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‘I Contain Multitudes’—A Discussion of Biology, Monogamy and ‘Sex at Dawn’

Jul. 22, 2010
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Do I contradict myself?

Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes).

—Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

The passage above is quoted near the end of the recently published book Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality  by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá. The authors are using the quote to refer to female sexuality, but I think that it could be applied to human sexuality as a whole, as well as all of the research that has been done on that topic.

I have received several questions about Sex at Dawn since it was released earlier this month and received a ringing endorsement from Dan Savage, who has devoted space to the book in his column for the past two weeks. The basic premise of Sex at Dawn is to call into question the assumption that lifelong, monogamous pair-bonding—aka "marriage"—is the natural expression of human sexuality. On the contrary, the authors argue, properly interpreted evolutionary data indicate that humans are designed to have multiple sexual partners, and our cultural insistence that monogamy is the only game in town has caused unhappiness and unnecessary interpersonal conflict.

I am automatically leery of any book, article or person who purports to find a biological explanation for human behavior. Too often, such arguments are used to justify the oppression of others—rape is inevitable, for example, or traditional, patriarchal gender roles are inscribed in our genes, or one race is superior to another. I believe that such research is always subject to bias, can never present a full picture of our complex, contradictory behavior, and is frequently seized upon by groups in power to demonstrate that their view of the world is "natural" or "the truth." So, my initial reaction to Sex at Dawn was a very suspicious-sounding "Hmmmmm."

I agree with the author's hypotheses. Our cultural mythology that little boys and girls will grow up, find "The One," marry this person and live happily ever after in an unchanging fog of romantic and sexual bliss causes serious damage. Whose life ever really turns out like a Disney princess movie? Yet if we fail to achieve this dream, we think there is something wrong with ourselves and/or our partners. The enormous expectations that we place on our partners in long-term, monogamous relationships—that they will fulfill every single one of our emotional and sexual needs, forever—almost doom us to failure. The extremely limiting stud/wimp, virgin/slut sexual roles that we force onto men and women don't help matters any.

The authors' arguments for why our ancestors probably lived in small, nomadic, sexually promiscuous groups are fascinating, and I especially loved that they focus so much on the bonobo, or pygmy chimpanzee, the sex-loving primates who are our closest relatives (did you know that the Milwaukee County Zoo has one of the largest bonobo populations in captivity?). The authors also discuss research bias and how, for instance, Darwin's research on sexual selection was a product of both the Victorian era in which he worked and his own personal level of (dis)comfort with sex, yet his views are so deeply ingrained in our culture that they are often accepted as "truth" by the average person despite the fact that this person is not even aware that Darwin was the origin of his or her deeply held beliefs. However, I am not certain that Sex at Dawn can lay claim to having uncovered any ultimate truths about our nature, any more than other books or studies.

Why does Dan Savage like this book so much? Because the authors' interpretation of scientific data supports what he already believes, which is that monogamy should not be held up as the only paradigm for all sexual relationships. Everyone loves science that validates their personal worldview. I also think that our cultural insistence on monogamy is harmful, but Savage believes that Ryan and Jethá "prove" that there is a biological basis for this, whereas I think that it is impossible to uncover any absolute truth in this matter.

At the close of Sex at Dawn, Ryan and Jethá write, "One of the most important hopes we have for this book is to provoke the sorts of conversations that make it a bit easier for couples to make their way across this difficult emotional terrain together[.]" This is what I hope as well—that instead of taking the book as gospel or justification for certain types of sexual behavior, that readers will question personal and cultural assumptions about what's "normal" and foster an ongoing dialogue with partners, friends and family.

Want Laura to answer your questions in SEXpress? Send them to laura@shepex.com. Not all questions received will be answered in the column, and Laura cannot provide personal answers to questions that do not appear here. Questions sent to this address may be reproduced in this column, both in print and online, and may be edited for clarity and content.

Laura Anne Stuart has a master’s degree in public health and has worked as a sexuality educator for more than a decade. She owns the Tool Shed, an erotic boutique on Milwaukee’s East Side.


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