1. After Sex at Dawn came out, we started receiving emails from women readers saying something along the lines of, “Loved the book, except for that last part, where your focus on ‘Phil’ seemed to contradict everything you’d been saying about women’s sexuality and rights.” Good point. So, in addition to writing back to those women, we convinced our publisher to let us add a Note to the Reader that will appear in the paperback. This is the note we added:
This section, centered around “philandering Phil” struck some readers of previous editions of this book as imbalanced, in light of the importance of sexual satisfaction for both women and men. "Why only talk about an affair from a man’s perspective," we've been asked, “when the rest of your book is so balanced and supportive of women’s sexuality?” That's a fair and direct question for which we can offer only unfair and indirect answers.
First, many men report that they had affairs simply because opportunities arose, while women—for whom such opportunities tend to be more plentiful—generally report a more complex confluence of motivations. For example, when Shirley Glass and Thomas White anonymously interviewed 300 men and women about their extramarital affairs, they found that men tended to see their affairs as more sexual, while women were motivated more by emotional considerations and reported greater levels of dissatisfaction with their marriages. These findings have been echoed repeatedly in other research.
Secondly, as we’ve discussed in previous chapters, women’s libidinous motivations tend to be far more fluid, and thus are more difficult to quantify or discuss adequately. Recall that women are more likely to engage in extra-marital sex when they’re ovulating, for example, and are less likely to use birth control than at other points in their menstrual cycle. A woman in her 40s may well approach a “friends with benefits” situation completely differently than she would have two decades earlier, for reasons relating both to hormonal levels and life experience.
In addition to these internal factors, women tend to be more responsive to external conditions (Are the kids grown and out of the house? Is she financially independent? What would her friends and family say? Does she suspect that he’s having an affair?). Men—even highly intelligent, otherwise cautious and calculating men—often blunder into these situations blinded by something that doesn’t seem to render women quite so helpless.
Of course, none of these statements are definitive or universal. Whatever generalizations we make about motivations will be belied by many exceptions among both men and women. Every person is an ever-changing world and every relationship a universe. Nothing we say here is meant to simplify or minimize anyone's experience, male or female.
Our purpose is merely to briefly explore how some of the theories we've discussed play out in many modern lives by looking at the scenario married couples confront most frequently: the middle-aged man who strays. A similar assessment of women's motivations and experiences of extra-marital affairs would require far more space than we have.
Finally, we actually know "Phil," who was willing to discuss his experiences with us. If we know any women who are having affairs as we write this, they've chosen not to share their secret with us, perhaps wisely.
In addition to the note above, the paperback contains this extended conversation with Dan Savage:
The following is a heavily edited extract based on two Savage Love podcasts recorded with Dan Savage in 2010 and an unpublished conversation. The full, unedited, raunchy, NSFW podcast recordings can be found (free) at the iTunes store or at www.thestranger.com. Episode 194 was broadcast on July 6th, and episode 210 on October 27th. Dan Savage is the best-known sex advice columnist in the United States. His podcast and syndicated column reach millions of readers weekly.
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DS: You know how every once in a while you see a movie or you read a book or an article in a magazine—or perhaps some advice in an advice column—and you think, “Oh my god, I’m not crazy!”? I’ve just had that experience reading your book. I don’t know how to start this interview with you but by gushing. I understand that you’re married to a woman but, where have you been all my life?
CPR: (laughing) I’ve been trying to get your attention for the past couple of years!
DS: I’ve been reading your book and screaming and yelling and jumping up and down. I feel so vindicated by the research that you guys have done because for years, I’ve been pointing out just from observation and anecdotal evidence that monogamy is hard, doesn’t work, and makes people kind of miserable. And yet we’re told it should come easily and naturally when we’re in love, that a monogamous commitment is effortless where there’s love. And you guys have demonstrated that this is simply not true.
CPR: That’s our conclusion.
DS: What inspired you to write this book, to paint this bull’s eye on your backs? Because you are going to get criticized from all sides.
