before you read Sex at Dawn

I listened to the Skeptically Speaking interview with Sex at Dawn author Christopher Ryan.

I haven’t read the book yet – neither the local library nor the academic consortium of libraries I can access has a copy yet, and I generally don’t buy books before I’ve read them. So I’ll read it when a library gets it.

Dr Ryan did an interview at Lemondrop, in which he says, “No creature needs to be threatened with death to act in accord with its own nature,” the implication being that monogamy is not in our “nature.” Which triggered a wide range of “uh-oh’s” for me.

So I had a listen to the Skeptically Speaking interview, hoping to learn more about what I was in for with the book. In it, he said that the goal of the book is to refute the standard narrative:

The standard narrative is that there’s an essential exchange at the heart of female-male relations that breaks down to the female is trading sexual fidelity for goods and services from the man.

(Honestly, I had no idea that that was the “standard narrative.” I’m too far removed from the mainstream to know. If he’s referring to stuff like the “dual mating strategy” of women, geez, I had no idea that was the standard narrative! I suppose it could be. Is it?)

One the one hand, it’s exciting a mainstream book directly challenging Buss &co, with their “men want young, fertile virgins/women want rich, older, sexually skilled men” misunderstanding of sexuality; and at the same time, I’m worried about the sloppiness of reasoning I notice in the interviews.

Like, he talked about the cost-benefit analysis as though it was literally ECONOMIC, rather than metabolic. All evolutionary game theory can sound like economy if you think about it badly… but surely that’s a byproduct of the interview format, simplifying for a non-scientist audience. Right?

And he didn’t talk about phenotypic plasticity, not even when he was offered the opportunity on a platter, in the form of a question about sex tourism with women as customers. Hmm.

God, he didn’t talk about attachment at all. Not even when he talked about love. Not even when he talked about jealousy! No, but he described a culture in which jealousy was made out to be a source of shame, made culturally ridiculous to think that just because your special friend was sleeping with someone else, they might not be your special friend anymore. But he did not then repeat his assertion from Lemondrop that we don’t need to be threatened in order to do something in our nature…

What I mean is that jealousy, like non-monogamy, is extremely prevalent in human society; it is “natural,” for good or ill. And in this case, as in so many, “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

But maybe he wasn’t given a chance to clarify that jealousy and its companion, possessive love, are as nearly universal and just as “natural” as non-monogamy. Maybe the book is much clearer that, in the same way one needn’t consider oneself a bad person simply because one has or is tempted to have extra-dyadic sex, one also needn’t consider oneself a bad person simply because one is jealous.

But surely it’s the fault of the interview format that it sounded like he was saying there is one “natural” sexual culture for humans, rather than a range of potential that adapts to the environment.

Like, he described the “healthy” hunter-gatherer diet and lifestyle, saying that when you look at that lifestyle “you see in many different respects the healthiest way for human beings to live.”

But then he says that people who haven’t read the book think it promotes one particular sexual lifestyle yet, “We’re not advocating any particular approach to [sex].”

Oh? That’s not what you just did? Phew. Cos that’s kind of what it sounded like you were doing. It’s a relief to know you’re only implying it in interviews and not in the book. (??)

Maybe he’s just saying provocative things, challenging people’s ideas about monogamy and jealousy and “normal” sex in order to convince people to buy the book. Sadly, all this strategy does for me is make me dread reading it.

So I’ll read it with an eye out for (1) attachment; (2) game theory; (3) phenotypic plasticity; and (4) moral claims (with “moral” potentially dressed up as “healthy”). And some other nerdier stuff, too, about targets of selection, individual versus group-level behavior, etc.

Should you read it?

I’m gonna say that if you’re looking for a book about the evolution of human sexuality, stick with Dixson, who’s been doing superb work for decades, and Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s Mother Nature.

And I’m gonna say that if you’re looking for a book about how non-monogamy works, stick with The Ethical Slut, still the standard after all these years.