RATING: 8/10…READ: May 16, 2013
Sex at Dawn explores the evolution of sexuality from prehistoric times to the present. Changed how I think about relationships, monogamy, and the devastating effects of culture on sexuality, mainly the repression of female sexuality. Helped reduce shame about my natural sexual tendencies. Highly recommended.
According to U.S. News and World Report, “Americans spend more money at strip clubs than at Broadway, off-Broadway, regional and nonprofit theaters, the opera, the ballet and jazz and classical music performances—combined.”
The conflict between what we’re told we feel and what we really feel may be the richest source of confusion, dissatisfaction, and unnecessary suffering of our time.
We argue that women’s seemingly consistent preference for men with access to wealth is not a result of innate evolutionary programming, as the standard model asserts, but simply a behavioral adaptation to a world in which men control a disproportionate share of the world’s resources.
But human societies changed in radical ways once they started farming and raising domesticated animals. They organized themselves around hierarchical political structures, private property, densely populated settlements, a radical shift in the status of women, and other social configurations that together represent an enigmatic disaster for our species: human population growth mushroomed as quality of life plummeted. The shift to agriculture, wrote author Jared Diamond, is a “catastrophe from which we have never recovered.”
The most important pivot point in the story of our species, the shift to agriculture redirected the trajectory of human life more fundamentally than the control of fire, the Magna Carta, the printing press, the steam engine, nuclear fission, or anything else has or, perhaps, ever will. With agriculture, virtually everything changed: the nature of status and power, social and family structures, how humans interacted with the natural world, the gods they worshipped, the likelihood and nature of warfare between groups, quality of life, longevity, and certainly, the rules governing sexuality.
Because of private property, for the first time in the history of our species, paternity became a crucial concern.
Sigmund Freud got it right when he observed that “civilization” is built largely on erotic energy that has been blocked, concentrated, accumulated, and redirected.
Psychologists David Feinstein and Stanley Krippner explain, “Mythology is the loom on which [we] weave the raw materials of daily experience into a coherent story.”
Evolutionary theory, in other words, offers explanations of how bodies came to be as they are.
As German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer pointed out, Mensch kann tun was er will; er kann aber nicht wollen was er will. (One can choose what to do, but not what to want.)
Comedian Jerry Seinfeld sums it up in terms of fire and firemen: “The basic conflict between men and women, sexually, is that men are like firemen. To men, sex is an emergency, and no matter what we’re doing we can be ready in two minutes. Women, on the other hand, are like fire. They’re very exciting, but the conditions have to be exactly right for it to occur.”
The standard narrative of heterosexual interaction boils down to prostitution: a woman exchanges her sexual services for access to resources.
As if there were only one possible meaning of “productivity.” This perspective on life incorporates the Protestant work ethic (that “productivity” is what makes an animal “effective”) and echoes the Old Testament notion that life must be endured, not enjoyed.
The vast majority of other female mammals advertise when they are fertile, and are decidedly not interested in sex at other times. Concealed ovulation is said to be a significant human exception.
Among primates, the female capacity and willingness to have sex any time, any place is characteristic only of bonobos and humans.
Our DNA differs from that of chimps and bonobos by roughly 1.6 percent, making us closer to them than a dog is to a fox.
Monogamy is not found in any social, group-living primate except—if the standard narrative is to be believed—us.
Human groups tend to respond to food surplus and storage with behavior like that observed in chimps: heightened hierarchical social organization, intergroup violence, territorial perimeter defense, and Machiavellian alliances. In other words, humans—like chimps—tend to fight when there’s something worth fighting over.
“the chimpanzee resolves sexual issues with power; the bonobo resolves power issues with sex.”
Modern man’s seemingly instinctive impulse to control women’s sexuality is not an intrinsic feature of human nature. It is a response to specific historical socioeconomic conditions—conditions very different from those in which our species evolved. This is key to understanding sexuality in the modern world.
