Sex at Dawn: the end (thank the little baby jesus)

Okay here we go.

p. 252 – an entertaining romp through history’s mistakes about women’s orgasms, with no claim on science and no need to be comprehensive. If the whole book had been this stuff, I probably would have liked it.

p. 254 – And there it is. “If psychiatrist Mary Jane Sherfey was correct when she wrote, ‘The strength of a drive determines the force required to suppress it’ (an observation downright Newtonian in its irrefutable simplicity), then what are we to make of the force brought to bear on the suppression of female libido?”

Oh fuck we’re just 4 pages in and I’ve written 250 words. Fuck.

Chapter 19. Two examples in a row of S@D failing to present the complex interaction between innateness and culture, from which emerges the abundant and beautiful diversity of human sexual expression. On female copulatory vocalizations as proof that sex is not “private.” In women these vocalizations are not reflexive but socially constructed. Noise varies from culture to culture, from partner to partner, and from sex act to sex act.

And then breasts and other secondary sex characteristics. Again, they’re offering a simple, essentialist view that the sexualization of female bodies indicates that they are very sexual. Women ARE very sexual, but not because of how they display their sex role. As just one obvious example – so obvious I had to read the section twice to make sure they didn’t address it – the traditional culture of Mali, where the idea of men being sexually interested in breasts is laughable (for details see Breasts: Women’s Perspectives on an American Obsession).

In both cases, they COULD have talked about cultural differences and how the innate sex differences between males and females interact with social norms to give rise to culturally varied ideas about what is sexual. This is a rich and fascinating topic, but they make it sound like these are simple, universal sex characteristics that are also simply and universally viewed as sexual.

p. 263 – Oh look! They reference Elisabeth Lloyd’s book. I’m guessing it doesn’t show up in the REFERENCES because they either didn’t read it or didn’t understand it. (Also: THEY think SHE is contemptuous??? That’s like calling someone a snob because they can tell the difference between Bach and Mozart. Knowledge is not arrogance, my friends, and never mistake the two.) Anyway, they’re wrong about female orgasm. I’m inclined, by things they say later, to think they make the common mistakes of believing that if something was not selected for, then selection has not acted on it, which is not true at all. If a trait exists, evolution may act upon it – this is secondary selection – but that is not the same as evolution selecting FOR it.

p. 264 – Oh my god Baker and Bellis. Authors of 30% of the most egregious bullshit in the field of the evolution of human sexuality. Can we please just not?

p. 266 – Anne Fausto Sterling recently tweeted about the failure of science writers to generate a narrative of conception that represented the female role. I appreciate that they included this and that they talk about how such narratives are a reflection of patriarchy. (See? I’m saying the nice things too.)

p. 269. Here it is again. “Permeating the standard narrative of human sexual evolution is the depressing claim that men and women always have been and always will be locked in erotic conflict.” Setting aside that REPRODUCTIVE conflict is not EROTIC conflict, this is another example of the misunderstanding of reproductive strategy as social strategy. No. Jesus. No.

p. 272 – Meredith Chivers’ research, excellent, lots of stuff about the plasticity of women’s sexuality. However, let the record show that, though I have been accused by readers of making it seem like I thought women are mysterious and incomprehensible, I have never remotely said they were “the very picture of inscrutability,” as S@D does (p. 273). Women are not inscrutable; they are merely complex, in the precise, technical sense. Did S@D need to describe researchers as “befuddled” (p. 274)? THAT is what it sounds like to say that women are incomprehensibly different from men.

Also, they repeat the error made by de Boton when they say, “It could well be that the price of women’s greater erotic flexibility is more difficulty in knowing – and depending on what cultural restrictions may be involved, in accepting – what they’re feeling. This is worth keeping in mind when considering why so many women report lack of interest in sex or difficulties in reaching orgasm.”

One can only wonder if they mean that women want to get it on with the other chimps in our family when they write, “Straight or gay, the women reported almost no response to the hot bonobo-on-bonobo action, though again, their bodily reactions suggested they kinda liked it.” (p. 273). Seriously people, I couldn’t make this up, even if I wanted to.

p. 275 – Wild and unsubstantiated speculation about the role of the pill in partner selection. Apparently I need to say out loud that more goes into the partner selection process than SMELL. I do totally buy that smell is a factor, but there is no evidence that it impacts whom we have children with, only that it impacts whom we are attracted to. It’s possible to GET such evidence, to support or contradict the hypothesis, but as far as I know it doesn’t exist.

p. 278 – Yay, Lisa Diamond’s work, but wait, what? “Most women presumably wake up the morning after their first same sex erotic experience more interested in finding some coffee than in conducting a panicked reassessment of their sexual identity.” What?

They had the opportunity to make an important point: on the one hand, women’s sexuality has a fluidity and plasticity that is different from men’s (at the population level), and at the same time, modern western culture has gone to extremes to control and delimit women’s sexuality. Those are phenomena at the same level of analysis that are interestingly contradictory. But what do they say? “While many women are freed by their erotic flexibility, men can find themselves trapped by the rigidity of their sexual response…”

Which is mistaking levels of analysis again. A women’s experience of “freedom” derives from the interaction between the individual and the culture in which she behaves, not from the plasticity of her responsiveness.

The dual control model could have helped them enormously in understanding this, but they haven’t read any of THAT work either – or if they have, they didn’t reference it or discuss it.

Chapter 21, more cultural stuff, and it would have been so interesting if they had said, “Isn’t it interesting how VARIED, DIVERSE, PLASTIC, AND ADAPTABLE human sexuality is! What could give rise to such diversity within a single species?” but instead they say, “Look at how BULLSHIT our culture is and how much BETTER all these other cultures are.” Ugh.

p. 291 – Gottman’s research has an excellent discussion of the dyadic dynamics that give rise to infidelity, without necessitating a turn to essentialist and misguided ultimate claims about it (i.e., incest avoidance). What matters with “infidelity” is the cultural and relational context in which it occurs, because the same behavior may produce different effects depending on the interpersonal structures that surround it.

(There is so much still that I don’t know; so why can I so routinely point to stuff I know that these authors could (and in my view SHOULD) have known when they wrote this book?)

p. 298-300 – all of this is cultural. All of this is cultural.

p. 302 – They should read Bancroft’s Human Sexuality and Its Problems for an enriching account of the ways in which even European culture was hardly ever even TRYING to be monogamous, waiting for sex until marriage, or sexually exclusive. (So should you.)

p. 304 – Again, sex is not a “hunger” (i.e., drive), it is an incentive motivation system.

The rest of it: If they understood attachment and its role in jealousy, they would understand what makes polyamory so challenging – and they might also have their strongest case for its role in challenging us to overcome cultural constraints the oppose it. It is both frustrating and desperately sad that they had this opportunity to explore what I is in my view the most interesting science in the world, to draw conclusions about it with regard to our daily decisions about relationships, and missed the mark by such a distance.