Sex, sex, sex.

A friend recently brought up that she’s in an open relationship and recommended reading Sex at Dawn by Ryan and Jetha. I also bought Sex at Dusk by Saxon, which is a rebuttal. These are my thoughts after reading both books, followed by some direct quotes my thoughts are based on.

Stylistically, Sex at Dawn is superior – it’s funny, playful, and ambitious – while Sex at Dusk starts very slow, is more academic and relatively more boring.

Sex at Dawn highlights the problems of most modern relationships: high divorce rates, jealousy, fear, lack of trust, and bad and frustrated sex. The research is clear that single parent households are the worst for children, so something needs to be fixed.

I think Dawn makes two broad arguments. The first is that open relationships are better than monogamous relationships as evidenced by bonobos, chimpanzees, hunter-gatherer groups, and human anatomy. Dawn emphasizes that open relationships should be built on open communication, negotiating sexual boundaries, and avoiding unspoken agreements. The evidence seems to be that humans are not naturally sexually monogamous, and Dusk doesn’t dispute this. So far, in principle, if everyone agreed to the open relationship and communication worked well, I don’t see any inherent moral problem with open relationships.

However, Dawn next argues that society itself should be re-arranged: increased female receptivity leads to less male frustration & competition, leads to reduced male alliances, leads to obscured paternity, leads to increased female bonding, leads to female dominated alliances, leads to less infanticide and generalized parental care. The basic premise- increased female receptivity- is somewhat shocking and not very clearly defined given the importance of it to the argument. Does this mean women should be more open to sex even when they don’t want it or even with men they don’t like? Dawn points out research where women, unlike men, sometimes showed brain responses to sexual imagery that contradicted their conscious responses – again, is this saying that women really want it even when they consciously don’t? For a book seemingly about female (and male) sexual liberation, I must be missing something, because this doesn’t seem very liberating. Dawn rightly points out how female (and male) genital mutilation was horrible, as was the denial of female sexual libido until recently, but they seem to propose a worse solution.

As Dusk points out, while Dawn is correct that monogamy does not require sexual exclusivity, it also doesn’t exclude it – i.e. they haven’t shown that monogamy is the root cause of the problems.

This is why, I think, Dawn spends so much time on their second argument: that monogamy is male ownership of women which originated with agriculture and private property. Dawn calls this the zero-sum, free market nature of sexual monogamy. The book is peppered with Marxist arguments against property in general, at one point noting that the only thing Marx was wrong about was context: that Marxism doesn’t work with anonymity (i.e. with large populations). While it’s fine to debate Marxism, what I found really disingenuous about the book is the way they assert so much about political philosophy as self-evident fact without ever showing why. For example, why is the exchange of private property always zero-sum? Isn’t it plausible that in some exchanges, both sides can benefit?

Now, it is clear that historically men have controlled most property and women along with it, but the simpler analysis of this problem is that men used aggression and power structures to avoid the competition from women. Women are equal to men intellectually on average, so if those structures are removed, then the property and power distribution would equalize.

Dawn argues for smaller population groups (less than 150 people each) for Marxism to work. In such groups, there’s supposedly no coercion as there are only temporary, natural leaders, such as the best hunter that will lead the hunting pack but who drops the leader role when the hunt is over. This seems to be a sort of anarcho-primitivist or anarcho-communist argument, but how is the sexual promiscuity enforced? Will women be shamed and ostracised for not wanting to have sex with some males?

Dawn further argues that there is plenty of evidence that such small, sexually promiscuous groups had higher quality of life, more egalitarianism, justice, low stress, group cohesion, that poverty is a social construct and they were not poor, while there were fasts & feasts, starvation was rare, groups were intimate, interdependent, generous, peaceful, with little murder, robust health, and security. There are obviously academic disagreements on a lot of these points (e.g. Pinker and Ridley on hunter-gatherer violence, Dusk on bonobo violence, etc.), but even if we suppose all of it was true, why haven’t Ryan and Jetha moved into or created such a community since they didn’t write about almost any negative potentialities? This is actually one case where implementing a political philosophy is straightforward since no existing aspects of the current systems need to be reformed or maintained as a prerequisite.

