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Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What it Means for Modern Relationships

Every time someone tells me something like, “Non-monogamy is naive. Life’s not that simple.” I want to point them to this image showing just how unsimple non-monogamy is. This is why Cacilda and I encourage people (even couples who write books about sex) to insist on our right to discretion. If it’s highly personal, extremely complex, changing all the time, and really nobody’s business but yours, why answer the question at all? If Bill and Hillary had gone on 60 Minutes back in 1992 with that message, American culture might have taken a big step into maturity. By Christopher Ryan Phd
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INQUISITION
Forget what you’ve heard about human beings having descended from the apes. We didn’t descend from apes. We are apes. Metaphorically and factually, Homo sapiens is one of the five surviving species of great apes, along with chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans (gibbons are considered a “lesser ape”). We shared a common ancestor with two of these apes—bonobos and chimps—just five million years ago. That’s “the day before yesterday” in evolutionary terms. The fine print distinguishing humans from the other great apes is regarded as “wholly artificial” by most primatologists these days.
If we’re “above” nature, it’s only in the sense that a shaky-legged surfer is “above” the ocean. Even if we never slip (and we all do), our inner nature can pull us under at any moment. Those of us raised in the West have been assured that we humans are special, unique among living things, above and beyond the world around us, exempt from the humilities and humiliations that pervade and define animal life. The natural world lies below and beneath us, a cause for shame, disgust, or alarm; something smelly and messy to be hidden behind closed doors, drawn curtains, and minty freshness. Or we overcompensate and imagine nature floating angelically in soft focus up above, innocent, noble, balanced, and wise.
Like bonobos and chimps, we are the randy descendents of hypersexual ancestors. At first blush, this may seem an overstatement, but it’s a truth that should have become common knowledge long ago. Conventional notions of monogamous, till-death-do-us-part marriage strain under the dead weight of a false narrative that insists we’re something else. What is the essence of human sexuality and how did it get to be that way? In the following pages, we’ll explain how seismic cultural shifts that began about ten thousand years ago rendered the true story of human sexuality so subversive and threatening that for centuries it has been silenced by religious authorities, pathologized by physicians, studiously ignored by scientists, and covered up by moralizing therapists.
Deep conflicts rage at the heart of modern sexuality. Our cultivated ignorance is devastating. The campaign to obscure the true nature of our species’ sexuality leaves half our marriages collapsing under an unstoppable tide of swirling sexual frustration, libido-killing boredom, impulsive betrayal, dysfunction, confusion, and shame. Serial monogamy stretches before (and behind) many of us like an archipelago of failure: isolated islands of transitory happiness in a cold, dark sea of disappointment. And how many of the couples who manage to stay together for the long haul have done so by resigning themselves to sacrificing their eroticism on the altar of three of life’s irreplaceable joys: family stability, companionship, and emotional, if not sexual, intimacy? Are those who aspire to these joys cursed by nature to preside over the slow strangulation of their partner’s libido?
The Spanish word esposas means both “wives” and “handcuffs.” In English, some men ruefully joke about the ball and chain. There’s good reason marriage is often depicted and mourned as the beginning of the end of a man’s sexual life. And women fare no better. Who wants to share her life with a man who feels trapped and diminished by his love for her, whose honor marks the limits of his freedom? Who wants to spend her life apologizing for being just one woman?
Yes, something is seriously wrong. The American Medical Association reports that some 42 percent of American women suffer from sexual dysfunction, while Viagra breaks sales records year after year. Worldwide, pornography is reported to rake in anywhere from fifty-seven to a hundred-billion-dollars annually. In the United States, it generates more revenue than CBS, NBC, and ABC combined, and more than all professional football, baseball, and basketball franchises. According to U.S. News and World Report,“Americans spend more money at strip clubs than at Broadway, off-Broadway, regional and nonprofit theaters, the opera, the ballet and jazz and classical music performances—combined.”
There’s no denying that we’re a species with a sweet tooth for sex. Meanwhile, so-called traditional marriage appears to be under assault from all sides—as it collapses from within. Even the most ardent defenders of normal sexuality buckle under its weight, as never-ending bipartisan perp-walks of politicians (Clinton, Vitter, Gingrich, Craig, Foley, Spitzer, Sanford) and religious figures (Haggard, Swaggert, Bakker) trumpet their support of family values before slinking off to private assignations with lovers, prostitutes, and interns.
Denial hasn’t worked. Hundreds of Catholic priests have confessed to thousands of sex crimes against children in the past few decades alone. In 2008, the Catholic Church paid $436 million in compensation for sexual abuse. More than a fifth of the victims were under ten years old. This we know. Dare we even imagine the suffering such crimes have caused in the seventeen centuries since a sexual life was perversely forbidden to priests in the earliest known papal decree: the Decreta and Cum in unum of Pope Siricius (c. 385)? What is the moral debt owed to the forgotten victims of this misguided rejection of basic human sexuality?
On threat of torture, in 1633, the Inquisition of the Roman Catholic Church forced Galileo to state publicly what he knew to be false: that the Earth sat immobile at the center of the universe. Three and a half centuries later, in 1992, Pope John Paul II admitted that the scientist had been right all along, but that the Inquisition had been “well-intentioned.”
Well, there’s no Inquisition like a well-intentioned Inquisition.
Like those childishly intransigent visions of an entire universe spinning around an all-important Earth, the standard narrative of prehistory offers an immediate, primitive sort of comfort. Just as pope after pope dismissed any cosmology that would remove humankind from the exalted center of the endless expanse of space, just as Darwin was (and in some crowds, still is) ridiculed for recognizing that human beings are the creation of natural laws, many scientists are blinded by their emotional resistance to any account of human sexual evolution that doesn’t revolve around the monogamous nuclear family unit.
Although we’re led to believe we live in times of sexual liberation, contemporary human sexuality throbs with obvious, painful truths that must not be spoken aloud. The conflict between what we’re told we feel and what we really feel may be the richest source of confusion, dissatisfaction, and unnecessary suffering of our time. The answers normally proffered don’t answer the questions at the heart of our erotic lives: Why are men and women so different in our desires, fantasies, responses, and sexual behavior? Why are we betraying and divorcing each other at ever increasing rates when not opting out of marriage entirely? Why the pandemic spread of single-parent families? Why does the passion evaporate from so many marriages so quickly? What causes the death of desire? Having evolved together right here on Earth, why do so many men and women resonate with the idea that we may as well be from different planets?
Oriented toward medicine and business, American society has responded to this ongoing crisis by developing a marital-industrial complex of couples therapy, pharmaceutical hard-ons, sex-advice columnists, creepy father-daughter purity cults, and an endless stream of in-box come-ons (“Unleash your LoveMonster! She’ll thank you!”). Every month, truckloads of glossy supermarket magazines offer the same old tricks to get the spark back into our moribund sex lives.
