The preface to Sex At Dawn begins with an epigraph from the film The African Queen that reads “Nature… is what we are put in this world to rise above.” If that’s not an appropriate jumping off point for a book about the origins of human sexuality, then I don’t know what is.
Sex At Dawn claims that most of what we think we know about sex is wrong, and draws upon anthropology, primatology, and psychosexuality (among other things) to explain why monogamy and the nuclear family are not natural human universals and what that means for modern marriages and relationships. The authors assert that what we as a society need is “a new understanding of ourselves, based not on pulpit proclamations or feel-good Hollywood fantasies, but on a bold and unashamed assessment of the plentiful scientific data that illuminate the true origins and nature of human sexuality.”
I love that Sex At Dawn is so frank and unapologetic about what is actually human nature as opposed to what we’ve been conditioned to believe is human nature. Ryan and Jetha are able to dismantle what they call the standard narrative of human sexuality with relative ease, because, as they point out, there are many holes in it. It’s interesting to consider that humans are one of only two species that engage in nonreproductive sex, that there are many cultures where paternity certainty is not an issue and where female promiscuity is encouraged because it insures support from all potential fathers, that perhaps so many marriages fail and infidelities occur because we’ve been conditioned to falsely conflate love and sex and believe they’re inextricably linked. Sex At Dawn makes it abundantly clear that our human urge to try to rise above our nature by ignoring these innate aspects of our sexuality is not helpful, but incredibly harmful.
Based on the evidence, it would be reasonable to expect that Sex At Dawn advocates widespread promiscuity and presents monogamous relationships and nuclear families as esoteric, pointless and impossible. Not true. Ryan and Jetha (a married couple themselves!) assert, rather, that the way we as humans have been approaching monogamous relationships is clearly not working, and that in order to have a healthy monogamous relationship with longevity we must be self-aware, we must be honest with ourselves and with our significant other about the disconnect between our nature and the standard narrative, and work together to find a way to navigate that slippery slope with trust and understanding.
This is a really broad review. There is so much information and so many details that just explode off the page that I feel like what I’ve written is almost a disservice to the book’s argument. But hopefully I’ve piqued your interest somewhat. For honest, informational and occasionally humorous commentary on sex, monogamy and modern relationships, I encourage you: read this book.