In summary, even if we take all of Dawn’s evidence as clear and undisputed, I think Dawn failed to prove that monogamy is inherently worse than open relationships, and made a disingenuously implicit argument that anarcho-primitivism/communism is the best political philosophy. All of this was wrapped in sexy lipstick, admittedly very well written and often funny, which makes the implicit arguments all the more dangerous for those unaware of alternative views. I think the best part of Dawn is the emphasis that people should face the facts of history and their sexual predispositions, talk openly and honestly with their partners, and negotiate sexual boundaries. In my opinion, the root cause is not that open relationships are morally stigmatized, but that disagreement itself is stigmatized and avoided in a zero sum sort of way where one side has to win and one has to lose. People should communicate in a truly voluntaryist way: looking for win-win solutions to relationship problems.

I think Sex at Dusk made some thoughtful counter-arguments to some of the premises of Dawn: it’s equally sexist to think both sexes are “male” in their libidos, some males are clearly concerned about paternity, most bonobo research is based on small, captive groups, chimpanzees that weren’t provisioned with bananas for studying also showed the same aggressive behavior, some bonobo researchers think bonobo sexuality has been exaggerated, human infants need more and so the monogamy hook is for men, an experiment of shared women in Russia in 1917 failed, bonobos don’t have male-male bonding, and all hunter-gatherer groups ever found already had marriage even before private property. One failing of Dusk is that it often dramatizes the supposed “misquoting” that Dawn does. Most of the “misquoting” seems to be more of an academic dispute about meaning rather than wilful misrepresentation.

Yes, a few candles here, some crotchless panties there, toss a handful of rose petals on the bed and it’ll just be like the very first time! What’s that you say? He’s still checking out other women? She’s still got an air of detached disappointment? He’s finished before you’ve begun?

While we don’t dispute [the standard narrative of human sexual evolution,] 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… To take just one example, we argue that women’s seemingly consistent preference for men with access to wealth is not a result of innate evolutionary programming, as the standard model asserts, but simply a behavioral adaptation to a world in which men control a disproportionate share of the world’s resources.

Human societies changed in radical ways once they started farming and raising domesticated animals. They organized themselves around hierarchical political structures, private property, densely populated settlements, a radical shift in the status of women, and other social configurations that together represent an enigmatic disaster for our species: human population growth mushroomed as quality of life plummeted.

A few million years ago, our ancient ancestors (Homo erectus) shifted from a gorilla-like mating system where an alpha male fought to win and maintain a harem of females to one in which most males had sexual access to females… The standard narrative holds that this is when long-term pair bonding began in our species… But what about multiple mating, where most males and females have more than one concurrent sexual relationship?… After all, we know that the foraging societies in which humans evolved were small-scale, highly egalitarian groups who shared almost everything… Foragers divide and distribute meat equitably, breastfeed one another’s babies have little or no privacy from one another, and depend upon each other for survival. As much as our social world revolves around notions of private property and individual responsibility, theirs spins in the opposite directionm, toward group welfare, group identity, profound interrelation, and mutual dependence.

Clearly, the biggest loser (aside from slaves, perhaps) in the agricultural revolution was the human female, who went from occupying a central, respected role in foraging societies to becoming another possession for a man to earn and defend, along with his house, slaves, and livestock.

We are not advocating any particular response to the information we’ve put together. Frankly, we’re not sure what to do with it ourselves.

Among chimpanzees, ovulating females mate, on average, from six to eight times per day, and they are often eager to respond to the mating invitations of any and all males in the group.

For those of us born and raised in societies organized around the interlocking principles of invidiuality, personal space, and private property, it’s difficult to project our imaginations into those tightly woven societies where almost all space and property is communal, and identiy is more collective than individual.

For professional athletes, musicians, and their most enthusiastic female fans, as well as both male and female members of many foraging societies, overlapping, intersecting sexual relationships strengthen group cohesion and can offer a measure of security in an uncertain world.

