How “Sex at Dawn” is Blowing My Mind in About 64 Different Ways

I’m reading Sex at Dawn and, as I mentioned one sentence ago, it is completely blowing my mind. Would you like to read it with me? I’m feeling an overwhelming urge to discuss it with smart people! (That would be you.)

If you haven’t already read it, here’s the basic premise: the assumption that humans came from sexually monogamous ancestors and are thus naturally monogamous creatures is, perhaps, completely wrong.

The book is filled with all kinds of crazy mind-fuckery like:

  • maybe humans are inherently non-monogamous creatures, and that by insisting that we are monogamous–we are monogamous, damn it, we are!–we are denying our true sexual natures.
  • maybe sexual jealousy isn’t as normal as we think, but is instead a social construct.
  • maybe the narrative of women bartering sex for security (i.e. woman marrying a high-status, responsible guy who will help her raise the young) is wrong and women actually have sex because, um, they like sex.
  • maybe our ancestors weren’t hair-grabbin’, woman-draggin’ brutes, but rather peaceful foragers who shared food, child-rearing and sex.

Sex at Dawn authors Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha are not saying that we should all rush out and bang the nearest hot mess (well, maybe they are. I’m not quite sure…), but suggest that we should at least examine why we are so fucking desperate to promote and conform to a monogamous ideal that, quite frankly, doesn’t seem to be as “natural” as we’re all constantly told.

Deep conflicts rage at the heart of modern sexuality. Our cultivated ignorance is devastating. The campaign to obscure the true nature of our species’ sexuality leaves half our marriages collapsing under an unstoppable tide of swirling sexual frustration, libido-killing boredom, impulsive betrayal, dysfunction, confusion, and shame. Serial monogamy stretches before (and behind) many of us like an archipelago of failure: isolated islands of transitory happiness in a cold, dark sea of disappointment. And how many of the couples who manage to stay together for the long haul have done so by resigned themselves to sacrificing their eroticism on the altar of three of life’s irreplaceable joys: family stability, companionship, and emotional, if not sexual, intimacy? Are those who innocently aspire to these joys cursed by nature to preside over the slow strangulation of their partner’s libido?

“Slow strangulation of their partner’s libido” — Hey, happy Valentine’s Day, everyone!

But it’s not all depressing, in fact, it’s fascinating. Here’s a wee sampling of stuff in Sex at Dawn that made my head explode:

  • In some South American societies, there is the concept of shared paternity. A baby is created, not from one sperm/one egg, but from an accumulation of sperm. A woman mates with a variety of partners to give her child, say, the sense of humor of one daddy, the good looks of another, the character of another and so on. Different sperm continue to influence a baby’s development until the actual birth. So having sex with more partners during pregnancy is not counted as general sluttiness, but just good parenting. “Far from being blinded by jealousy as the standard narrative predicts,” write Ryan and Jetha, “men in these societies find themselves bound to one another by shared paternity for the children they’ve fathered together.”
  • The Mosuo, a matrilineal, agricultural society in China, keeps sexual relations separate from family relations. Starting at age 13 or 14, a Mosuo girl gets her own babahuago (flower room) with a private door leading to the street. At night, she can have as many different lovers as she’d like and there is no expectation (or really a place for) commitment. Guests have to leave before sunrise and people are discreet about their lovers. Any resulting children are raised in her mother’s house with the help of her brothers and the rest of the community.

Writes Cynthia Barnes, a travel writer who visited the Mosuo in 2006:

“Sassy and confident, [a Mosuo girl will] grow up cherished in a circle of male and female relatives…When she joins the dances and invites a boy into her flower room, it will be for love, or lust, or whatever people call it when they are operating on hormones and heavy breathing. She will not need that boy–or any other–to have a home or make a ‘family.’ She already knows that she will always have both.”

  • The female reproductive system decides, on a molecular level, which sperm it wants. Each woman’s body can judge different men’s sperm quality–that is, sperm quality for her, based on genetic compatibility. She’ll help along the sperm she likes with a more inviting cervix, contractions that propel sperm deeper and orgasms that create a sperm-friendlier vaginal pH. Sperm from less desired suitors will get doused with unhospitable acidity, a cervix that filters them out, and contractions that send them back where they came from.
  • Women have erotic flexibility throughout their lives. But once men imprint on what turns them on, it tends to remain the same their whole lives. (Sex at Dawn notes the prevalence of men stuck with, and unable to overcome, unworkable and/or inflexible fetishes like pedophilia.) Men, in other words, want to do the same thing over and over but with different people. “Novelty itself is the attraction,” write Ryan and Jetha.
  • Thrusting of the flared head of the human penis, besides being quite delightful in its own right, creates a vacuum in a female’s reproductive tract that can expel previously deposited sperm. It doesn’t expel its own sperm because conveniently “upon ejaculation, the head of the penis shrinks in size before any loss of tumescence (stiffness) in the shaft, thus neutralizing the suction,” write Ryan and Jetha.
  • And this one is for the men: Among primates, your dick is, like, huge. HUGE. About 12-13 centimeters. A gorilla? 3 centimeters, maybe.

Oh, I could go on with this talk of huge dicks, suction-neutralizing heads and whatnot, but I want to hear from you. If you’ve already read Sex at Dawn, I’m so very curious to hear what your thoughts were. If you haven’t read it yet, please consider getting the damn thing and joining me in this virtual book club. Read it, then come back to this post and tell me what you thought.

