Sex at Dawn (Book, 2012)

Books are the containers in which we place ideas for safe keeping. Often these ideas can be mostly harmless. Other times, they give birth to entire worlds worth exploring. Some, however, are quite dangerous – the sort that root themselves deep in your core. Then, from that deep vantage they expand and expand until your soul quakes and the landscape of your mind has fundamentally shifted.

From the outset, Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha aims to be dangerous. Many of us come from two parents who raised us to one day go out, meet someone worth being with forever, and propagate marriage to our future children. We live in countries around the world that believe in the nuclear family with politicians concerned about maintaining family values. We define our familiar existence with marriage as its principal pillar.

At the same time, we’re told that marriages exist because people are meant to be monogamous. It is scientifically in our nature to find a true love, settle down, and start a family. It’s also our social and moral duty. Marriage exists because the human narrative has long-held that people are capable of being monogamous, willingly submit to being monogamous, and ought to be monogamous.

Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha challenge that. In one of the most accessible books on the topic I have read (admittedly, not a ton). It’s easy to follow, not bogged down by scientific terms or concepts, and contains pleasantly self-aware humor that spawns quips like “Yes, a few candles here, some crotchless panties there, toss a handful of rose petals on the bed and it’ll be just like the very first time!” If you have any curiosity in arguments against marriage, then not only does this book present its evidence clearly for almost any audience, it presents a lot of it.

Their argumentative table-setting rests on two big ideas. First, Western civilization has the wrong view of pre-Agricultural Revolution hunter-and-gathering society. Second, that of the two closest DNA relatives to humans, chimpanzees and bonobos, meeting chimpanzees first has drastically altered how we view natural human social structure, especially since we are slightly closer to conobos.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t recall anyone ever saying anything negative about the Agricultural Revolution in college. I took courses with professors who fired off opinions from their pulpit with a conviction that would make some ministers blush. I never strayed away from classes that attempted to explain away man as something not ripped from the mind of a perfect God. All the same, the Agricultural Revolution was always painted as a triumphant moment of human industry – a shining example of us lifting ourselves from chaos toward a long run of technological innovation and civilization construction.

Ryan and Jetha have none of that in Sex at Dawn. To them, the Agricultural Revolution was a dramatic shift in human history that forever altered our course as a species for the worse. On women, “Clearly, the biggest loser (aside from slaves, perhaps) in the agricultural revolution was the human female, who went from occupying a central, respected role in foraging societies to becoming another possession for a man to earn and defend, along with his house, slaves, and livestock.” For them, pre-agricultural humans were not living in a Hobbesian state of nature defined as being ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’, constantly starving or fighting off enemy tribes.

Instead, these early people lived in fiercely egalitarian bands. “Hoarding or hiding food, for example, is considered deeply shameful, almost unforgivable behavior in these societies.” Women were treated far more equitably than they would later be in agrarian societies. Rather than a strict mother figure, children were raised largely by the tribe as a whole. In one of the more fascinating examples, Sex at Dawn mentions several modern hunter-gathering groups still in existence today. One in particular practices a sort of ‘group paternity’ where the woman tries to mate with as many different men as possible, believing that each will contribute particular traits to the eventual child.

“Modern man’s seemingly instinctive impulse to control women’s sexuality is not an intrinsic feature of human nature. It is a response to specific historical socioeconomic conditions—conditions very different from those in which our species evolved. This is key to understanding sexuality in the modern world.”

I am no expert in the subject, but the different viewpoint offered by Sex at Dawn has forced me to reconsider and re-explore the long term impact of agriculture, especially when it isn’t the good alternative to a very evil scavenger-based lifestyle. It makes sense that the rise of agriculture led to private property which led to war over the more fertile areas and eventually developing a concept of family that sustainably provides more soldiers and workers, i.e. the nuclear family.

The second major focus of Sex at Dawn pertains to bonobos as a close DNA cousin to human beings. This is also the part of the book where Ryan and Jetha talk about human promiscuity, sperm competition, and sex as a social (not reproductive) activity first and foremost. Given a serious lack of knowledge in this area, it was a fascinating read filled with many excellent quotes.

