Book Review: Sex at Dawn Challenges Institution of Monogamy by Examining Human Prehistory

Sex at Dawn is hard to describe. On one hand, it challenges monogamy. That’s what all the buzz is about. And indeed, the book squarely takes on many cultural assumptions about monogamy-that it is preferable for a society, that it is natural, that humans have always tended to favor monogamy, and that evolutionary biology and the archeological record prove this, for a few.

But I feel like if I lead with that, you might not read it. And I want you to read it, even if the last thing you want to read is anything critical of monogamy. (Even if I personally believe that someone who wants to be monogamous benefits from understanding common criticisms of monogamy in order to come to peace with their choice to practice it.)

So, I’m going to give you a montage of other cool things in the book, written by Christopher Ryan (writer and research psychologist) and Calcida Jetha´ (practicing psychiatrist) who I have read are married (to each other) and then I will circle back to the whole criticizing monogamy thing.

In this book, you will find:

How bonobos and chimpanzees differ in their sex lives, and how both compare to humans.

The corrolaries between mens’ penis shape and promiscuity.

A challenge to conventional thinking on what prehistoric humans were actually like, from their estimated life span to what their family units looked like.

That Darwin had a daughter that was so sexually prudish that she attempted to eradicate phallic mushrooms from her property.

How evolutionary biologists and psychologists and the staunchly religious have in common when it comes to what is “natural” mating behavior, and particularly how the evolutionists, influenced by the cultural mores of the time, interpreted existing data to get there.

How prehistoric and present-day foraging societies that eat insects and do not grow their own food actually may have better nutrition than you and I.

How the advent of agriculture completely changed human society, including, argue the authors, our sexual practices.

A theory on why human men have such large testicles compared to other primates.

Why a man who has an affair often thinks he is in love when he is just experiencing the chemical boost of feeling sexually vital, and why that feeling is so important that it often is mistaken for love.

What sperm competition is and why it might explain why women are so vocal during sex and why some men have “cuckold” fantasies.

And other fascinating things. So, yes, I’m basically saying, “come for the monkey sex, loud women, plunger penises, repressed Darwins and big balls–stay for the compelling argument that humans are not basically monogamous creatures.”

Christopher Ryan said in interviews:

“What we argue in the book is that the best way to increase marital stability, which in the modern world is an important part of social stability, is to develop a more tolerant and realistic understanding of human sexuality and how human sexuality is being distorted by our modern conception of marriage.”

Ryan and Jetha argue that this more tolerant and realistic understanding includes re-thinking this old argument: that men want to impregnate everything in their vicinity because of copious sperm and that women want to be monogamous with one man because of her scarce eggs and because of the need to find a man who will help raise and protect the children she bears him. The book suggests that this might not be the whole story and that the idea of sexual jealousy and exclusivity evolved because of our culture and not our nature. The argument is that we have as many genes for resource-sharing and peace as we do for scarcity and warlike behavior, circumstances allow certain attitudes among humans to prevail.

In fact, it might be that women are a whole lot more sexual and naturally promiscuous than that story suggests, but that in a culture where women do not have the same access to resources to men (in contrast, the authors argue, to prehistoric society), women have learned to be sexually jealous, and in foraging societies, where women have more free access to resources without having a man as an intermediary women are far less invested both in romance and monogamy.

Even if you don’t agree with these arguments, or aren’t sure if you do, or aren’t sure you have any  clue what to do with the information in terms of your own relationship, it’s an intriguing and beguiling read. If the authors make any conclusions at all about what this means for you and me (and they do try to avoid that, and if it is indeed true, as I’ve read, that they are a married couple and one of them is a therapist, I could totally see why), it’s that it’s worth beginning a dialogue with your partner. We could all stand to talk to one another about the unrealistic demands of a monogamous culture-such as we are only supposed to want to have sex with our spouse and that if we have fantasies or feelings this automatically makes us wrong. Why not admit that it can be tough to make a monogamous commitment and work through the pitfalls as a couple, as difficult as that may be, as opposed to a marriage breaking up over things left unsaid, but one thing leading to another?

