Forget what you’ve heard about human beings having descended from the apes. We didn’t descend from apes. We are apes. Metaphorically and factually, Homo sapiens is one of the five surviving species of great apes, along with chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans (gibbons are considered a “lesser ape”). We shared a common ancestor with two of these apes—bonobos and chimps—just five million years ago. That’s “the day before yesterday” in evolutionary terms. The fine print distinguishing humans from the other great apes is regarded as “wholly artificial” by most primatologists these days.
If we’re “above” nature, it’s only in the sense that a shaky-legged surfer is “above” the ocean. Even if we never slip (and we all do), our inner nature can pull us under at any moment. Those of us raised in the West have been assured that we humans are special, unique among living things, above and beyond the world around us, exempt from the humilities and humiliations that pervade and define animal life. The natural world lies below and beneath us, a cause for shame, disgust, or alarm; something smelly and messy to be hidden behind closed doors, drawn curtains, and minty freshness. Or we overcompensate and imagine nature floating angelically in soft focus up above, innocent, noble, balanced, and wise.
Like bonobos and chimps, we are the randy descendents of hypersexual ancestors. At first blush, this may seem an overstatement, but it’s a truth that should have become common knowledge long ago. Conventional notions of monogamous, till-death-do-us-part marriage strain under the dead weight of a false narrative that insists we’re something else. What is the essence of human sexuality and how did it get to be that way? In the following pages, we’ll explain how seismic cultural shifts that began about ten thousand years ago rendered the true story of human sexuality so subversive and threatening that for centuries it has been silenced by religious authorities, pathologized by physicians, studiously ignored by scientists, and covered up by moralizing therapists.
Deep conflicts rage at the heart of modern sexuality. Our cultivated ignorance is devastating. The campaign to obscure the true nature of our species’ sexuality leaves half our marriages collapsing under an unstoppable tide of swirling sexual frustration, libido-killing boredom, impulsive betrayal, dysfunction, confusion, and shame. Serial monogamy stretches before (and behind) many of us like an archipelago of failure: isolated islands of transitory happiness in a cold, dark sea of disappointment. And how many of the couples who manage to stay together for the long haul have done so by resigning themselves to sacrificing their eroticism on the altar of three of life’s irreplaceable joys: family stability, companionship, and emotional, if not sexual, intimacy? Are those who aspire to these joys cursed by nature to preside over the slow strangulation of their partner’s libido?
The Spanish word esposas means both “wives” and “handcuffs.” In English, some men ruefully joke about the ball and chain. There’s good reason marriage is often depicted and mourned as the beginning of the end of a man’s sexual life. And women fare no better. Who wants to share her life with a man who feels trapped and diminished by his love for her, whose honor marks the limits of his freedom? Who wants to spend her life apologizing for being just one woman?
Yes, something is seriously wrong. The American Medical Association reports that some 42 percent of American women suffer from sexual dysfunction, while Viagra breaks sales records year after year. Worldwide, pornography is reported to rake in anywhere from fifty-seven to a hundred-billion-dollars annually. In the United States, it generates more revenue than CBS, NBC, and ABC combined, and more than all professional football, baseball, and basketball franchises. According to U.S. News and World Report, “Americans spend more money at strip clubs than at Broadway, off-Broadway, regional and nonprofit theaters, the opera, the ballet and jazz and classical music performances—combined.”
There’s no denying that we’re a species with a sweet tooth for sex. Meanwhile, so-called traditional marriage appears to be under assault from all sides—as it collapses from within. Even the most ardent defenders of normal sexuality buckle under its weight, as never-ending bipartisan perp-walks of politicians (Clinton, Vitter, Gingrich, Craig, Foley, Spitzer, Sanford) and religious figures (Haggard, Swaggert, Bakker) trumpet their support of family values before slinking off to private assignations with lovers, prostitutes, and interns.
Denial hasn’t worked. Hundreds of Catholic priests have confessed to thousands of sex crimes against children in the past few decades alone. In 2008, the Catholic Church paid $436 million in compensation for sexual abuse. More than a fifth of the victims were under ten years old. This we know. Dare we even imagine the suffering such crimes have caused in the seventeen centuries since a sexual life was perversely forbidden to priests in the earliest known papal decree: the Decreta and Cum in unum of Pope Siricius (c. 385)? What is the moral debt owed to the forgotten victims of this misguided rejection of basic human sexuality?
On threat of torture, in 1633, the Inquisition of the Roman Catholic Church forced Galileo to state publicly what he knew to be false: that the Earth sat immobile at the center of the universe. Three and a half centuries later, in 1992, Pope John Paul II admitted that the scientist had been right all along, but that the Inquisition had been “well-intentioned.”
Well, there’s no Inquisition like a well-intentioned Inquisition.
Like those childishly intransigent visions of an entire universe spinning around an all-important Earth, the standard narrative of prehistory offers an immediate, primitive sort of comfort. Just as pope after pope dismissed any cosmology that would remove humankind from the exalted center of the endless expanse of space, just as Darwin was (and in some crowds, still is) ridiculed for recognizing that human beings are the creation of natural laws, many scientists are blinded by their emotional resistance to any account of human sexual evolution that doesn’t revolve around the monogamous nuclear family unit.
