By Wil Forbis
September 1, 2010
In the recently released comedy "Date Night" Steve Carell and Tina Fey play a couple whose marriage has become stultifyingly monotonous. It's only after a night spent dodging gunfire, getting into extreme car chases and capturing a major crime figure that they rediscover their initial attraction to each other.
Psychologist Christopher Ryan might describe Carell and Fey's relationship boredom as having deeper roots. In the controversial tome "Sex at Dawn - The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality" he and co-author Cacilda Jetha argue that for most of human existence, people did not pursue sexually monogamous couplings, but rather engaged in the libidinous and omnigamous* behavior often seen in our close primate relative, the bonobo ape. It was only after the advent of agrarian society and its focus on individual property, the authors argue, that sex became a commodity pursued by men and hoarded by women.
* "Omnigamy" referring to relationships in which everyone involved has multiple sexual partners.
Ryan, in addition to cowriting "Sex at Dawn," blogs about human sexuality and related topics at psychologytoday.com and the Huffington Post. If that isn't enough to impress you with his erudite sophistication, also note that he is a frequent reader of acid logic.
WF: The fundamental question that your book asks is whether humans are a) monogamous, b) polygamous/polyandrous (one person having multiple partners), or c) polyamorous (multiple people having multiple partners.) Why can't the answer be "all of the above?"
CR: It can be, and is, when you frame it that way. But if you ask, "In what socio-sexual context did our ancestors evolve?" or "What is the mating behavior that comes most easily to our species?" then omnigamy is clearly the correct answer. As always, when talking about human nature and behavior, we begin by acknowledging the great degree of variation in our species-both within any given individual and across populations.
WF: How do I use the information in your book to score with babes?
CR: Well, walking around with a big book with Sex at Dawn splashed across the cover is a great conversation-starter. Then, once you sketch out the theories in the book for her, you'll quickly see whether she backs away in disgust or seems intrigued (Does she touch her hair?). If the latter, you can casually mention that you know the authors. If this doesn't work for you, I'm afraid there's not much more I can do.
The bonobo, nature's grooviest primate.
WF: You provide some fascinating descriptions of exceptionally libidinous and promiscuous hunter/gatherer societies-both prehistoric and modern-day. They frequently have sex, enjoy multiple partners, and in some cases are actually unaware of the fact that babies can have only one genetic father. Do the laws of attraction still operate within these societies? Are some partners more desired than others? And if so, does jealousy ensue?
CR: Yes, and yes. We see both attraction and jealousy at work in these societies where people believe that babies can have several fathers (known to anthropologists as "partible paternity"). The attraction is interesting because, since they think that the fetus is an accumulation of semen, the hopeful mother-to-be will try to get semen from various men, each of whom has some quality she wants in her child: sense of humor, strength, intelligence, hunting skill, good looks, and so on. As few men contain all these qualities (other than you, Wil) she tries to combine them all in her womb. So yes, attraction is a factor, but it works in a more dispersed way where even the forager equivalent of a geek probably gets laid about as often as the brawny hunter dude.
Also, many of these societies have rituals where everyone HAS to have sex with someone other than their normal partners. This works both to keep most everyone feeling included in the group, and to minimize jealousy, because everyone has to learn to accept the fact that they cannot control the sexual behavior of anyone else. We talk about one group, the Canela, where-as part of the marriage ceremony-the bride's mother lectures the couple to never get upset about each other's lovers. In another society, in order to impress a potential husband, a young woman will have sequential sex with a dozen or more men, who each give her a gift of meat (stop snickering) which she then passes along to the boyfriend's mother, to demonstrate what a good wife she would be.
We get into a lot of this sort of stuff in Sex at Dawn, not just because it's fun to read about, but because every one of these examples blows away the standard notion that sex is universally a scarce commodity in human societies.
WF: In the groups where omnigamy is required, where do homosexuals fit it? Do they have to perform awful heterosexual sex just to maintain the group bond?
CR: There's not a whole lot of reliable data about homosexuality in the societies you're asking about, but it seems (I'm just speculating here) that h/g (hunter/gatherer) societies are less likely to think about "sexual identity" than we are. In other words, a man might have erotic experiences with other men without ever thinking of himself as being "a homosexual." In fact, it seems that the concept of homosexuality as a personal identity is a pretty recent development in the West as well (19th century). An example of what I'm talking about would be the following (from Wikipedia):
In some cultures, semen is attributed with special properties of masculinity. Several tribes of Papua New Guinea, including the Sambia and the Etoro, believe that semen provides sexual maturation among the younger men of their tribe. To them, sperm possesses the manly nature of the tribal elders, and in order to pass down their authority and powers, younger men of their next generation must fellate their elders and ingest their semen. This custom commences among prepubescent males and postpubescents. This act may also be attributed to the culturally active homosexuality throughout these and other tribes.
