Hannah M.'s Reviews > Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality

Sex at Dawn by Christopher  Ryan
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's review
Dec 07, 2014

it was amazing
bookshelves: books-i-own, 2010-read, non-fiction, sexuality

Those of us in modern day western culture live in a world where emphasis is put on long term pair bonding and the nuclear family. You grow up, go to school, get a good job, select a spouse, and raise children. This is what we were made for right?

Sexuality is not a topic that has been fully explored until recently. Sure, Darwin put forth some ideas of sexual selection, but his Victorian sensibilities restrained him from truly investigating the subject. It’s a topic he even stated that he could not explore in good conscience.

Until the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s, sex was a topic that stayed behind closed doors. Society did its best to limit sex as being something that married adults did to produce children. If sex is nothing more to us than a means of procreation, why in the past has masturbation been an accepted medical treatment for women experiencing what used to be thought of as hysteria, when really the symptoms they had resembled sexual frustration and arousal? And why, when the doctors knew exactly what they were doing did they make up fancy talk about vulvular massages and “nervous paroxysm” to support the belief that females lack libido? Something to think about – in the fifteen years after the first electric vibrators were made available to the public there ended up being more vibrators in American homes than toasters.

Sex at Dawn confronts the social norms put forth by society about human sexuality and challenges them. Authors Ryan and Jethá present evidence from pre-agricultural times, primatology, and anatomy that shows humans in fact are not a monogamous but rather a promiscuous species. Cultures around the world that embrace rather than shun sexuality along with matriarchal societies are discussed. The statements and beliefs of the “three intellectual grandfathers,” Hobbes, Rousseau, and Malthus are examined. They also take a crack at the issue surrounding research of human sexuality. The majority of research done on sexual behaviors comes from college students aged eighteen to twenty-two. How are these results generalizable, especially for women whose sexuality changes throughout her lifetime? What about all of those researchers omitting relevant information so they can make their case?

Ryan and Jethá further discuss how a standard narrative, the beginning of agriculture and the idea of personal property that emerged with it, and worries of “paternity certainty” among men has shaped the way society views sexuality. People shouldn’t want to have extra-pair sexual relations – after all we’re monogamous, right? – and yet so many men and women engage in sex outside of their relationships. Humans spend more time than any other species on earth having sex, if we are monogamous, why aren’t we like all of the other monogamous species who limit sexual activity to only a few interactions each year?

Believing that humans are promiscuous rather than monogamous is not difficult. Ryan and Jethá present their arguments quite well. In addition, it’s common knowledge that humans have to work hard to maintain long-term relationships; seeing divorce rates and the number of individuals who have affairs only further illustrates that point.

There were only a couple of things throughout the book that caught me off guard. The big one was a statement about how women who chose to marry while on birth control have a higher risk of regretting the decision once they stop taking the birth control. That particular argument led to a bit of eye rolling on my part, I need concrete evidence to believe it. The discussion of sperm composition and competition did get a bit funky.

When it comes to the bottom line, Sex at Dawn was an interesting read. The questions regarding our sexuality that need to be asked are, the information is organized and presented well, clear arguments are made, and there’s even a wit factor. This book is something that you can go into with little or no past knowledge and come out with a bit deeper understanding of the history of human sexuality. All in all, a good read.

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Reading Progress

11/30/2014 marked as: own
12/07/2014 marked as: read

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