Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships
Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha
Worldwide, pornography is reported to rake in anywhere from fifty-seven billion to a hundred billion dollars annually. In the United States, it generates more revenue than CBS, NBC, and ABC combined and more than all professional football, baseball, and basketball franchises.
The conflict between what we’re told we feel and what we really feel may be the richest source of confusion, dissatisfaction, and unnecessary suffering of our time.
While we don’t dispute that these patterns play out in many parts of the modern world, we don’t see them as elements of human nature so much as adaptations to social conditions—many of which were introduced with the advent of agriculture no more than ten thousand years ago.
These behaviors and predilections are not biologically programmed traits of our species; they are evidence of the human brain’s flexibility and the creative potential of community.
“While hunter-gatherer sex had been modeled on an idea of sharing and complementarity, early agriculturalist sex was voyeuristic, repressive, homophobic, and focused on reproduction.” “Afraid of the wild,” he concludes, “farmers set out to destroy it.”11
Because of private property, for the first time in the history of our species, paternity became a crucial concern.
An essential first step in discerning the cultural from the human is what mythologist Joseph Campbell called detribalization. We have to recognize the various tribes we belong to and begin extricating ourselves from the unexamined assumptions each of them mistakes for the truth.
All too often, we inadvertently weave our own experiences into the fabric of prehistory. We call this widespread tendency to project contemporary cultural proclivities into the distant past “Flintstonization.”
By articulating a detailed (albeit erroneous) description of human nature and the sorts of lives humans lived in prehistory, Hobbes and Malthus provided the intellectual context for Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Unfortunately, their thoroughly Flintstoned assumptions are fully integrated into Darwin’s thinking and
It’s important to understand that evolution is not a process of improvement. Natural selection simply asserts that species change as they adapt to ever-changing environments. One of the chronic mistakes made by would-be social Darwinists is to assume that evolution is a process by which human beings or societies become better.17 It is not.
the debilitating scorn heaped on any female who chooses to be generous with her sexuality…all parts of a worldwide campaign to keep the supposedly low-key female libido under control. Why the electrified high-security razor-wire fence to contain a kitty-cat?
We’re being misled and misinformed by an unfounded yet constantly repeated mantra about the naturalness of wedded bliss, female sexual reticence, and happily-ever-after sexual monogamy—a narrative pitting man against woman in a tragic tango of unrealistic expectations, snowballing frustration, and crushing disappointment.
“modern love’s central anxiety,” namely, “the expectation that romance and sexual attraction can last a lifetime of coupled togetherness despite much hard evidence to the contrary.”21
“Move on?” Really? Is abandonment of one’s family the “adult” option for dealing with the inherent conflict between socially sanctioned romantic ideals and the inconvenient truths of sexual passion?
Evolutionary psychology is founded on the belief that male and female approaches to mating have intrinsically conflicted agendas.
Darwin saw sexual selection as a struggle between males for sexual access to passive, fertile females who would submit to the victor.
The only American scholar to have been cited by each of the other three intellectual giants of his century, Darwin, Freud, and Marx, many consider Morgan the most influential social scientist of his era and the father of American anthropology.
Willpower fortified with plenty of guilt, fear, shame, and mutilation of body and soul may provide some control over these urges and impulses. Sometimes. Occasionally. Once in a blue moon. But even when controlled, they refuse to be ignored.
As German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer pointed out, Mensch kann tun was er will; er kann aber nicht wollen was er will. (One can choose what to do, but not what to want.)
Where most men can and do hunger for sex in the abstract, women report wanting narrative, character, a reason for sex.*
The sex contract is often explained in terms of economic game theory in which she or he who has the most offspring surviving to reproduce wins—because her or his “return on investment” is highest.
And make no mistake: according to the cold logic of standard evolutionary theory, leaving a genetic legacy is our sole purpose in life.
“Having located an individually recognizable and potentially defensible resource packet, the proprietary creature proceeds to advertise and exercise the intention of defending it from rivals.”
As attentive readers may have noted, the standard narrative of heterosexual interaction boils down to prostitution: a woman exchanges her sexual services for access to resources.
According to this theory, women have evolved to unthinkingly and unashamedly exchange erotic pleasure for access to a man’s wealth, protection, status, and other treasures likely to benefit her and her children. Darwin says your mother’s a whore. Simple as that.
we assure you that the bartering of female fertility and fidelity in exchange for goods and services is one of the foundational premises of evolutionary psychology.