Yes, a few candles here, some crotchless panties there, toss a handful of rose petals on the bed and it’ll be just like the very first time! What’s that you say? He’s still checking out other women? She’s still got an air of detached disappointment? He’s finished before you’ve begun?
Well, then, let the experts figure out what ails you, your partner, your relationship. Perhaps his penis needs enlarging or her vagina needs a retrofit. Maybe he has “commitment issues,” a “fragmentary superego,” or the dreaded “Peter Pan complex.” Are you depressed? You say you love your spouse of a dozen years but don’t feel sexually attracted the way you used to? One or both of you are tempted by another? Maybe you two should try doing it on the kitchen floor. Or force yourself to do it every night for a year. Maybe he’s going through a midlife crisis. Take these pills. Get a new hairstyle. Something must be wrong with you.
Ever feel like the victim of a well-intentioned Inquisition?
This split-personality relationship with our true sexual nature is anything but news to entertainment corporations, who have long reflected the same fractured sensibility between public pronouncement and private desire. In 2000, under the headline “Wall Street Meets Pornography,” The New York Times reported that General Motors sold more graphic sex films than Larry Flynt, owner of the Hustler empire. Over eight million American subscribers to DirecTV, a General Motors subsidiary, were spending about $200 million a year on pay-per-view sex films from satellite providers. Similarly, Rupert Murdoch, owner of the Fox News Network and the nation’s leading conservative newspaper, The Wall Street Journal, was pulling in more porn money through a satellite company than Playboy made with its magazine, cable, and Internet businesses combined. AT&T, also a supporter of conservative values, sells hard-core porn to over a million hotel rooms throughout the country via its Hot Network.
The frantic sexual hypocrisy in America is inexplicable if we adhere to traditional models of human sexuality insisting that monogamy is natural, marriage is a human universal, and any family structure other than the nuclear is aberrant. We need 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. We are at war with our eroticism. We battle our hungers, expectations, and disappointments. Religion, politics, and even science square off against biology and millions of years of evolved appetites. How to defuse this intractable struggle?
In the following pages, we reassess some of the most important science of our time. We question the deepest assumptions brought to contemporary views of marriage, family structure, and sexuality—issues affecting each of us every day and every night. We’ll show that human beings evolved in intimate groups where almost everything was shared—food, shelter, protection, child care, even sexual pleasure. We don’t argue that humans are natural-born Marxist hippies. Nor do we hold that romantic love was unknown or unimportant in prehistoric communities. But we’ll demonstrate that contemporary culture misrepresents the link between love and sex. With and without love, a casual sexuality was the norm for our prehistoric ancestors.
Let’s address the question you’re probably already asking: how we can possibly know anything about sex in prehistory? Nobody alive today was there to witness prehistoric life, and since social behavior leaves no fossils, isn’t this all just wild speculation? Not quite. There’s an old story about the trial of a man charged with biting off another man’s finger in a fight. An eyewitness took the stand. The defense attorney asked, “Did you actually see my client bite off the finger?” The witness said, “Well, no, I didn’t.” “Aha!” said the attorney with a smug smile. “How then can you claim he bit off the man’s finger?” “Well,” replied the witness, “I saw him spit it out.”
In addition to a great deal of circumstantial evidence from societies around the world and closely related nonhuman primates, we’ll take a look at some of what evolution has spit out. We’ll examine the anatomical evidence still evident in our bodies and the yearning for sexual novelty expressed in our pornography, advertising, and after-work happy hours. We’ll even decode messages in the so-called “copulatory vocalizations” of thy neighbor’s wife as she calls out ecstatically in the still of night.
*
Readers familiar with the recent literature on human sexuality will be familiar with what we call the standard narrative of human sexual evolution (hereafter shortened to “the standard narrative”). It goes something like this:
1. Boy meets girl.
2. Boy and girl assess one another’s mate value from perspectives based upon their differing reproductive agendas/capacities:
a) He looks for signs of youth, fertility, health, absence of previous sexual experience, and likelihood of future sexual fidelity. In other words, his assessment is skewed toward finding a fertile, healthy young mate with many childbearing years ahead and no current children to drain his resources.
b) She looks for signs of wealth (or at least prospects of future wealth), social status, physical health, and likelihood that he will stick around to protect and provide for their children. Her guy must be willing and able to provide materially for her (especially during pregnancy and breastfeeding) and their children (known as male parental investment).
3. Boy gets girl: assuming they meet one another’s criteria, they “mate,” forming a long-term pair bond—the “fundamental condition of the human species,” as famed author Desmond Morris put it. Once the pair bond is formed:
a) She will be sensitive to indications that he is considering leaving (vigilant toward signs of infidelity involving intimacy with other women that would threaten her access to his resources and protection)—while keeping an eye out (around ovulation, especially) for a quick fling with a man genetically superior to her husband.
b) He will be sensitive to signs of her sexual infidelities (which would reduce his all-important paternity certainty)—while taking advantage of short-term sexual opportunities with other women (as his sperm are easily produced and plentiful).
Researchers claim to have confirmed these basic patterns in studies conducted around the world over several decades. Their results seem to support the standard narrative of human sexual evolution, which appears to make a lot of sense. But they don’t, and it doesn’t. While we don’t dispute that these patterns play out in many parts of the modern world, we don’t see them as elements of human nature so much as adaptations to social conditions—many of which were introduced with the advent of agriculture no more than ten thousand years ago. These behaviors and predilections are not biologically programmed traits of our species; they are evidence of the human brain’s flexibility and the creative potential of community.
To take just one example, we argue that women’s seemingly consistent preference for men with access to wealth is not a result of innate evolutionary programming, as the standard model asserts, but simply a behavioral adaptation to a world in which men control a disproportionate share of the world’s resources. As we’ll explore in detail, before the advent of agriculture a hundred centuries ago, women typically had as much access to food, protection, and social support as did men. We’ll see that upheavals in human societies resulting from the shift to settled living in agricultural communities brought radical changes to women’s ability to survive. Suddenly, women lived in a world where they had to barter their reproductive capacity for access to the resources and protection they needed to survive. But these conditions are very different from those in which our species had been evolving previously.
It’s important to keep in mind that when viewed against the full scale of our species’ existence, ten thousand years is but a brief moment. Even if we ignore the roughly two million years since the emergence of our Homo lineage, in which our direct ancestors lived in small foraging social groups, anatomically modern humans are estimated to have existed for about 200,000 years. With the earliest evidence of agriculture dating to about 8000 BCE, the amount of time our species has spent living in settled agricultural societies represents just 5 percent of our collective experience, at most. As recently as a few hundred years ago, most of the planet was still occupied by foragers.
