Sex at Dawn

Exploring the evolutionary origins of modern sexuality

Ill-Fated Interview Part III

The third part of my interview with Mark Leviton

Here's Part III of my long, ill-fated interview with Mark Leviton.

Leviton:  You say the chemical composition in the sperm and vagina suggest it was natural for many men to have sex with the same woman, and for her to be receptive and actually seek out multiple partners.

Ryan:  And the female orgasm is the primary means for her to determine which match she likes.  The PH of the vaginal tract is inhospitable to sperm, it sees sperm as foreign bodies.  When a woman has an orgasm it changes the PH.  This is an area of some very hot research right now, so I don't want to give the impression it's all perfectly determined, but there's a lot of experiments taking place, like Todd Shackelford's with married couples involving jealousy, infidelity and relationship satisfaction. There's an indication that a man's sperm production increases significantly when he hasn't seem his partner for a few days, regardless of whether he ejaculated in her absence.  And women report their partners are more aggressive having sex when infidelity is suspected.  In his Sperm Wars book Robin Baker may have overstated things, so I'm being careful I don't fall into that.  He hypothesized that one ejaculation was like a rugby team, with blockers and runners and so forth, and that seems to be getting ahead of the science.

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But the woman's orgasm appears to give an advantage to sperm that enter at the moment or shortly after she has one.  That could be a way consciously or unconsciously to give an advantage to the sperm of the man who provoked the orgasm, either because she just likes him or because he smells right, or whatever the reason.  Female orgasm is a huge mystery, there are shelves of books trying to figure out why females have orgasms.  For a long time it appeared that human females were the only females of any species who did have them.  Now we know female bonobos, and dolphins, and chimps and many others do as well.  (When women started to enter the field of primatology, that's when it was discovered that more species had female orgasm.  Male researchers couldn't seem to find them.)

A lot of theorists believe the female orgasm is simply a kind of peripheral form of the male version, a developmental leftover like male nipples; one gender needs it so the other gender gets a remnant.

That doesn't make any sense.  Not only are women capable of orgasm, they're capable of multiple orgasms, while men have one and rapidly lose interest.

Leviton:  I think it's more accurate to say male ejaculation.  There are many traditions, in Tantra for instance, where male orgasm is not synonymous with ejaculation.

Ryan:  I've read that.  Can't say I've experienced it directly, but I've read that! (Laughs)

Leviton:  Another puzzle related to this is vocalization, why women are noisy during sex, louder than men during orgasm.  I know a female sex worker who told me her clients are normally so quiet she can't tell they've orgasmed until they're finished.

Ryan:  Yes, that's another one of those things that doesn't fit into the standard model.  Female copulatory vocalization doesn't make sense at all, if women are reticent and private about sex, why are they walking up the neighbors?  And why alert possible predators that you're in a vulnerable position?  It certainly seems anecdotally that human females make more noise in bed than men do.  When I speak publically I ask about this, doesn't matter what culture I'm in, it's agreed.  And scientists who've studied it have found females from promiscuous-mating primates make more noise than monogamous or polygynous primates.  For instance, British primatologist Stuart Semple has recorded more than 550 copulation calls from seven different female baboons and analyzed their acoustic structure.  It turns out there's information in the calls.  Some of the calls, recent research shows, distinguish through the tone and pitch the status of the male she's having sex with, whether she's conscious of this or not.  So the theory goes, if she's having sex with a low-status male, other males will gather to have their chance.  If she's signaling a high-status male, the other males might want to stay away because it might be violent.  She's not only announcing that sex is taking place, she's announcing on which level.

Leviton:  This is such a different picture of female sexuality from what we get from most religions, from what people generally call morality.  And if I understand right, it was noticed by some researchers who couldn't bring themselves to violate the rules of society by reporting that maybe women weren't just passively gritting their teeth and giving men what they wanted.  Information about women liking sex, and having multiple orgasms, had to be repressed by male researchers because of their own problems with what that information implied about their society.

Ryan:  Not sure these were just male issues, but certainly European issues.  Think about all the stories of "first contact," the South Pacific, Columbus, Cortez.  There's always a big debate about whether or not the native creatures they are encountering are human.  Bartolomé de las Casas and Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda had a big debate before the Pope to determine if the Indians were human beings and had rights and so on, and that was in the mid-1500s.  It seems to me why this type of debate was so common was party because of the sexuality of the native, because if you accept them as human beings, the whole spectrum of human behavior changes dramatically and your moral sense is rocked to the foundation.  But if you say "We're good Christians and they're animals - look at them, they fuck like animals" you don't have to deal with certain things.

Leviton:  Even though humans have way more sex than most animals.  So the famous "availability of native women" works to dehumanize them to the conquerors.

Ryan:  In Sex at Dawn we talk about the famous case of Marco Polo, who wrote about the Mosuo people in China.  He said the men offered the women to the travelers.  Now when we've got academic studies of the Mosuo society, we know the men aren't offering anyone to anyone.  Women have complete sexual autonomy to do whatever they want with whomever they want.  They were attracted to these novel males, which female primates always are, and they had sex with Marco Polo and guys in his group, but it wasn't because males were offering them.  Same thing in the South Pacific.  Columbus reported to the Queen when he landed at Hispaniola for the first time, and it's an amazing document if you've never read it.  He wrote it was paradise, the sea was full of fish, the trees full of fruit, the people were naked and handsome and swam gracefully, and if you expressed admiration for anything they give it to you freely

. . .and then he wrote "with a hundred men I could subdue the entire race."  It just pivots.  It's paradise, but they're innocent and defenseless.

Leviton:  How do the Mosuo keep sexual relationships and family relationships separate?  You use them as an exemplar.

Ryan:  They are certainly a group that has not abandoned sexual egalitarianism.  In that sense, they are a reflection of what we believe sexual pre-history was like.  They're not in that they're an agricultural settlement, so don't think they are hunter-gatherers or anything like that.  Marco Polo wrote about them, we know they've existed on the border of China and Tibet for centuries.

Their system breaks down like this.  There's a house of the matriarch with a courtyard in the middle, rooms all around it.  When a girl reaches physical maturity, she's given her own bedroom, which opens on to the courtyard and also has a door that opens to the street.  This is known as her "flower room."  It's a private room, no one can enter without her invitation.  When the women are working during the day, they're flirting with the men, singing suggestive songs to each other, so if there's a spark a man can come by and knock at her door in the evening.  If she wants to, she'll invite him into her flower room, and he can spend the night.  The only rule is that he has to be gone by breakfast.  He's not welcome to stay and hang out.  The women have complete sexual autonomy.  Her brothers are expected to sleep with their lovers, and if they're not doing so, there's a separate building apart from the main house for them to sleep.  Any child born from these interactions is the responsibility of the girl, her sisters and her brothers.  The biological father is a non-issue.  He's not a member of the family.  It's an example of disassociating biological paternity from the family structure, which according to the conventional theory should be impossible.  You add that to the partible paternity I mentioned before, where several men could be considered the father, and you have two different but strong examples that belie the general understanding of how sexual relations must be organized.

Leviton:  So in some societies - seemingly not ours - the lack of certainty about paternity is a protection for children.  It serves social cohesion, the whole village feels they are raising "our" children.

But you can't keep that system going if the group is more than 150 people, because some members are too distant and unknown?

Ryan:  The groups themselves re-split, not necessarily with animosity.  It also depends on the environment, the economical requirements.  A desert environment with fewer resources might split before that numerical point.

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Christopher Ryan, Ph.D., is co-author of Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality (HarperCollins 2010).

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