Book review: Will “Sex at Dawn” influence sex therapy?

Recently, Sexuality Resource reviewed Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha’s Sex at Dawn — a new book drawing on a vast amount of cultural and physical anthropological scholarship to argue that for our hunter-gatherer ancestors, sexual promiscuity may have been an established way of life. And that the development 10,000 years ago of agriculture, an ownership society, and sexual monogamy brought an end to this golden age of sexuality.

As a sex therapist in New York City (where the kind of ownership society begun 10,000 years ago has perhaps reached a pinnacle of development), I wonder about whether the ideas discussed in this book will influence my field much.

So far, it doesn’t look promising. The dominant public reaction to the book in its first month has been that it “shows that humans are meant to be sexually promiscuous.” This is a subtle and understandable misreading of Sex at Dawn, but a misreading nonetheless.

Let me explain why it’s a misreading — using an excerpt from Sex at Dawn that you may worry is a digression. But trust me, it’s relevant.

Human nature? It’s the bananas, stupid.

During Jane Goodall’s first four years studying chimpanzees in Tanzania, according to Sex at Dawn, she observed them to be remarkably peaceful creatures. But they were difficult to observe, since they tended not to hang around her camp much. So she tried to attract them nearer by regularly feeding them bananas. The effect, evidently, was to make the chimpanzees more aggressive. Fighting between them increased dramatically.

Now, which represented the chimpanzee’s true nature? The gentle chimpanzees happily feeding far apart in the forest, not bothering each other? Or the hoodlum chimpanzees shoving each other out of the way at the daily banana trough?

The answer, as Ryan and Jetha eloquently express, is neither. It’s like asking whether water’s true nature is ice or liquid. It all depends on the conditions. Change the conditions, and you change which of many potential natures will be manifest.

Goodall’s observations also show the relative delicateness and vulnerability of an established primate social order. For the chimpanzees, a peaceful society depended on abundant food supply that was dispersed, with lots of feeding spots for everyone. Stick a big box of bananas in the middle of the forest, and the whole neighborhood goes to hell.

The kind of early human social structure that encouraged sexual promiscuity was a delicate thing. It required a small tightly-knit group of less than 150 individuals, an abundant natural food supply, and an inability to hoard resources. As I look out my front door in New York City, I don’t detect much potential for the establishment of that kind of social order. It’s strictly big boxes of bananas, all the way up Columbus Avenue.

Yet the popular buzz in the book’s first month seems to miss all of this. “We’re really meant to be promiscuous,” yell the headlines.

No. The reality is more sobering. The material conditions that would permit a stable culture of sexual promiscuity are long since gone.

The sober reality is that, as the poet Wordsworth wrote 200 years ago, talking about something completely different but really not so different — “nothing can bring back the hour / Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower.”

Will Sex at Dawn influence sex therapy? In my own practice it already has. But in a different way than you might think.

The Wordsworth poem about “splendor in the grass” begins with the poet’s awareness that as an adult he no longer is capable of the extremes of ecstatic pleasure that he recalls from childhood.

Since reading Sex at Dawn, I’m even more conscious in my work with individuals and couples that even our best sexual experiences are probably only a dim echo of a once-ecstatic form of sexual being. One that can no longer be adequately described in words or images, because the psychological and cultural conditions necessary for it have vanished.

This once-ecstatic form of sexual being was probably often communal, and involved an absence of shame and a deep sense of communal connection that I cannot imagine.

There is currently some talk in the sex therapy field about whether we can “change the conversation” about monogamy vs infidelity that currently dominates the American media — perhaps change it to a more European-style model, which takes sexual infidelity less seriously.

Maybe. But I think we’d just be tinkering around the edges.

To me the message of Sex at Dawn for sex therapists is this: Be sensitive to the fact that we’re all sexual exiles. Be tolerant of the sexual struggles of your fellow moderns. They’re doing the best they can under quite compromised circumstances. Or, to quote the Wordsworth poem again,

We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering.

Our sexual exile will not end anytime soon. In the meantime, we’ll do the best we can — to treat our sexual selves with kindness and understanding.

© Stephen Snyder, MD 2010

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