Primatologist Meredith Small has noted that female primates are highly attracted to novelty in mating.

Primates aside, only 3 percent of mammals and one in ten thousand invertebrate species can be considered sexually monogamous… No group-living nonhuman primate is monogamous, and adultery has been documented in every human culture studied- including those in which fornicators are routinely stoned to death. In light of all this bloody retribution, it’s hard to see how monogamy comes “naturally” to our species.

De Waal’s research has demonstrated… that the increased sexual receptivity of the female bonobo dramatically reduces male conflict, when compared with other primates whose females are significantly less sexually available… Unconstrained by cultural restrictions, the so-called continual responsiveness of the human female would… provide plentiful sexual opportunity for males, thereby reducing conflict and allowing larger group sizes, more extensive cooperation, [reduced mail alliances, obscured paternity, female alliances dominate, less infanticide, more generalized paternal care,] and greater security for all.

It bears repeating that we are not attributing any particular nobility or, for that matter, ignobility to foragers… unrestrained self-interest, in particular, whether expressed as food-hoarding or excessive sexual posessiveness, is a direct threat to group cohesion and is therefore considered shameful and ridiculous.

David Buss… has little doubt that evolution is a “zero-sum game, with the victors winning at the expense of the loser.”… Far too often, the debate over the nature of human sexuality seems like a proxy war between antagonistic politico-economic philosophies. Defenders of the standard narrative see Cain’s gain as Abel’s loss, period… This free market version of human mating hinges on the assumption that sexual monogamy is intrinsic to human nature. Absent monogamy (individual male “ownershipi” of female productive capacity), the I-win-you-lose dynamic collapses.

Buss and his colleagues asked 1,122 people to imagine their partner becoming interested in someone else… They found that men and women differed by roughly 35 percent in their responses, seeming to confirm their hypothesis. “Women continued to express greater upset about a partner’s emotional infidelity,” Buss writes, “even if it did not involve sex. Men continued to show more upset than women about a partner’s sexual infidelity, even if it did not involve emotional involvement.”

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.

First-born children often feel jealous when a younger sibling is born… Why is it so easy to believe that a mother’s love isn’t a zero-sum proposition, but that sexual love is a finite resource?

The anachronistic presumption that women has 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.

Basic human reproductive biology in a foraging context made rapid population growth unlikely, if not impossible. Women rarely conceive while breastfeeding, and without milk from domesticated animals, hunter-gatherer women typically breastfeed each child for five or six years.

Most foragers don’t believe themselves to be impoverished, and there’s every indication that life wasn’t generally much of a struggle for our fire-controlling, highly intelligent ancestors bound together in cooperative bands. To be sure, occasional catastrophes such as droughts, climatic shifts, and volcanic eruptions were devastating. But most our ancestors lived in a largely unpopulated world, chock-full of food.

Among foragers, where property is shared, poverty tends to be a nonissue… Poverty is a social status. As such it is the invention of civilization… Malthus and Darwin were both struck by the characteristic egalitarianism of foragers.

Marx’s fatal error was his failure to appreciate the importance of context. Human nature functions one way in the context of intimate, interdependent societies, but set loose in anonymity, we become a different creature.

Studies of prehistoric human bones and teeth show ancient human life was marked by episodic fasts and feasts, but prolonged periods of starvation were rare… Throughout the world, the shift to agriculture accompanied a dramatic drop in the quality of most people’s diets and overall health.

Having no coercive power, leaders [of foraging people] are simply those who are followed- individuals who have earned the respect of their companions. Such “leaders” do not- cannot- demand anyone’s obedience… In other words, in a zero-sum context (like that of modern capitalist soceities where we live among strangers), it makes sense, on some levels, for individuals to look out for themselves. But in other contexts human behavior is characterized by an equal instinct toward generosity and justice.

What if- thanks to the combined effects of very low population density, a highly ominivorous 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?… skeletal evidence clearly shows that our ancestors didn’t experience widespread, chronic scarcity until the advent of agriculture. Chronic food shortages and scarcity-based economies are artifacts of social systems that arose with farming.

