Sexuality is a critical aspect of the human condition. Topics related to sex and sexuality are often heavily contested and discussed with tension. In 2010, Christopher Ryan, PhD and Cacilda Jetha, MD published an intriguing book on the history and nature of sexuality called Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality -- How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships. The title is just as ambitious as the work that ensues. These are questions that all people ask at some point in their lives. Humans wish to understand the patterns of the species' mating habits so as to navigate through the process more smoothly and with more awareness. Infidelity is a very old human trait. The book title implies that it provides insight behind the behavior. Just from the title, the book promises to be useful and enlightening in regards to sex and mating patterns. Finding and sustaining fulfilling sexual and emotional relationships is a universal desire among humans. The book implies it will help us struggle a bit less. The paper will locate an example of some assertions made by the authors in media and in culture.
The authors spend a considerable portion of the book defining what humans are and describing the kinds of traits that separate humans from other creatures on Earth. They write:
"Before and beyond anything else, Human beings are the most social of all creatures.
We have another quality that is especially human in addition to our disproportionately large brains and associated capacity for language. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is also something woven into our all-important social fabric: our exaggerated sexuality. No animal spends more of its allotted time on Earth fussing over sex than Homo sapiens -- not even the famously libidinous bonobo. Although we and the bonobo both average well into the hundreds, if not thousands, of acts of intercourse per birth -- way ahead of any other primate -- their 'acts' are far briefer than ours. Pair-bonded 'monogamous' animals are almost always hyposexual, having sex as the Vatican recommends: infrequently, quietly, and for reproduction only. Human beings, regardless of religion, are at the other end of the libidinal spectrum: hypersexuality personified." (Ryan & Jetha, Set at Dawn, Page 118 -- 119)
Other animals have sex for rational reasons, such as for propagation of the species. The acts are not overly planned or involved; they are brief and purposeful. This is not the case for humans and sexuality. We are the exact opposite of nearly every other species on Earth in that we are preoccupied with sexuality and engage in extremely meticulous situations set up for sexual endeavors. We are social; we are oversexed. It is a self-serving combination of traits. Again, these traits are nurtured by culture and the media.
There are numerous television situation comedies and romantic, comedic films where a central character is a man who has sex with multiple women whom he finds very attractive. Nearly all media representations of teenagers show them to be obsessed with sex. How many films are there were they overall goal of the teenage protagonist(s) is to have sex? The authors' theories are at work and at play within the culture, within our imaginations, and within our behavior. That may be a reason why the book saw such exponential and accelerated success: because what the authors describe to be the nature of human sexuality is true and people can relate. What happens though when people live in a society, such as a capitalist one that is predicated upon monogamy and many people change their perspectives regarding monogamy and polygamy? In the United States for example, outside of the Mormon religion and culture, which some people find offensive, polygamy is rarely practiced and generally looked down upon.
Occasionally, there comes along television programs that challenge culture stereotypes, morals, and norms by challenging them and playing them out in narrative form. Such a program aired on the Home Box Office Channel (HBO) called "Big Love." "Big Love" is the story of a fundamentalist Mormon family that practices polygamy. The lead character, Bill Hendrickson, is married to three women and has several children among them; they all share a residence and a life as family. The show ran for five seasons and thus was moderately to very popular. The family hides their lifestyle from most of the outside world and is eventually outted to live polygamously to the world. The creators of the program aimed to portray the American polygamous family experience without bias or judgment. They wished to show this lifestyle to an audience of people who probably were curious about the lifestyle at some point. Curiosity likely drew many viewers to this program. They were curious about polygamy and perhaps even drawn to the lifestyle for themselves, yet to live that kind of life out in the open is taboo in American culture. Even though polygamy is considered taboo in American culture, the authors of Sex at Dawn may contend that the Hendrickson family is more natural and healthy than a monogamous one. The authors of Sex at Dawn may contend that the uncomfortable feelings the family has once their community is aware of their family situation is really the culture's problem with their family, not so much that their family structure is what the problem truly is.
Polygamy is something that people wish they could have and try to manage, but they ultimately and profoundly screw it up. Polygamy cannot really exist in a substantial way within a strictly monogamous society. Consider the fictional family of the Hendrickson's as an example, though there are numerous polygamous relationships and families existing in the U.S.A. And around the world. Sex at Dawn tells readers that polygamy used to be the nature state of sexual and romantic relationships for much of the early parts of human history and evolution. Society would have to be open to multiple forms of partnership, such as monogamy and polygamy for there to be more frequent instances and healthy examples of monogamous and polygamous sexual relationships. At this point, the mainstream culture views polygamists as freak shows; that is how the Hendrickson's are perceived by their neighbors. Not so long ago in human history, polygamy was the norm. There must be something within us still perhaps alive and kicking, perhaps dormant, that expresses the longing and the comfort of polygamy. This could explain the plethora of media representations that support that monogamy is restrictive and unnatural.
The authors further contend that polygamy reflects an alternate version of fatherhood counter to the one more indicative of modern times. They write:
"Rather than being shunned as 'bastards' or 'sons of bitches,' children of multiple fathers benefit from having more than one man who takes a special interest in them. Anthropologists have calculated that their chances of surviving childhood are often significantly better than those of children in the same societies with just one recognized father. Far from being enraged at having his genetic legacy called into question, a man in these societies is likely to feel gratitude to other men for pitching in to help create and then care for a stronger baby. Far from being blinded by jealousy as the standard narrative predicts, men in these societies find themselves bound to one another by shared paternity for the children they've fathered together. As Beckerman explains, in the worst-case scenario, this system may provide extra security for the child: 'You know that if you die, there's some other man who has a residual obligation to care for at least one of your children. So looking the other way or even giving your blessing when your wife takes a lover is the only insurance you can buy.'"…