Skeletal remains taken from various regions of the world dating to the transition from foraging to farming all tell the same story: increased famine, vitamin deficiency, stunted growth, radical reduction in life span, increased violence…little cause for celebration.
Sex for pleasure with various partners is therefore more “human” than animal. Strictly reproductive, once-in-a-blue-moon sex is more “animal” than human. In other words, an excessively horny monkey is acting “human,” while a man or woman uninterested in sex more than once or twice a year would be, strictly speaking, “acting like an animal.”
Primates aside, only 3 percent of mammals and one in ten thousand invertebrate species can be considered sexually monogamous.
The word ‘consortship’ was used initially to define the close male-female sexual bond seen in savannah baboons and then usage of the word spread to the relationship of other mating pairs.” This semantic leap, says Small, was a mistake. “Researchers began to think that all primates form consortships, and they applied the word to any short or long, exclusive or nonexclusive mating.” This is a problem because “what was originally intended to describe a specific male-female association that lasted during the days surrounding ovulation became an all-inclusive word for mating…. Once a female is described as ‘being in consort,’ no one sees the importance of her regular copulations with other males.”
As Donald Symons put it, “The lexicon of the English language is woefully inadequate to reflect accurately the texture of human experience…. To shrink the present vocabulary to one phrase—pair-bond—and to imagine that in so doing one is being scientific…is simply to delude oneself.”
Now consider the confusion created by the words mate and mating. A mate sometimes refers to a sexual partner in a given copulation; other times, it refers to a partner in a recognized marriage, with whom children are raised and all sorts of behavioral and economic patterns are established. To mate with someone could mean to join together “till death do us part,” or it could refer to nothing more than a quickie with “Julio down by the schoolyard.”
According to anthropologist Robert Edgerton, the Marind-anim people of Melanesia believed: Semen was essential to human growth and development. They also married quite young, and to assure the bride’s fertility, she had to be filled with semen. On her wedding night, therefore, as many as ten members of her husband’s lineage had sexual intercourse with the bride, and if there were more men than this in the lineage, they had intercourse with her the following night…. A similar ritual was repeated at various intervals throughout a woman’s life.
While we in the West glorify male dominance and competition,” Sanday says, “the Minangkabau glorify their mythical Queen Mother and cooperation.” She reports that “males and females relate more like partners for the common good than like competitors ruled by egocentric self-interest,” and that as with bonobo social groups, women’s prestige increases with age and “accrues to those who promote good relations….”
Remember this when some loudmouth at the bar declares that “patriarchy is universal, and always has been!” It’s not, and it hasn’t. But rather than feel threatened, we’d recommend that our male readers ponder this: Societies in which women have lots of autonomy and authority tend to be decidedly male-friendly, relaxed, tolerant, and plenty sexy. Got that, fellas? If you’re unhappy at the amount of sexual opportunity in your life, don’t blame the women. Instead, make sure they have equal access to power, wealth, and status. Then watch what happens.
Marriage,” “mating,” and “love” are socially constructed phenomena that have little or no transferable meaning outside any given culture.
Why is it so easy to believe that a mother’s love isn’t a zero-sum proposition, but that sexual love is a finite resource?
We now know that until the advent of agriculture, our ancestors’ overall population doubled not every twenty-five years, but every 250,000 years.
During the many millennia before agriculture, the entire number of Homo sapiens on the planet probably never surpassed a million people and certainly never approached the current population of Chicago. Furthermore, recently obtained DNA analyses suggest several population bottlenecks caused by environmental catastrophes reduced our species to just a few thousand individuals as recently as 70,000 years ago.
Poverty is not a certain small amount of goods, nor is it just a relation between means and ends; above all it is a relation between people. Poverty is a social status. As such it is the invention of civilization.”
Socrates made the same point 2,400 years ago: “He is richest who is content with least, for contentment is the wealth of nature.”
Human nature functions one way in the context of intimate, interdependent societies, but set loose in anonymity, we become a different creature. Neither beast is more nor less human.
To see the present in the most flattering light, we paint the past in blood-red hues of suffering and terror.