CPR: I guess what got me into this line of thinking initially was the Clinton/Lewinsky situation. I was thinking, how is it possible that if men have had all the power—political, economic, even physical power—since the beginning of time, how is it that the most powerful man in the world is being publicly humiliated for having a consensual sexual relationship with someone? It just didn’t make sense. So that led me to investigate evolutionary psychology. For the first year or so, I had the passion of the convert. I thought it explained everything. Luckily, at the time, I was living in San Francisco, working for a non-profit organization called Women in Community Service. I was one of the only men working there. Consequently, I had lots of very intelligent, outspoken women around me who helped me see that the depiction of female sexuality that is fundamental to evolutionary psychology really doesn’t make much sense at all.
DS: And what is the picture painted of female sexuality? You say in the book that “women are whores.” That’s what they’re telling us.
CPR: WE don’t say that! We half-jokingly say that Darwin says women are whores, in that they supposedly trade sex for stuff: protection, food, status, and so on, according to the conventional Darwinian view. We argue that women aren’t whores by nature; they’re sluts … and we mean that as a compliment! In other words, women evolved to have sex for the same reasons men do—because they like it. It feels good. Not because they’re trying to get something from men.
DS: There’s stuff in this book that will make people’s heads explode, like the concept of partible paternity. Instead of women trading sexual exclusivity and the assurance of paternity to men, that what was actually going on was that women may have been fucking as many men as possible so all the men in the group could believe that the kid could be theirs.
CPR: Right. This is something that Sarah Hrdy writes about in several of her books on alloparenting. She explains that it’s actually better for that child if lots of adults feel they have a direct connection to the child.
DS: You guys argue that this was the natural order of things, sort of a polyamorous, all for one and one for all, sex culture. So, if monogamy wasn’t our natural state, and now it’s an “ill-fitting garment,” and so on, now what?
CPR: Well, this is a book about how we are and how we got to be this way, but it’s not about what anyone should do about it.
DS: Yes, but don’t you think it will help people just to know the reason that they’re falling short? That they’re not doing anything wrong, necessarily? That it’s their inner nature, their inner bonobo? These ideals our culture has created about monogamy and faithfulness and fidelity are nice, but they’re not very functional and our own libidos and reptile brains are at war with them.
CPR: Exactly. People often say to us, “But we’re human beings. We can choose how to behave.” That’s true, to a certain extent, but our bodies rebel against decisions that go against our evolved nature. You can choose to wear shoes that are too small, but you can’t choose to be comfortable in them. You can choose to wear a corset, but you may well pass out because you can’t breathe properly… The human body and mind have evolved for a certain kind of life. The further we diverge from that path, the greater the cost, in terms of mental, emotional, and physical health. There’s just no getting away from this. We examine all this in greater detail in our next book.
Getting back to your earlier question, “Now what?”, the ambition we have for this book is humble, but important, I think. We hope it encourages and empowers people to give themselves a break, to cut themselves and their partners some slack. It actually promotes family stability to not be so rigid concerning fidelity. A zero tolerance policy doesn’t help anyone.
DS: I’m constantly arguing that! If we’re interested in preserving marriages and keeping families intact, we need to be less psychotic about never seeing anyone else naked ever again once we’re married. If we make certain allowances, the marriage is more likely to survive over the long run. If the only way you can ever have sex with anyone else is to end the marriage, many people will end or sabotage the marriage.
CPR: Well put.
DS: OK, let’s talk about how the book’s been received so far. I’ve seen some negative reaction concerning jealousy and love. What do you say to people who say this vision of prehistory can’t possibly be right, cause we’re “by nature” possessive about love.
CPR: Well, I generally avoid making sweeping statements about these issues, but I’ll give it a shot for you, Dan. Cacilda and I believe that real love isn’t primarily about sex. If you’re lucky enough to find love in your life, you quickly realize how relatively unimportant sex is. Love is about a lot of unerotic things: getting old together, taking care of each other when we’re sick or grieving, raising a child together, paying the bills … sharing the dailyness of life. It’s not primarily about orgasms. So many people confuse these things. They mistake good sexual chemistry for soulmating, for a reason to sign up for a life together. Then, a few years later, when the chemical thrill has dissipated—as it does—they find they’ve made a horrible mistake. So, even though our book is largely about sex, one of the central points we wanted to make is that most of us take sex way too seriously. We need to chill out. Like music, sex can be sacred, but doesn’t always have to be. Sometimes we hear God in a Bach toccata, but sometimes we’re just dancing and having a good time listening to the Rolling Stones. Nothing sacred about it.