This same sort of thing is common among other groups, like the Maasai, where boys serve as sexual partners for young, unmarried men when they're out with the cattle for long periods (they "enter" them between the thighs-not anally), but these guys eventually marry women and never think of themselves as the least bit "homosexual."
So while we discuss some of these societies where cross-cousin sex is obligatory, is possible that men are less traumatized by it than we might assume, even those who would prefer to be having sex with other men. It's also possible that the women just know who's not into it and leave them alone. Then, on top of all those possibilities, you've got the fact that many h/g societies have provisions for people who were born in the wrongly-gendered body to live as the gender they prefer. I talk about some of these in my last HuffPo piece:
WF: We understand our need and desire for food, but we also see the downside of too much food consumption. Is there a metaphor and perhaps warning here that can be applied to sex? Can we concede a natural need for sex and multiple partners, but also predict the dangers down this road?
CR: Sure. Especially in light of STDs, unwanted pregnancy, and so on, we should never assume we can simply insert prehistoric behavior patterns into modern life without carefully considering the consequences. In the societies we talk about in the book, everyone pretty much knows one another and women enjoy high status, so the potential for date-rape situations is pretty low. Similarly, women don't have to worry much about single motherhood, because resources tend to be distributed equitably. People (generally those who haven't read the book) often assume we're advocating a return to Pleistocene promiscuity, but all we're trying to do is give people a more accurate sense of what human sexuality is and how it came to be that way. What you do with that information is up to you.
WF: You note that in many primate societies-including human hunter/gatherer tribes-that live in resource rich environments where there's little competition for food have low levels of intraspecies aggression. However, with both apes and man, it doesn't seem to take too much to set them off. You describe how Jane Goodall enticed chimpanzees with boxes of bananas, and, as hordes of them coalesced into a limited space with a limited amount of bananas, the males became aggressive. You also discuss the anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon who arrived at the doorstep of the Yanomamo people of the Amazon, offering gifts of steel, and within a short time, a once peaceful tribe had turned bloody.
Parallel to this, it strikes me that any carnivorous creature has to have a certain comfort with aggression-enough to hunt and kill other creatures for food. Is it possible primates have a natural "well of aggression" and certain situations simply flip the switch allowing this aggression to be aimed at creatures of the same species? I'm suggesting that we're not so much naturally non-aggressive, as we are discriminating in who we apply our aggression to.
CR: I'd agree that this is a good way of looking at the issue of aggression. The capacity is there-as is the capacity for peaceful cooperation-but it is amplified and activated by different conditions. Clearly, our species can go both ways, raping and pillaging here while selflessly risking our lives to save strangers there. But it's worth thinking about the fact that those who are forced to kill other people (even after extensive training) often suffer from PTSD for the rest of their lives, while nobody ever reports being traumatized by helping other people.
Your point about hunting is interesting, as even bonobos (among the most peaceful of primates) have been reported to kill and eat monkeys and other animals. But it's worth thinking about whether hunting is considered "violent" by those who do it. Michael Pollan wrote a fascinating essay about hunting not long ago in which he explores some of the emotions associated with hunting (http://michaelpollan.com/articles-archive/the-modern-hunter-gatherer/). Many h/g groups give thanks and ask forgiveness from the spirit of the animal they've killed, which suggests they don't take much pleasure in the kill.
WF: The book makes a convincing argument that during most of our history as a species, women were prone to having multiple sexual partners, often in the same night! Why aren't women cheating at the same rates of men in modern society?
CR: Who says they aren't? I'd caution you to be very suspicious of the data on who's cheating and how much. Women-both by nature and historical necessity-are much better at keeping secrets than men are, especially when it comes to sex. In our book, we talk about a study where men and women were asked about the number of sexual partners they'd had. When they knew people would see their answers, women reported fewer partners than men did. When their answers were probably anonymous, they reported more partners. When they thought they were hooked up to a lie detector, they reported even more! So I wouldn't trust the accuracy of studies showing women to be far less sexual than men.
Also, almost all of these studies are conducted with American college students-hardly a representative sample of overall human sexuality.
WF: On one hand, preagricultural human societies in the past seem to have avoided aggression and warfare. On the other hand, they reportedly used infanticide to avoid the population growth that would strain food supplies. (You quote the scholar Joseph Birdsell, who estimated that "as many as half of all infants were intentionally destroyed.") One might argue that this is a form of war-a war on children. How heavily should this fact figure into our comparisons of seemingly nonviolent pre-agricultural society with very violent post-agricultural society?
CR: Well, it's important to understand that, like hunting, this wasn't considered "violence" by the people involved, so these are two different issues you're asking about. The measure of a society's violence is more about wars of conquest, slavery, violence against women and children, and so on.