But Goodall’s impression of relative harmony was to change… precisely when she and her students began giving the chimps hundreds of bananas every day, to entice them to hang around the camp so they could be observed more easily… Perhaps for the first time ever, the chimpas had something worth fighting over: a concentrated, reliable, yet limited source of food. Suddenly, they lived in a zero-sum world.

The entire world population of Homo sapiens may have dropped to just a few thousand individuals as recently as 74,000 years ago.

After conducting a comprehensive review of prehistoric skeletal evidence, anthropologist Brian Ferguson concluded that apart from one particular site in modern-day Sudan, “only about a dozen Home sapien skeletons 10,000 years old or older, out of hundreds of similar antiquity examined to date, show clear indications of interpersonal violence.”

A dispassionate review of the relevant science clearly demonstrates that the tends of thousands of years before the advent of agriculture, while certainly not a time of uninterrupted utopian bliss, was for the most part characterized by robust health, peace between individuals and groups, low levels of chronic stress and high levels of overall satisfaction for most of our ancestors.

Looking at our modest body-size dimorphism, it’s a good bet that males haven’t been fighting much over females in the past few million years… men’s bodies are from 10 to 20 percent bigger and heavier than women’s on average, a ratio that appears to have held steady for at least several million years.

Male apes living in multimale social groups (such as chimps, bonobos, and humans) have larger testes… With harem-based polygynous systems like the gorilla’s, individual males fight it out before any sex takes place. In sperm competition, the cells fight in there so males don’t have to fight out here. Instead, males can relax around one another, allowing larger group sizes, enhancing cooperation, and avoiding disruption to the social dynamic.

Recent estimates by the World Health Organization suggest that approximately 137 million girls undergo some form of genital mutilation every year.

Circumcision remains prevalent in the United States… ranging from about 40 percent of newborns circumcised in western states to about twice that in the Northeast. This widespread procedure, rarely a medical necessity, has its roots in the anti-masturbation campaigns of Kellogg and his like-midnded contemporaries. As John Money explains, “Neonatal circumcision crept into American delivery rooms in the 1870s and 1880s, not for religious reasons and not for reasons of health or hygiene, as is commonly supposed, but because of the claim that, later in life, it would prevent irritation that would cause the boy to become a masturbator.” Lest you think Kellogg was interested only in the sadistic torture of boys, in the same book he soberly advises the application of carbolic acid to the clitorises of little girls to teach them not to touch themselves… The anti-masturbation measures quoted above were published in 1888, but more than eighty years were to pass before the American Medical Association declared, in
1972, “Masturbation is a normal part of adolescent sexual development and requires no medical management.”

Unspoken agreements are the worst possible foundation for any long-term partnership.

Having written the whole book about sex, we’d like to confusingly suggest that most of us take sex way too seriously: when it’s just sex, that’s all it is. In such cases, it’s not love. Or sin. Or pathology. Or a good reason to destroy an otherwise happy family… Yes, sex is essential, but it’s not something that must always be taken so seriously… A reasonable relaxation of moralistic social codes making sexual satisfaction more easily available would also make it less problematic.

As Caitlin Flanagan reported recently in Time, “On every single significant outcome related to short-term well-being and long-term success, children from intact, two-parent families out-perform those from single-parent households. Longevity, drug abuse, school peformance and dropout rates, teen preganancy, criminal behavior and incarceration… in all cases, the kids living with both parents drastically outperform the others.”

Couples might find that the only route to preserving or rediscovering intensity reminiscent of their early days and nights requires confronting the open, uncertain sky together… We don’t mean to suggest these will be easy conversations… Many women will find it difficult to accept that men can so easily dissociate sexual pleasure from emotional intimacy, just as many men will struggle to understand why these two obviously separate (to them) issues are often so intertwined for many women. But with trust, we can strive to accept even what we cannot understand. One of the most important hopes we have for this book is to provoke the sorts of conversations that make it a bit easier for couples to make their way across this difficult emotional terrain together, with a deeper, less judgmental understanding of the ancient roots of these inconvenient feelings and a more informed, mature approach to dealing with them.