My brain is spinning with all kinds of freaky thought spirals spurred on by the book. Like what, really, are our true sexual natures? And how are men’s different from women’s (if they are…)? If we were to try to work more with rather than against our true sexual natures, what would society look like? Do men really want to do the same thing over and over, but with different partners? And why are women so vocal during sex? Why is it that humans have such lengthy sexual sessions? (I mean, I know because it’s fun, but why evolutionarily? Chimps, by contrast, do it for 7 seconds.) And finally, was it weird that I was sort of turned on by the lengthy descriptions of “the human penis”?




Jill Hamilton

I write In Bed With Married Women, a blog about sex in all its boring, funny, strange, smokin' hot glory. Before I got all smutty, my work appeared in Rolling Stone, Jezebel, Entertainment Weekly, Mad magazine, Time Out New York, Games, the Los Angeles Times, and the occasional boring reference book. My music column for the now-defunct Ann Arbor News won an award from The National Society of Newspaper Columnists. And this is kind of off-topic, but I once interviewed John Cusack and can report that his breath was minty.

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8 Responses

  1. E.H. says:

    I read it a couple years ago, shortly before a very long term relationship completely collapsed, largely over the refusal to actually honor my nonmonogamous sexuality – which I’d always been honest about. Sex at Dawn was, for me, a huge piece of validation. Page after page ‘range true’ as I read it. I’m surprised by how many women don’t walk around waving it in the air militantly, frankly – it spells nothing but freedom for women – freedom to own their choices of sexual partnership 100%.

    I loved your review.

  2. Kimelah says:

    “The female reproductive system decides, on a molecular level, which sperm it wants. Each woman’s body can judge different men’s sperm quality–that is, sperm quality for her, based on genetic compatibility. She’ll help along the sperm she likes with a more inviting cervix, contractions that propel sperm deeper and orgasms that create a sperm-friendlier vaginal pH. Sperm from less desired suitors will get doused with unhospitable acidity, a cervix that filters them out, and contractions that send them back where they came from.”

    I read the book, and loved it. I really do believe humans are a polyamorous species, else why would we need laws forcing an idea on us that is supposedly “natural”. Monogamy is not natural.

    However, this quoted part confused me. My mind jumped to a rape victim who finds herself pregnant from the rape. What the book seems to be saying is that the rape victim has a body that WANTED that rapist’s sperm, that the body allowed that sperm to impregnate her. As a woman, this does not sit well with me.

    What say you?

    While I can appreciate individual cultures’ approach to sex and intimacy, I wonder if ascribing some cultures’ beliefs as innate and genetic might be pushing the envelope. What works for some does not generally work for all, though I believe some form of polyamory needs to be accepted everywhere.

    • so interesting and a very tricky area to speak about. the body making decisions on a purely biological level might well take sperm from a morally abhorrent person? is that offensive to speculate upon?

      what say you back?


  3. Lucas says:

    When I first read Sex at Dawn I had the same reaction, I was blown away. This book completely changed my view of monogamy, sex, and relationships. It sparked this new openness and acceptance in me, and I will say had a very positive impact on my relationship. I thought here was the book that everyone NEEDS to read. I recommended it to everyone, talked about it with everyone, even called it my new bible (not that I put any stock in the old bible – being an Atheist, but you get my meaning).

    Then I came across a book called Sex at DUSK, by Lynn Saxon, a sort of counter-argument to Sex at Dawn (a peer review of sorts). So, being a seeker of truth, I figured I owed it to myself to read this book as well. I really expected (i.e. wanted) this to be a bad book in that it made a poor case, being full of religious and/or political bias, and couldn’t really negate Sex at Dawn. But what I found instead was a very objective, concise argument that pretty much laid waste to everything presented in Sex at Dawn.

    Lynn Saxon drew on the exact same research that Sex at Dawn used as evidence. However she showed a much more complete view of the research, she removed the apparent cherry-picking and candy-coating that Ryan and Jetha used, and showed that almost every bit of ‘evidence’ they used has been taken out of context, and presented in a way that is completely misleading.

    I am no expert in this field so I took the authors of Sex at Dawn for their word. I believed that the evidence they showed was honest and complete. Unfortunately it would seem that it isn’t. I am truly disappointed by their dishonesty.

    The other possibility is that the author of Sex at Dusk is being dishonest, but I would find it hard to make that argument, and I think anyone who reads it will also have a hard time making that argument. I highly recommend that any and all fans of Sex at Dawn read Sex at Dusk, and please if you come to a different conclusion than I did by all means comment here and explain.

    I honestly feel like I was cheated or scammed by Ryan and Jetha. I sincerely hope that they read Sex at Dusk themselves and address the issues it brings up.

  4. Jason says:

    I absolutely loved the book. I think it’s fairly hard to argue that monogamy has been super successful with the divorce rates what they are. I’ve always felt that we are too uptight about sex…in the US in particular. Sex at Dawn has really made me feel better about my high sex drive and constant attraction to other women. I’m even considering an open marriage with my wife after reading Sex at Dawn and Opening Up. We need to put our egos away and stop letting fear and jealousy rule our relationships. It’s time to let love be our guiding force.