Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Sex at Dawn - Highly Recommended



On this week's edition of the Savage Lovecast, Dan Savage took the remarkable step of dropping his usual call-in format for the first time I can remember to interview Christopher Ryan, author (along with Cacilda Jetha) of a new book called Sex at Dawn. The book is about the origin of human sexuality in pre-agricultural, gatherer societies and what habits we might have evolved then that make the present-day commitment to life-long monogamy so difficult for so many people. I say that Savage interviewed Ryan, but the fact is he spent a significant amount of time gushing about how great the book was.

I love reading books about science and sociology and I love reading books about polyamory, but normally I wouldn't give a book like this a second glance. Why's that? Because I'm suspicious of books where people attempt to apply science or history to present-day problems. Frequently these books are the worst kind of science, the kind that comes up with the conclusion before doing the research and then ignores whatever evidence doesn't support the pre-selected topic. Take, for instance, that section in the first edition of The Ethical Slut where Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy say that monogamy was only invented because society needed to know who should inherit stuff. It's an interesting theory, sure, but Easton and Hardy are not anthropology experts and are definitely biased towards polyamory so can you really trust what they say? And, sure enough, that section disappeared in the second edition.

But Dan Savage recommended Sex at Dawn. In fact, he called it "the single most important book about human sexuality since Alfred Kinsey unleashed Sexual Behavior in the Human Male on the American public in 1948." It's true the man has an agenda when it comes to sexuality but he also has a nearly infallible bullshit detector and isn't know for ignoring or glossing over facts that contradict his beliefs. So I went on the book's website and noticed two very good signs. The first was that, Savage notwithstanding, most of the people who had reviewed and recommended the book were from academia, experts in fields that the book draws its evidence from, such as psychology, biology, anthropology and primatology. The second that the authors specifically state that their book won't make recommendations about how to interpret the information they're presenting and how to apply it to modern life. They waive their right to an opinion and an agenda.

So I headed out and bought a copy yesterday evening and I haven't been able to put it down ever since. I've read about a third of it in the last twelve hours. I was seen wandering down sidewalks in my neighborhood while reading, bumping into innocent pedestrians (I'm not proud). Every polyamory book club should put down what they're reading and start reading this immediately, that goes without saying. But this isn't just a book for poly folk. Although Ryan and Jetha are arguing it's likely that for ninety percent of its existence the human race was organized into hunter-gatherer bands that were sexually nonmonogamous, they never make any sort of attack on modern-day monogamy. Rather, they seem to hope that their research will lighten the load of modern humans who have chosen to be monogamous, to give them peace of mind when the going gets tough. When tempted towards adultery in the twentieth year of a monogamous marriage, they will be reminded by this book that there's nothing wrong or unusual about their desires, that they don't mean they've fallen out of love, and that errant desires, in and of themselves, don't constitute a betrayal of their partner.

Once I finish the book and find the time I'll post a full review. But, especially recently, waiting for me to blog about something involves running the risk of death by natural causes so I encourage you to visit your local independent bookstore and pick up a copy now.

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