02 May 2012

Review: Sex At Dawn

Sex At Dawn begins with a scathing analysis of what it refers to as the “standard narrative” of human sexuality. You’re probably familiar with it: the story goes that humans are naturally monogamous and it is simply in our nature for the sexes to be completely at odds with each other throughout all phases of a relationship. The ball and chain is supposedly ingrained in our DNA. As a particularly sexually free person, I’ve always felt that this was somehow a perversion of how things really were. Nothing in popular culture seemed to address my suspicion; in fact even the most edgy commentaries seemed held back by the supposed inevitability of the standard narrative winning out. And then Sex At Dawn came along.

The scope of Sex At Dawn is broad; it is about more than just sex. In order to justify their opinions of the standard narrative and of their own theory, the authors have to string together world-beating evidence from a number of different disciplines. They talk about evolution, pre-historic society, economics, and philosophy. And, in this amateur’s opinion, they succeed.

I have to be careful because this book tells me exactly what I want to hear, and more. In fact, what makes it so astounding is that it steps on toes everywhere it strides. From anthropology, to primatology, to evolutionary psychology and beyond, apparently there are a lot of things that we haven’t been told and Sex At Dawn is more than willing to fix that for us. Its authors aren’t very well known, which makes what they have to say even harder to swallow.

But, being a rationalist, I also cannot fault the authors for their lack of notoriety. After all, an idea should be explored on its own merit, not that of its thinker. Though I readily admit that I have not checked out any sources, there are plenty of them, which makes this book an impressive feat of research, if anything. But I am not without a little knowledge and opinion in the various areas of academia that get hung out to dry and I have to say that… I concur with everything that is said by the book.

Do I really think that vital facts about our sexual nature have been downplayed and misinterpreted by researchers because they did not fit with the collectively accepted view of how we function? Absolutely. When you look into the history of sexual research (check out Mary Roach’s Bonk, if you will) and the attitude toward sexuality through the ages, along with the views that have had the biggest impact on sexual trends, it’s really fucking obvious that the mainstream concept of sexuality is wrong. The real question is “how wrong?”

Answer: very fucking wrong. We are sexual beasts. Our bodies and minds are designed to fuck. A lot. With a lot of people. We evolved without the concept of monogamy or marriage. It’s no wonder that these concepts bore us to fucking death. Of course, you may disagree with me and claim that you’re quite happy with your traditional relationship, but you must know that I am drastically simplifying things for the sake of summary. If this subject interests you in the least, I recommend that you read the book for yourself and then make up your mind.

I have looked for a few critiques of this book, but I have not heard any real damning counters to its main points. Most criticisms poke at the ways that the authors present their information. Some cite inconsistency, some are offended at the attempt to actually define human nature (didn’t you hear? It is supposed to remain nebulous!), some throw a bucket of red herrings by saying that the authors didn’t debunk a whole slew of other theories that could also be true. Some also invoke the naturalistic fallacy card, but just because something is fallacious doesn’t mean it is false. I’ve even encountered someone using evidence that the book itself presents for a point as evidence against the point. I remain in want of any real objection.

The big problem is that Sex At Dawn really ruffles a lot of feathers. Maybe too many. Maybe too vigorously. It’s really hard to imagine people who have lived their lives (personally or professionally) in the shadow of the standard narrative suddenly turning on their heels the minute they read this book. Personally, I’d love to see it start to drum up some high-profile responses. So far, the biggest name to fly its banner has been sex advice legend Dan Savage. But will a professional scientist, with their reputation at stake, lend their support to a premise that is so broad and, dare I say it, revolutionary?

What’s more disappointing is that I don’t see this book picking up much steam outside of select communities that are focused explicitly around human sexual relations. It’s been out for a while now and it feels like it has already came and went. People enjoy learning new things through pop-science books, but this book starts out by telling them that everything they know is wrong. It’s not easy for some to accept, especially when they are emotionally invested in the whole monogamy racket.