Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality
Christopher Ryan, Ph.D. & Cacilda Jethá, M.D.
Introduction: Another Well-Intentioned 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?
To Read the Rest of the Introduction