Book Review: Sex at Dusk

I just finished reading Sex at Dusk, independent scholar Lynn Saxon’s reply to Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha’s book Sex at Dawn, which I reviewed last month. This book fills in the biggest gap in my original review, so I wanted to say some more about it.

When I originally read Dawn, I thought that Ryan and Jetha’s strongest argument was the existence of the South American tribal societies that believe in partible paternity, the idea that a child can have more than one biological father. According to Dawn, this belief serves to bond members of those tribes together: women have sex with as many men as possible when they’re trying to conceive, and men cooperate in raising all the children they believe they had a share in siring. Dawn paints an idyllic picture of these societies, depicting them as mini-utopias of free love and cooperation:

Like mothers everywhere, a woman from these societies is eager to give her child every possible advantage in life. To this end, she’ll typically seek out sex with an assortment of men. She’ll solicit “contributions” from the best hunters, the best storytellers, the funniest, the kindest, the best-looking, the strongest, and so on – in the hopes her child will literally absorb the essence of each… 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. [p.91-2]

But Dusk has painted a more complex picture of these societies, citing many of the same primary sources. If Saxon’s quotes are correct, then Dawn‘s discussion is so badly misleading, it’s hard to see how it could have been an innocent mistake rather than intentional misrepresentation.

As Dusk describes it, partible paternity does exist, but the societies that practice it aren’t hunter-gatherer hippie communes, nor is it ever about women trying to create a mix-and-match baby from all the best men of the tribe. It always plays out in one of two ways:

(1) Women with children will offer sex to an unrelated man as an enticement for him to give extra food to her and her family, as well as a kind of insurance, giving him incentive to shelter and provide for them if her primary husband dies. This runs completely counter to Ryan and Jetha’s argument, which insists (and I’m using their terminology here) that women evolved to be “sluts” rather than “whores”, i.e., having sex purely for pleasure and social bonding, rather than strategically, in exchange for resources.

Nor are these arrangements indefinitely extensible. While it does happen, there is also jealousy and possessiveness, and if a woman has sex with other partners too much or too often, her primary partner may reject her or her children. As Saxon writes about one Amazon society, the Curripaco: “…if a woman has sex with various men they say there is the risk that no one would recognize the child. When the child is everybody’s they mean in effect that it is nobody’s” [p.114]. This is just what evolutionary theory would predict: when the odds of their being the father are too low, men will no longer have a genetic incentive to invest in a child.

(2) More disturbing, partible paternity can take the form of, essentially, societally sanctioned gang rape, where young unmarried women are shared by the men of the tribe to promote social bonding among those men. The woman’s consent isn’t required for this; like female genital cutting, it’s usually treated as a custom that girls must undergo as a rite of initiation into adulthood.

This custom is most vividly illustrated by an Amazon culture called the Canela, which Ryan and Jetha describe by quoting the anthropologist William Crocker, who studied them for several decades, as follows:

Generosity and sharing was the ideal, while withholding was a social evil. Sharing possessions brought esteem. Sharing one’s body was a direct corollary…. No one was so self-important that satisfying a fellow tribesman was less gratifying than personal gain. [p.103]

According to Ryan and Jetha, the Canela practice “community-building, conflict-reducing” [p.103] festival rituals in which a woman may have sex with fifteen or more men in quick succession. Dawn says vaguely that this is part of the process for “the young woman’s gaining social acceptance” [p.120].

But according to Saxon, Ryan and Jetha have left out some important details about these ceremonies. The Canela are a militaristic and historically violent society which put young men through strict training and discipline to teach them obedience to the village elders. The sex rituals are part of this, and are meant to improve social cohesion and male bonding – which is to say, there’s not much in it for the women. Saxon fills in the details of this: “Crocker concludes… that female orgasm does not occur. The majority of the sex is for male gratification, and… lasts for a matter of seconds” [p.123]. What’s more, the women’s participation – pleasant or not – isn’t optional:

About every other year there is an occurrence where a girl will not agree to sequential sex and so she is forced to comply by a group of men each having sex with her to ‘tame’ her (basically a punitive gang rape). She knows she has no choice and that even if injured she will gain no sympathy… [p.124]

Needless to say, this is worlds apart from Dawn‘s cheerfully hedonistic vision of primitive societies where everyone chose to engage in group sex purely for pleasure and with no concern for paternity. Sexuality is an explosively powerful force, and social norms and taboos controlling its expression have been part of every human culture that’s ever been observed in history. Effective contraception has arguably diminished this somewhat, but especially before the existence of that modern innovation, the idea that there could be a society where no one had any concern about who’s sleeping with whom simply flies in the face of evolutionary reality.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.