So in order to trace the deepest roots of human sexuality, it’s vital to look beneath the thin crust of relatively recent human history. Until agriculture, human beings evolved in societies organized around an insistence on sharing just about everything. But all this sharing doesn’t make anyone a noble savage. These pre-agricultural societies were no nobler than you are when you pay your taxes or insurance premiums. Universal, culturally imposed sharing was simply the most effective way for our highly social species to minimize risk. Sharing and self-interest, as we shall see, are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, what many anthropologists call fierce egalitarianism was the predominant pattern of social organization around the world for many millennia before the advent of agriculture. But human societies changed in radical ways once they started farming and raising domesticated animals. They organized themselves around hierarchical political structures, private property, densely populated settlements, a radical shift in the status of women, and other social configurations that together represent an enigmatic disaster for our species: human population growth mushroomed as quality of life plummeted. The shift to agriculture, wrote author Jared Diamond, is a “catastrophe from which we have never recovered.”
Several types of evidence suggest our pre-agricultural (prehistoric) ancestors lived in groups where most mature individuals would have had several ongoing sexual relationships at any given time. Though often casual, these relationships were not random or meaningless. Quite the opposite: they reinforced crucial social ties holding these highly interdependent communities together. We’ve found overwhelming evidence of a decidedly casual, friendly prehistory of human sexuality echoed in our own bodies, in the habits of remaining societies still lingering in relative isolation, and in some surprising corners of contemporary Western culture. We’ll show how our bedroom behavior, porn preferences, fantasies, dreams, and sexual responses all support this reconfigured understanding of our sexual origins. Questions you’ll find answered in the following pages include:
Why is long-term sexual fidelity so difficult for so many couples?
Why does sexual passion often fade, even as love deepens?
Why are women potentially multi-orgasmic, while men all too often reach orgasm frustratingly quickly and then lose interest?
Is sexual jealousy an unavoidable, uncontrollable part of human nature?
Why are human testicles so much larger than those of gorillas but smaller than those of chimps?
Can sexual frustration make us sick? How did a lack of orgasms cause one of the most common diseases in history, and how was it treated?
The Flintstonization Of Prehistory
“Judging from the social habits of man as he now exists” is anything but a reliable method for understanding prehistory (though admittedly, Darwin had little else to go on). The search for clues to the distant past among the overwhelming detail of the immediate present tends to generate narratives closer to self-justifying myth than to science. The word myth has been debased and cheapened in modern usage; it’s often used to refer to something false, a lie. But this use misses the deepest function of myth, which is to lend narrative order to apparently disconnected bits of information, the way constellations group impossibly distant stars into tight, easily recognizable patterns that are simultaneously imaginary and real. Psychologists David Feinstein and Stanley Krippner explain, “Mythology is the loom on which [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][we] weave the raw materials of daily experience into a coherent story.” This weaving becomes tricky indeed when we mythologize about the daily experience of ancestors separated from us by twenty or thirty-thousand years or more. All too often, we inadvertently weave our own experiences into the fabric of prehistory. We call this widespread tendency to project contemporary cultural proclivities into the distant past “Flintstonization.”
Just as the Flintstones were “the modern stone-aged family,” contemporary scientific speculation concerning prehistoric human life is often distorted by assumptions that seem to make perfect sense. But these assumptions can lead us far from the path to truth. Flintstonization has two parents: a lack of solid data and the psychological need to explain, justify, and celebrate one’s own life and times. But for our purposes, Flintstonization has at least three intellectual grandfathers: Hobbes, Rousseau, and Malthus.
Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), a lonely, frightened war refugee in Paris, was Flintstoned when he looked into the mists of prehistory and conjured miserable human lives that were “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” He conjured a prehistory very much like the world he saw around him in seventeenth-century Europe, yet gratifyingly worse in every respect. Propelled by a very different psychological agenda, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) looked at the suffering and filth of European societies and thought he saw the corruption of a pristine human nature. Travelers’ tales of simple savages in the Americas fueled his romantic fantasies. The intellectual pendulum swung back toward the Hobbesian view a few decades later when Thomas Malthus (1766–1834) claimed to mathematically demonstrate that extreme poverty and its attendant desperation typify the eternal human condition. Destitution, he argued, is intrinsic to the calculus of mammalian reproduction. As long as population increases exponentially, doubling each generation (2, 4, 8, 16, 32, etc.), and farmers can increase the food supply only by adding acreage mathematically (1, 2, 3, 4, etc.), there will never—can never—be enough for everyone. Thus, Malthus concluded that poverty is as inescapable as the wind and the rain. Nobody’s fault. Just the way it is. This conclusion was very popular with the wealthy and powerful, who were understandably eager to make sense of their good fortune and justify the suffering of the poor as an unavoidable fact of life.
Darwin’s eureka moment was a gift from two terrible Thomases and one friendly Fred: Hobbes, Malthus, and Flintstone, respectively. By articulating a detailed (albeit erroneous) description of human nature and the sorts of lives human beings lived in prehistory, Hobbes and Malthus provided the intellectual context for Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Unfortunately, their thoroughly Flintstoned assumptions are fully integrated into Darwin’s thinking and persist to the present day. The sober tones of serious science often mask the mythical nature of what we’re told about prehistory. And far too often, the myth is dysfunctional, inaccurate, and self-justifying.
Our central ambition for this book is to distinguish some of the stars from the constellations. We believe that the generally accepted myth of the origins and nature of human sexuality is not merely factually flawed, but destructive, sustaining a false sense of what it means to be a human being. This false narrative distorts our sense of our capacities and needs. It amounts to false advertising for a garment that fits almost no one. But we’re all supposed to buy and wear it anyway. Like all myths, this one seeks to define who and what we are and thus what we can expect and demand from one another. For centuries, religious authorities disseminated this defining narrative, warning of chatty serpents, deceitful women, forbidden knowledge, and eternal agony. But more recently, it’s been marketed to secular society as hard science.
Examples abound. Writing in the prestigious journal Science, anthropologist Owen Lovejoy suggested, “The nuclear family and human sexual behavior may have their ultimate origin long before the dawn of the Pleistocene [1.8 million years ago].” Well-known anthropologist Helen Fisher concurs, writing, “Is monogamy natural?” She gives a one-word answer: “Yes.” She then continues, “Among human beings … monogamy is the rule.”