Having said that, infanticide is a very complex issue (and very emotionally-charged, of course). The first thing to understand is that not all societies consider infants to be people, so letting them die may be sad, but not necessarily ethically troubling for them. In many societies, one doesn't become a "person" until they speak, as words are considered that which makes one human. Twins and physically deformed newborns, for example, were routinely left to die by most h/g people. As we discuss in the book, widespread infanticide is still happening in parts of Brazil, India, and China, and was common in European society well into the 20th century, so it's hardly something limited to h/g societies. Furthermore, whether there's a moral difference between abortion and infanticide is not at all clear once we take into consideration the options available in different contexts. So yes, infanticide was common in h/g societies, but whether it was more common than in more recent societies, especially if we include abortion, is an open question.
WF: You include a lot of discussion on the bonobo-a species of ape famous for its nonaggressive, polyamorous lifestyle. How does the bonobo resolve the unavoidable disputes that are bound to pop up in communal living?
CR: Bonobos and chimpanzees are our two closest relations. They are equidistantly related to us. In terms of DNA, we're closer to bonobos and chimps than an African elephant is to an Indian elephant. If you go to a zoo and visit the chimps (few zoos have bonobos, but the San Diego zoo is an exception), you're looking at an animal that is more closely related to you than it is to the gorillas, monkeys or anything else in a cage.
Frans de Waal, the great Dutch primatologist, said that "chimps use violence to get sex while bonobos use sex to avoid violence."
If you throw some food into a chimp enclosure, they'll scramble for it, with the alpha male and his cronies driving everyone else away. If there's enough left over after the ruling class have their fill, maybe some will "trickle down" to the females and kids. If you toss food into a bonobo enclosure on the other hand, they'll immediately start having sex with each other in every combination imaginable (except mother/son) and then they'll share the food among all. Bonobos are very embarrassing to hippie-haters.
WF: How should Tiger Woods have handled his obviously nonmonogamous desires? And how should we, as a society, have responded to their eventual appearance?
CR: Tiger Woods, like Bill Clinton, Larry Craig, Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggert, Eliot Spitzer, and the rest of them should be condemned for their cowardice, deceitfulness, and hypocrisy-but not for their sexuality.
Toward the end of Sex at Dawn, there's a section called "Everybody Out of the Closet" where we argue that we all need to cop to our erotic reality-not just gay people. Tiger Woods strikes me as an emotionally stunted punk who didn't have the balls to be honest with himself or anyone else about who he is and how he was going to deal with the dozens of women throwing themselves at him every day. You look at someone like George Clooney or Bill Maher and you might say they're shameless in their outright refusal to sign on to the monogamy contract, but to me, that just reflects self-knowledge and a bit of courage. If Tiger Woods had even a shred of psychological sophistication, he'd have realized that a sexually monogamous marriage was not in the cards for him and he'd have found (quite easily, I'm sure) many wonderful women who would have been all-too happy to agree to an unconventional arrangement where he could have had life-long companionship, intimacy, children, and self-respect while still being free to enjoy the sexual novelty he obviously needs. Many people with far fewer advantages than he has have managed it. Instead, he chose to lie to himself and his partner, and now he's screwed. Let that be a lesson for all you horny billionaires reading this!
WF: You argue quite forcefully that women shouldn't be ashamed of their sexual desires, that their libido is legitimate. But you also argue for freeing men from the sexual constraints that are placed on them by modern society, especially in their teen years. And you note that there is an either/or relationship between sex and violence in young men: if you make them repress their sexual desires, they're going to act out aggressively.
CR: We in the U.S. pat ourselves on the back for having come so far in terms of sexual equality, but we're still far from having reached it. Women are still forced into a very vulnerable position if they want to have children because they're still paid less than men for the same work and there is little, if any social support for single mothers and their children-unless they're absolutely destitute. Many Americans don't realize how brutal their society is, in a global context. We have these huge debates about whether or not children should have government-mandated health care for pre-existing conditions. Really? This is open to debate? School lunch programs are cut (Remember when the Reagan administration tried to save some money by claiming ketchup was a vegetable?) to finance reduced taxes on the richest.
Both the economics and the moral tone of American society make it very difficult for any young woman who doesn't follow the party line in terms of making her sexuality a scarce commodity. The easiest way to destroy a young girl's reputation is for the other girls to call her a "slut" or a "whore." Women are taught at a very young age that sex is something to be feared and ashamed of. If you look at societies where there is more universal support for women and children-from modern Scandinavian societies to the h/g groups we discuss in the book-you find that where women and children are protected and feel secure, sex is much freer and more relaxed. This isn't an accident. Across the board, where women are safe, everybody has more sex.
WF: Part of what makes the book so interesting is that it's a catalogue of some of the bizarre practices undertaken by savage, primitive cultures. For instance, I was shocked to read that the Dutch enjoy mayonnaise with their french fries!?
CR: So true. And the Spanish mix Coca-Cola with red wine. What a world!
Wil Forbis is a
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