One of two favorite books I read in 2010. Sex columnist Dan Savage had been PRAISING Sex at Dawn, having co-author Christopher Ryan on for an episode of the Savage Love Podcast (highly recommended - entertaining, pragmatic, political, frothy and available on iTunes - no, I don't get a commission).
Ever seen porn? Heard of porn? Anyway, people enjoy watching other people have sex. People like pondering other people having sex. People like imagining themselves having non-procreational sex. Yet, admitting this is a source of shame.
How many times must we see moral zealots revealed to be unhappy hypocrites about what they profess compared to what they truly like? How many times among our friends? Us? Hell, remember how then-Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders got pressured to resign for acknowledging that masturbation is a natural activity?
"A 2005 survey of 12,000 adolescents found that those who had pledged to remain abstinent until marriage were more likely to have oral and anal sex than other teens, less likely to use condoms, and just as likely to contract sexually transmitted diseases as their unapologetically non-abstinent peers. The study’s authors found that 88 percent of those who pledged abstinence admitted to failing to keep their pledge."
This book takes on a lot of long-held anthropological assumptions and knocks them down. We are not aggressive apes prone to violence over territory, as chimpanzees are. We are closer to bonobos. Bonobos rub genitals together in greeting, and have sex with each other. A lot. It reinforces social bonds. It feels good. It was what early humans did before the development of agriculture. Before the establishment of harvests, of property, of having more stuff than other people - including claiming dominion over mates.
"On the question of human/bonobo similarities concerning stress, it’s interesting to note that when bombs fell near them in World War II, all the bonobos in the zoo died from the stress the explosions caused, while none of the chimps perished (according to de Waal and Lanting, 1998)."
This book is ambitious, and has great humor. It strives to be an updated Kinsey report, but even broader and deeper with detailed looks at neurology, anatomy (sexual organs, sexual processes/mechanics, hormones and health), sociology, gender studies, sexual attitudes across many cultures, primate-to-primate behaviors. It examines what we actually do, and why. Not what we profess to do. Never thought I'd read paragraphs about "sperm competition" and find them so enthralling. Not prurient, but "Oh, wow."
It's pretty good at the take-downs of unsound, enduring, widespread anthropological assumptions. Doesn't feel as solid on the cases it builds up. It does demand a lot of thought by the reader on what makes us as humans happy, biology v. social conditioning, wants and needs on both a species-wide and personal scale. Expect to do a lot of reflection and rummaging through your past and present.
BEFORE you go all inward in front of your computer display/smartphone right now, let me intervene and delay your impending epiphany.
Did you know that Kellog's cereal was formed by Seventh Day Adventist brothers who worked in a sanitarium trying to dampen libidos? Check it:
"Though widely considered to be one of the leading sex educators of his day, Kellogg proudly claimed never to have had intercourse with his wife in over four decades of marriage. But he did require a handsome male orderly to give him an enema every morning—an indulgence his famously high-fiber breakfasts should have made unnecessary. [...] These men believed that any spices or strong flavors excited sexual energies, so they recommended bland diets to dampen the libido. Graham crackers and unsweetened breakfast cereal were originally marketed to parents of adolescent boys as foods that would help them evade the evils of masturbation."
on 2011-05-20 05:11 by Derek Denton
I danced around a core issue in the book: monogamy. Scores of statistics that our mass national shock, SHOCK at people who are non-monogamous contain an abundance of fucking hypocrites. Other, more pragmatic nations laugh at our pretense and vestiges of Puritanism, and inability to hold to them. The book looks at scores of human societies with completely different practices on sexual exclusivity/possession with startling extremes on both ends. And at our biology, and what we admit to anonymously about actual sexual exclusivity.
What if we're not wired for it? Long-term exclusivity does happen, happily, but think of the broad cliché (even assumption) of a couple seething at each other with longterm resentments/tolerance and lack of affection, yet they are obliged to stay together. Think of friends who separated or divorced. Or maybe you have yourself. Was it a clean break? Or even when dating - crisp transitions from one relationship to the other, or vague, sloppy, bewildering periods? If people are not sexually compatible with one another, but compatible and happy in other ways, are they obliged to shut that part of themselves and their identity off?
As I'm typing this, a lot of tsk-tsking over Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver's divorce is going on with the media. Is it sad a family is breaking up? Sure (we assume). Do we know all that was going on in that marriage? No. Do we project on them anyway? Oh, yes.
I am not of the "Let's leave [celebrities steeped in scandal-of-the-day] ALONE." There is HUGE comedy to be mined in paragons of beauty or morality caught being mammals just like us. It's a privilege we have. Idols are built then torn down. For thousands of years.
Any-hoo, the book puts all these ideas out there, and then ... leaves you wondering what should we be striving for as a society. It makes for a tough, challenging, deep read.