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Jul. 15 2010 - 3:56 pm | 1,268 views | 2 recommendations | 16 comments

Dan Savage and ‘Sex at Dawn’ on the origins of monogamy

Dan Savage, sex advice guru and solver of all problems, has long been an advocate for the pitfalls of monogamy.  From his point of view, showing love and commitment to someone is choosing not to fuck other people– but the desire to fuck other people doesn’t go away.  John Edwards, Mark Sanford, John Ensign, Bill Clinton, and literally millions of other people provide ample evidence that monogamy is not an easy thing for many people, even people with a lot at stake.  So Savage was pretty excited about a book that just came out called Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality. He had one of the authors, Christopher Ryan, on his podcast last week to talk about the origins of the sacredness of monogamy.

I’ve heard Savage argue against strict monogamy a million times, and it’s always been compelling, but Ryan’s explanation of how it all started absolutely floored me.  He explains that before the advent of agriculture, monogamy simply wasn’t in the best interest of the individual or the community.  In pre-scientific hunter-gatherer society, children were seen as much more communal– the connection between sex and birth had not yet been made.  Once agriculture was in the picture, domesticated animals began to illustrate the link between sex and birth– and with that came the significance of propety and ownership.   Only then did humans both know where babies were coming from, and have the incentive to know whose babies belonged to who.  In order for each individual to know which children he should leave his land to, he must know which children were his– and thus, he must control who the women were sleeping with.  And so, with the possession of land came the possession of female sexuality.  As Ryan puts it:

That’s when this hunger to control female sexuality really entered human behavior.  Before, when property is shared, and property wasn’t really even an important concept in pre-agricultural society, why would you care who a woman’s having sex with?

HOLY SHIT!

Both Savage and Ryan agree that it’s difficult to know how to apply this knowledge to modern human behavior– the “now what?” part.  But simply understanding where these ideas of possessing and controlling female sexuality came from is incredibly interesting.  It’s also important for us to be reminded that even our longest-held values are not innate and inevitable- -they come from somewhere.  They were born out of specific circumstance.  And, from an economic, social, and historical perspective, it’s pretty fascinating that it can all be drawn back to land ownership.  Long before the idea of capitalism even existed, the developing distinctions between private and public were informing human behavior in a very powerful way.

In a slightly unrelated video, Savage applies this idea to one of the most modern human behaviors around right now– sexting.  He argues that the backlash against it has to do with our overwhelming desire to control female sexuality:

We fear and long to control female sexuality.  With all the talk about sexting, you don’t really hear about pictures of dicks.  You hear about pictures of tits.  Because?  Because?  we don’t think women– particularly young women– own their own tits.

Any regular readers of Blogging Molly already know that I think Dan Savage one of the most important voices for sex and gender equality/liberation out there.  I’d love to hear any thoughts from people who’ve read Sex at Dawn. The more we are aware that our understanding of sexuality is constructed and not innate, the more we have the ability to develop it into something far more healthy, nuanced, and tolerant.


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  1. collapse expand

    Ms. Knefel,

    This is hardly new. Frederick Engels discuss’ this in “The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State”. In the preface to the fourth edition (1891) he cites Johan Bachofen’s book “Mutterrecht” (1861) in which “the author advances the following propositions:

    (1) That originally man lived in a state of sexual promiscuity, to describe which Bachofen uses the mistaken term “hetaerism”;

    (2) that such promiscuity excludes any certainty of paternity, and that descent could therefore be reckoned only in the female line, according to mother-right, and that this was originally the case amongst all the peoples of antiquity;

    (3) that since women, as mothers, were the only parents of the younger generation that were known with certainty, they held a position of such high respect and honor that it became the foundation, in Bachofen’s conception, of a regular rule of women (gynaecocracy [i.e. matriarchy])”

    Engels takes this work with the work of Lewis Henry Morgan (“Ancient Society” 1877) who likewise aligned the development of family with the development of the state with the development of private property (Part 2 Growth of the Idea of Government, Part 3, Growth of the Idea of the Family, Part 4, Growth of the Idea of Property).

    Engels writes;”[The Monogamous Family]…is based on the supremacy of the man, the express purpose being to produce children of undisputed paternity; such paternity is demanded because these children are later to come into their father’s property as his natural heirs.”

    • collapse expand

      David,
      You are absolutely right about this not being a new idea, though we do bring it up to date with 150 years worth of data that Engels and Morgan (and Darwin) didn’t have. In fact, there’s a section of our book where we discuss Morgan and his relationship with Darwin (both personal and intellectual). Thanks for your comment.

      CPR (co-author of Sex at Dawn)

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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        Dr. Ryan,

        I are of course quite right, I certainly did not mean to imply otherwise. There is nothing in science that was outlined 150 years ago that there is not orders of magnitude more information and understanding about today.

        What is sad however, and I suppose my point, although I did not really have the thought formed when I responded Ms. Knefel’s blog, is that the profound and important theory that family relations, property relations, and the formation of government are all inter-connected and develop in a parallel fashion is, surprisingly, rarely taught or discussed in the 20th or 21st centuries. It thus seems new to many readers today.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    Interesting theory, I’ve never read Sex at Dawn, but I always speculated monogamy was more of a way of preventing disease.