Although we’re led to believe we live in times of sexual liberation, contemporary human sexuality throbs with obvious, painful truths that must not be spoken aloud. The conflict between what we’re told we feel and what we really feel may be the richest source of confusion, dissatisfaction, and unnecessary suffering of our time. The answers normally proffered don’t answer the questions at the heart of our erotic lives: Why are men and women so different in our desires, fantasies, responses, and sexual behavior? Why are we betraying and divorcing each other at ever increasing rates when not opting out of marriage entirely? Why the pandemic spread of single-parent families? Why does the passion evaporate from so many marriages so quickly? What causes the death of desire? Having evolved together right here on Earth, why do so many men and women resonate with the idea that we may as well be from different planets?
Oriented toward medicine and business, American society has responded to this ongoing crisis by developing a marital-industrial complex of couples therapy, pharmaceutical hard-ons, sex-advice columnists, creepy father-daughter purity cults, and an endless stream of in-box come-ons (“Unleash your LoveMonster! She’ll thank you!”). Every month, truckloads of glossy supermarket magazines offer the same old tricks to get the spark back into our moribund sex lives.
Yes, a few candles here, some crotchless panties there, toss a handful of rose petals on the bed and it’ll be just like the very first time! What’s that you say? He’s still checking out other women? She’s still got an air of detached disappointment? He’s finished before you’ve begun?
Well, then, let the experts figure out what ails you, your partner, your relationship. Perhaps his penis needs enlarging or her vagina needs a retrofit. Maybe he has “commitment issues,” a “fragmentary superego,” or the dreaded “Peter Pan complex.” Are you depressed? You say you love your spouse of a dozen years but don’t feel sexually attracted the way you used to? One or both of you are tempted by another? Maybe you two should try doing it on the kitchen floor. Or force yourself to do it every night for a year. Maybe he’s going through a midlife crisis. Take these pills. Get a new hairstyle. Something must be wrong with you.
Ever feel like the victim of a well-intentioned Inquisition?
This split-personality relationship with our true sexual nature is anything but news to entertainment corporations, who have long reflected the same fractured sensibility between public pronouncement and private desire. In 2000, under the headline “Wall Street Meets Pornography,” The New York Times reported that General Motors sold more graphic sex films than Larry Flynt, owner of the Hustler empire. Over eight million American subscribers to DirecTV, a General Motors subsidiary, were spending about $200 million a year on pay-per-view sex films from satellite providers. Similarly, Rupert Murdoch, owner of the Fox News Network and the nation’s leading conservative newspaper, The Wall Street Journal, was pulling in more porn money through a satellite company than Playboy made with its magazine, cable, and Internet businesses combined. AT&T, also a supporter of conservative values, sells hard-core porn to over a million hotel rooms throughout the country via its Hot Network.
The frantic sexual hypocrisy in America is inexplicable if we adhere to traditional models of human sexuality insisting that monogamy is natural, marriage is a human universal, and any family structure other than the nuclear is aberrant. We need a new understanding of ourselves, based not on pulpit proclamations or feel-good Hollywood fantasies, but on a bold and unashamed assessment of the plentiful scientific data that illuminate the true origins and nature of human sexuality.
We are at war with our eroticism. We battle our hungers, expectations, and disappointments. Religion, politics, and even science square off against biology and millions of years of evolved appetites. How to defuse this intractable struggle?
In the following pages, we reassess some of the most important science of our time. We question the deepest assumptions brought to contemporary views of marriage, family structure, and sexuality—issues affecting each of us every day and every night.
We’ll show that human beings evolved in intimate groups where almost everything was shared—food, shelter, protection, child care, even sexual pleasure. We don’t argue that humans are natural-born Marxist hippies. Nor do we hold that romantic love was unknown or unimportant in prehistoric communities. But we’ll demonstrate that contemporary culture misrepresents the link between love and sex. With and without love, a casual sexuality was the norm for our prehistoric ancestors.
Let’s address the question you’re probably already asking: how we can possibly know anything about sex in prehistory? Nobody alive today was there to witness prehistoric life, and since social behavior leaves no fossils, isn’t this all just wild speculation?
Not quite. There’s an old story about the trial of a man charged with biting off another man’s finger in a fight. An eyewitness took the stand. The defense attorney asked, “Did you actually see my client bite off the finger?” The witness said, “Well, no, I didn’t.” “Aha!” said the attorney with a smug smile. “How then can you claim he bit off the man’s finger?” “Well,” replied the witness, “I saw him spit it out.”
In addition to a great deal of circumstantial evidence from societies around the world and closely related nonhuman primates, we’ll take a look at some of what evolution has spit out. We’ll examine the anatomical evidence still evident in our bodies and the yearning for sexual novelty expressed in our pornography, advertising, and after-work happy hours. We’ll even decode messages in the so-called “copulatory vocalizations” of thy neighbor’s wife as she calls out ecstatically in the still of night.
