There’s a story about President Calvin Coolidge that every evolutionary psychologist knows by heart. It goes like this: The president and his wife were visiting a commercial chicken farm in the 1920s. During the tour, the first lady asked the farmer how he managed to produce so many fertile eggs with only a few roosters. The farmer proudly explained that his roosters happily performed their duty dozens of times each day. “Perhaps you could mention that to the president,” replied the first lady. Overhearing the remark, President Coolidge asked the farmer, “Does each cock service the same hen each time?” “Oh no,” replied the farmer, “he always changes from one hen to another.” “I see,” replied the president. “Perhaps you could point that out to Mrs Coolidge.”
Whether the story is historically factual or not, the invigorating effect of a variety of sexual partners has become known as “the Coolidge effect.” While there’s little doubt that the females of some primate species (including our own) are also intrigued by sexual novelty, the underlying mechanism appears to be different for them. Thus the Coolidge effect generally refers to male mammals, where it’s been documented in many species.
- Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha, Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality
This week Christopher Ryan, co-author of the fairly awesome bestseller Sex at Dawn, has been visiting our shores. Wednesday evening I went to see him speak about the book, in conversation with Melbourne University academic Justin Clemens, at Readings bookstore. We’ll come back to that in a moment.
Uncertainty and anomalous sluttyness
These days I work, basically, as a lobbyist. That means I spend my time devising “policy positions” and writing them down in submissions and speeches and letters. You can’t open a submission with “I’m not sure,” but actually, I never am sure. Likewise, I’m not sure about anything I write here – I just say it because I doubt my opinions are much more hole-ridden than everyone else’s.
For years and years I have been raging, inside my little head, against dominant representations of female sexuality (and of female psychology more broadly) in which I – as a straight, non-monogamous, novelty-seeking, casual sex-loving woman – can find very, very little to identify with. Not being able to see much of myself in these descriptions makes me sad, which makes me angry.
I’m not entirely sure why I feel this way, because being anomalously slutty has undeniable perks. It has occurred to me to question why I’m so uncomfortable with the idea of being an outlier, and, specifically, of being an outlier not just because I disregard social norms that many other women observe, but because maybe I’m just a bit weird. Instead of trying to widen the definition of ‘normal’ female sexuality, I’ve wondered whether perhaps I should put my energies into being happily, proudly freakish. I remain undecided.
But back to Sex at Dawn
If you haven’t read the book (read the book!), its argument is that ‘human beings evolved in egalitarian groups that shared food, child care, and, often, sexual partners.’ It follows from this that monogamy, while possible, is not really ‘natural’. My favourite parts of the book find evidence for this thesis in the structure of the human body and in the behaviour of our closest primate relatives (basically, bonobos fucking all the time).
When I read Sex at Dawn about a year ago I though it was well-written, well-researched and well-argued. At the same time, though, I was suspicious of my own evaluation because I liked its arguments. I wanted to believe. As kinda-gross as the thought of a man’s penis as having ‘unusual flared glans… forming the coronal ridge’ evolved to draw competitors’ semen out of the vaginal canal like a squeegee is, it also puts my fondness for group sex in a whole new light of naturalness and normalcy. Likewise a chapter on the theory that ‘female copulatory vocalisations’ in humans and other primates are correlated with promiscuity and exist to incite other males to join the fun. A chapter refuting the denial of female libido… discussion of various cultures in which sleeping around is or was the norm… all of this is rather validating for a woman like me.
But then I hit chapter twenty, and suddenly I was a bit of a freak again. In this chapter, Ryan and Jetha describe women as mysterious, full of contradiction, sexually ‘fluid’ (when hooked up to a machine measuring genital bloodflow and shown pictures of naked men, naked women, naked bonobos – things get pumping, whereas men’s dicks only respond as their sexual orientation would predict), particularly responsive to emotional intimacy and more likely than men to be bisexual. I don’t dispute (most of) these claims, especially as they are presumably supposed to describe tendencies rather than rules. Still, they really don’t ring true for me,* personally, a super-straight INTJ (if you go in for that kind of thing).
It was chapter twenty-one, though, about men, that really pissed me off. It’s this chapter that contains the passage on the Coolidge effect, quoted above, and which tells the story of “Phil”, a handsome, wealthy, successful friend of the authors’ whose twenty year marriage ended when his wife discovered his affair. From there the chapter goes on to discuss why ‘so many men‘ have affairs, the health-giving effects of affairs for middle aged men, men’s desire to watch porn with heaps of different women, men’s strong appetite for sexual novelty, the negative effects of monogamy on men, men’s singular capacity to separate sex and love, men’s being ‘constituted, by millions of years of evolution, to need occasional novel partners to maintain an active and vital sexuality’, the unfairness of demanding monogamy from men… you get the idea. The book then closes with a call for people to consider non-monogamy as an option, with this framed by and large (although not entirely) as a matter of women accepting the non-monogamy their partners will enjoy.
