and other precious resources.   Wars erupted, for the first time in human history.   And the once-peaceful little tribal group, with its sharing of bountiful resources, degenerated into smaller family units, each jealously guarding its small plot of land.

Sexual life was transformed as well.   In the new ownership societies, one person would now claim another as his or her property, to be jealously guarded against competitors.  Cultural institutions arose to safeguard sexual property.   Chief among these was the new cultural ideal of sexual monogamy.

Sound familiar?

Of course.  This is our everyday world.   But take a trip through the pages of Sex at Dawn, and you will never take it for granted in the same way again.  Like adults watching children at play, the book forces us to confront the existence of a sexual paradise from which our agricultural intelligence accidentally exiled us long ago.

In our world’s fascination with the marriages and infidelities of its leaders and celebrities, the authors of Sex at Dawn see a vague recollection of a bygone era when sexual liberty was considered everyone’s birthright.

Will Sex at Dawn’s vision of human sexual prehistory spark further debate about our sexual nature?

Let’s hope so.   We could use more intelligent debate in our field.

Will the ideas it contains influence our culture — particularly our insistence on monogamy?

Probably not.  As the book proves beyond any doubt, culture is very powerful.

But go read it anyway.  It’s a great book.

And stay tuned next week, when we discuss whether Sex at Dawn will influence the practice of sex therapy.

 

© Stephen Snyder, MD 2010
www.sexualityresource.com
New York City