The Adapted Mind, a book many consider to be the bible of the field, spells out the sex contract very clearly: A man’s sexual attractiveness to women will be a function of traits that were correlated with high mate value in the natural environment…. The crucial question is, What traits would have been correlated with high mate value? Three possible answers are as follows: The willingness and ability of a man to provide for a woman and her children…. The willingness and ability of a man to protect a woman and her children…. The willingness and ability of a man to engage in direct parenting activities.5
The female interest in quality over quantity is thought to be important in two respects.
So we’ve got Fisher’s “classic theory” proposing that women evolved their special sexiness as a way of keeping one man’s interest, and Hrdy saying it’s all about keeping several guys guessing.
Monogamy is not found in any social, group-living primate except—if the standard narrative is to be believed—us.
Human data on G-G rubbing are presently unavailable. (Attention: ambitious graduate students!)
Sex for pleasure with various partners is therefore more “human” than animal. Strictly reproductive, once-in-a-blue-moon sex is more “animal” than human. In other words, an excessively horny monkey is acting “human,” while a man or woman uninterested in sex more than once or twice a year would be, strictly speaking, “acting like an animal.”
Semen was essential to human growth and development. They also married quite young, and to assure the bride’s fertility, she had to be filled with semen. On her wedding night, therefore, as many as ten members of her husband’s lineage had sexual intercourse with the bride, and if there were more men than this in the lineage, they had intercourse with her the following night…. A similar ritual was repeated at various intervals throughout a woman’s life.1
Otto Kiefer, in his 1934 Sexual Life in Ancient Rome, explains that from the Roman perspective, “Natural and physical laws are alien and even opposed to the marriage tie. Accordingly, the woman who is entering marriage must atone to Mother Nature for violating her, and go through a period of free prostitution, in which she purchases the chastity of marriage by preliminary unchastity.”
Women and men should not marry, for love is like the seasons—it comes and goes. YANG ERCHE NAMU (Mosuo woman)
“While we in the West glorify male dominance and competition,” Sanday says, “the Minangkabau glorify their mythical Queen Mother and cooperation.” She reports that “males and females relate more like partners for the common good than like competitors ruled by egocentric self-interest,” and that as with bonobo social groups, women’s prestige increases with age and “accrues to those who promote good relations….”16
Societies in which women have lots of autonomy and authority tend to be decidedly male-friendly, relaxed, tolerant, and plenty sexy. Got that, fellas? If you’re unhappy at the amount of sexual opportunity in your life, don’t blame the women. Instead, make sure they have equal access to power, wealth, and status. Then watch what happens.
As with bonobos, where female coalitions are the ultimate social authority and individual females need not fear the larger males, human societies in which women are “sassy and confident,” as Barnes described the Mosuo girls—free to express their minds and sexuality without fear of shame or persecution—tend to be far more comfortable places for most men than societies ruled by a male elite.
Instead, observing a society where most of the men are lounging about relaxed and happy, they conclude they’ve found yet another patriarchy, thereby missing the point entirely.
This free-market vision of human mating hinges on the assumption that sexual monogamy is intrinsic to human nature. Absent monogamy (individual male “ownership” of female reproductive capacity), the I-win-you-lose dynamic collapses. As we outlined above, Buss and his colleagues get around the many glaring flaws in the theory (our extravagant sexual capacity, ubiquitous adultery in all cultures, rampant promiscuity in both our closest primate relatives, the absence of any monogamous primate living in large social groups) with pretzel logic and special pleading about Homo sapiens’ internally conflicted, self-defeating “mixed mating strategies.” Twist and stretch.
For most human beings, reality is pretty much what we’re told it is.
Like practically everything else, jealousy reflects social modification and can clearly be reduced to little more than a minor irritant if consensus deems it so.*
“Romantic love is a concept foreign to the Siriono. Sex, like hunger, is a drive to be satisfied.” The expression secubi (“I like”) is used in reference to everything the Siriono enjoy, whether food, jewelry, or a sexual partner.
Though often held up as one of the great love songs of all time, “Every Breath You Take” is not about love at all.
So is jealousy natural? It depends. Fear is certainly natural, and like any other kind of insecurity, jealousy is an expression of fear. But whether or not someone else’s sex life provokes fear depends on how sex is defined in a given society, relationship, and individual’s personality.
What if we didn’t all grow up hearing that true love is obsessive and possessive?
What if, in other words, sex, love, and economic security were as available to us as they were to our ancestors? If fear is removed from jealousy, what’s left?
Human beings will be happier—not when they cure cancer or get to Mars or eliminate racial prejudice or flush Lake Erie but when they find ways to inhabit primitive communities again. That’s my utopia. KURT VONNEGUT, JR.
According to E. O. Wilson, “all that we can surmise of humankind’s genetic history argues for a more liberal sexual morality, in which sexual practices are to be regarded first as bonding devices and only second as a means for procreation.”
