The Culture of Sex


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In the early ’90s, amid high-profile sexual harassment lawsuits and rape awareness campaigns such as Take Back the Night marches, two students accused a master at an Australian university of assaulting them at a school party. Hotly denied by the master himself, the charges consisted of a drunken grope while dancing, and a come-on later in his office. While the master was found not guilty of the charges, he still lost his job after leaflets appeared around campus saying that if the master was not stopped now, he would go on to rape a student.

  • Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá. 416 pages. Harper. $25.99.

Helen Garner tried to bring nuance to a very fraught issue in her account of the case, The First Stone: Some Questions about Sex and Power. She sympathized with the man and felt only confusion and disappointment about what she believed to be total overreaction by the women involved. Didn’t they understand where things could go if an unfortunate encounter were suddenly punishable in a criminal court? Rape is very serious, but a wayward hand is, frankly, a fact of life, a fact of having breasts and putting them into tight dresses and going out in public, where there is alcohol. Men should control themselves, but — outside a feminist science-fiction utopia — there will be men who put their hands on you. Does that make it “assault”? Garner said it doesn’t. With the systemic sexism that existed in universities at the time, and the rates of rape and sexual assault — not to mention that gray area where alcohol, coercion, and regret collide — it’s not surprising that some women wanted to plant a line of police officers between themselves and their male counterparts. But Garner worried that in doing so, they were permanently casting themselves in the role of victim: hapless and powerless in the face of brutal masculinity.

Simply by investigating the charges and not taking the students at their word, Garner was accused of being a bad feminist and of harassing the victims in her own way. To this day, The First Stone is very controversial in feminist circles. But while many see it as a selling out of feminist values, I appreciate that Garner pointed out a very uncomfortable truth: that women had to take some responsibility for their sexuality, and that the alternative was simply the criminalization and legislation of male desire.

This is, by the way, the version of male desire that I grew up with: the rapacious monster who can’t control himself and will take what he wants if you awaken his desire and refuse to sate him. In junior high health class, during our abstinence-only sex ed session, we were taught that if we were raped it was probably our fault, as men cannot control themselves. I remember reading about new rules of consent that campus feminists wanted to put in place, with permission asked for and granted before every new encounter. “Can I kiss you? Can I touch your breast? Can I take off your shirt?” Everything is clearly defined, yes, and no line is crossed, but desire is messy. It is dark and strange and by trying to eradicate the dark side of sexuality, these rules risked eradicating the fun, mysterious side as well. And really, who wants to fuck only under fluorescent lighting?

I wonder how such an introduction to sexual relations still skews my current relationships, because as Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality says, most of what we think of as our inborn nature in regard to love and sex is culturally indoctrinated. They take this so far as to suggest that monogamy, jealousy, and marriage that begins with virginity are all social constructs. Sexual pluralism is instead part of our nature, screwing, cohabitating, and sharing resources and genitals alike. No wonder relations between men and women are so bad right now, with resentment on both sides. We say forever and ever, we say one and only, when really what we should be doing is fooling around with our neighbor. Maybe while our husband watches.

Authors Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá work hard to make this point. They bring in anthropology, biology, primatology, neurology, psychology, and ethnography. They search the globe and back into prehistory in search of proof that the model we are working with now — incredibly high expectations, coupled with extremely poor follow-through — is not human nature but works directly against it. And so, if their theory is correct (and it’s not exactly groundbreaking for anyone up on the work of modern anthropology, prehistory, or the multitude of books and articles on the free love societies of our close relative the bonobo) how did we get this way? Blame agriculture.

And why not? Agriculture is the scapegoat of many cynics right now. Ryan and Jethá refer to the switch from hunter-gatherer culture to agriculture as a “catastrophe” — quoting Jared Diamond — and while they claim they are not out to make the hunter-gatherer way of life sound more “noble,” that is exactly what they do. Their anthropology sections are basically cut-and-paste jobs, and they leave out any of the dark stuff. Complex social and sexual systems are reduced to a paragraph, sometimes a sentence, making every society they mention sound like a sexy utopia. Customs like female genital mutilation is mentioned only casually, incest and old men fooling around with young girls reported with a shrug.