Here are three of my favorite examples on human sexuality specifically:

“Reproductive biologist Roger Short (real name) writes, “The great size of the erect human penis, in marked contrast to that of the Great Apes, makes one wonder what particular evolutionary forces have been at work.”

“It bears repeating that the human penis is the longest and thickest of any primate’s—in both absolute and relative terms.”

“A scrotum is like a spare refrigerator in the garage just for beer. If you’ve got a spare beer fridge, you’re probably the type who expects a party to break out at any moment.”

Ryan and Jetha argue that bonobos are an even closer DNA match with humans than chimpanzees, which leads to some interesting comparisons when it comes to relating the human animal to bonobos. Bonobo social structure rests on a peaceful matriarchy. In fact, the pecking order when it comes to food starts with the mothers, then the children, and finally the fathers. There’s also a ton of observational evidence that a child bonobo derives their status within the group from their mother’s position in the social hierarchy, even well into adulthood.

It’s not like male bonobos are treated cruelly. They still get to eat, for instance. It happens that there is another contributing factor to the peacefulness of all bonobos, that also keeps the males especially docile: they have lots of sex.

That’s right: bonobo sex happens often and everywhere. Seriously, I watched a documentary and the Kama Sutra could learn a few things from these promiscuous apes! When two tribes of bonobos meet, there isn’t warfare. Instead, the females clean one another and eat together while the males stare each other down, then they all have sex. Often afterward, the two tribes stick together for a bit, foraging and sexing their days away.

Chimpanzees are more or less the exact opposite of bonobos. They are patriarchal, warlike, and rape is more likely than a promiscuous quicky in the trees. Given their DNA proximity to our own and the fact that we discovered them first (bonobos live in very remote areas in Africa), Ryan and Jetha argue that these factors have contributed to a scientific view of the natural human as being innately patriarchal and warlike. If we had discovered bonobos first, then we might see ourselves differently.

The latter chapters also include some fascinating discussion on human sexuality specifically. Their argument is that female copulatory vocalization promotes sperm competition by attracting other males. The male penis specifically seems to be adapted for sperm competition as the vacuum it forms while inside the vagina can push out previous ejaculates, but when the penis ejaculates it shrinks slightly enough to break the seal.

This area of the book is fascinating, but from the little I have researched about these topics outside the book, there are many competing theories on the various aspects of human sexuality. As with the rest of the book, there are scientists who argue that these mechanics exist to reinforce pair-bonding (monogamy).

I am no expert, but Sex at Dawn has convinced me to reconsider marriage and monogamy from a purely cultural perspective. Their arguments make a lot of sense. That’s not to say I am going to outright avoid marriage for the rest of my life or that I think it is silly to get married at all, but I do believe we need a more open dialogue about marriage and relationships, possibly entertaining the idea that we aren’t monogamous creatures. As Ryan and Jetha say, “We aren’t designed to make each other miserable.” I couldn’t agree more.

I know I’m probably late, but …

… everytime this song comes up on my ‘Thumbs Up’ list, I’m impressed all over again. I don’t know what happened, but for pretty much the entire duration of my last relationship (over three years), musically, my life was a black hole. Where it was once one of the more important things ever, I simply stopped caring. I rarely listened to what I already knew I loved; I rarely looked for something new to love.

Late last year, that began to change. I opened myself back up to music. It is a wonder it took so long because, frankly, the last few years of music (even the popular stuff) has been pretty damn good. I hate that it took me this long to listen to most of it.

Which brings me to Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, a group that has been enjoying some real success these last few years. I’ve since heard their bigger hits in various places, but this one song is the only one I can listen to on repeat. I am not sure how big ‘Starting Over’ was, but I hope everyone who heard something as silly as ‘Thrift Shop’ took the time to listen to this track off the same album (The Heist). Probably not.

It isn’t a new subject matter, especially in music and more especially in rap, but I don’t tire of hearing a positive message about the matter. ‘Starting Over’ is song about admitting failure and embracing a chance to turn things back around. It’s the type of story I know all too well, though not necessarily from my own experiences. My brother struggled with a cycle of addiction for his entire life. He’d stumble then started over, repeating that cycle until it all caught up with him.