Many different elements of human prehistory seem to nest neatly into each other in the standard narrative of human sexual evolution. But remember, that Indian seemed to answer Cortés’s question, and it seemed indisputable to Pope Urban VIII and just about everyone else that the Earth remained solidly at the center of the solar system. With a focus on the presumed nutritional benefits of pair-bonding, zoologist and science writer Matt Ridley demonstrates the seduction in this apparent unity: “Big brains needed meat … [and] food sharing allowed a meaty diet (because it freed men to risk failure in pursuit of game) … [and] food sharing demanded big brains (without detailed calculating memories, you could easily be cheated by a free-loader).” So far, so good. But now Ridley inserts the sexual steps in his dance: “The sexual division of labor promoted monogamy (a pair bond now being an economic unit); monogamy led to neotenous sexual selection (by putting a premium on youthfulness in mates).” It’s a waltz, with one assumption spinning into the next, circling round and round in “a spiral of comforting justification, proving how we came to be as we are.”
Note how each element anticipates the next, all coming together in a tidy constellation that seems to explain human sexual evolution.
The distant stars fixed in the standard constellation include:
what motivated prehuman males to “invest” in a particular female and her children;
male sexual jealousy and the double standard concerning male versus female sexual autonomy;
the oft-repeated “fact” that the timing of women’s ovulation is “hidden”;
the inexplicably compelling breasts of the human female;
her notorious deceptiveness and treachery, source of many country and blues classics;
and of course, the human male’s renowned eagerness to screw anything with legs—an equally rich source of musical material.
This is what we’re up against. It’s a song that is powerful, concise, self-reinforcing, and playing on the radio all day and all night … but still wrong, baby, oh so wrong.The standard narrative is about as scientifically valid as the story of Adam and Eve. In many ways, in fact, it is a scientific retelling of the Fall into original sin as depicted inGenesis—complete with sexual deceit, prohibited knowledge, and guilt. It hides the truth of human sexuality behind a fig leaf of anachronistic Victorian discretion repackaged as science. But actual—as opposed to mythical—science has a way of peeking out from behind the fig leaf.The Flintstonization of Prehistory
“Judging from the social habits of man as he now exists” is anything but a reliable method for understanding prehistory (though admittedly, Darwin had little else to go on). The search for clues to the distant past among the overwhelming detail of the immediate present tends to generate narratives closer to self-justifying myth than to science.
The word myth has been debased and cheapened in modern usage; it’s often used to refer to something false, a lie. But this use misses the deepest function of myth, which is to lend narrative order to apparently disconnected bits of information, the way constellations group impossibly distant stars into tight, easily recognizable patterns that are simultaneously imaginary and real. Psychologists David Feinstein and Stanley Krippner explain, “Mythology is the loom on which [we] weave the raw materials of daily experience into a coherent story.” This weaving becomes tricky indeed when we mythologize about the daily experience of ancestors separated from us by twenty or thirty-thousand years or more. All too often, we inadvertently weave our own experiences into the fabric of prehistory. We call this widespread tendency to project contemporary cultural proclivities into the distant past “Flintstonization.”
Just as the Flintstones were “the modern stone-aged family,” contemporary scientific speculation concerning prehistoric human life is often distorted by assumptions that seem to make perfect sense. But these assumptions can lead us far from the path to truth. Flintstonization has two parents: a lack of solid data and the psychological need to explain, justify, and celebrate one’s own life and times. But for our purposes, Flintstonization has at least three intellectual grandfathers: Hobbes, Rousseau, and Malthus.
Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), a lonely, frightened war refugee in Paris, was Flintstoned when he looked into the mists of prehistory and conjured miserable human lives that were “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” He conjured a prehistory very much like the world he saw around him in seventeenth-century Europe, yet gratifyingly worse in every respect. Propelled by a very different psychological agenda, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) looked at the suffering and filth of European societies and thought he saw the corruption of a pristine human nature. Travelers’ tales of simple savages in the Americas fueled his romantic fantasies. The intellectual pendulum swung back toward the Hobbesian view a few decades later when Thomas Malthus (1766–1834) claimed to mathematically demonstrate that extreme poverty and its attendant desperation typify the eternal human condition. Destitution, he argued, is intrinsic to the calculus of mammalian reproduction. As long as population increases exponentially, doubling each generation (2, 4, 8, 16, 32, etc.), and farmers can increase the food supply only by adding acreage mathematically (1, 2, 3, 4, etc.), there will never—can never—be enough for everyone. Thus, Malthus concluded that poverty is as inescapable as the wind and the rain. Nobody’s fault. Just the way it is. This conclusion was very popular with the wealthy and powerful, who were understandably eager to make sense of their good fortune and justify the suffering of the poor as an unavoidable fact of life.
Darwin’s eureka moment was a gift from two terrible Thomases and one friendly Fred: Hobbes, Malthus, and Flintstone, respectively. By articulating a detailed (albeit erroneous) description of human nature and the sorts of lives human beings lived in prehistory, Hobbes and Malthus provided the intellectual context for Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Unfortunately, their thoroughly Flintstoned assumptions are fully integrated into Darwin’s thinking and persist to the present day. The sober tones of serious science often mask the mythical nature of what we’re told about prehistory. And far too often, the myth is dysfunctional, inaccurate, and self-justifying.
Our central ambition for this book is to distinguish some of the stars from the constellations. We believe that the generally accepted myth of the origins and nature of human sexuality is not merely factually flawed, but destructive, sustaining a false sense of what it means to be a human being. This false narrative distorts our sense of our capacities and needs. It amounts to false advertising for a garment that fits almost no one. But we’re all supposed to buy and wear it anyway. Like all myths, this one seeks to define who and what we are and thus what we can expect and demand from one another. For centuries, religious authorities disseminated this defining narrative, warning of chatty serpents, deceitful women, forbidden knowledge, and eternal agony. But more recently, it’s been marketed to secular society as hard science.
Examples abound. Writing in the prestigious journal Science, anthropologist Owen Lovejoy suggested, “The nuclear family and human sexual behavior may have their ultimate origin long before the dawn of the Pleistocene [1.8 million years ago].” Well-known anthropologist Helen Fisher concurs, writing, “Is monogamy natural?” She gives a one-word answer: “Yes.” She then continues, “Among human beings … monogamy is the rule.”
Many different elements of human prehistory seem to nest neatly into each other in the standard narrative of human sexual evolution. But remember, that Indian seemed to answer Cortés’s question, and it seemed indisputable to Pope Urban VIII and just about everyone else that the Earth remained solidly at the center of the solar system. With a focus on the presumed nutritional benefits of pair-bonding, zoologist and science writer Matt Ridley demonstrates the seduction in this apparent unity: “Big brains needed meat … [and] food sharing allowed a meaty diet (because it freed men to risk failure in pursuit of game) … [and] food sharing demanded big brains (without detailed calculating memories, you could easily be cheated by a free-loader).” So far, so good. But now Ridley inserts the sexual steps in his dance: “The sexual division of labor promoted monogamy (a pair bond now being an economic unit); monogamy led to neotenous sexual selection (by putting a premium on youthfulness in mates).” It’s a waltz, with one assumption spinning into the next, circling round and round in “a spiral of comforting justification, proving how we came to be as we are.”
