Hey, let's talk about books: Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá

I’m deciding to take a crack at writing a sort of book review. Book of the week, book of the month—I’m not sure if it’ll become a regular thing. And I’ve never done any “blogging” before so this is fairly new to me, although I do love to write and I love to talk about books even more, so here ya go. For now I’ll call this little segment, “Hey, let’s talk about books.”

            When I talk about books and how much I love them I usually espouse the far-reaching benefits of fiction, but I’m going to start here with one of my favorite nonfiction books of the last few years. I want to tell you about this lovely book, Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, published in 2010. Pictured is my tattered copy, which I bought at Women & Children First in Chicago maybe four years ago and have since lent to at least three friends, who all enjoyed it as much as I did.

            Put as simply as possible, Ryan and Jethá examine various studies of primate sexual behavior and from them derive a hypothesis which develops throughout the book. This hypothesis, basically, is that humans are not biologically monogamous. Our strong cultural perception that we are “naturally” meant to exist with only one sexual partner is a relatively recent human construct, and it denies thousands and thousands of years of human evolution when our species—our ancestors—engaged in sexual relationship structures completely different from what we’ve been led to believe. Monogamy isn’t real. Well, it’s real only insofar as we are taught it from a young age and we end up believing in it. Further, the authors assert that this trend of ours to force our non-monogamous biological programming into a monogamous way of life is firmly at the root of many of our problems in relationships, sexual and otherwise.

            I love the idea of this book because it tackles topics head-on that many people feel too uncomfortable talking or even thinking about, like what if we’re not meant to have only one sexual partner? And maybe the way we construct families proves so problematic time after time because it’s fundamentally flawed, given our biological makeup? Ryan and Jethá use a wealth of credible scientific resources to back any claims they make. While you’re reading you’re taking in some pretty dense scientific information, but it doesn’t feel like it because they have a light, sometimes funny way of talking about everything that it feels more like a conversation than a research paper.

            I think it’s easy for a reader of this book to be critical—I mean, it makes some statements that feel pretty blankety to me, pretty black and white. And I think some of the authors’ assertions are somewhat problematic, but isn’t that true for every book (and everything), ever? I think some people feel resistant to this book because they don’t want to hear that a fundamental aspect of our culture is not as set in stone as we believe it is. But the authors make some wonderful, mind-blowing points that are undeniably apt and will make you think in entirely new, refreshing directions for a long time after you read it. If you read it, I mean. And you should.

            There is so much to this book. The complexity of the ideas presented is so dense, I feel like I could think and talk about it forever. While the authors say we might be better off sexually non-monogamous, I feel like they also recognize that this is somewhat impossible given the structure of the rest of our lives. We no longer live in the small groups we used to; we live in enormous, amorphous communities that seemingly have no ending because we now know just how big the world is, whereas for thousands of generations our predecessors personally knew every person they were aware of. Many aspects of our sexual lives are obviously at the whim of the rapid evolution of the structure of human life that has come about in the past few centuries—in the past few decades, even! The authors examine these causes and effects as well, drawing on interesting modern examples of people being dissatisfied with life and having few places to turn for answers why.

            Sex at Dawn, to me, is a shamelessly honest, sex-positive evaluation of many aspects of human behavior that most researchers shy away from. And it’s written in straightforward, accessible prose, which I always appreciate. It’ll change your life a little bit. That’s my review! Thanks.