It is a common mistake to assume that evolution is a process of improvement, that evolving organisms are progressing toward some final, perfected state. But they, and we, are not. An evolving society or organism simply adapts over the generations to changing conditions. While these modifications may be immediately beneficial, they are not really improvements because external conditions never stop shifting.
Just as Westerners’ behaviour is understandable in relation to their assumption of shortage, so hunter-gatherers’ behaviour is understandable in relation to their assumption of affluence.
Marvin Harris puts it simply: “Stone age populations lived healthier lives than did most of the people who came immediately after them.”
Difficult as it may be for some to accept, skeletal evidence clearly shows that our ancestors didn’t experience widespread, chronic scarcity until the advent of agriculture. Chronic food shortages and scarcity-based economies are artifacts of social systems that arose with farming. In his introduction to Limited Wants, Unlimited Means, Gowdy points to the central irony: “Hunter-gatherers…spent their abundant leisure time eating, drinking, playing, socializing—in short, doing the very things we associate with affluence.”
Rape is a standard male reproductive strategy and likely has been one for millions of years. Male humans, chimpanzees, and orangutans routinely rape females. Wild gorillas violently abduct females to mate with them. Captive gorillas also rape females.”
Leaving aside the complications of defining rape in nonhuman species unable to communicate their experiences and motivations, rape—along with infanticide, war, and murder—has never been witnessed among bonobos in several decades of observation. Not in the wild. Not in the zoo. Never.
In the wild, chimps spread out to search for food individually or in small groups. Because the food is scattered throughout the jungle, competition is unusual. But, as Frans de Waal explains, “as soon as humans start providing food, even in the jungle, the peace is quickly disturbed.”
Early agriculture’s stores of harvested grain and herds of placid livestock were like boxes of bananas in the jungle. There was now something worth fighting over: more. More land to cultivate. More women to increase population to work the land, raise armies to defend it, and help with the harvest. More slaves for the hard labor of planting, harvesting, and fighting. Failed crops in one area would lead desperate farmers to raid neighbors, who would retaliate, and so on, over and over.
Asking whether our species is naturally peaceful or warlike, generous or possessive, free-loving or jealous, is like asking whether H2O is naturally a solid, liquid, or gas. The only meaningful answer to such a question is: It depends. On a nearly empty planet, with food and shelter distributed widely, avoiding conflict would have been an easy, attractive option. Under the conditions typical of ancestral environments, human beings would have had much more to lose than to gain from warring against one another. The evidence—both physical and circumstantial—points to a human prehistory in which our ancestors made far more love than war.
Life expectancy at birth, which is the measure generally cited, is far from an accurate measure of the typical life span. When you read, “At the beginning of the 20th century, life expectancy at birth was around 45 years. It has risen to about 75 thanks to the advent of antibiotics and public health measures that allow people to survive or avoid infectious diseases,”5 keep in mind that this dramatic increase is much more a reflection of increased infant survival than of adults living longer.
Once our ancestors began cultivating land for food, they were running on a wheel, but never fast enough. More land provides more food. And more food means more children born and fed. More children provide more help on the farm and more soldiers. But this population growth creates demand for more land, which can be won and held only through conquest and war. Put another way, the shift to agriculture was accelerated by the seemingly irrefutable belief that it’s better to take strangers’ land (killing them if necessary) than to allow one’s own children to die of starvation.
In addition to the reduced nutritional value of the agricultural diet, the diseases deadliest to our species began their dreadful rampage when human populations turned to agriculture. Conditions were perfect: high-density population centers stewing in their own filth, domesticated animals in close proximity (adding their excrement, viruses, and parasites to the mix), and extended trade routes facilitating the movement of contagious pathogens from populations with immunity to vulnerable communities.