Note how each element anticipates the next, all coming together in a tidy constellation that seems to explain human sexual evolution.
The distant stars fixed in the standard constellation include:
what motivated prehuman males to “invest” in a particular female and her children;
male sexual jealousy and the double standard concerning male versus female sexual autonomy;
the oft-repeated “fact” that the timing of women’s ovulation is “hidden”;
the inexplicably compelling breasts of the human female;
her notorious deceptiveness and treachery, source of many country and blues classics;
and of course, the human male’s renowned eagerness to screw anything with legs—an equally rich source of musical material.
This is what we’re up against. It’s a song that is powerful, concise, self-reinforcing, and playing on the radio all day and all night … but still wrong, baby, oh so wrong. The standard narrative is about as scientifically valid as the story of Adam and Eve. In many ways, in fact, it is a scientific retelling of the Fall into original sin as depicted inGenesis—complete with sexual deceit, prohibited knowledge, and guilt. It hides the truth of human sexuality behind a fig leaf of anachronistic Victorian discretion repackaged as science. But actual—as opposed to mythical—science has a way of peeking out from behind the fig leaf.
THE FIRST CASUALTY OF WAR
Imagine a high-profile expert stands before a distinguished audience and argues that Asians are warlike people. In support of his argument, he presents statistics from seven countries: Argentina, Poland, Ireland, Nigeria, Canada, Italy, and Russia. “Wait a minute,” you might say, “those aren’t even Asian countries—except, possibly, Russia.” The expert would be laughed off the stage—as he should be.
In 2007, world-famous Harvard professor and best-selling author Steven Pinker gave a presentation built upon similarly flawed logic at the TED conference (Technology, Entertainment, Design) in Long Beach, California. Pinker’s presentation provides both a concise statement of the neo-Hobbesian view of the origins of war and an illuminating look at the dubious rhetorical tactics often used to promote this bloodstained vision of our prehistory. The twenty-minute talk is available at the TED website. We encourage you to watch at least the first five minutes (dealing with prehistory) before reading the following discussion.
Though Pinker spends less than 10 percent of his time discussing hunter-gatherers (a social configuration, you’ll recall, that represents well over 95 percent of our time on the planet), he manages to make a real mess of things.
1417358852033
 
 
Three and a half minutes into his talk, Pinker presents a chart based on Lawrence Keeley’s War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage. The chart shows “the percentage of male deaths due to warfare in a number of foraging or hunting and gathering societies.” He explains that the chart shows that hunter-gatherer males were far more likely to die in war than are men living today.
But hold on. Take a closer look at that chart. It lists seven “hunter- gatherer” cultures as representative of prehistoric war-related male death. The seven cultures listed are the Jivaro, two branches of Yanomami, the Mae Enga, Dugum Dani, Murngin, Huli, and Gebusi. The Jivaro and both Yanomami groups are from the Amazon region, the Murngin are from northern coastal Australia, and the other four are all from the conflict-ridden, densely populated highlands of Papua New Guinea. Are these groups representative of our hunter-gatherer ancestors? Not even close.
Only one of the seven societies cited by Pinker (the Murngin) even approaches being an immediate-return foraging society (the way Russia is sort of Asian, if you ignore most of its population and history). The Murngin had been living with missionaries, guns, and aluminum powerboats for decades by the time the data Pinker cites were collected in 1975—not exactly prehistoric conditions.
None of the other societies cited by Pinker are immediate-return hunter-gatherers, like our ancestors were. They cultivate yams, bananas, or sugarcane in village gardens, while raising domesticated pigs, llamas, or chickens. Even beyond the fact that these societies are not remotely representative of our nomadic, immediate-return hunter-gatherer ancestors, there are still further problems with the data Pinker cites. Among the Yanomami, true levels of warfare are subject to passionate debate among anthropologists, as we’ll discuss shortly. The Murngin are not typical even of Australian native cultures, representing a bloody exception to the typical Australian Aborigine pattern of little to no intergroup conflict. Nor does Pinker get the Gebusi right. Bruce Knauft, the anthropologist whose research Pinker cites on his chart, says the Gebusi’s elevated death rates had nothing to do with warfare. In fact, Knauft reports that warfare is “rare” among the Gebusi, writing, “Disputes over territory or resources are extremely infrequent and tend to be easily resolved.”
Despite all this, Pinker stood before his audience and argued, with a straight face, that his chart depicted a fair estimate of typical hunter- gatherer mortality rates in prehistoric war. This is quite literally unbelievable. But Pinker is not alone in employing such sleight-of-hand to advance of Hobbes’s dark view of human prehistory. In fact, this selective presentation of dubious data is disturbingly common in the literature on human blood-lust.
In their book Demonic Males, Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson admit that war is unusual in nature, “a startling exception to the normal rule for animals.” But because intergroup violence has been documented in both humans and chimps, they argue, a propensity for war must be an ancient human quality, going back to our last common ancestor. We are, they warn, “the dazed survivors of a continuous, 5-million-year habit of lethal aggression.” Ouch. But where are the bonobos? In a book of over 250 pages, the word bonobo appears on only eleven of them, and the species is dismissed as offering a less relevant sense of our last common ancestor than the common chimpanzee does—although many primatologists argue the opposite. But at least they mentioned the bonobo.
In 2007, David Livingstone Smith, author of The Most Dangerous Animal: Human Nature and the Origins of War, published an essay exploring the evolutionary argument that war is rooted in our pri- mate past. In his grisly accounts of chimps pummeling one another to a bloody pulp and eating each other alive, Smith repeatedly refers to them as “our closest non-human relative.” You’d never know from reading his essay that we have an equally close nonhuman relative. The bonobo was left strangely—if typically—unmentioned. Amid the macho posturing about the brutal implications of chimpanzee violence, doesn’t the equally relevant, nonwarring bonobo rate a mention, at least? Why all the yelling about yang with nary a whisper of yin? All darkness and no light may get audiences excited, but it can’t illuminate them. This oops-forgot-to-mention-the-bonobo technique is distressingly common in the literature on the ancient origins of war.
But the bonobo’s conspicuous absence is notable not just in discussions of war. Look for the missing bonobo wherever someone claims an ancient pedigree for human male violence of any sort. See if you can find the bonobo in this account of the origins of rape, from The Dark Side of Man: “Men did not invent rape. Instead, they very likely inherited rape behavior from our ape ancestral lineage. Rape is a standard male reproductive strategy and likely has been one for millions of years. Male humans, chimpanzees, and orangutans routinely rape females. Wild gorillas violently abduct females to mate with them. Captive gorillas also rape females.”
