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July 16, 2018 | by  | in Books | [ssba]

Sex at Dawn

I thought I was every bit the sex-positive, feminist Wellingtonian stereotype up until I started this book in my dentist’s office and he happened to ask me what I was reading. A more-uncomfortable-than-necessary conversation ensued, which was only cut short by him putting his hand inside my mouth. Considering what we had just been discussing, that was similarly uncomfortable.

After a long day of navigating academic texts, non-fiction can be an unappealing section of the library to approach in your free time. You know what’s not unappealing though? Sex. I issued Sex at Dawn from the library with the air of superiority of someone who is more sexually liberated than their fellow library-goers in the nearby Public Policy section.

Sex at Dawn brings together archaeology, sociology, and all the other -ologies to paint a picture of how prehistoric humans used to get it on. It argues that monogamous sexual relationships were popularised by the advent of agriculture and the formation of structured societies which relied on a gendered power imbalance to function. This stands in stark contrast to traditional scientific understanding that humans evolved to prefer monogamy, down to a biological level.
In many ways, Sex at Dawn reads as if someone tried to convince their girlfriend to consider an open relationship, and then conducted an extensive research project on why it’s a good idea after she refused.
Listen, I’m here for polyamory and open relationships. That’s not my issue. Where I feel betrayed by this book, though, is how it calls itself an account of the prehistoric origins of sexuality. A more accurate description would be that it’s a book about non-monogamy, which uses prehistory to makes its case. And so, initially expecting just to learn some kooky sex facts that I could whip out during dry conversations, my brain is now jammed with 300 pages about why relationships are doomed. What am I supposed to do with that? What do I tell my boyfriend?
Once I regained my trust in this book though, I began to appreciate it for its critique of the sanctity of science. In essence, it argues that science is entwined with the cultural circumstances under which it is conducted, and that conceptions of human sexuality have been intrinsically shaped by this bias. Many of the foremost thinkers on sexuality arose from the Victorian era, arguably one of the most sexually repressive times in history (turns out Darwin was kind of a prude). As a result of these cultural prejudices, scientists developed a very particular understanding of why humans have sex. Women are generally painted as the submissive receptors of sex from men, who want nothing more than for their genes to flood the population. Monogamy is believed to be evolution’s way of ensuring that women don’t sleep around, and men don’t accidentally raise a kid that has a different baby-daddy.
What if we let women do what they want, though? What if we broadened our interpretations of a familial unit, though? Would our species collapse into heathenism, or were scientists mistaken about the purpose of sexuality? Sex at Dawn examines a number of prehistoric societal arrangements that didn’t rely on single-partner relationship dynamics, where people had a lot more sex with a lot more people. These relationships defy the traditional narrative that humans are naturally monogamous.
Whether or not you buy into the case put forward by Sex at Dawn, it’ll certainly make you rethink the reasons behind your next Netflix and chill session. All in all, did I learn much about sex from this book? Not really. Did I learn to question the scientific presumptions that influence public thought and government policy on sexuality? Yeah. Did I read a lot about monkey genitalia? Also yeah.


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