Perel writes, “it’s been my experience that couples who negotiate sexual boundaries… are no less committed than those who keep the gates closed. In fact, it is their desire to make the relationship stronger that leads them to explore other models of long-term love.”

Despite what most mainstream therapists claim, for example, couples with “open marriages” generally rate their overall satisfaction (with both their relationship and with life in general) significantly higher than those in conventional marriages do.

Sex at Dawn, Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha, 2010

The basic argument that we are not naturally sexually monogamous is reasonably sound- anyone involved in evolutionary biology today would not argue against that… But Ryan and Jetha go much further than an argument for serial monogamy or monogamy with some extra-pair sex, and present us as being naturally bonobo-like: bonobos, in their understanding, live in groups where everyone regularly and casually has sex with everyone else.

Recognizing that females in many species are not essentially monogamous has been an immensely important breakthrough but ‘why’ still needs to be understood. To argue, as Ryan and Jetha ultimately do, that it is because females are like males… emanates partly from the desire for sexual quality that relies upon revealing women to be the same as men when traditionally that could only be seen as raising the status of women. While we do struggle more to unveil ‘natural’ or unconstrained female sexuality than male sexuality it would nevertheless be a mistake – and no less sexist – to assume that the sexes are both essentially ‘male’.

When the male is the one with the greater parenting resource, such as in the sex role reversed phalarope species of shorebirds, the females are larger and more aggressive and compete for the males.

Often we simply admire the maternal sacrifice as a given, ‘selfless’ behaviour rather than recognizing it for what it really is: behavior that benefits the future of the genes while carrying a (sometimes heavy) cost for the individual that is the mother.

Virtually all species avoid incestuous matings. When animals live in social groups, members of one sex (sometimes some of each sex) leave the group at puberty. Usually it is the males that leave but for chimpanzees and bonobos, and, to a lesser degree, gorillas, it is the males who stay and the females who disperse to live and breed in a new group.

It is only with the production of sex cells that we have death due to ageing. When reproduction is by the division of the parent cell into two daughter cells there is then no parent to age and die because the parent itself has divided to become the offspring. But when we have bodies where only certain of the cells are designated to produce the haploid sex cells for sexual reproduction, the parent body ultimately degenerates over time… death due to ageing is actually the price paid for sex.

Ultimately, being in a body that specialized in producing only one type of sex cell meant that selection was free to act differently and produce two different body types, each better able to serve the reproductive interests of its respective sex cells.

Mammalian females have evolved gestation and lactation and there is room for very little direct male paternal care. Many mammals are solitary so the two sexes will just come together to mate, often during a brief mating season, and then part. Some mammals live in small nuclear family groups but isolated from other similar small family groups… Some live in larger social groups… Not many of these mammalian males do much, if anything, about providing young with food. Some do, such as the marmoset and tamarin males who carry the young so that the mother can feed herself more easily and sometimes these males share food with young too. Males do, though, often provide protection either from predators or from other males of the same species.

Considering the potential costs of mating to females, that they should have undergone selection for mating when not fertile needs greater consideration. One suggestion has been that with ovulation hidden, only by guarding a female and mating regularly is fertilization assured. The female benefits from the constant presence of the male because she gets protection and perhaps food provisioning or help with parenting, and this is suggested to have enabled pair-bonded relationships in humans. Presumably the female continuing to appear fertile even when she has conceived or is lactating is enough to elicit sexual arousal, mating, and mate-guarding behaviours from her pair-bonded male.

A very different suggestion for the origins of concealed ovulation comes from anthropologist Sarah Hrdy who studied grey langur monkeys [and] saw that when a new male took over from another he then proceeded to kill the infants… this infanticidal behavior has now been discovered in many more species. The female languars were seen to mate with new males even though the females were not fertile, and this is understood to be a strategy to confuse paternity because if a male has mated with a female he is less likely to kill any offspring she subsequently produces.

