Sex at Dawn - Christopher Ryan, Cacilda Jetha (Review)

Amazon Summary: In this controversial, thought-provoking, and brilliant book, renegade thinkers Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá debunk almost everything we “know” about sex, weaving together convergent, frequently overlooked evidence from anthropology, archaeology, primatology, anatomy, and psychosexuality to show how far from human nature monogamy really is. In Sex at Dawn, the authors expose the ancient roots of human sexuality while pointing toward a more optimistic future illuminated by our innate capacities for love, cooperation, and generosity.

Rating: 3.5/5

Review: Although I took some issue with Sex at Dawn, this book provides a fascinating look into the science and psychology behind our ancestor’s mating habits and how our modern lives are affected. It really had a lot going for it as far as I was concerned - anthropology, history, sex, critical analysis of societal norms and the monogamous family unit. I’m definitely a biased critic when I say that I was pretty enthralled in the beginning and tore quickly through the book.

The problem is - I don’t feel qualified in any sense to comment on the validity of the scientific claims put forward. Sex at Dawn provided a lot of interesting theories to think about and look into - I like to use these types of books to write down the names of authors, researchers, and books mentioned to follow up with later. From my untrained (although I think somewhat critical) eye some of the evidence put forth seemed to, at the very least, lead in an interesting direction. This is one of the major problems I have when it comes to reading and reflecting on “PopSci” books - how can I knowledgeably comment on something when I am full well admitting I do not know if the evidence presented was credible? Which begins leading me down a black hole of questions about our modern trust in science and how much do we really know anyway????

But I digress; I can at least say this - the manner in which it is written is very easy to read and kept me engaged for very long bouts of time. Despite a lot of dry, factual information being presented, I was rarely bored and never confused. The writing does not get bogged down by complexity of the topic.

Towards the end, the book does seem to take a strangely misogynistic tone. So much so, that there is an author’s note at the end responding to the unsurprisingly angry reaction many female readers had to this piece of the book. Much of the book is spent looking at ancient cultures and relationships in the animal kingdom (which was the part I most enjoyed) and it isn’t until the end that Sex at Dawn actually touches on modern lives of monogamous couples. At this point, the narrative begins to explain what reads to me as a very universal and normal experience of “monotony + monogamy” (this is literally what the section heading of the book is called) and begins describing it as a solely male experience. He states, “When a couple have been living together for years, when they’ve become family, this ancient anti-incest mechanism can effectively block eroticism for many men, leading to confusion and hurt feelings all around” (pg. 293). Another reason men specifically don’t want to be in monogamous relationships is because “it’s a simple, unavoidable truth almost everyone knows to be true but few dare to discuss: variety and change are the necessary spice of the sex life of the human male” (pg. 292).

HOW we can possibly not consider that this again, might just be a HUMAN experience is beyond me. The example of a “porn gateway website” is used as an example - citing the many different types of women available (“unshaved Japanese lesbians”, “tattooed redheads”, “overweight older gals”) and using this as “proof” I suppose that only men are interested in diversity. The lack of a nuanced understanding shown here makes me honestly question the entire book.

The “Author’s Note” is completely unsatisfying and doesn't do a whole lot to make up for the very one-sided approach taken when discussing modern relationships.

Final Thoughts: I really did enjoy most of the book enough that I would recommend reading it if you're curious and interested in the subject matter. But I would suggest regarding it with a critical eye and to be prepared for the switch in tone in regards to gender that comes later on.

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