We moderns tend to think of sexuality as the province of more-or-less monogamous couples, bound together by bonds of love, romantic possessiveness, and jealousy. But According to Sex at Dawn authors Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha, before 10,000 years ago the basic human sexual unit may not have been the couple at all, but rather the small nomadic hunter-gatherer group. Because nature provided for all their needs in abundance, these early humans would have had no modern concept of ownership or property. Everything would have been shared with the group, including sex. Sexual promiscuity would have been the rule rather than the exception.
The evidence for this theory is surprisingly strong. Accounts of actual hunter-gatherer societies, from Captain Cook's Polynesians to recent inhabitants of the Amazon rainforest, confirm the above narrative in all respects. The evidence from comparative anatomy is even more compelling. As Ryan summed it up in a recent PT blog article, "women's breasts, orgasms and reproductive anatomy echo the same story told by men's testicles, penises, and seminal chemistry. It's an X-rated tale of the orgiastic origins of our species."
After the dawn of agriculture 10,000 years ago, according to this theory, when humans settled down to work the land, the organizing principle of human existence changed from abundance to scarcity. Individual ownership of land and other precious resources became the norm. Sexual life was transformed as well. In the new ownership societies, one person could now claim another as his or her exclusive sexual property. Cultural institutions arose to enforce sexual exclusivity. Chief among these was the new cultural ideal of monogamy.
In our modern world's fascination with the infidelities of its leaders and celebrities, the authors of Sex at Dawn see a vague recollection of a bygone era when sexual liberty was considered everyone's birthright.
Lead author Christopher Ryan is an American psychologist living in Barcelona (and a fellow PsychologyToday sexuality blogger). I was able to persuade him to make time for the following interview --
Christopher, many authors have noted that the human body seems designed to generate near-constant sexual interest. Your book offers an explanation why -- because it motivated early hunter-gatherers to mate promiscuously, which was good for the group.
We've known that grooming behavior was crucial to maintaining social networks among group-living primates. But this same logic hadn't really been applied to sexual contact before.
Your idea that the basic sexual unit in hunter-gatherer societies may not have been the couple, but the group -- how did this idea come to you?
When I was working on my PhD dissertation, back in the late 1990s, I read Lewis Henry Morgan's Ancient Society (1877). Morgan is largely forgotten today, even among anthropologists. He spent long periods living among Indian groups in upstate New York, and wrote about the "primal horde" as an early stage of social organization. I suppose it was Morgan who really got me started down this path.
Reading your book, I thought, "Of course early human sexuality was a group affair. They didn't have bedroom doors."
Right. There was very little privacy for most of our existence as a species. Even today, many pre-agricultural people live in communal dwellings where sex is at least a semi-public event.
Among sexuality scholars, there's always a tension between the essentialists who look for enduring truths, and the social constructionists who say all sexual norms are dictated by culture. Your book seems to move back and forth between these tendencies.
Sex at Dawn gives great examples of the social construction of tastes and attitudes, both sexual and non-sexual. For instance, some hunter-gatherers report that grub worms taste great. You suggest that if we saw our parents eating them, we would eat them too.
But I should stipulate that I've never eaten a grub worm. I'm as much a victim of cultural programming as anyone!
But then you tack in an essentialist direction - saying that we are "essentially" promiscuous by design.
I think it's pretty clear that human beings are both. We're highly adaptive and responsive to cultural conditioning, but our experience and behavior also reveal deeply ingrained structures reflective of evolutionary pressures. Our culture has convinced many of us that a Big Mac, fries, and a milkshake constitute a good meal. But when we eat this way, our bodies inevitably rebel. So we're highly malleable, but only within certain biologically-imposed parameters.
The media have paid lots of attention to your claim that monogamy is the equivalent of a Big Mac with fries. The social constructionist part of your book, with its careful exploration of culture's influence on sexual attitudes, has been pretty much neglected.
As Tony Soprano would say, "Whaddyagonnado?"
You're not discouraged?
Frankly, we're thrilled the book's getting any attention at all! As Oscar Wilde said, "The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about."
Your vision of early human male sexuality is pretty consistent with our standard notions of "essential" masculine nature.
But your depiction of early human female sexuality is a radical departure: you depict early hunter-gatherer women as sexually bold, confident, autonomous, and novelty-seeking.
I think it's difficult for most of us to really imagine how women would behave if they weren't backed into a corner by being economically dependent on men - and carrying several millennia worth of sexual repression on their backs. Even as we speak, clitorectomies are taking place in North Africa, women in Iran are being stoned to death, and American girls are committing suicide because their classmates call them "sluts" online. The world is hardly a safe place for women to express sexual curiosity, and hasn't been for a very long time.
I was surprised by the book's ending. Given your argument that monogamy was a natural outcome of our transition to an ownership society, it surprised me that you argued that we could now incorporate non-monogamy.
We argued for incorporating honest communication about our true feelings and experiences. A recent Gallup poll found that Americans considered marital infidelity the worse thing a person could do, beating divorce, suicide, abortion, medical testing on animals and the death penalty. Clearly, there's room for a bit of realism to be interjected!
I came away from Sex at Dawn convinced that once you have an ownership society, you're stuck with monogamy.
Maybe. But there are different types of ownership societies. Denmark is very different from the U.S., for example, and those differences are reflected in family structure and sexual behavior.
But let me ask you. How would you have ended the book?
I'd have said that abandoning our hunter-gatherer ways was tragic in many respects -- but that we can't go back to Eden.
Good luck selling that proposal to a publisher!
Come to think of it, maybe a good sequel would be to explore Sex at Dawn's religious implications.
Forget it. I'm in enough hot water already, thank you.
© Stephen Snyder, MD 2010
New York City