Eye of the Storm

A therapist's take on the nation's toughest cases

Sex from Dusk Till Dawn

Have modern child-rearing practices ruined all the fun?

I'm selling all my earthly possessions and moving to China ASAP. I will go to the mountains around Lugu Lake to live with the Mosuo to be exact. Moving there appeals to me mostly because they don't have words for murder, rape and war, but also because it might transform my sex life. The Mosuo is a matrilineal, agricultural society with about 56000 members who practice sexual freedom and absolute autonomy for all adults to degrees that would make Charlie Sheen blush. In brief, property is passed down only to daughters. When girls turn 14, they get their own bedroom with a separate entrance, so they can have nightly visitors of their own choosing. Once a girl gets pregnant, her brothers are expected to assist her in the rearing of her children who grow up roaming the area freely and being taken care of by many aunts and uncles. No demands are placed on the nightly visitors except that they be gone by sunrise.

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Most Mosuo adults maintain several romantic entanglements simultaneously and any type of jealousy is considered an aggressive infringement on another's absolute autonomy. Needless to say, the Mosou don't have words for wife or husband, everyone is just an azhu, which simply means friend. The Mosou consider a relationship over at the end of each visit, though visits can be repeated. With friends like that, who needs a husband!

I learned about this fascinating society from the meticulously researched and wildly entertaining book Sex at Dawn by fellow blogger Christopher Ryan and his wife Cacilda Jetha. The authors convincingly debunk the myth of monogamy as the natural way to live and instead propose that modern society's standard narrative of monogamy clashes with our genetically based overwhelming desire to mix it up once in a while.

But Sex at Dawn is about a lot more than sex. Ryan and Jetha describe how our prehistoric human ancestors lived in tribes of 100-150 in which everyone maintained several casual sexual relationships and paternal responsibility was distributed among all of a woman's lovers. Thus, children had several fathers, so if one of them died prematurely, the mother and her children could count on the other fathers for support. Furthermore, the women shared childcare and breast-fed each others' children. Children belonged to the group and were raised by the group. This promoted bonding and deep connections and decreased anxiety and conflict. I suspect that rates of depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, panic attacks and many other modern maladies were very low. Then again that's why they are called modern maladies.

The authors put forth compelling evidence for their central thesis that both human males and females were born to sleep around a bit. Sometimes it's downright frightening—apparently monogamy makes a man's balls shrink and what kind-hearted woman would ever want that on her conscience? So by default, the authors support the idea of open marriage though they never explicitly state this.

But open marriage is a complex topic. Sky-high rates of divorce, depression, EDD, sexless marriages and serial monogamy which leave a trail of broken homes behind them make some of us wonder if we need to re-evaluate our beliefs about love, sex and fidelity. Still, halfway through Sex at Dawn, I began to wonder why I have met so few people who can pull these kinds of casual sexual relationships off. Have we all just been brainwashed by our culture's standard narrative as the authors suggest? Maybe.

But I do believe the reasons go a little deeper than that. The book draws its examples from a very different world—a world where children grow up with many caregivers and secure attachments. They were loved and cared for by many and thus never had to fear being left to fend for themselves. I suspect children in these societies rarely ever felt lonely or insecure.

Compare this with the average childhood in modern society. So many children grow up in ways that leave them emotionally scared and very insecure of their own worth. This leaves them out of touch with their feelings and needs as well as relationship-challenged. However casual one's attitude toward sex might be, there is little question that for most it is a very powerful experience. Many people feel lucky to be able to connect and have sex with one person without feeling pulverized by some of the needs and insecurities this triggers. I have noticed that most people find the idea of having several casual sexual relationships tantalizing in theory but quite overwhelming in reality. Which leaves each individual and each couple left with having to figure out for themselves what will work. To do so, Ryan and Jetha advise to be honest with ourselves and each other about how we really feel and what we really want and need. I couldn't agree more.

"Copyright Nadja Geipert 2011.

Nadja Geipert, M.A. Psychology, is the founder of LA Family Therapy in Los Angeles and a science writer.

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