Worse, my father has always and continues to struggle with alcoholism. Well, not struggle. You can’t struggle against something that you’ve allowed to define yourself both as what you see in the mirror, as well as the person your family sees. Struggle implies he knows what he is fighting or that he is willing to fight it at all. I’m doubtful.

Doone’s excellent post on parenthood the other day got me thinking about this, but this song forced my hand to write something.

It’s hard to be a parent. I don’t know first hand but I am a good guesser. It must be even harder when you don’t know what to expect of yourself and what you thought you should be, the typical male figure as Doone discusses, isn’t really relevant anymore. Cultural expectations no longer define fatherhood by the paycheck the man brings home and the distance he can maintain from his wife and kids while in that home. The role has thankfully evolved.

I have been blessed and cursed in that regard – my father has always cared about me. We rarely get along though. We are generationally and culturally pretty far apart. As much as I hate admitting it, his alcoholism over the years has widened those gaps even further. I’m smart enough to recognize the problems, but I don’t have the emotional willpower to bridge them. The man tries hard but he always falls short. He’s a good guy, but not good enough. I guess the same can apply to me in some ways.

When I was younger, I defined my life by overcoming my father’s weaknesses. I avoided alcohol with a passion, fearing that a single drink would turn me into something I never wanted to be. As I got old and grew smarter, I realized it isn’t what’s in the bottle that changes people, it’s why people drink it in the first place. I can’t fault my father for his life, but Rome wasn’t built in a day nor are the problems of an entire lifetime. Eventually, I had to grow up and move on from imagining a miracle would change him or save me from a life spent being tortured by his problems.

It’s hard to be a son. I know that first hand. It’s even harder when your model is ‘what not to do’ and what you expect of yourself is defined by avoiding negatives. We struggle enough as day-to-day humans, but strap the responsibility of someone else on our backs and that struggle becomes even harder. At my father’s soberest point, he is a grouchy, temperamental, quiet man that I adore. Any point beyond that, he’s the loudest, most ignorant, most happy-go-lucky person you’ll ever meet, and I cringe at his laughter and silently yell as he stumbles about.

This post isn’t advancing toward a big reveal. It isn’t heading toward a miracle cure or brilliant change of perspective. Struggle is struggle. It’s hard enough to be, and that’s before we start strapping on added responsibility.

We always have and will continue to struggle. Best to not be oblivious of the fact.

Responding to a Tweetersation

Fellow blogger Syl over at MMO Gypsy mentioned on Twitter a dislike of specific elements of the HBO television show Game of Thrones when she asked:

I responded:

In return, Syl replied:

And a very reasonable exchange of tweets on the matter with a wide array of opinions ensued. I, however, opted to retract my statement given the limitation of Twitter. After some prodding, I decided to write this post.

Even with the full weight of a blog post at my side, this is a complicated matter for me to express both eloquently and carefully. Wish me luck!

It begins with empathy. Apocryphal or not, there are two stories that have long been canon in the narrative expression of who I am as a person.

First, I recall at a very young age my mother being quite upset that someone had eaten some leftovers which she had particularly marked for herself as a lunch the next day. The culprit was never identified and I don’t believe it was me (though it could be, cold chicken is delicious). All the same, I remember the intensity of the sadness I felt for her.

Even as young kid, I was aware how much my mom sacrificed daily for the family. It seemed cruel that such a simple thing as ‘relying on your lunch to not get eaten’ could not be taken for granted. Especially considering the matter after many, many more years of experience, I know exactly how frustrating it can be for a perfectly reasonably expectation to be completely denied.

Second, my father and I were at a video rental store (ancient locations where the insides of Redbox machines were displayed in a large area without touch screens, instead opting for actual touch and employing a greasy teenager to not screw-up). My dad is a big fan of Nascar, so naturally he gravitated toward a box with the Nascar logo emblazoned boldly. Picking it up, he showed it to me and said, “Let’s watch this.”

