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2/12 Books: Sex at Dawn

A pre-book review note: This is a long review of a non-fiction book about marriage and sex.  It has absolutely nothing to do with photography and really very little to do with any of the things I normally blog about.  For an overview of the 12 Books project and to see the other books I’ll be reviewing here (just one on average per month), check the subheader at the bottom of the post.

Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality pretty much sold me on their argument, which leaves me in a bit of a lurch, for the moment.  Not too long from now, I’m sure I’ll forget most of what I learned and go back to thinking about sex and marriage as I always have.  But for just a brief moment here, I’ll pause while I sort these things out and bring you a book review that really rattled my assumptions.

Authors Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá ask a few simple questions that I think most of us would probably brush off (I’m certainly attempting to, even having read the book):

Could it be that the atomic isolation of the husband-wife nucleus with an orbiting child or two is in fact a culturally imposed aberration for our species – as ill-suited to our evolved tendencies as corsets, chastity belts, and suits of armor?  Dare we ask whether mothers, fathers, and children are all being shoe-horned into a family structure that suits none of us?  Might the contemporary pandemics of fracturing families, parental exhaustion, and confused, resentful children be predictable consequences of what is, in truth, a distorted and distorting family structure inappropriate for our species?

Naturally our response to such questions is – of course not!  But the authors go on to argue – convincingly, in my opinion – that this is exactly what has happened.  The main point of the book is that until the advent of agriculture some 10,000 years ago, humans mostly lived in hunter-gatherer tribal bands (this is not disputed) and in these bands practiced a wide variety of sexual activities. Children were raised more or less communally.  Fathers may not have been aware of which children were “theirs” as mothers might have had intercourse with many of the men from her tribe and others during her fertile period.  It was only after we all settled down to farm that the issue of property even arose, leading to the need for workers (wife and kids – exclusively for use in your land), protection of lands/equipment (war) and other stressful situations that never arose for the vast majority of our species’ time on this earth.

For most modern humans, products of our agricultural society and bearing the strong imprints of Judeo-Christian morals, marriage and monogamy seems like a “natural” state for our species.  Many have agreed vehemently, sometimes to disastrous results (stoning of adulterers still happens in some parts of this world, female genital mutilation is a horrific but widespread abuse, etc.).  Ryan and Jethá argue that monogamy goes against our very nature – drawing on research from archeology, primatology, biology and also examining modern cultures that seem to have retained some of our pre-agricultural ways.  I won’t get into all these arguments, which are very detailed.

Instead, I’ll skip right along to address the enjoyment of reading such a book.  While it may have rocked my world a bit, the authors are pretty funny.  Check this quote, where the authors are reviewing Darwin’s assessment of natural selection in primates:

According to this theory, women have evolved to unthinkingly and unashamedly exchange erotic pleasure for access to a man’s wealth, protection, status, and other treasures likely to benefit her and her children.
Darwin says’ your mother’s a whore.  Simple as that.

They also used the phrase “penguin poonany” at one point.  In sum, they’re good writers and they do a lot to engage the reader.  I believe their intention was to create a book that could speak to the masses.  Because they do have good intentions, these authors.  They know they’re stirring the pot but are doing it, they say, to help all those (particularly the children) that have been hurt by our culture’s insistence that one-man-one-woman pair bonds are the “natural” social arrangement for our species.  If this is right, Ryan and Jethá argue, then why is marriage so much work?

So now what? I was thinking for the last hundred pages.  Okay, I think I buy it – we all used to get it on with a lot of different people, a lot more often.  So what am I supposed to do about it now?  I’m happily married and I don’t want to do anyone else and don’t want my husband doing anyone else.  Help me out, guys. The authors feel my pain but offer few remedies.

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. Other than that, we really have little helpful advice to offer.

Awesome.

But in the end, here’s my thinking.  The cultural pressures that keep our marriages and families together are pretty seriously strong.  Not strong enough for approximately half the marriages in America, but I guess 50/50 ain’t bad for nature vs. nurture.  So I figure you have to go with nurture and hope for the best.  What other option do we have?  The same cultural impressions that make the thought of my husband with another woman revolting will be strong enough to fight against the desire he might have to be with someone else. Maybe that’s pretty weak sauce for a wedding photography blog, but the truth is I believe in complete honesty and I want my man to feel he can come to me with anything – anything – and we’ll work it out.  Our most intimate, bonding conversations have taken place through challenging revelations.  I have no doubt we’ll press on into the future in the same vein.

12 Books

This post comes to you as part of E‘s 12 books in 12 months project.  The goal is to read 12 books in a year – 12 books that we might not ordinarily be too motivated to read, but that have been on our to-read list.  Currently undertaking (yes this word is appropriate here) and hopefully next to be reviewed: Infinite Jest.

1. Story of O, Pauline Reage
2. The Four Hour Workweek, Tim Ferris
3. Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá
4. The One-Week Job Project, Sean Aiken
5. Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
6. Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman?, Richard Feynman
7. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce
8. Light in August, William Faulkner
9. For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway
10. At least one book from my photography collection, TBD.
11. Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion
12. A Scanner Darkly, Philip K. Dick

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