Across mammal species a year-round association of males and females is found in, at most, 34% of species, but in primates the males remain associated with females in 74% of species. Comparative tests have provided strong support for the idea that the risk of infanticide is ultimately responsible for the evolution of permanent male-female association… In species with a slow reprodutive rate fertile females are not around very often, and offspring are relatively few in number over the female’s lifetime, so losing even one is potentially devastating to her reproductive success.

We still know very little about the bonobo; initially (and still predominately) our knowledge of them comes only from studies of captive roups… It took quite a number of years of observation before hunting and many other behaviors were seen in chimpanzee populations, and now that hunting has been seen in bonobos, including the hunting of monkeys, we need to take care in making assumptions about them from what so far is only a snapshot of their behavior in the wild.

Different populations of chimpanzees have been seen making and/or using tools such as stones for cracking nuts, fashioned twigs for termite fishing, and more recently using sharpened branches to stab bush baby prey in their daytime nest holes in trees. There is no evidence yet of corresponding tool use in natural populations of bonobos.

Some of the chimpanzee violence has been blamed on the provisioning of bananas in order to enable easier habituation, but other non-provisioned groups have now been observed in long-term studies at Kibale, Bossou, and the Tai forest with observations of male violence very similar to those from provisioned communities.

The ‘peaceful’ inter-community relations of bonobs should not be exaggerated. It is possible that the occasions where less animosity and more ‘peacefulness’ has been observed is due to the two communities being familiar because they have only recently separated into two new communities, for example. Though lethal aggression has not been observed, non-lethal aggression is common and it would certainly be wrong to paint bonobos as having friendly inter-community relations.

Craig Stanford writes that female bonobos are not more sexual than their chimpanzee counterparts… “The supposed release from estrust that is said to characterize bonobos has been overstated because the data are based on captive animals.”

What is genuinely significant about both chimpanzees and bonobos is their contrast to humans: in our evolution we evolved some mechanism whereby males from different natal groups were able to interact more peaceably and move between groups as did the females.

Clearly there is nothing about the nature of the human female that causes her to have some geneticlly determined trait for mating with only one male in her lifetime. Few other females do- even those female animals that are monogamously paired may mate with an extra-pair male should an attractive (or threatening) one come along and the resident male does not see (or cannot get rid of him for her). And that is a clue to what goes on in monogamous pairs: the mate rarely if ever will be indifferent to an extra-pair copulation by his or her ‘other half’.

Like much else in life, what an individual is able to do in his or her own self-interest is constrained by the self-interest of other involved parties. In humans the husband’s self-interest in mating matters has largely held sway over the wife’s because of the asymmetry in size, reproductive role, and social status. Male philopatry- males staying with close relatives, females moving to such ‘brotherhoods’ on marriage- has likely played a role in this too.

In societies today that severely punish adulterous women it has to be kept in mind that the willingness of these wives to commit adultery in the face of such punishment is not a sign that they wish to mate with multiple men, as Ryan and Jetha argue, but only reflects the drive to make their own mate choice.

In our evolution offspring needed more from males than merely not to be harmed by them, so something more than a benign indifference from males has been selected: either direct resource provisioning (food, protection, education, training, social support) of offspring or indiret provisioning through their mothers. Chimpanzees and bonobos do not have the male parentl investment in offspring that is found in humans. They do not have the pair bonds that are found across human societies, nor do they have the sexual division of labour that is universal in humans. They also, as we have seen, do not have friendly relations with males outside of their small natal group. As our closest living relatives they therefore have very different reproductive behaviour and very different social networks.

Ryan and Jetha argue that extended female sexual responsiveness in our ancestors would have enabled larger group sizes by reducing male-male conflict. Yet it has done nothing of the kind in bonobos where the males only ever associate with males in their natal group.

Hrdy’s view is that fathers tend to be unreliable when it comes to providing for their children. If they can be relied upon then she argues that monogamy is the best option: a compromise between two parents where the children are the winners. The reason she says fathers cannot be relied upon is because of the possibility that they are not that infant’s biological father. This means that men have a high threshold for responding to infants along with a low threshold for responding to reproductive possibilities with other females.