With all the intensity of a young kid who has yet to learn about tact, I proudly and loudly responded, “Dad, that’s a Nintendo game – you don’t watch those!” The look of disappointment in his own mistake obviously scarred me for life because I still think about it from time to time.

I start here because the prevailing theory in my head of who I am as a person revolves around an innate ability to empathize with others. I’ve always felt a rather strong connection to other people’s emotional well-being, and I tend to be a quick read on other individual’s state of being whether obvious signs are on display or not.

Now, add to the mix a kid who is introverted, shy for most of his life, who often feels disconnected from the real world and the bigger picture becomes clearer.

As I said in my post about my car accident in January, “There is a dangerous side to my personality: I crave experiences.” I’ve always had a strong imagination and a love of creating. Often because of my natural introversion, I live more in my mind than in the real world. That’s why books and video games have always been a natural fit with me: I value the new experiences.

When you combine that with a deep tendency toward empathy, even a poorly written or acted bit of fiction can touch the deepest parts of my being. It is an addictive feeling where I take on (briefly) the life of another person. No matter how fictional they may be, I lose myself in similar ways, I’d argue, to how a method actor can lose his or herself in a role. In fact, there have been times when I jump up and act out the part, especially when I was younger and more foolish. Even now, it is incredibly risky for me to finish a book (or anything else, really) close to when I am going to sleep. The rush of energy that flows through me almost always guarantees a few hours where sleep will be impossible due to excess brain activity, reenactment, and critical evaluation.

Sticking with the same quote, the ‘dangerous’ nature of my experience-cravings comes from a real desire to experience actual pain, actual danger. That’s not exactly true, but it also isn’t exactly untrue either. In improving my understanding of living and the people who do it daily, I have a deep, dark curiosity constantly striving to not only experience their highs but the lows that often define them even more. I turn on sad songs not necessarily to relate to them personally, but to feel the sorrow and loss and despair of the artist.

My love of Game of Throne’s sadism is my love of feeling-and-experience collecting. Great writing and great acting heighten the intensity of the high and, like an excellently written book, I take on briefly a different point of view with experiences (thankfully) foreign to my own.

It doesn’t hurt that A Song of Ice and Fire, as a book series, has helped renew my interest in the fantasy genre at large. The naively romantic whitewashing of pseudo-medieval societies as places of great adventure where heroes are celebrated for moral and mythical quest-accomplishing had long convinced me that the genre was incapable of generating the emotional resonance I find worthwhile. Instead of trials of faith where the heroes belief in his own destiny or in the love of someone in dire need of his help is all that motivates his journey,I demand complexity, relatability, and an experience reflective of actual human beings, not their mythicized counterparts. Predestined heroism is a novel idea, but not an idea of which I want to read in my novels.

Back to the matter at hand, I suppose I spoke a bit too soon when I responded to Syl’s tweet in such a manner. Honestly, I spoke without thinking at all. Unlike so many personal posts I write where I willingly give you insight into how I might view something (myself, the world, or otherwise), this one is an admission I do not give without serious hesitation. When Syl describes Martin’s work as having a ‘voyeuristic joy of torture’, I am the audience member taking a voyeuristic joy in the story Martin weaves, and that includes the torture, murder, rape, desolation, and mayhem that is so prevalent throughout it.

I don’t apologize for it. I won’t. Mostly because I believe in my ability to separate fact from fiction. Even if I take pleasure in it, I do not believe for a second that these depictions are changing me to be more violent, more misogynistic, or more rapey. No more than I think a violent video game causes people to go out and murder en masse, I do not avert my eyes from the screen for fear of subversion.

If the full weight of my opinion is to be levied here then I think precisely the opposite. My voyeurism leads me to walk in these people’s shoes. To fully understand the human experience, we cannot close our eyes when it gets dark out, thinking our own temporary blindness enough to really see the matter at hand. We must open them completely and take in the true darkness before us.

The beauty of the mediums we have constructed as a culture are their ability to widen our perspectives to their widest viewing capacity. In doing so, we can finally see the full spectrum of the human experience, a spectrum that gets a lot darker than the rainbow we’d like to see it as.