Agriculture may have brought with it all of the woes that Ryan and Jethá say it did — malnutrition, a decrease in life expectancy, greed and selfishness springing from this new concept of private property, diminished value of women’s contributions — but it also brought autonomy. As in, this is my vagina, and no, I am not going to sleep with every male member of your family despite it being the way things are done. Individuals could decide for themselves when they are sexually available, rather than the community deciding it for them. (And obviously, for a long time men decided for women, but it is, as always, more complicated than that.)

I largely agree with the thesis that we have built our relationships around ideas that are actually toxic — that lifelong monogamy is not only an achievable goal but the absolute ideal, that infidelity must be met with swift divorce or else you are a doormat, that deviation from this template means there is something wrong with you. Yet while reading Sex at Dawn I was angry, frustrated, and bored, not to mention bewildered that grown adults striving to be taken seriously would write in a never ending torrent of puns — the names of the chapters alone (from “Who’s Your Daddies?” to “Mommies Dearest”) are a table of contents of horrors. Their simplistic ideas, their denial of the dark side of sexuality, seemed no better than my junior high belief in the brutal force of male sexuality. The truth lies somewhere between “men oppress women with their uncontrollable needs” and “women oppress men with their socially constructed monogamous love.”

Ryan and Jethá are not just writing a book of anthropology — they want to change modern marriage. They are not researchers, but a psychologist and a psychiatrist, respectively. Their idea of real world application, then, will say a lot about the book as a whole, as it reveals their agenda. Men need sex. Lots of it. With lots of different women. And this final chapter of the book tilts the balance heavily. Young men, newly charged with hormones, need sex in order to keep from becoming violent. As an example, they mention a society in which a special house is established so adolescent boys and girls can engage in sex freely. (Never mind the studies that report that early sexualization of girls is harmful to them, such as Harold Leitenberg’s study that showed the younger girls started having sex, the more likely they were to engage in drug and alcohol use and suffer from depression. Ryan and Jethá don’t mention those.) And for women who are not comfortable with the idea of allowing their husbands to fool around on the side, the authors have some guilt for them:

Monogamy itself seems to drain away a man’s testosterone… Researchers have found that men with lower levels of testosterone are more than four times as likely to suffer from clinical depression, fatal heart attacks, and cancer when compared to other men their age with higher testosterone levels.

They continue, “We know that many female readers aren’t going to be happy reading this, and some will be enraged by it, but for most men, sexual monogamy leads inexorably to monotony.” And death, apparently. Despite their evidence that women’s orgasms and sexual needs are fulfilled by multiple partners, one after the other, there is no corresponding “Men aren’t going to like hearing this, but your wives are going to need to bang the entire German World Cup team — this is what she needs it to be fully orgasmic.” As their example of a modern marriage that works, they introduce us to a man who has a wife, children… and a mistress. He’s fulfilled, and he reports that this arrangement works, but no one has anything to say about how the wife is being fulfilled, if she is at all.

If there’s something to take from Sex at Dawn, it is simply that there are thousands of ways to be sexual creatures, as well as the reminder that societal norms flux with time for a reason. Did agriculture (and monogamy) come with some baggage? Absolutely. But did it also make us literate and productive, technologically advanced and romantic? Hell yes. It is possible that this particular mode of being no longer serves us, but neither will getting starry-eyed about better days long since past. There’s nothing progressive about this totally old-fashioned idea that women’s sexuality is the victim of, and secondary to, men’s sexuality. You can unpack the baggage from agriculture, and hunting-gathering, to figure out a new way to move forward with relations between men and women. But only if you’re honest about the contents — good and bad. • 21 July 2010