Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality by Christopher Ryan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Are human beings naturally monogamous? When we shed the trappings of religious and social norms that dictate that a "proper" household is formed by the marriage between one man and one woman, what's left? When left to our natural instincts, when given the opportunity to indulge in our natural appetites, are humans a truly monogamous species? When we look at archeological evidence of our prehistoric existence, or to the lives of indigenous tribes untouched by Christian missionaries and their dictates, or even to the primate species whose genetic makeup and behaviors are closest to ours, do we find evidence of monogamous behaviors? These are the questions tackled by Christopher Ryan in Sex At Dawn, and his answer is a resounding "NO!"
Drawing from a variety of sources, Ryan gathers evidence to paint a compelling picture of a more community-oriented approach to both living and sexuality and argues that our futile centuries-old attempt to force human sexual behaviors into neat boxes has caused more harm than good, causing us as a species to be more disconnected, more violent, and more emotionally fraught than we would be otherwise. Ryan surveys the landscape of human sexuality and places our accepted "norms" under a microscope, analyzing the ways in which they go against the very nature of our being.
If you're here for the juicy bits, be prepared to slog through quite a bit of philosophical analysis of human nature and (pre)history. Ryan takes to task the assumptions made by classic philosophers, evolutionary psychologists, archeologists and even acclaimed primatologists, countering their arguments with more contemporary (or previously unseen) evidence regarding both human and animal behavior. Ryan purposely takes the time to build a solid philosophical and scientific foundation for his arguments before getting to the more interesting (and controversial) bits of information towards the end.
While I personally didn't agree with every single argument that Ryan makes (particularly his outdated notions about the physiological effects of soy on hormones), I did find his overall argument to be quite compelling and hard to refute without reverting back to socially imposed heteropatriarchal norms. I learned a whole lot about alternative conceptions of mating, marriage, and community, which really widened my perspective on different ways of living. While I'd already felt this way, I did find myself further convinced that humankind would absolutely benefit from a reevaluation of our social constructs surrounding relationships and sexuality. Maybe by shedding our conditioned shame and fear around sex and finding newer (or really, older), more flexible ways of relating to one another, we would find ourselves living in a more loving, more egalitarian, more peaceful, and less stressful existence.
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Niv Mullings is a writer, poet, and plant-based health coach hailing from The Boogie Down Bronx.