Remember the Yucatan: A Review of “Sex At Dawn”: How We Mate, Why We Stray and What It Means For Modern Relationships

“The sciences of human nature tend to validate the practices and preferences of whatever regime happens to be sponsoring them. In totalitarian regimes, dissidence is treated as mental illness. In apartheid regimes, interracial contact is treated as unnatural. In free-market regimes, self-interest is treated as hardwired.” Louis Menand

In 1519, Spanish colonizer Hernando Cortez landed on what is now considered to be the Yucatán Peninsula. On arriving, he encountered the indigenous peoples of the area, the people of the Maya settlement of the Chetumal, and demanded to know what the name of this place was. “Ma cu’hah than.” Of course, in the spirit of confusion, Cortez heard this as “Yucatán” and thus, proclaimed the area to be known as the Yucatán Peninsula, now conveniently the official property of the Spanish monarchy.  Fast-forward many years later; linguists researching near-extinct Maya dialects discovered that “Ma cu’hah than” actually meant, “I do not understand you.” Welcome to I Do Not Understand You Peninsula.

Sex At Dawn by Christopher Ryan, Ph.D. and Cacilda Jetha

What does this anecdote have to do with sex, and more importantly, Sex at Dawn? It exists as the book’s main theme, a critique for many of the institutions we have come to accept as standard. The book questions the assumptions of our cultural norms and why we should never mistake these for universals (hint: it has to do with being confused). Despite our best intentions, it’s hard to be certain about what we think we know, but we don’t. Just because it is said to be natural, or really, we are told its “normal,” doesn’t mean it is. As the book says, welcome to the well-intentioned Inquisition.

Sex At Dawn is a challenging, yet ultimately freeing book that questions standard assumptions and solidified “cultural norms” of fidelity, love, and sexuality. These of course range in topic, from looking at our nearest genetic relative, the bonobo, to studying the spouse-swapping of fighter pilots in WWII (another hint: it’s not what you would expect). Of course, what the book does best is to ask questions – common, often difficult to answer questions that often have their not-so-pretty truths swept underneath a rug. Why is long-term sexual monogamy so difficult for so many couples? What is sexual monogamy? Is love different from sex? What is considered sex? Are we really that much like bonobos? These are questions where the answers have a tendency to become Oprah-Dr.Phil-a-fied with responses that, while well intentioned, are often skewed by our perceptions of “normal.” We are attempting to put out the fire without asking why it’s there in the first place.

While authors Dr. Christopher Ryan, Ph.D and Cacilda Jetha, M.D’s research skews towards heteronormativity, mostly concentrating on sexual and cultural dynamics between men and women, they include an expansive view of what monogamy and sexuality mean on a grander scale. The book mainly focuses on how our earliest ancestors lived in collective hunter-gatherer societies, often having sex with multiple partners, collectively raising children and using sex as a means of social bonding, as opposed to a sacred act between two partners only. They also take a stab at popular evolutionary psychology theories on sexuality and mating, most notoriously the common theory that most women are just whores who use sex for food and shelter, while most men desperately need to fuck and will make monetary exchanges for some of the mighty ‘P’. Both Jetha and Ryan argue that not only is this type of view obviously sexist, but it’s just plain wrong as far as who we are as human beings.

So what does it mean? Well, for starters, the idea of strict, exclusive monogamy is like wearing shoes that might just be too small for us. We can do it, but it’s not comfortable.  Of course counter arguments abound ““ but aren’t we more than our biological needs? Don’t we have cognitive thinking skills? Haven’t we grown from our manic sex ancestors into thoughtful, intelligent beings? Most definitely. The authors don’t intend to prescribe one type of relationship to anyone, only to highlight the history of who we were before the agricultural revolution came along and turned persons into property, sex into the sacred, and monogamy into a must. This moment has served as the constant model for what “normal relationships” are supposed to look like, a model that both authors believe we are trying to shoehorn ourselves into, much to our deep genetic history screaming otherwise.

People often say to us, “But we’re human beings. We can choose how to behave.” That’s true, to a certain extent, but our bodies rebel against decisions that go against our evolved nature. You can choose to wear shoes that are too small, but you can’t choose to be comfortable in them. You can choose to wear a corset, but you may well pass out because you can’t breathe properly”¦ The human body and mind have evolved for a certain kind of life. The further we diverge from that path, the greater the cost, in terms of mental, emotional, and physical health. There’s just no getting away from this. -Christopher Ryan

Is adultery as bad as we make it out to be? Is fidelity really the glue to a marriage? Can we have sex with other people and still be committed?  It’s certainly something that is stigmatized, for many reasons and often existing on different privilege levels, usually due to a combination of cultural norms and a fear of losing women as “property makers.” Both Jetha and Ryan argue against this stigmatization, considering the destruction of families and relationships by acts of infidelity as something more inherently harmful to the way we seek out and interact within relationships, then the actual act that happens outside of the relationship.

Much to the surprise of many, things before the agricultural revolution were kind of okay, a point that the authors argue is often overshadowed by many texts bent that squash aspects of our nature into more tight-fitting boxes, solely while making a point. Just as context is always crucial, it was the agricultural revolution that brought about nearly two-thirds of communicable diseases, most coming from close quarters, the lack of movement, domesticated animals, and shitting where you eat. Not only did disease become more common, but these close quarters revealed the correlation between sex and childbearing, a result that damned women and children to commodities and property, incentive for men to demand sexual exclusivity for multiple heirs they knew were theirs and theirs alone. This not only began to increase the mortality rates of women and children, but began the outsourcing of one of nature’s most natural birth controls, breast-feeding, a task now deemed to wet nurses.

The book also answers questions like, why do women take longer than men to become sexually aroused? Why do women vocalize more during sex then men? How does arousal become dampened by cultural pressure? How have the concepts of private and public not only formed our conceptions of sexuality and monogamy, but of almost all human behavior? Of course, Sex at Dawn doesn’t exist to convince people to throw all commitments and promises out the window and fuck whomever, whenever, however. If anything, it just cements the idea that most people are just doing the best they can everyday and we need to re-examine what it means to be partnered, to be in love, and to fuck. While marriage and monogamy are argued as universals, they really aren’t. We all see the world through the bias of our own experience- the slow infiltrations of what we have always known as our reality. While it is important to remember that these things can make us who we are, it also serves as a reminder that everything has been created from something that may have not had the best intentions. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have long-term partners or not get married; it just means that maybe we should try doing things differently, however it works for us. This alone leaves me hopeful, that maybe, despite our best (or really, worst), we paved the way to sexual norms hell.

So while we may consider ourselves the smartest animal, let us always remember the Yucatán. Perhaps in doing so, we might begin to understand that like most culturally accepted institutions; racism, sexism, capitalism, most widespread norms towards sexuality, monogamy and marriage are rooted in a history based out of confusion, ownership, and privilege.

But just as “patriotism is the conviction that your country is superior to all others because you were born in it,” (G. B. Shaw) the notion that we live in our species’ “most peaceful moment” is as intellectually baseless as it is emotionally comforting. Journalist Louis Menand noted how science can fulfill a conservative, essentially political function by providing “an explanation for the way things are that does not threaten the way things are.” “Why,” he asks rhetorically, “should someone feel unhappy or engage in anti-social behavior when that person is living in the freest and most prosperous nation on Earth? It can’t be the system!” What’s your problem? Everything’s just fine. Life’s great and getting better! Less war! Longer life! New and improved human existence!  -Sex at Dawn.

Maybe we should be paying attention to the bonobos more often.



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