Sex at Dawn
by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá
genre: non-fiction, sexuality, evolutionary theory
A controversial book with lots of great points. Find out why I gave it 4 out of 5 stars!
(Taken from Goodreads)
Since Darwin’s day, we’ve been told that sexual monogamy comes naturally to our species. Mainstream science–as well as religious and cultural institutions–has maintained that men and women evolved in families in which a man’s possessions and protection were exchanged for a woman’s fertility and fidelity. But this narrative is collapsing. Fewer and fewer couples are getting married, and divorce rates keep climbing as adultery and flagging libido drag down even seemingly solid marriages.
How can reality be reconciled with the accepted narrative? It can’t be, according to renegade thinkers Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá. While debunking almost everything we “know” about sex, they offer a bold alternative explanation in this provocative and brilliant book.
Ryan and Jethá’s central contention is that human beings evolved in egalitarian groups that shared food, child care, and, often, sexual partners. Weaving together convergent, frequently overlooked evidence from anthropology, archaeology, primatology, anatomy, and psychosexuality, the authors show how far from human nature monogamy really is. Human beings everywhere and in every era have confronted the same familiar, intimate situations in surprisingly different ways. The authors expose the ancient roots of human sexuality while pointing toward a more optimistic future illuminated by our innate capacities for love, cooperation, and generosity.
Yep! We’re talking about SEX! So look away if you don’t like it.
As soon as I saw this book online, I knew that I had to read it. One of my personal interests is human sexuality, so much so that I am genuinely considering doing a masters in Sexology (or Human Sexuality) at one point in my life. I find it fascinating, and I find it even more fascinating that no one seems to talk about it openly.
Along with my personal interest in this field, I have a lot of strong personal beliefs about sexuality. This book supported a lot of these open, non-judgmental perspectives that I hold while also challenging me in a number of different ways. While I feel like there are definite holes in some of their arguments, this book is great food for thought and I’d encourage everyone to read it.
The writing style was easy to follow and was quite humorous at times. While there are lots of references to research and studies, the book isn’t bogged down with complicated terms or paragraphs of abstract discussion. Anyone can read it and enjoy it. As someone who reads a lot of scientific journals, it was nice to have this book written in lay-person terms.
I found myself agreeing with a lot of what they said about personal sexdrives, the high libido of women (something that is often assumed to be low/non-existent), and the natural-ness of masturbation. I applaud them for not getting stuck in the stereotypes of men and women. My only gripe is that at the end (second last chapter) the book flips on its self and starts talking about why men cheat like they are somehow ‘not to be blamed’. Throughout the entire book they’re talking about men and women, that they both have high libidos, outlining the sperm competition hypothesis where women want to sleep with lots of men to get the best sperm… and then they just go back to a stereotype? Something they spent chapters disproving? There was no evidence or logic to it and I think they really should have just removed that chapter entirely. That inconsistency really bothered me and is the main reason why I took down my rating a whole star.
I was challenged by the argument against monogamy, especially as someone in a happy, long-term relationship. I found it fascinating to think about this alternate perspective of egalitarian societies where everything is shared, even sexual favours. I am not convinced by the evidence they gave but it’s a fascinating perspective that was never discussed in my evolutionary lectures. In fact, I picked up this book right after having an evolutionary lecture because I didn’t believe the simple narrative. Even though they sometimes made rather large leaps and/or conclusions from their evidence, it really made me think.
Some conclusions I had issues with:
- Understanding that humans get turned on by novelty somehow implied that humans naturally need new sexual partners. Wouldn’t this simply mean that to solve a lot of the sexual issues for couples, they need to incorporate novelties in their sex life? A new partner is not necessarily the only solution.
- Poly-amorous relationships were implied to be somehow… more ‘natural’. And yet in these relationships (of 3+ people) they are still committed relationships just with a set number of people. Isn’t that still ‘restrictive’ by their definitions? They would still run into the issue of ‘Oh, I’m having sex with you two for the 500th time’.
- They kept saying that marriage was a ‘failure’ in our society. Last I checked, divorce rates were decreasing? It’s only a statistic but it has to count for something. Where were they getting their evidence for the rates of ‘failed marriages’? There might be cultural differences between the generation with most divorces (I’m assuming people in their 40s-50s) with how they were thought to perceive marriage/love/sexuality/family to how young people getting married today do. There are just too many variables!
- They never brought any research showing happy sexual couples versus non-happy sexual couples. What is the difference? It can’t just be down to personality. It was very convenient for them to omit this type of perspective. Hypothetically, if happy sexual couples don’t cheat, then clearly that supports a healthy sexuality as an important part of being happy/content rather than just new sexual experiences (as might be the case with non happy sexual couples).
- I don’t think that non-monogamy was their strongest case. They’re strongest case (most evidence and logic) was that humans are highly sexual and we require active, healthy sex lives (masturbating or sleeping with others). And that we shouldn’t restrict how human relationships should be (the only “right” way = nuclear family).
- I also didn’t like that whenever they talked about their work, how non-monogamy means that we should be open to all different types of sexuality… they throw in homosexuality. Now I get that they’re trying to look all open and non-prejudice but… Majority of homosexuals (as far as I know from anecdotal evidence, are there any surveys done on this?) value monogamy for the right person. Which is the ‘norm’ for most heterosexual people too, as far as I know. Their argument didn’t really talk about homosexuality at all and yet they threw it in at the end, as if suggesting their their novel somehow supported the acceptance of homosexuality. To me, that made little sense. It felt like they were trying for brownie points.
Sexuality is so socially bound and culturally grounded that it’s often hard to think outside of what we’ve been told. While I am still not necessarily convinced that humans need to have multiple mates to be happy sexually, I do believe that human sexuality is complicated. And this book has opened my mind to new theories, hypotheses, and possibilities. I have nothing against open relationships, but I do still think that a lot of the unhappiness caused in relationships in regards to sex has its roots in upbringing, expectations, and cultural restrictions. When sexuality is not seen as shameful, when it’s encouraged, and when one allows oneself to be sexual, then I cannot see a reason why a couple cannot be fulfilled with just each other.
This book is great to make you think and challenge your beliefs. I think it’s so important for everyone to have their beliefs challenged in a constructive way to make us re-think things we just assume are right without questioning it. I don’t like the simple normal narrative told in university lectures (way too restrictive and hetero-normative) and I wasn’t entirely convinced by this multi-mating system Sex at Dawn proposed. Maybe one day I can write my own book and throw in a third perspective. 😀 On that note, Sex at Dusk was written by an evolutionary psychologist opposing Sex at Dawn and has lots of counter arguments. I’m hoping to read that one too.
Did you read Sex at Dawn? What did you think? Did it challenge your ideas of sexuality?
This book is for you if you:
- Love being challenged and expanding your beliefs
- Relish in controversial subjects and books
- Enjoy reading psychology non-fiction
This book is not for you if you:
- Want a hard scientific novel (It’s very much aimed at the general public)
- Are uncomfortable thinking or reading about anything related to sexuality
– Ermisenda Alvarez
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