At first glance Ryan and Jetha’s argument can seem like a solution: everybody just shares the sex and shares the parenting equally… Perhaps it could be socially engineered? Russian revolutionaries in the town of Vladimir in 1917 had the idea of making every eighteen year old girl state property, registered at a bureau of free love. Men in possession of a certificate showing that they belonged to the proleteriat would have the right to these women, and the children would become the property of the revolution. Though the idea was popular amongst the men it did not catch on because they could not agree on who should cover the costs of childcare.

Ryan and Jetha avoid dealing with questions arising from mate preferences and their argument implies that everyone finds everyone else equally attractive, which, of course, never happens in the real world and is an instrinsic part of evolution by natural selection. They primarily present us with a limited picture of a promiscuous bonobo-like ancestor and tell the reader that this bonobo-like ancestor persisted until agriculture descended on us to spoil the party… One rather significant piece of evidence is that every hunter-gatherer group ever encountered already had marriage… The authors of the Sex at Dawn story only seek to imply relaxed and open attitudes towards sex and marriage which in reality do not exist.

The main point the authors want to make is that monogamy, whether in the prairie vole or the many socially monogamous bird species, does not include sexual exclusivity. True. Neither does it exclude exclusivity for most of the pairs.

Mate guarding would be unnecessary if the mate was ‘naturally’ sexually monogamous. If neither of the pair is ‘naturally’ sexually monogamous then why not both simply enjoy their sexual desires for other mates? The male is protecting his parental investment in his own genes when the female may benefit from mating with a superior male. She is protecting the male parental investment she needs when he could benefit from a greater focus on matings with other females.

Females often can, and do, benefit from the protection one male can provide against unwanted sexual harassment.

Ryan and Jetha argue that sexual monogamy is an expression of a “free-market” vision of human mating. They define monogamy as “individual male ‘ownership’ of female reproductive capacity.” These few paragraphs in the book are at the same time particularly confused and particularly revealing: they are the most explicit paragraphs that connect private ownership of the ‘means of reproduction’ with private ownership of the ‘means of production’ and are therefore the likely crux of the authors’ arguments.

Ryan and Jetha say that the “free-market vision of human mating hinges on the assumption that sexual monogamy is intrinsic to human nature.” This argument is clearly wrong on many fronts: men obviously want the use of the reproductive capacity of more than one woman – they are naturally polygynous – and that’s what creates the ‘I win, you lose’ outcome, not monogamy which is more about reducing the monopolization of all women by some men.

Ryan and Jetha will argue that women are built to accomodate this solution [of enabling all men to have shared sexual access], and ancestral women ‘naturally’ would have had no reason to discriminate between men. The authors discuss studies of sexual jealousy and the ‘disconnect’ between what women say they feel about a partner’s sexual compared to emotional infidelity, and what the measurement of the women’s physiological responses show.

What we have in these few paragraphs is the absence of the recognition of monogamy as the socially enforced sharing of women between men to reduce male-male within-group competition rather than an ‘I win, you lose’ situation. Of course most men (in the service of ‘selfish genes’ in their sperm) are not going to be content with sexual monogamy. Is all men sharing all women a better solution?

They think that our “extravagant sexual capacity,” our “ubiquitous adultery,” and the “rampant promiscuity” in both chimpanzees and bonobos is all the proof we need. The desire for a faithful mate and the sexual rejection of men by women are, apparently, social constructs.

What are Ryan and Jetha really imagining for our ancestors in terms of ‘sharing sex’? Are we to believe that the removal of the need to access resources in exchange for sex makes all men desirable in the eyes of women? Does the sexual availability of all women make the women all equally desirable in the eyes of the men?… As we will see later, the authors’ argument for sperm competition adds to this (implicit) argument for the removal of pre-copulatory female mate choice.

Sex at Dusk, Lynn Saxon, 2012

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