Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Sex at Dawn

A chance encounter while surfing lately led me to order a copy of this book.  On reading it, I found myself becoming what I can only describe as excited.  This, I must add, was not sexual but intellectual.  It was, in fact, akin to the feeling I had when I first read a book about the Goddess.   It was the excitement of recognition.  Nothing I read seemed new to me. Instead, I found within it a clear and cogent account of what I had inwardly believed for a long time.

Drawing on a variety of disciplines, from human biology through primatology to anthropology, the authors demonstrate that the dominant model of human sexual relationships is contrary to what may be termed the natural order of things.  Their thesis is presented in a clear and vernacular way that cuts through the dryness of academic discourse and reveals the faulty assumptions that have pre-determined  many of the conclusions drawn by researchers.  For example, we are told that marriage is a well-nigh universal feature of society.  When this claim is examined, however, it turns out that marriage is, in reality, a catch-all word that encompasses a wide variety of systems governing sexual relationships, from strictly enforced monogamy to plural and beyond.  Thus, the word marriage has no real meaning.

Within our own society, sexual exclusivity within heterosexual pairs has long been considered both the ideal and the natural order of things.   The current, acrimonious, debate about gay marriage is just one example of how this idea does not meet the needs of a significant proportion of the population. More telling, however, is the universal phenomenon, despite its dire and often fatal consequences, of adultery.  If monogamy is, as we are told, natural, then it would surely be unnecessary to enforce it.  And yet, all the dominant religions contain within their codes the penalty of death for unapproved sexual conduct.  Despite this, human beings within even the strictest of societies persist in fucking around and are often subject to the ultimate penalty for doing so.  The only conclusion that can be reached is, therefore, that monogamy is contrary to human nature.

Drawing on the observed behaviour of our nearest evolutionary cousins, the chimpanzees and the bonobos, the facts of human sexual anatomy and the findings of anthropology, the authors argue convincingly that we evolved as a species in which sex was vital to social bonding.  Their placing of the shift to sexual exclusivity at the point when we developed agriculture and thence civilisation is convincing.

We are where we are, however, and the book does not really go into any detail concerning how and if the immense damage within the human psyche caused by the model of exclusivity can be healed.  However, it presents a diagnosis and this is the first essential step towards a cure. And this cure must take the form of the development and adoption of a morality which takes account of human beings as they are and not how some   imaginary sky god, whom his devotees claim created human beings as they are, dictates they should be.

The criticisms I have read seem to focus on the colloquial style of their writing but this totally misses the point. Not only are they readable but they also reveal how the technical nature of much of the scholarly literature has hidden from view blatant absurdities and contradictions.

In short, for anyone interested in Goddess, sexual politics or social change, I would thoroughly recommend that they read this.

Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Human Sexuality.
Christopher Ryan  and Cacilda Jetha

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