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?
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.