Readers familiar with the recent literature on human sexuality will be familiar with what we call the standard narrative of human sexual evolution (hereafter shortened to “the standard narrative”). It goes something like this:
1. Boy meets girl.
2. Boy and girl assess one another’s mate value from perspectives based upon their differing reproductive agendas/capacities:
a) He looks for signs of youth, fertility, health, absence of previous sexual experience, and likelihood of future sexual fidelity. In other words, his assessment is skewed toward finding a fertile, healthy young mate with many childbearing years ahead and no current children to drain his resources.
b) She looks for signs of wealth (or at least prospects of future wealth), social status, physical health, and likelihood that he will stick around to protect and provide for their children. Her guy must be willing and able to provide materially for her (especially during pregnancy and breastfeeding) and their children (known as male parental investment).
3. Boy gets girl: assuming they meet one another’s criteria, they “mate,” forming a long-term pair bond—the “fundamental condition of the human species,” as famed author Desmond Morris put it. Once the pair bond is formed:
a) She will be sensitive to indications that he is considering leaving (vigilant toward signs of infidelity involving intimacy with other women that would threaten her access to his resources and protection)—while keeping an eye out (around ovulation, especially) for a quick fling with a man genetically superior to her husband.
b) He will be sensitive to signs of her sexual infidelities (which would reduce his all-important paternity certainty)—while taking advantage of short-term sexual opportunities with other women (as his sperm are easily produced and plentiful).
Researchers claim to have confirmed these basic patterns in studies conducted around the world over several decades. Their results seem to support the standard narrative of human sexual evolution, which appears to make a lot of sense. But they don’t, and it doesn’t.
While we don’t dispute that these patterns play out in many parts of the modern world, we don’t see them as elements of human nature so much as adaptations to social conditions—many of which were introduced with the advent of agriculture no more than ten thousand years ago. These behaviors and predilections are not biologically programmed traits of our species; they are evidence of the human brain’s flexibility and the creative potential of community.
To take just one example, we argue that women’s seemingly consistent preference for men with access to wealth is not a result of innate evolutionary programming, as the standard model asserts, but simply a behavioral adaptation to a world in which men control a disproportionate share of the world’s resources. As we’ll explore in detail, before the advent of agriculture a hundred centuries ago, women typically had as much access to food, protection, and social support as did men. We’ll see that upheavals in human societies resulting from the shift to settled living in agricultural communities brought radical changes to women’s ability to survive. Suddenly, women lived in a world where they had to barter their reproductive capacity for access to the resources and protection they needed to survive. But these conditions are very different from those in which our species had been evolving previously.
It’s important to keep in mind that when viewed against the full scale of our species’ existence, ten thousand years is but a brief moment. Even if we ignore the roughly two million years since the emergence of our Homo lineage, in which our direct ancestors lived in small foraging social groups, anatomically modern humans are estimated to have existed for about 200,000 years. With the earliest evidence of agriculture dating to about 8000 BCE, the amount of time our species has spent living in settled agricultural societies represents just 5 percent of our collective experience, at most. As recently as a few hundred years ago, most of the planet was still occupied by foragers.
So in order to trace the deepest roots of human sexuality, it’s vital to look beneath the thin crust of relatively recent human history. Until agriculture, human beings evolved in societies organized around an insistence on sharing just about everything. But all this sharing doesn’t make anyone a noble savage. These pre-agricultural societies were no nobler than you are when you pay your taxes or insurance premiums. Universal, culturally imposed sharing was simply the most effective way for our highly social species to minimize risk. Sharing and self-interest, as we shall see, are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, what many anthropologists call fierce egalitarianism was the predominant pattern of social organization around the world for many millennia before the advent of agriculture.
But human societies changed in radical ways once they started farming and raising domesticated animals. They organized themselves around hierarchical political structures, private property, densely populated settlements, a radical shift in the status of women, and other social configurations that together represent an enigmatic disaster for our species: human population growth mushroomed as quality of life plummeted. The shift to agriculture, wrote author Jared Diamond, is a “catastrophe from which we have never recovered.”
Several types of evidence suggest our pre-agricultural (prehistoric) ancestors lived in groups where most mature individuals would have had several ongoing sexual relationships at any given time. Though often casual, these relationships were not random or meaningless. Quite the opposite: they reinforced crucial social ties holding these highly interdependent communities together.
We’ve found overwhelming evidence of a decidedly casual, friendly prehistory of human sexuality echoed in our own bodies, in the habits of remaining societies still lingering in relative isolation, and in some surprising corners of contemporary Western culture. We’ll show how our bedroom behavior, porn preferences, fantasies, dreams, and sexual responses all support this reconfigured understanding of our sexual origins. Questions you’ll find answered in the following pages include:
- Why is long-term sexual fidelity so difficult for so many couples?
- Why does sexual passion often fade, even as love deepens?
- Why are women potentially multi-orgasmic, while men all too often reach orgasm frustratingly quickly and then lose interest?
- Is sexual jealousy an unavoidable, uncontrollable part of human nature?
- Why are human testicles so much larger than those of gorillas but smaller than those of chimps?
- Can sexual frustration make us sick? How did a lack of orgasms cause one of the most common diseases in history, and how was it treated?