The anachronistic presumption that women have always bartered their sexual favors to individual men in return for help with child care, food, protection, and the rest of it collapses upon contact with the many societies where women feel no need to negotiate such deals. Rather than a plausible explanation for how we got to be the way we are, the standard narrative is exposed as contemporary moralistic bias packaged to look like science and then projected upon the distant screen of prehistory, rationalizing the present while obscuring the past. Yabba dabba doo.
If Malthus had been correct about prehistoric human population doubling every twenty-five years, these assumptions would indeed have been reasonable. But he wasn’t, and they weren’t. We now know that until the advent of agriculture, our ancestors’ overall population doubled not every twenty-five years, but every 250,000 years. Malthus (and thus, Darwin after him) was off by a factor of 10,000.6
Poverty…is the invention of civilization. MARSHALL SAHLINS A recent New York Times
“Well-off is the new poor.” Dr. Clive Hamilton, a visiting scholar at Cambridge University, set out to study the “suffering rich” and found that four of every ten people earning over £50,000 (roughly $80,000 at the time) felt “deprived.” Hamilton concluded, “The real concerns of yesterday’s poor have become the imagined concerns of today’s rich.”
so, no less an authority on economics than Adam Smith insisted that sympathy and compassion come to human beings as naturally as self-interest.
The faulty assumption that scarcity-based economic thinking is somehow the de-facto human approach to questions of supply, demand, and distribution of wealth has misled much anthropological, philosophical, and economic thought over the past few centuries.
Many economists have forgotten (or never understood) that their central organizing principle, Homo economicus (a.k.a. economic man), is a myth rooted in assumptions about human nature, not a bedrock truth upon which to base a durable economic philosophy.
When John Stuart Mill proposed what he admitted to be “an arbitrary definition of man, as a being who inevitably does that by which he may obtain the greatest amount of necessaries, conveniences, and luxuries, with the smallest quantity of labour and physical self-denial,”3 it’s doubtful he expected his “arbitrary definition” to delimit economic thought for centuries.
When communities grow beyond the point where every individual has at least a passing acquaintance with everyone else, our behavior changes, our choices shift, and our sense of the possible and of the acceptable grows ever more abstract.
community ownership doesn’t work in large-scale societies where people operate in anonymity.
We all have a psychological tendency to view our own experience as standard, to see our community as The People, to believe—perhaps subconsciously—that we are the chosen ones, God is on our side, and our team deserves to win.
An evolving society or organism simply adapts over the generations to changing conditions. While these modifications may be immediately beneficial, they are not really improvements because external conditions never stop shifting.
Jared Diamond writes, “Hunter-gatherers practiced the most successful and longest-lasting life style in human history. In contrast,” he concludes, “we’re still struggling with the mess into which agriculture has tumbled us, and it’s unclear whether we can solve it.”
In his Lectures on Jurisprudence, which was published posthumously in 1896, Adam Smith wrote, “In a nation of hunters there is properly no government at all…. [They] have agreed among themselves to keep together for their mutual safety, but they have no authority one over another.”
Despite famously inventing the concept of the “selfish gene,” Dawkins sees group cooperation as a way to advance an individual’s agenda (thereby advancing each individual’s genetic interests).
“Individuals who otherwise would be subordinated are clever enough to form a large and united political coalition, and they do so for the express purpose of keeping the strong from dominating the weak.”
“Nomadic foragers are universally—and all but obsessively—concerned with being free of the authority of others.”
What if—thanks to the combined effects of very low population density, a highly omnivorous digestive system, our uniquely elevated social intelligence, institutionalized sharing of food, casually promiscuous sexuality leading to generalized child care, and group defense—human prehistory was in fact a time of relative peace and prosperity?
How would our appreciation of prehistory (and consequently, of ourselves) change if we saw that our journey began in leisure and plenty, only veering into misery, scarcity, and ruthless competition a hundred centuries ago?
To put it another way, if you hunt or gather just enough low-fat food to forestall serious hunger pangs, and spend the rest of your time in low-stress activities such as telling stories by the fire, taking extended hammock-embraced naps, and playing with children, you’d be engaged in the optimal lifestyle for human longevity.21
We are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you any different. KURT VONNEGUT, JR.
The essence of sexuality for most women seems to include the freedom to change as life changes around them.
In 1879, Mark Twain gave a speech in which he observed, “Of all the forms of intercourse, [masturbation] has the least to recommend it. As an amusement,” he said, “it is too fleeting; as an occupation, it is too wearing; as a public exhibition, there’s no money in it.”