Leaving aside the complications of defining rape in nonhuman species unable to communicate their experiences and motivations, rape— along with infanticide, war, and murder—has never been witnessed among bonobos in several decades of observation. Not in the wild. Not in the zoo. Never.
WHAT DARWIN DIDN’T KNOW
 
“We are not here concerned with hopes or fears, only with truth as far as our reason permits us to discover it.” Charles Darwin (The Descent of Man)
A fig leaf can hide many things, but a human erection isn’t one of them. The standard narrative of the origins and nature of human sexuality claims to explain the development of a deceitful, reluctant sort of sexual monogamy. According to this oft-told tale, heterosexual men and women are pawns in a proxy war directed by their opposed genetic agendas. The whole catastrophe, we’re told, results from the basic biological designs of males and females. Men strain to spread their cheap and plentiful seed far and wide (while still trying to control one or a few females in order to increase their paternity certainty). Meanwhile, women are guarding their limited supply of metabolically expensive eggs from unworthy suitors. But once they’ve roped in a provider-husband, they’re quick to hike up their skirts (when ovulating) for quick-and-dirty clandestine mating opportunities with square-jawed men of obvious genetic superiority. It’s not a pretty picture.
Biologist Joan Roughgarden points out that it’s an image little changed from that described by Darwin 150 years ago. “The Darwinian narrative of sex roles is not some quaint anachronism,” she writes. “Restated in today’s biological jargon, the narrative is considered proven scientific fact…. Sexual selection’s view of nature emphasizes conflict, deceit, and dirty gene pools.”
No less an authority than The Advice Goddess herself (syndicated columnist Amy Alkon) voices the popularized expression of this oft-told tale:
“There are a lot of really bad places to be a single mother, but probably one of the worst ever was 1.8 million years ago on the savanna. The ancestral women who successfully passed their genes on to us were those who were choosy about who they went under a bush with, weeding out the dads from the cads. Men had a different genetic imperative—to avoid bringing home the bison for kids who weren’t theirs—and evolved to regard girls who give it up too easily as too high risk for anything beyond a roll on the rock pile.”
Note how so much fits into this tidy package: the vulnerabilities of motherhood, separating dads from cads, paternal investment and jealousy, the sexual double standard. But as they say at the airport, beware of tidy packages you didn’t pack yourself.
———
“As for an English lady, I have almost forgotten what she is — something very angelic and good.”
– Charles Darwin, in a letter from the HMS Beagle
“Gentry had to be pitied. They had so few advantages in respect of love. They could say they longed for a kiss from a bouncy wife in a vicarage garden. They couldn’t say she roared under me and clutched my back, and I shot my specimen to blazes.”
– Roger McDonald, Mr. Darwin’s Shooter
The best place to begin a reassessment of our conflicted relationship with sexuality may be with Charles Darwin himself. Darwin’s brilliant work inadvertently lent an enduring scientific patina to what is essentially anti-erotic bias. Despite his genius, what Darwin didn’t know about sex could fill volumes. This is just one of them.
On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, a time when little was known about human life before the classical era. Prehistory, the period we define as the 200,000 or so years when anatomically modern people lived without agriculture and writing, was a blank slate theorists could fill only with conjecture. Until Darwin and others began to loosen the link between religious doctrine and scientific truth, guesses about the distant past were restricted by church teachings. The study of primates was in its infancy. Given the scientific data Darwin never saw, it’s not surprising that this great thinker’s blind spots can be as illuminating as his insights.
For example, Darwin’s ready acceptance of Thomas Hobbes’s still-famous characterization of prehistoric human life as having been “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” left these mistaken assumptions embedded in present-day theories of human sexuality. Asked to imagine prehistoric human sex, most of us conjure the hackneyed image of the caveman dragging a dazed woman by her hair with one hand, a club in the other. As we’ll see, this image of prehistoric human life is mistaken in every one of its Hobbesian details. Similarly, Darwin eagerly incorporated Thomas Malthus’s unsubstantiated theories about the distant past into his own theorizing, leading to dramatic overestimations of early human suffering (and thus, of the comparative superiority of Victorian life). These pivotal misunderstandings persist in many contemporary evolutionary scenarios.
Though he certainly didn’t originate this narrative of the interminable tango between randy male and choosy female, Darwin beat the drum for its supposed “naturalness” and inevitability. He wrote passages like, “The female…with the rarest exception, is less eager than the male… [She] requires to be courted; she is coy, and may often be seen endeavoring for a long time to escape the male.” While this female reticence is a key feature in the mating systems of many mammals, it isn’t particularly applicable to human beings or, for that matter, the primates most closely related to us.
In light of the philandering he saw going on around him, Darwin wondered whether early humans might have been polygynists (one male mating with several females), writing, “Judging from the social habits of man as he now exists, and from most savages being polygamists, the most probable view is that primeval man aboriginally lived in small communities, each with as many wives as he could support and obtain, whom he would have jealously guarded against all other men.”
Evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker appears to be “judging from the social habits of man as he now exists” as well (though without Darwin’s self-awareness) when he bluntly asserts, “In all societies, sex is at least somewhat ‘dirty.’ It is conducted in private, pondered obsessively, regulated by custom and taboo, the subject of gossip and teasing, and a trigger for jealous rage.” We’ll show that while sex is indeed “regulated by custom and taboo,” there are multiple exceptions to every other element of Pinker’s overconfident declaration.
Like all of us, Darwin incorporated his own personal experience—or its absence—into his assumptions about the nature of all life. In The French Lieutenant’s Woman, John Fowles gives a sense of the sexual hypocrisy that characterized Darwin’s world. Nineteenth-century England, writes Fowles, was “an age where woman was sacred; and where you could buy a thirteen-year-old girl for a few pounds—a few shillings, if you wanted her for only an hour or two. … Where the female body had never been so hidden from view; and where every sculptor was judged by his ability to carve naked women. …Where it was universally maintained that women do not have orgasms; and yet every prostitute was taught to simulate them.”
In some respects, the sexual mores of Victorian Britain replicated the mechanics of the age-defining steam engine. Blocking the flow of erotic energy creates ever-increasing pressure which is put to work through short, controlled bursts of productivity. Though he was wrong about a lot, it appears Sigmund Freud got it right when he observed that, “civilization” is built largely on erotic energy that has been blocked, concentrated, accumulated, and redirected.
“To keep body and mind untainted,” explains Walter Houghton in The Victorian Frame of Mind, “the boy was taught to view women as objects of the greatest respect and even awe. He was to consider nice women (like his sister and mother, like his future bride) as creatures more like angels than human beings—an image wonderfully calculated not only to dissociate love from sex, but to turn love into worship, and worship of purity.”
