Sex At Dawn by Chris Ryan & Cacilda Jetha – How Sexual Monogamy Might Kill Us All

In Books, Reviews by Louisa Leontiades

In their book Sex at Dawn – widely touted as ‘the single most important book on sexuality since Kinsey’ – Chris Ryan and Cacilda Jetha hypothesize that the advent of agriculture is the most defining event of human history. It meant a redistribution of society and – ironically – a scarcity of food due to inefficient production methods leading to increased malnutrition (compared to small forager/hunter tribes), and a change in the nature of status and power of societal and family structures. Paternity suddenly became important, land possession was a matter of survival, egalitarian structures crumbled and food became the product of intensive labour rather than the result of small groups hunting and foraging for food a few hours every few days.

If survival mechanisms are also a product of what will help a society sustain itself in the long run then in this new world of agriculture, female sexual fidelity due to increased concern about paternity was viewed as a necessity… even if it still wasn’t the biological imperative. It was a socially enforced norm resulting in moral outrage when it was flouted and disgust as a method of control, for those women who followed their strong instinct to mate with multiple partners. But disgust is a strong emotion and one which only develops over time. So how was it done?

It should come as no surprise that control for possession and by inference female exclusivity has been fought over for thousands of years (if not initially instigated by) religion. Judaism, Islam and Christianity ‘each share a fundamental concern over the punishment for a woman’s sexual freedom’. From the perfect woman, the virgin Mary who according to many sources never had sex even after her marriage, to Mary Magdalene made out by church elders to be a whore, female sexuality (and their so-called infidelity) has long since been considered a threat to man’s survival.

‘Consider the tenth commandment ‘thou shalt not covet they neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that [is] thy neighbor’s’. Exodus sets out in stone, that the human female was no longer an equal and respected role (as she had been in hunter/forager communities); she was just another possession for man to earn and defend. She was dehumanized into chattel. But notably in the agricultural world made by men, outrage for the same behaviour by men was not discriminated against until more recently. The old testament and Islam outright condemn polyandry (the latter by stoning) whilst supporting polygyny, examples of which are peppered throughout both texts.2

In support of this narrative, the notion of female sexual exclusivity was set forth as a biological by other ‘experts’ on the matter. Darwin’s theory emphasized that the most ‘successful’ females, were choosy in their mates in order to secure resources to protect them and their children. But Darwin’s theories had been influenced by other intellectual grandfathers, like Thomas Malthus…whose theories were later widely discredited.

In his essay on the principle of population (1798)3 for example, he saw doom in the expansion of the population, that even intensive agriculture would never be able to meet the demand for food. He believed that positive checks which raised the death rate (hunger, misery, war) and negative checks which prevented birth (abortion, celibacy, prostitutes and postponement of marriage – and thus procreation) were necessary, even desirable, for a higher standard of living. As a reverend, he particularly emphasized moral restraint. And thus the suppression of sexual desire.

Luckily it wasn’t considered an issue for women who were obliged to conform to sexual exclusivity. Lord Acton – a Victorian luminary – declared a universally believed truth in 1875 that the ‘majority of women, happily for them and society’ [and as opposed presumably to men who could use prostitutes] ‘are not troubled with sexual feeling of any kind […] that a modest woman submits to her husband, but only to please him’. And yet even at that time, doctors were busy treating the symptoms of hysteria – designated a woman’s disease but which we now know as sexual frustration – with vibrators to cause the temporary relief of a nervous paroxysm… or orgasm.

Dr. Feelgood At Your Service

Dr. Feelgood At Your Service

Through the need to control land due to the advent of agriculture, denial and ignorance… women were supposed either to be chaste as befitted agricultural society… or were classified as mentally ill.

Worse still, all carnal desires were designated as bestial, animalistic. Being compared to an animal is an insult and our language tells us so. Dog, pig and cow are all insults. As are asinine, bitch and chicken. Because – according to the bible – we ‘are superior to animals in their spirit, their intelligence, their value to God, their moral responsibility, their eternal destiny, and in the price God paid to save them from sin’2.

We are supposed to rise above our primitive biology and repress our animal-like sexuality (even if the majority of female mammals – unlike us – only have sex when they are ovulating). But whereas ‘promiscuous behaviour’ is almost expected from a man, or even celebrated… women who enjoy their sexuality are sluts. Women are not supposed to be sexual and if they are, they are mentally ill, bestial… and undesirable. Men…will be men. The development of our language and society has fed into this narrative. Bastard children and sluttish women are degraded and ostracized from the herd; they are disgusting and abnormal.

The Conundrum of Fertility Compatibility

Our biology tells a vastly different story. Because the human vagina and cervix appear to be designed to be able to ‘sort’ sperm out internally to select those with the best reproductive potential.

Some other mammals deposit sperm directly into the uterus where they have ‘easy access’ to the egg, but with humans the whole passage of the sperm to the egg is best seen as a series of extreme hurdles – from getting past cervical mucus5. and the acidic environment of the vagina (which prevents those sperm with slow mobility from entering), to fending off attack from the female immune system. But importantly not all sperm are created equal. Some are encouraged to enter, whilst others are not. Some sperm are seen as foreign invaders, whilst others are invited for dinner6

That means it might not be the man with the biggest bank balance (or plot of land) which is genetically the most suitable and our bodies can tell the difference. We women benefit from ‘sampling’ several males and letting our bodies choose the most appropriate genetic match at a cellular level. It certainly explains why some couples have enormous difficulty getting pregnant, and then wham with a second partner… there’s no problem at all.

But in a society structure built on possession of dehumanized women who were once forced as a matter of survival to trade sexual exclusivity for wealth and resources our more ‘natural’ desire for several partners was shunned and made disgusting. First by our menfolk and then by our womenfolk… who had our best material rather than genetic interests at heart. What a biological conflict!

Winner Takes It All

Men appear to be the winners in all of this… With one faithful wife, or even several, won’t they be more likely to be successful in reproducing even if they are less fertile, whilst their genetically incompatible wives are left childless?

If the authors of Sex at Dawn are correct in their assumptions, enforced sexual monogamy for women also risks being a problem for men. In a situation where no sperm competition occurs within a woman’s vagina, those men with reduced fertility are more likely to reproduce – because quite simply there can only be one winner (even if you have to try over and over again).  Their genes are passed on resulting in ‘a steady reduction in overall male fertility and generalized atrophy of human sperm production tissue’ as well as their low mobility sperm being manipulated into reproducing with the potentially genetically incompatible eggs of women via other artificial methods. It means survival of the unfittest for our species in the long term even if enforced monogamy is the only way that less fertile men can survive in the short term. Is there any further evidence to support a claim of growing infertility of our menfolk? Yes.

Apart from the widely available anecdotal accounts of our growing infertility crisis over the last decades, the average sperm count in men has dramatically fallen from 480 million sperm per ejaculation in 1940 to 280 million sperm per ejaculation in 1990. To put it bluntly, culturally enforced sexual monogamy driven by mankind’s greed to accumulate material wealth through land and agriculture, might eventually kill our species. Some might say that’s a good thing. Still more might say it’s karma. I say, for humanity’s sake stop enforcing sexual monogamy as a cultural norm and let the vaginas do the job they were meant to, before it’s too late.

1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disgust
2. http://www.reference.com/browse/polyandry & http://www.biblepolygamy.com/
3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/An_Essay_on_the_Principle_of_Population/
4. http://www.gospelway.com/topics/man/animals-inferiority.php
5. http://humupd.oxfordjournals.org/content/12/1/23.full
6. http://www.coherer.org/pub/mhc.pdf