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Damn Dirty Apes

By Dr. Pisaster | Pajiba Dirty Talk | July 20, 2010 |

By Dr. Pisaster | Pajiba Dirty Talk | July 20, 2010 |

If you read Dan Savage’s column, you’ve probably heard of the new book Sex at Dawn, by Christopher Ryan, who holds a Ph.D. in psychology, and Cacilda Jethá, a psychiatrist. The central argument of the book is that monogamy is not natural to humans, but rather imposed by society, and that understanding this will help people navigate their sexual relationships in a more honest and fulfilling way. The authors base their conclusions on a wide variety of evidence, including the behavior of our closest primate relatives, human anatomy, and anthropology. I don’t have a copy of the book myself, so the following discussion is based on the excerpts and on comments from one of the authors, and therefore may miss some nuances that are addressed in the book itself, but I think the main conclusions are fairly clear from the excerpts.

There is a compelling case to be made that non-monogamy is natural to humans, but like so many others that write about sex, I think the authors of Sex at Dawn have a tendency to treat human beings as if our experiences are all the same (although, again, this is based strictly on the excerpts, not a reading of the full book). It is unquestionably true that many people struggle with monogamy. But there are also a good number of people who don’t have any problem with monogamy at all, and there are individuals who might find monogamy very easy in some circumstances and very hard in others. Lifelong monogamous pair bonds, serial monogamy, and open relationships are all valid ways of expressing human sexuality, and it’s up to the individual to decide what’s best for him or her. Repeat after me: Human experience is diverse.

What’s interesting is that many of the arguments used in this book to support the idea that monogamy is not natural to human beings can also be interpreted as evidence that human sexual behavior is likely to be varied and adaptive, rather than taking a single form (i.e. non-monogamy). Take, for example, the sexual habits of our closest relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos. The authors of Sex at Dawn argue that the promiscuous mating habits of these apes imply that our own early ancestors most likely engaged in similarly promiscuous mating habits. But as a matter of fact, chimps don’t engage in a single type of sexual behavior. It’s true that the most common mating strategy for chimpanzees is for one female to mate with many males in succession, but chimpanzees also engage in “restrictive mating,” where a dominant male asserts his right to exclusive sexual relations with one or more female chimps, and even in “consortship mating,” where a pair of chimps have an exclusive (though short term) sexual relationship. Bonobo sexuality is even more complex, due to the fact that like humans, bonobos engage in non-reproductive sex, although they tend to be even more promiscuous than chimps. Bonobos regularly engage in both heterosexual and homosexual sexual relations for almost as many reasons as humans do — stress relief, affection, social status, etc. It’s risky to rely too much on the behavior of other apes in explaining human sexuality — after all, chimps and bonobos aren’t identical in their sexual habits and they’re more closely related to each other than either species is to us, but some similarity to the behavior of early humans is probable. The sexual habits of both chimps and bonobos are varied and the implication, to me at least, is not that humans are likely to be naturally promiscuous, but that human behavior is likely to encompass a range of reproductive strategies.

The anthropological argument, too, is open to the sexual diversity interpretation. Throughout human history there have been many forms of marriage and relationships, often depending on local environment and societal pressures. The New York Times recently reported on a society in the northern part of India in which polyandrous marriages were, until recently, the norm. The limited access to resources made such marriages advantageous, as they forced men to share land rather than dividing it up and reduced the number of children each man could have. Polygyny and monogamy, both life-long and serial, have also been practiced at various places and times throughout human history, and in many societies people were free to have sex with whomever they chose. Frequently multiple forms of sexual behavior were accepted within a single society. In other words, even within written human history, there’s never been one definitive way of doing things. Actual human behavior varies greatly and is influenced by many things, including, obviously, societal standards.

In terms of physiology, the authors argue that the fact that women are capable of multiple orgasms, but that men rarely last long enough to give them, is evidence that our ancestors evolved to have multiple partners, with women mating with several men in succession. The fact that humans are turned on by watching others have sex also supports this hypothesis, but once again this conclusion relies on generalizations and conjecture (not to say that it is necessarily wrong, but it isn’t certain that it’s right either). For one thing, while women do tend to take longer than men to orgasm, penis-in-vagina sex is hardly the only way for a woman (or man) to get off. In fact, our primate relatives engage in both oral and manual stimulation of each other, so it seems likely that our ancestors also had such strategies for pleasing their mates figured out. Additionally, the number of orgasms women are able to have varies quite a bit, with some women so spent after one that they have no desire for another, some women enjoying repeat orgasms from prolonged sexual activity, and some going off like popcorn popping, even in short sexual encounters. In other words, once again the evidence implies not a single behavior, but a variety of possible behaviors and preferences. One behavior may be predominant, like promiscuous sex among chimps, but there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to sexuality and monogamy.

My point is that monogamy is not necessarily the norm for human beings, but neither is non-monogamy. The important thing, ultimately, and the real point I think the authors of Sex at Dawn want to emphasize, is that no one should attempt to force themselves into a relationship that they aren’t comfortable with. If you can’t handle monogamy, find a partner (or partners) who is/are willing to have to the sort of relationship you find fulfilling. If you can’t handle non-monogamy, find someone who also wants an exclusive relationship. Knowing what you want and being true to yourself (while not forcing a particular type of relationship on someone else) is what matters most — not trying to conform to what’s considered ‘natural.’

Dr. Pisaster has a doctorate in biophysics, not actually anything sexy. She does however enjoy having sex, reading about sex, and talking about sex. Especially when she’s had a little whiskey.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.