‘I Contain Multitudes’—A Discussion of Biology, Monogamy and ‘Sex at Dawn’
Very well then I
(I am large, I contain multitudes).
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
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.
Laura to answer your questions in SEXpress? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org. 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
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.