    Before we invented agriculture, we also didn’t know how germs were spread.

    Kind of like instinctively not drinking from the same glass as everyone else? I’m not a germaphobe and that is a gross oversimplification, but it’s the best analogy my primitive male mind could come up with.

    My theory is that most people are caught between the innate need to procreate and the innate need to survive by not contracting diseases.

    I’m not pro or con, I’m just saying.

  3. collapse expand

    I’m not saying this concept might not be true, but I have to say that I took issue with this quote: “Before, when property is shared, and property wasn’t really even an important concept in pre-agricultural society, why would you care who a woman’s having sex with?” I think that people probably have always cared who people were having sex with, for the very basic human emotion of jealousy. As long as people having been falling in love, people have cared about what that person they love is doing and who they are doing it with. I think there are many historical and current problems with monogamy, but I also believe that there is a basic feeling among the majority of people that we don’t want to share our companionship with anyone besides that one partner.

    • collapse expand

      Until of course you don’t. Which is where the divorce rate comes from. Alan Watts used to refer to it as “staggered polygamy.”

      In response to another comment. See in context »
    • collapse expand

      Hello earcam,

      You wrote:”I also believe that there is a basic feeling among the majority of people that we don’t want to share our companionship with anyone besides that one partner.”

      This is not necessarily so. Polygamy and polyandry in various forms are well documented in many societies, both ancient and even some modern. The Mosuo society in China, is both matriarchal and matrilineal and marriage in the traditional sense do not exist. People live together in large, multigenerational, extended families centered around women (i.e. mothers). Men and women form romantic / sexual couples but the man lives with in mothers family and only goes to visit his “wife” at night at her mothers house. This called a “walking marriage”. The relationship lasts as long as both choose to make it last, sometimes they are short-lived and others are life-long. Children produced remain with the mothers family. They are generally sexually monogamous during the course of the relationship. This is serial polygamy or polyandry. In Sub-Saharan African, the Maasai people practice simultaneous polyandry, as did many Polynesian cultures prior to western contact.

      This is not to say that jealously does not occur in these societies, but it does not form the basis for sexually exclusive marriages.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        Yo, David, you know your stuff! Are you an anthropologist? We also talk about the Mosuo in the book. I hope you read it. I’d love to hear your comments. Be well.

        CPR

        In response to another comment. See in context »
        • collapse expand

          Dr. Ryan,

          Thank you, that is very kind of you say and no, I am not an anthropologist (although my wife teaches anthropology at university and my daughter is an anthropology major who is currently in New Zealand). I suppose with such a personable offer it would be impossible for me to say “no” so we shall see.

          In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        Thanks, this is an interesting case that I was unaware of, but it doesn’t surprise me and I don’t think it goes against what I said. For one, I said “the majority of people”, which implies most, but obviously not all. Secondly, you acknowledge that these relationships “are generally sexually monogamous during the course of the relationship.” That’s all I was refering to before – I agree that “serial polygamy,” as you call it, or “staggered polygamy,” as the posting above mentions, is probably a natural human trait too (again, for MOST people), just as much as jealousy or the desire for monogamous comanionship. Thanks for the interesting example though.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
  4. collapse expand

    Hay boys,

    I love this discussion, and of course it is a topic that has been dealt with for ages. However, I agree with Ryan that it needed an update and young cute guys to talk about it again. giggle. I LOVE what you wrote David. I love that you found older record of this “pact” men made with themselves and women (oddly enough) to carry out patriarchal ideas.

    I must take issue with the idea of jealousy being a “natural” human emotion. We have to recall the to share, lovingly, and to feel “compersion” are also a natural human emotions. (Think of a baby on the playground). Human emotions are cultivated based on what the culture promotes. Here in the “West” jealousy is cultivated by the media specifically, I feel, to hold the monogamous regime in tact along with patriarchal order which has women feeling as if she is a slut if she wants several nice pieces of different _____ in too close a span of time.

    I am a love coach and I beleive sex is sacred. I have an open marriage with a luscious man of 15 years and I can have all the love I want from any man with whom I desire it. I have appeared on several news shows, Fox News here — http://jujumamablog.com/introduction/ and am an advocate for the open relationship. I have started a movement and the hub is at my blog. I hope you sweet darlings will click the link and check me out. Or follow me on Twitter – I’m JujuMama… (Kenya K Stevens)

    Love and Light Boys! Thanks again for this talk. xoxo

  5. collapse expand

    BTW – I LOVE Alan Watts – good use of perfect figure to make your point. I call it Serial Monogamy. LOL!

    FYI – I can’t get your book here in NYC on Park Avenue at Borders… hmmmm… ordering online now. I think I WILLED you to write the book as I had been meaning to do so for some time. I summoned you and I’m glad you came. xo

  6. collapse expand

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    About Me

    I am a stand-up comic and writer living in Brooklyn. I also teach theater and comedy to elementary-school kids in the Bronx. My writing and comedy videos have been featured on the women's comedy website Funny Not Slutty, Punchline Magazine, and EDGE.

    I co-write and co-star in a web series with my brother called John and Molly Get Along, which can be found on Youtube.

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