“But wait!” I’m thinking, “what happened to the bonobos and the sperm competition and the female copulatory vocalisations?”
“Where’s the bit where I get to have group sex?!“
Anyhow, back to the bookstore
I wanted a good seat (although there were no seats) so I got to Readings a little early and moseyed about in the politics/sociology/philosophy section, where the presentation was to happen, inspecting books and the other people turning up. Fortunately, just as I spied this:
… some deviant friends appeared and saved me with chit chat until the presentation began.
Justin asked Chris a bunch of polite, intelligent questions about Sex at Dawn, often focussed on its social, political and cultural implications, rather than the fucking bits. The book itself devotes quite a bit of space, actually, to describing social organisation before the advent of agriculture, i.e., for 99 per cent of human history, and to refuting the bleak picture of pre-modern life painted by people like Steven Pinker. I love that stuff, and I do feel, intensely (much as I enjoy my smart phone and my pretty clothes and my access to reticulated water and sewerage), the kind of nostalgia for this egalitarian past that Chris evoked with this goddamned beautiful T.S. Eliot quote:
We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.
And then it was time for questions. I’m not normally among the question-askers at events like this, but I really wanted to ask about why the book ended on such a the men have their needs, so suck it up ladies! note. So I got the microphone in my hot little hand and said:
“As a non-monogamous, high-libido, novelty-seeking woman, I obviously really liked your book.”
At this point Chris gestured at me like “she’s over here, dudes,” and several people laughed. It was pretty funny. I continued something like:
“But the last few chapters really irritated me. I don’t think it would be unfair to say that at the end, the book has a heavy emphasis on male desire and pleasure, and presents non-monogamy as being about male pleasure and female acceptance. So, I have two questions. Firstly, how excited do you think Mrs Coolidge was the night she had sex with Mr Coolidge for the ten thousandth time?”
There was another light smattering of laughter.
“And secondly, don’t you think that if we want non-monogamy to be an option for people, it would be ethical and practical to focus a little more on female pleasure, too?”
Chris said he had had that feedback from other women, and explained that the book initially ended without this section. But alas! The publisher wanted more material about the implications for modern life and how the lessons might be applied in our relationships. (On that, it’s interesting to note that the book’s subtitle in the US is not “The prehistoric origins of modern sexuality” but the far crappier “How we mate, why we stray, and what it means for modern relationships”) They were tired and not enthused about the prospect of more writing, but there was “Phil” and his dilemma, so they wrote that up and stuck it in.
OK, sure, I’ll pay that. It was the next bit where he lost me.
They perhaps should have balanced it out, he said, but women are just so complicated in their sexual response. If they had added the story of a woman’s affair it would have needed another fifty pages, not ten, because women are so much more complex.
At that point I interjected, somewhat petulantly, “I could write about my affairs in ten pages!” and Chris replied “Well you do that, and then I can criticize what you’ve written!” which, well, fair call. I kind of hate myself for having acted like those people who argue with speakers at events like this…
Anyhow, as it turns out, I wasn’t the only person in the crowd struggling with Chris’ take on the differences between the sexes. The next question was from a young guy (or young-sounding – he was buried in the crowd and I couldn’t see him) who was just about choking up as he said:
“The way you speak about men and women it’s like you think we are completely different creatures. Men are these simple, dumb things… and women can do no wrong. Do you… is that really what you think?”
Well, yes, as it happens, that pretty much was what Chris thought, but it’s not necessarily bad, he argued – “simplicity can be beautiful.”
I am a woman but do not contradict myself, I do not contain multitudes, I am not mysterious like the moon, at least no more so than any other human being. I don’t, generally speaking, have sex for reasons much more complex than sexual attraction. I am not in an open relationship because I accepted that men couldn’t be faithful, but because I realised, independently, aged 21, that I probably couldn’t be faithful, and definitely couldn’t be faithful and satisfied. I do know what I want, and it’s this: I want love (with one person is probably enough), friendships, and lots of sex with a variety of men I find attractive. Happily for me, I have all three.
And out of the I-don’t-even-know-how-many men I’ve slept with, there have been all types. Romantics and cynics, introspective analytical men and happy-go-lucky ones, men who sleep around a lot and men who like sex to be ‘special’, straight men and bisexual men (and possibly even one or two gay men), men who felt more for me than I did for them, and men who felt less…
Chris might be right and I might be wrong, and men and women might be more different than I suppose. But even though I know I might be kidding myself, I think I’ll keep living as though each person I meet is an individual for discovery.
At the end, because I could, I lined up to have Chris sign my book. We discussed for a moment whether ‘ultrahedonist’ should take a definite or indefinite article, I prattled a little, he was gracious, I thanked him, and then I half-tripped backwards over the bench on which the presenters’ water and wine were resting. Sometimes I have illusions/pretensions of being vaguely sophisticated, but something like that always happens to bring me back to reality. Anyhow, here – en español and everything:
* Although I don’t doubt that if you hooked my genitals up they’d respond to all kinds of stimuli…