Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern SexualitySex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality by Christopher Ryan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


My girlfriend and I had one of those gradual comings-together where you're going along fine, life is good, and then you look up one day and . . . wait . . . hang on . . . you're dating that person you thought you were just sleeping with. (For the record, some of us *cough* figured this out much sooner than others of us.) When it happens like that, it's hard to figure out what "counts," if you care about that sort of thing -- anniversaries, firsts, all those markers of 'real relationshipness.' Luckily, neither of us cares what counts. Just, sometime over the past five years, we got to The Thing -- The Real Thing -- and that's cool.

Except the part where it isn't cool is that there are a lot of other people who care about what counts. They care a lot. To a lot of people, we can't have The Real Thing, and not because we're both women. No, see, it doesn't matter how much our lives have glommed over the past five years, or how we collectively meet her cancer diagnosis and me conceiving a child to carry as my sister's surrogate. None of that counts because we occasionally sleep with other people, together and separately. Because if you do that, well, that's not a relationship at all.

Which has never made sense to me on a logical level, or an instinctive one. Monogamy might be nice for some people (some of my best friends are monogamists, dontcha know), though more often it looks to me like it makes everyone ashamed and unhappy. But for me . . . no. I mean, I've been in monogamous relationships for years at a time, once before I knew what I wanted, and once after I had started to suspect but couldn't experiment to find out, because if your partner is not down with it like mine wasn't, then obviously you respect that. And I just . . . it's not that I was unhappy. Or not just that I was unhappy. I did not feel like myself. I felt like the person I was being in the relationship was untrue on some fundamental level of existential being. That sort of thing wears you down from the inside over time. And I strongly suspect it's a bit like being a closeted gay person trapped in a heterosexual relationship.

Anyway. So this book (woo! I got there!). This book is all about how our cultural investment in monogamy doesn't make sense. Or at least how the narratives we're told about it are bullshit. You know this story: men don't want to be in relationships, but they need fidelity from women to be sure the children are really theirs (because otherwise why spend any resources raising them?), and so women trap men into relationships with their sneaky hidden ovulation, but what they're really doing is trading access to their vaginas for resource stability. It's the pigs and prostitutes model. The one that gets used to defend patriarchy, gender inequality, you name it, because it's biology, don't you know.

This book is about how it's crap, and how it doesn't make sense given what we know about pre-historic sexuality, about multiple partner procreation now and in the past, and our evolution. It's also a pretty snotty bitchslap to evolutionary psychology which, well, yes.

I totally dug it, because it made sense out of a lot of stuff that has never made sense to me. (And the last quarter in particular has some great stuff about different arousal patterns that just -- yes, thank you.) I just really really wish it was less pop and more science, because honestly the thing this book convinced me of the most is that the vast majority of anthropological work has all the scientific rigor of a wet noodle. And I wish this book supplied more of that rigor, since it demonstrated very clearly that the material is there. Also that it was a bit more careful not to continuously fall into the same stereotyped patterns of thinking about gendered behavior that it is chiding its readers for, but, you know, lack of rigor.




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