The dramatic increases in world population that paralleled agricultural development don’t indicate increased health, but increased fertility: more people living to reproduce, but lower quality of life for those who do. Even Edgerton, who repeatedly tells the longevity lie (Foragers’ “lives are short—life expectancy at birth ranges between 20 and 40 years…”), has to agree that, somehow, foragers managed to be healthier than agriculturalists: “Agriculturalists throughout the world were always less healthy than hunters and gatherers.” The urban populations of Europe, he writes, “did not match the longevity of hunter-gatherers until the mid-nineteenth or even twentieth century.”
While there were no doubt occasional outbreaks of infectious diseases in prehistory, it’s unlikely they spread far, even with high levels of sexual promiscuity. It would have been nearly impossible for pathogens to take hold in widely dispersed groups of foragers with infrequent contact between groups. The conditions necessary for devastating epidemics or pandemics just didn’t exist until the agricultural revolution. The claim that modern medicine and sanitation save us from infectious diseases that ravaged pre-agricultural people (something we hear often) is like arguing that seat belts and air bags protect us from car crashes that were fatal to our prehistoric ancestors.
If an infectious virus doesn’t get you, a stressed-out lifestyle and unhealthy diet probably will. Cortisol, the hormone your body releases when under stress, is the strongest immunosuppressant known. In other words, nothing weakens our defenses against disease quite like stress.
Intermittent fasting was associated with more than a 40 percent reduction in heart disease risk in a study of 448 people published in the American Journal of Cardiology reporting that “most diseases, including cancer, diabetes and even neurodegenerative illnesses, are forestalled” by caloric reduction.
Why,” he asks rhetorically, “should someone feel unhappy or engage in anti-social behavior when that person is living in the freest and most prosperous nation on Earth? It can’t be the system!”23 What’s your problem? Everything’s just fine. Life’s great and getting better! Less war! Longer life! New and improved human existence!
Like most great ideas, the theory of testis size is simple: species that copulate more often need larger testes, and species in which several males routinely copulate with one ovulating female need even bigger testes.
Compete to see who gets all the booty, as it were. So, although an adult silverback gorilla weighs in at around four hundred pounds, his penis is just over an inch long, at full mast, and his testicles are the size of kidney beans, though you’d have trouble finding them, as they’re safely tucked up inside his body. A one-hundred-pound bonobo has a penis three times as long as the gorilla’s and testicles the size of chicken eggs.
With harem-based polygynous systems like the gorilla’s, individual males fight it out before any sex takes place. In sperm competition, the cells fight in there so males don’t have to fight out here. Instead, males can relax around one another, allowing larger group sizes, enhancing cooperation, and avoiding disruption to the social dynamic. This helps explain why no primate living in multimale social groups is monogamous. It just wouldn’t work.
More recently, several researchers have demonstrated that a man’s sperm production increases significantly when he has not seen his partner for a few days, regardless of whether or not he ejaculated during her absence.
A team of Australian researchers, for example, found that men who had ejaculated more than five times per week between the ages of twenty and fifty were one-third less likely to develop prostate cancer later in life.
Frequent orgasm is associated with better cardiac health as well. A study conducted at the University of Bristol and Queen’s University of Belfast found that men who have three or more orgasms per week are 50 percent less likely to die from coronary heart disease.
Because fit is so important in the effectiveness of condoms, World Health Organization guidelines specify different sizes for various parts of the world: a 49-millimeter-width condom for Asia, a 52-millimeter width for North America and Europe, and a 53-millimeter width for Africa (all condoms are longer than most men will ever need).
The Hamilton Beach Company of Racine, Wisconsin, patented the first home-use vibrator in 1902, thereby making it just the fifth electrical appliance approved for domestic use. By 1917, there were more vibrators than toasters in American homes.
If male orgasm is a muffled crash of cymbals, female orgasm is full-on opera.
There’s a good reason the sound of a woman enjoying a sexual encounter entices a heterosexual man. Her “copulation call” is a potential invitation to come hither, thus provoking sperm competition.
Thus, in these baboons at least, listening males could presumably gain information as to their likelihood of impregnating a calling female, as well as some sense of the rank of the male they’d find with her if they approached.
