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Book Review: Sex at Dawn

I wouldn’t be an Unlaced Librarian with a very high ranking garter belt had I not read and reviewed Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha’s “Sex At Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What it Means for Modern Relationships.” First published in 2010, I realize I’m a little late to this literary orgy but the book continues to be at the forefront of controversial sexuality debates regarding monogamy and human nature, and continues to be a popular read. I just walked into a Barnes and Noble a couple months ago and found the paperback on the shelf. Right next to an illustrated Kama Sutra super bondage edition. Go figure.

The central criticism I’ve read of this book is the authors cherry pick information to push their agenda. In books that use anthropological evidence to argue for eternal monogamy, the central criticism is the authors cherry pick information to push an agenda.

I’m not an anthropologist. I’m a kinky librarian. I do not possess the breadth of knowledge on anthropology to tell you whether or not information was cherry picked. I do, however, have librarianish reading skills and quite honestly, as far as agendas go, this book has some solidly argued points. The author’s refute specific theories and assertions from other authors, which they cite, as well as thoroughly present evidence for their case without becoming rambly. (A few reviews comment that the narration sounds smug and egotistical. Perhaps I’m fond of a bit ego, but, truly, I didn’t find the narration conceited.) There are also a few chapters and discussions on topics that do not directly deal with sexuality, including economics, war, health, longevity, and stress which give the book a “bigger picture” reading experience.

The evidence discussed ranges from biology to linguistics, culture to psychology.  And how BONOBOS EAT CHILDREN. (Or, at least, how information can and is twisted to push agendas.) Also, how women react to sweaty man T-shirts is different if they take the pill, body size dimorphism in humans and our close relatives, and what our genitals can tell us about history.

Essentially, this book backed up a lot of notions I’ve had about sexuality for a while now. That multi-partnered sexualities actually provide a stable structure for human development and it doesn’t make much sense that humans are at the core monogamous yet practically incapable of not straying from this model in one form or another.

I believe we have a lot of ills in society because of this strictly enforced more of monogamy. I’m not saying that ills exist because of monogamy, but the narrow view of sexuality it presents does create problems. People end up feeling isolated, with a demonized view of their own bodies that is passed down for generations. We stifle or outright neglect natural needs that manifest in destructive behavior. Which is why I think the “What it Means For Modern Relationships” aspect of the book is so important.

Of course, the authors predominantly discuss prehistory, when humans were still living in hunter-gatherer bands. The authors assert everything changed when agriculture hit. The way we value sex and the roles sexuality played were moved around when things like inheritable property, diseases from domesticated animals, and the toils of tending a limited amount of crops became the prime hurdles of human interaction. To me, this makes sense. A band of people traveling with likely less than 150 people in a world of abundant resources would have few reasons to be monogamous. Which is, in the end, what this book explains, in my opinion, quite elegantly.   

There are many more aspects of this book I enjoyed, but this review would last days if I delved in. What I can say is “Sex at Dawn” has a permanent home on my bookshelf. I truly believe my human sexuality collection would be utterly incomplete without it.


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