When not in the mood to worship the purity of their sisters, mother, daughters, and wife, men were expected to purge their lust with prostitutes, rather than threatening familial and social stability by “cheating” with “decent women.” Nineteenth-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer observed that “there are 80,000 prostitutes in London alone; and what are they if not sacrifices on the altar of monogamy?”
Charles Darwin was certainly not unaffected by the erotophobia of his era. In fact, one could argue that he was especially sensitive to its influence, inasmuch as he came of age in the intellectual shadow of his famous—and shameless—grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, who had flouted the sexual mores of his day by openly having children with various women and even going so far as to celebrate group sex in his poetry. The death of Charles’s mother when he was just eight years old may well have enhanced his sense of women as angelic creatures floating above earthly urges and appetites.
Psychiatrist John Bowlby, one of Darwin’s most highly regarded biographers, attributes Darwin’s lifelong anxiety attacks, depression, chronic headaches, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and hysterical crying fits to the separation anxiety created by the early loss of his mother. This interpretation is supported by a strange letter the adult Charles wrote to a cousin whose wife had just died: “Never in my life having lost one near relation,” he wrote, apparently repressing his memories of his own mother’s death, “I daresay I cannot imagine how severe grief such as yours must be.” Another indication of this psychological scarring was recalled by his granddaughter, who remembered how confused Charles had been when someone added the letter “M” to the word OTHER in a game similar to Scrabble. Charles looked at the board for a long time before declaring, to everyone’s confusion, that no such word existed.
A hyper-Victorian aversion to (and obsession with) the erotic seems to have continued in Charles’s eldest surviving daughter, Henrietta. “Etty,” as she was known, edited her father’s books, taking her blue crayon to passages she considered inappropriate. In Charles’s biography of his free-thinking grandfather, for example, she deleted a reference to Erasmus’s “ardent love of women.” She also removed “offensive” passages from The Descent of Man and Darwin’s autobiography.
Etty’s prim enthusiasm for stamping out anything sexual wasn’t limited to the written word. She waged a bizarre little war against the so-called stinkhorn mushroom (Phallus ravenelii) that still pops up in the woods around the Darwin estate. Apparently, the similarity of the mushroom to the human penis was a bit much for her. As Etty’s niece (Charles’s granddaughter) recalled years later, “Aunt Etty … armed with a basket and a pointed stick, and wearing a special hunting cloak and gloves,” would set out in search of the mushrooms. At the end of the day, Aunt Etty “burn[ed them] in the deepest secrecy on the drawing room fire with the door locked—because of the morals of the maids.”
———
“He will hold thee, when his passion shall have spent its novel force, something better than his dog, a little dearer than his horse.”
– Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Don’t get us wrong. Darwin knew plenty, and he deserves his place in the pantheon of great thinkers. If you’re a Darwin-basher looking for support, you’ll find little here. Charles Darwin was a genius and a gentleman for whom we have endless respect. But as is often the case with male gentleman geniuses, he was a bit clueless when it came to women.
In questions of human sexual behavior, Darwin had little to go on other than conjecture. His own sexual experience appears to have been limited to his vehemently proper wife, Emma Wedgwood, who was also his first cousin and sister-in-law. During his circumnavigation of the globe on the Beagle, the young naturalist appears never to have gone ashore in search of the sexual and sensual pleasures pursued by many seafaring men of that era. Darwin was apparently far too inhibited for the decidedly hands-on data collection Herman Melville hinted at in his best-selling novels Typee andOmoo, or to sample the dusky South Pacific pleasures that had inspired the sexually frustrated crew of The Bounty to mutiny.
Darwin was far too buttoned-up for such carnal pursuits. His by-the-book approach to such matters is evident in his careful consideration of marriage in the abstract, before he even had any particular woman in mind. He sketched out the pros and cons in his notebook: Marry and Not Marry. On the Marry side he listed, “Children—(if it Please God)—Constant companion, (&friend in old age) who will feel interested in one, —object to be loved and played with. —Better than a dog anyhow … female chit-chat … but terrible loss of time.”
On the other side of the page, Darwin listed concerns such as “Freedom to go where one liked—choice of Society & little of it. … Not forced to visit relatives & to bend in every trifle … fatness & idleness—Anxiety & responsibility. … Perhaps my wife wont [sic] like London; then the sentence is banishment & degradation into indolent, idle fool.”
Though Darwin proved to be a very loving husband and father, these pros and cons of marriage suggest he very seriously considered opting for the companionship of a dog instead.
ON STARRY-EYED ROMANTICS
 
Many otherwise reasonable people seem to have a burning need to locate the roots of war deep in our primal past, to see self-sufficient foragers as poor, and to spread the misbegotten gospel that three or four decades was a ripe old age for a human being in pre-agricultural times. But this vision of our past is demonstrably false. ¿Que pasa?
If prehistoric life was a perpetual struggle that ended in early death, if ours is a species motivated almost exclusively by self-interest, if war is an ancient, biologically embedded tendency, then one can soothingly argue, as Steven Pinker does, that things are getting better all the time—that, in his Panglossian view, “we are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species’ time on Earth.” That would be encouraging news, indeed, which is what most audiences want to hear, after all. We all want to believe things are getting better, that our species is learning, growing, and prospering. Who refuses congratulations for having the good sense to be alive here and now?
But just as “patriotism is the conviction that your country is superior to all others because you were born in it” (G. B. Shaw), the notion that we live in our species’ “most peaceful moment” is as intellectually baseless as it is emotionally comforting. Journalist Louis Menand noted how science can fulfill a conservative, essentially political function by providing “an explanation for the way things are that does not threaten the way things are.” “Why,” he asks rhetorically, “should someone feel unhappy or engage in anti-social behavior when that person is living in the freest and most prosperous nation on Earth? It can’t be the system!” What’s your problem? Everything’s just fine. Life’s great and getting better! Less war! Longer life! New and improved human existence!
This Madison Avenue vision of the super-duper present is contrasted with a fictional, blood-smeared Hobbesian past. Yet it’s marketed to the public as the “clear-eyed realist” position, and anyone who questions its founding assumptions, as we do, risks being dismissed as delusional romantics still grieving over the death of Janis Joplin and the demise of bell-bottoms. But that “realistic” argument is riddled with misunderstood data, mistaken interpretations, and misleading calculations. A dispassionate review of the relevant science clearly demonstrates that the tens of thousands of years before the advent of agriculture, while certainly not a time of uninterrupted utopian bliss, was for the most part characterized by robust health, peace between individuals and groups, and high levels of overall satisfaction for most of our ancestors.