This book did leave me feeling that some of the arguments were a bit heavy handed and some of the transitions  a little random, and the scope, while unified, felt far-flung at times.

But anything that gets you to question your own assumptions, challenges your opinions, rattles your cage, and makes you laugh quite a bit while doing it, all while getting to learn more about monkey sex and vocal women, has my vote for a great read.

links to other reviews of the book, along with valid criticisms and author responses:

Amazon reviews

review by a primatologist

great q and a with author and reviewer

Author responds to a pot shot taken by a Washington Post writer

About Lia Salciccia Prusha

therapist and blogger
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Relationships, Sex. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Book Review: Sex at Dawn Challenges Institution of Monogamy by Examining Human Prehistory

  1. Geri Weitzman says:

    Thanks, Lia! This is definitely a compelling review… it might sway me towards reading it.

  2. J. J. says:

    Thanks for the review. I read the book last year and have been recommending it to everyone! I did not realize that they were married, but you’re right:

    • That’s a great interview! Thanks for that link. =)

      I sent a quick note to the authors and asked for a quick fact-check of the article, especially since I had claimed they were married. I got this in return (I have since corrected the bit about which Darwin was opposed to the phallic mushrooms):

      Hi Lia,

      Thanks for your very thoughtful review. The only error I spotted was that Etty was Darwin’s daughter, not sister (mushrooms). I’ll post a link on our Facebook and Twitter feeds.



      Christopher Ryan, Ph.D.

  3. Angela says:

    I just finished reading it, and while I was intrigued by a lot of points made, I have some minor critiques.

    Like, I thought the writing style in some places was better suited to shorter punchier journalistic articles, got to be too much to read over several pages.

    Also, I’d have liked to see more detail on homosexuality (in primates in general, and humans in specific) other than a few tossed-off statements that amounted to “yeah, it’s natural, serves the same bonding function as hetero-sex” and “since queer rights are making such strides today, why not poly rights, eh, eh?”

    It talked a lot about sexually open societies, but only in regards to opposite-sex promiscuity, not what they think of same-sex relations (though Aaron seems to recall from reading Sexual Life of Savages that the Trobiand Islanders were anti-gay sex).

    Any recommendations for evo psych that spends equal time (or for balance, full-time) on queer sex?

    • Angela,
      You make a lot of salient points. I wonder, though, if they refrained from the punchier writing style if the book as a whole would have suffered from dryness, lengthy that it was. I completely agree on the homosexuality front. I’m going to dig around and see if I can find the authors’ answer to that critique, which I’m sure has to have been made by someone else at this point. I’m also going to get on looking into more resources of the evolutionary psychology of homosexuality. As the idea of homosexuality as evolutionarily/historically recognized behavior is made as a counterargument to the “homosexuality is not natural” argument quite frequently, I know it’s got to be out there. I’m thinking that primatology would be a good first place to look…

      • Angela says:

        I don’t know exactly how to describe it, but I’ve read non-fiction books that manage to walk the line of being engaging without slipping over into either the short-attention-span-theatre of punchy journalistic writing or wallowing in eye-glazing dryness. True, I read more non-fiction than fiction these days, but even I have only so much tolerance for dry or overly dense academic writing. I found Sarah Blaffer Hrdy readable enough, for instance, but not Donna Haraway.

        I appreciate that Ryan referenced the greater levels of openness in gay male relationships under the B&N Q&A. Makes me hope that maybe we’ll see an queer-evo theory sequel to Sex at Dawn, with foreword or co-writing credit by Dan Savage. 🙂

      • On the topic of good creative nonfiction: have you read *The Female Brain* by Louann Brizendine?

        Sent from my iPhone

      • Angela says:

        Haven’t read “The Female Brain”, may have to backburner it for a while, since I’ve currently got out “Delusions of Gender” and “The Art Instinct”. And I still mean to finish “A Language Older than Words”, it just keeps making me cry.

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