Theories range from the belief that breasts serve as signaling devices announcing fertility and fat deposits sufficient to withstand the rigors of pregnancy and breastfeeding12 to “genital echo theory”: females developed pendulous breasts around the time hominids began walking upright in order to provoke the excitation males formerly felt when gazing at the fatty deposits on the buttocks.
Not every “high quality” male would be a good match for any specific woman—even on a purely biological level. Because of the complexities of how the two sets of parental DNA interact in fertilization, a man who appears to be of superior mate value (square jaw, symmetrical body, good job, firm handshake, Platinum AMEX card) may in fact be a poor genetic match for a particular woman. So, a woman (and ultimately, her child) may benefit by “sampling many males” and letting her body decide whose sperm fertilizes her. Her body, in other words, might be better informed than her conscious mind.
Recent research suggests women who do not use condoms are less likely to suffer from depression than either women who do use condoms or who are not sexually active. Psychologist Gordon Gallup’s initial survey of 293 women (data congruent with those from another survey still to be published that included 700 women) found that women can develop a “chemical dependency” on the boost they get from the testosterone, estrogen, prostaglandins, and other hormones contained in semen. These chemicals enter the woman’s bloodstream through the vaginal wall.
The male’s quick orgasm lessens the chances of being interrupted by predators or other males (survival of the quickest!), while the female and her child would benefit by exercising some preconscious control over which spermatozoa would be most likely to fertilize her ovum.
Other experiments using subliminal images have generated similar results: gay men, straight men, and lesbians all responded as predicted by their stated sexual orientation, while nominally straight women (“I contain multitudes”) responded to just about everything. This is just how we’re wired, not the result of repression or denial.
Sexologist Lisa Diamond spent over a decade studying the ebb and flow of female desire. In her book Sexual Fluidity, she reports that many women see themselves as attracted to specific people, rather than to their gender.
Mensch kann tun was er will; er kann aber nicht wollen was er will.” (One can choose what to do, but not what to want.) Desire, particularly male desire, is notoriously unresponsive to religious dictate, legal retribution, family pressure, self-preservation, or common sense. It does respond to one thing, however: testosterone.
The United States, adolescent males are five times more likely to kill themselves than females are. Among Americans between fifteen and twenty-five, suicide is the third leading cause of death, and teenage boys kill themselves at a rate double that of any other demographic group.
Psychologists Joey Sprague and David Quadagno surveyed women from twenty-two to fifty-seven years of age and found that among those under thirty-five, 61 percent of the women said their primary motivation for sex was emotional, rather than physical. But among those over thirty-five, only 38 percent claimed their emotional motivations were stronger than the physical hunger for contact.19 At face value, such results suggest women’s motivations change with age. Or one could also argue that this effect could simply reflect women becoming less apologetic as they mature.
Earlier, we discussed how men’s testosterone levels recede over the years, but it’s not just the passing of time that brings these levels down: monogamy itself seems to drain away a man’s testosterone. Married men consistently show lower levels of the hormone than single men of the same age; fathers of young children, even less. Men who are particularly responsive to infants show declines of 30 percent or more right after their child is born. Married men having affairs, however, were found to have higher testosterone levels than those who weren’t.23 Additionally, most of the men having affairs have told researchers they were actually quite happy in their marriages, while only one-third of women having affairs felt that way.
How is it “adult” to inflict emotional trauma on our children because we’re unable to face the truth about sex? Susan Squire, author of I Don’t: A Contrarian History of Marriage, asks: “Why does society consider it more moral for you to break up a marriage, go through a divorce, disrupt your children’s lives maybe forever, just to be able to fuck someone with whom the fucking is going to get just as boring as it was with the first person before long?”
As reported recently in Time, “On every single significant outcome related to short-term well-being and long-term success, children from intact, two-parent families outperform those from single-parent households. Longevity, drug abuse, school performance and dropout rates, teen pregnancy, criminal behavior and incarceration…in all cases, the kids living with both parents drastically outperform the others.”