Having made this argument, have we outed ourselves as card-carrying comrades in the Delusional Utopian Movement (DUM)? Is it Rousseauian fantasy to assert that prehistory was not an unending nightmare? That human nature leans no more toward violence, selfishness, and exploitation than toward peace, generosity, and cooperation? That most of our ancient ancestors probably experienced a sense of communal belonging few of us enjoy today? That human sexuality probably evolved and functioned as a social bonding device and a pleasurable way to avoid and neutralize conflict? Is it silly romanticism to raise the fact that ancient humans who survived their first few years often lived almost as long as the richest and luckiest of us do today, even with our high-tech coronary stents, diabetes medication, and titanium hips?
No. If you think about it, the neo-Hobbesian vision is far sunnier than ours. To have concluded, as we have, that our species has an innate capacity for love and generosity at least equal to our taste for destruction, for peaceful cooperation as much as coordinated attack, for an open, relaxed sexuality as much as for jealous, passion-smothering possessiveness … to see that both these worlds were open to us, but that around ten thousand years ago a few of our ancestors wandered off the path they’d been on forever into an inescapable garden in which our species has been trapped ever since… well, this is not exactly a rose-colored view of the overall trajectory of humankind.
THE PREHISTORY OF O
Now there you have a sample of man’s “reasoning powers,” as he calls them. He observes certain facts. For instance, that in all his life he never sees the day that he can satisfy one woman; also, that no woman ever sees the day that she can’t overwork, and defeat, and put out of commission any ten masculine plants that can be put to bed to her. He puts those strikingly suggestive and luminous facts together, and from them draws this astonishing conclusion: The Creator intended the woman to be restricted to one man.  By Mark Twain, Letters from the Earth
We recently spotted a young man strolling down Las Ramblas in Barcelona proudly sporting a T-shirt proclaiming that he was Born to F*ck. One wonders whether he has a whole set of these shirts at home: Born to Bre*the, Born to E*t, Born to Dr*nk, Born to Sh*t, and of course the depressing but inevitable Born to D*e. But maybe he was making a deeper point. After all, the argument central to this book is that sex has long served many crucial functions for Homo sapiens, with reproduction being only the most obvious among them. Since we human beings spend more time and energy planning, executing, and recalling our sexual exploits than any other species on Earth, maybe we all should wear such shirts. Or maybe just the women.
When it comes to sex, men may be trash-talking sprinters, but it’s the women who win all the marathons. Any marriage counselor will tell you the most common sex-related complaint women make about men is that they are too quick and too direct. Meanwhile, men’s most frequent sex-related gripe about women is that they take too damned long to get warmed up. After an orgasm, a woman may be anticipating a dozen more. A female body in motion tends to stay in motion. But men come and go. For them, the curtain falls quickly and the mind turns to unrelated matters.
This symmetry of dual disappointment illustrates the almost comical incompatibility between men’s and women’s sexual response in the context of monogamous mating. You have to wonder: if men and women evolved together in sexually monogamous couples for millions of years, how did we end up being so incompatible? It’s as if we’ve been sitting down to dinner together, millennium after millennium, but half of us can’t help wolfing everything down in a few frantic, sloppy minutes, while the other half are still setting the table and lighting candles.
Yes, we know: mixed strategies, lots of cheap sperm versus a few expensive eggs in one basket, and so on. But these flagrantly maladjusted sexual responses make far more sense when viewed as relics of our having evolved in promiscuous groups. Rather than spinning theories within theories in an effort to prop up an unstable paradigm—monogamy withmistakes, mild polygyny, mixed mating strategies, serial monogamy—can we simply face the one scenario where none of this self-defeating, inconsistent special pleading is necessary?
Okay, fine, it’s embarrassing. Maybe even humiliating, if you’re prone to that sort of thing. But 150 years after On the Origin of Species was published, isn’t it time to accept that our ancestors evolved along a sexual trajectory similar to that of our two highly social, very intelligent, closely related primate cousins? With any other question we have about the origins of human behavior, we look to chimps and bonobos for important clues: language, tool use, political alliances, war, reconciliation, altruism … but when it comes to sex we turn away from these models to the distantly related, antisocial, low-I.Q. but monogamous gibbon? Really?
We’ve pointed out how the agricultural revolution triggered radical social reconfigurations from which we’re still reeling. Perhaps the far-fetched denial of our promiscuous sexual prehistory expresses a legitimate fear of social instability, but insistent demands for a stable social order (based, as we’re often reminded, upon the nuclear family unit) cannot erase the effects of the hundreds of thousands of years that came before our species settled into stable villages.
If female chimps and bonobos could talk, do we really think they’d be griping to their hairy girlfriends about prematurely ejaculating males who don’t bring flowers anymore? Probably not, because as we’ve seen, when a female chimp or bonobo is in the mood, she’s likely to be the center of plenty of eager male attention. And the more attention she gets, the more she attracts, because as it turns out, our male primate cousins get turned on by the sight and sound of others of their species having sex. Imagine that.
Hard Core In The Stone Age
Here’s a head-scratcher. Why do so many heterosexual men get off on pornography featuring groups of guys having sex with just one woman? It doesn’t add up, if you think about it. It’s more cone than ice cream. And the suggestive strangeness doesn’t end with the counterintuitive male-to-female ratio; it’s male ejaculate that puts the money in the money shot.
Researchers have confirmed what most men already know: men tend to get turned on by images depicting an environment in which sperm competition is clearly at play (though few, we imagine, think of it in quite these terms). Images and videos showing one woman with multiple males are far more popular on the Internet and in commercial pornography than those depicting one male with multiple females. A quick peek at the online offerings at Adult Video Universe lists over nine hundred titles in the Gangbang genre, but only twenty-seven listed under Reverse Gangbang. You do the math. Why would the males in a species that’s been wearing the shackles of monogamy for 1.9 million years be sexually excited by scenes of groups of men ejaculating with one or two women?
Skeptics may argue that this arousal could reflect nothing more than commercial interests or a passing fashion. Fair enough, but what to make of experimental evidence that men viewing erotic material suggestive of sperm competition (two men with one woman) produce ejaculates containing a higher percentage of motile sperm than men viewing explicit images of only three women? And why does being cuckolded consistently appear at or near the top of married men’s sexual fantasies, according to experts ranging from Alfred Kinsey to Dan Savage?
As far as we know, there is no corresponding taste among women for erotica featuring multiple overweight middle-aged ladies with cheap tattoos, bad haircuts, and black socks having sex with one hot guy. Go figure.
Could this male appetite for multimale scenes be an echo of the porn of the Pleistocene? Keep in mind the variety of societies discussed previously in which women assist and inspire teams of workers or hunters by making themselves sexually available. The same dynamic is enacted on any given Sunday with fluttering pom-poms, the shortest of shorts, and the highest of kicks ending with sexy young legs spread right down to the Astroturf. While there are other conceivable explanations for such oddities of contemporary life, they certainly align well with a prehistory characterized by sperm competition.
Excerpt By Christopher Ryan Phd 
 
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