Why ‘Sex at Dawn’ is a Game Changer

Margie Nichols, Ph.D.by Margie Nichols, Ph.D.

Recently, there’s been renewed buzz about the 2010 book “Sex at Dawn” but it’s unclear whether people appreciate the book’s true importance.  Authors Ryan and Jetha assert “Like bonobos and chimps, we are the randy descendants of hypersexual ancestors” and although much of the book makes the case for nonmonogamy, their arguments about our sexual origins have far broader implications.  So broad, in fact, that before I tackle BDSM I want to explain why ‘Sex at Dawn’ is a game changer. When the book first appeared, Dan Savage called it the most important book about sex since Kinsey, and that’s only slightly hyperbolic.

Subtitled “How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships,” authors Ryan and Jetha’s purpose is to skewer the idea that monogamy is in any way ‘natural’ or ‘evolutionarily sound.’  But in fact they do much more:  perhaps without realizing it, they’ve provided the basis for a new paradigm for viewing human sexuality, one that validates the existence of all variant forms of sex and gender expression.

Let me explain.From the birth of the field of sexology, marked by the publication of Kraft-Ebbing’s Psychopathia Sexualis in 1886,  sex researchers and their psychiatric colleagues have been concerned, one might even say obsessed, with atypical sexual behavior and gender presentation.  And since that time, there have been two competing views of non-standard sexual behaviors:  the belief that these behaviors and attractions are deviant, and the view that they are simply variant.  Kraft-Ebbing favored deviance where Havelock Ellis and Magnus Hirschfeld saw variance; Freud conceptualized stunted psychosexual development resulting in deviant sexuality, while Kinsey imagined the natural variation found in his original field, entomology.  Views that privilege monogamous, heterosexual penis-in-vagina sex are rooted in the assumption that procreation is the sole/primary function of sex.  This belief in turn issues from a narrow interpretation of Darwin’s theory of sexual selection, e.g.,  ‘survival of the fittest,’ the idea that the transmission of desirable genetic traits is accomplished when the fittest male and fittest female mate and produce offspring.   This model makes monogamous heterosexual intercourse a biological imperative and other forms of sexual behavior, including same-sex behavior, require ‘explanations’ in order to justify their continued existence.   The reliance on this theory leads logically to the belief that sex or gender presentations that do not lead directly to reproduction are “evolutionarily maladaptive” or a “developmental error”- deviant, not just less common but normal variations.

There are a couple of problems with the mate-selection theory upon which the ‘deviance model’ rests.  First – it’s  not substantiated through naturalistic observation.  For example, research on  bird populations over many generations show that survival rates are determined largely by environmental conditions – in drought conditions, the most drought resistant birds survive, when diseases sweep an area, the birds with stronger immune systems live, and so on.  The biggest, strongest birds may win the females of their choice – but it is not  their children who live to pass on genes.  In addition, it is clear that the MAJORITY of sex acts among animals in the natural world are NOT procreative, and are NOT penis in vagina sex.  The foundation upon which the deviance model of sex and gender variation rests is a chimera.

This is what ‘Sex at Dawn’ really addresses.  The authors convincingly portray our human forebears as similar to bonobo monkeys: wildly sexual with partners of both genders, nonmonogamous, with cooperative family structures that resemble free love communes more than the nuclear family. And by doing so, Ryan and Jetha validate the idea that sexual behavior varies enormously, and that all such behavior is ‘normal’ and potentially evolutionarily adaptive.

They are not the first authors to make this case.  Bruce Bagemihl’s “Biological Exuberance” documented the existence of solo sex, homosexual sex, and even ‘kinky’ sex in a wide variety of animal species.  And evolutionary biologist Joan Roughgarden made the same assertions in “Evolution’s Rainbow,” although in a way less accessible to the average reader.  The importance of “Sex at Dawn” is its popularity: it made the New York Times best seller list when it was released in hard over in 2010 and again when the paperback version came out in 2011.

To be sure, the professional reception has been mixed.  It has been criticized in particular by evolutionary psychologists, and even spawned a rebuttal book called “Sex at Dusk.”  But this is not surprising.  The field of evolutionary psychology wouldn’t exist without belief in a narrow interpretation of Darwin.  By retrofitting current culture back to our Paleolithic ancestors – what Ryan and Jetha call the ‘Flintstoneization’ of human history- evolutionary psychologists attempt to frame current norms as ‘biological imperative.’  Men like big breasts- must be because big-breasted women have more milk for their children.  Women are monogamous, men promiscuous – must be because monogamy protects the genotype passed on by males.

But Ryan and Jetha are on to something, and that something is bigger than nonmonogamy.  If they are right – and a growing number of scientists agree with a revised version of Darwin – then all the arguments about what is ‘natural’ versus ‘unnatural’ go out the window.  In the real world of animal, and early human, sexuality – it seems that anything goes, including multiple partners, same sex behavior- and even kink.

Next week: now that we’ve laid the groundwork for viewing BDSM as ‘normal’ – we’ll introduce you to the world of kink.

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