Men don’t care what’s on TV. They only care what else is on TV. JERRY SEINFELD
Explanations are easy to come by, ranging from economics (he finally has enough money and status to be attractive to the sort of sexy young women who had ignored him previously) to existential dread (he’s coming to terms with his own mortality by lashing out symbolically against his own impending aging and death) to the wife’s life cycle (she’s nearing menopause, so he’s biologically driven toward the fertility of younger women). Each of these may have some measure of truth, but none answers the most pressing question: Why do men have such overwhelming hunger for variety in their sexual partners—not just at midlife, but always?
The strongest explanation for the prevalence and intensity of the Coolidge effect among social mammals is that the male drive for sexual variety is evolution’s way of avoiding incest. Our species evolved on a sparsely populated planet—never more than a few million and probably fewer than 100,000 of us on Earth for most of our evolutionary past. To avoid the genetic stagnation that would have dragged our ancestors into extinction long ago, males evolved a strong appetite for sexual novelty and a robust aversion to the overly familiar.
monogamy itself seems to drain away a man’s testosterone. Married men consistently show lower levels of the hormone than single men of the same age; fathers of young children, even less.
For most men and many women, sexual monogamy leads inexorably to monotomy.
“A man’s sexual desire for a woman to whom he is not married is largely the result of her not being his wife.”28 Novelty itself is the attraction.
According to the authors of He’s Just Not Up for It Anymore, 15 to 20 percent of American couples have sex fewer than ten times per year. They note that the absence of sexual desire is the most common sexual problem in the country.30 Combine these dismal numbers with the 50 percent of all marriages that end in divorce, and it’s clear that modern marriage is suffering a soft-core meltdown.
As suggested above, one of the few things that reliably revives a male’s sagging testosterone levels is a novel lover.
Once the transitory thrill passes, these men are left once again with the realities of what makes a relationship work over the long run: respect, admiration, convergent interests, good conversation, sense of humor, and so on. A marriage built upon sexual passion alone has as much chance of enduring as a house built on winter ice.
“Love is an ideal thing, marriage a real thing,” observed German philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. “A confusion of the real with the ideal never goes unpunished.”
By insisting upon an ideal vision of marriage founded upon a lifetime of sexual fidelity to one person—a vision most of us eventually learn is highly unrealistic, we invite punishment upon ourselves, upon each other, and upon our children.
Understanding that love and sex are different things, Druckerman says the French feel less need to “complain about their marriage to legitimize the affair in the first place.”
“To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man [or woman].”
I saw in my own life and those of countless others,” Sullivan recalled, “that the suppression of these core emotions and the denial of their resolution in love always always leads to personal distortion and compulsion and loss of perspective. Forcing…people into molds they do not fit helps no one,” Sullivan wrote. “It robs them of dignity and self-worth and the capacity for healthy relationships. It wrecks family, twists Christianity, violates humanity. It must end.”
Historian Robert S. McElvaine previews some of the shrill denunciation awaiting those who may dare to wander from the monogamous fold, declaring, “Free love is likely to degenerate into ‘free hate.’ Since loving everybody is a biological impossibility, the attempt to do so [becomes] ‘otherization,’ and the hatred that goes with it.”
Gould, author of The Lifestyle, a cultural history of the swinging movement in the United States, interviewed two researchers who’d written about this Air Force ritual. Joan and Dwight Dixon explained to Gould that these warriors and their wives “shared each other as a kind of tribal bonding ritual, with a tacit understanding that the two thirds of husbands who survived would look after the widows.”*
What isn’t debatable is that conventional marriage is a full-blown disaster for millions of men, women, and children right now. Conventional till-death-(or infidelity, or boredom)-do-us-part marriage is a failure. Emotionally, economically, psychologically, and sexually, it just doesn’t work over the long term for too many couples.
when it comes to unconventional approaches to heterosexual marriage, Perel points out, “Sexual boundaries are one of the few areas where therapists seem to mirror the dominant culture. Monogamy,” she writes, “is the norm, and sexual fidelity is considered to be mature, committed, and realistic.”
“What is fidelity?” he asked the suddenly silent gaggle of reporters. “Fidelity is what kind of openness you have. What kind of trust you have, which is based on truth and openness. And so, in my own family, we’ve discussed that at some length and we’ve tried to arrive at an understanding of what our feelings are, what our needs are, and work it out with that kind of fidelity.”
But while they appear precisely the same size to terrestrial observers, scientists long ago determined that the true diameter of the sun is about four hundred times that of the moon. Yet incredibly, the sun’s distance from Earth is roughly four hundred times that of the moon’s, thus bringing them into unlikely balance when viewed from the only planet with anyone around to notice.22