DS: You heard it here first, folks! Other than those quibblers, how’s the book been received so far?
CPR: To be honest, we’re surprised and thrilled at the reception. Of course, I’ve got a Google alert set to the title, so I see most of the blog discussions, reviews on Amazon.com and GoodReads, etc. Overall, people seem to be very positive about the book. Much more than we’d expected. We figured we’d get about 50% hate mail and 50% non-hate mail, but probably 90% of the people who’ve written to us have been very, very kind in their comments. Some of the emails are heartbreaking. A lot of them along the lines of, “Damn, I wish I’d known all this when I was young!” One I’ll never forget said, simply, “I’m a 63 year-old widow and I consider this one of the most important books I’ve ever read. I wish I could live my life over with this information.” We get a lot of messages that relate to what you said earlier, about how people feel better when they can understand why they feel as they do. Why they can honestly love their partner but still feel attracted to other people. Seriously, the response from readers has been mind-blowing.
DS: But surely not ALL positive.
CPR: No, and maybe this is still the calm before the storm. There hasn’t been much negative response from the academic community—at least not the evolutionary psychology crowd we critique in our book: Pinker, Buss, Chagnon, and those guys.
We’ve received lovely messages from people like Frans de Waal and Sarah Hrdy—certainly two of the most prominent authorities in the evolution of human sexuality—although they don’t necessarily agree with everything we wrote. On the other hand, Alan Dixson, a prominent primatologist we quote extensively, trashed us in an interview he gave to a paper in New Zealand, but he admitted he hadn’t read the book, he was just responding to what he’d heard about it. That’s been sort of typical of the most negative critical responses so far. They admit they haven’t read Sex at Dawn, but they dismiss it anyway. Megan McArdle, the business and economics editor at The Atlantic wrote what is probably the most negative review to date, and she openly admitted she was only half-way through the book when she wrote it.
DS: I saw that! “Humans aren’t like bonobos because we’re not like bonobos!”
CPR: Right. Rock-solid logic there, no? She apparently felt so threatened by the book that she couldn’t think straight. I mean, she accused us of leaving out any discussion of jealousy, as it didn’t fit our model, somehow missing Chapter 10, which is called: “Jealousy, A Beginner’s Guide to Coveting Thy Neighbor’s Spouse.”
But as I said, the negative response has been much less than we were expecting, and is understandable; lots of people feel threatened by the arguments we’ve made.
We’ve received lots of support from academics and clinicians. We’ve heard from scholars at the Kinsey Institute, professors all over the country who are assigning the book to their students, and we were honored when Sex at Dawn was chosen as the best consumer book of 2010 by the Society for Sex Therapy and Research (SSTAR).
DS: I’m so sorry Cacilda couldn’t join you on this trip. What was her role in the book?
CPR: Cacilda is one of two psychiatrists who run a psychiatric facility with close to a hundred patients. So she’s pretty tied to her day job these days, much as she’d love to participate more in interviews and meet readers. Strangely, a few people have interpreted her non-presence in interviews as evidence that I made her up just to give the book some cover with women readers. Seriously!
I’d done a lot of this research before meeting Casi, about ten years ago. Still, what she brought to the book was crucial. First, she’d done her own research into human sexual behavior in rural Mozambique for the World Health Organization in the first years of the AIDS crisis, so she had extensive “real life” understanding of how things work in that part of the world. She grew up in a mixed Muslim/Hindu Indian family in Africa, so she brought a lot of multi-cultural nuance to the project, and of course, being a medical doctor, she was integral to the discussions of diet, longevity, infant care, and so on. Portuguese is her native language, and English is actually one of six that she speaks. As the native English speaker and professional writer, I did the writing, but she read every draft, again and again, before it went to anyone else. To call her anything other than a co-author would be inadequate.
DS: You’ve lived in Spain for a long time. Have you seen any major differences in the way Americans and Spanish deal with sex?
CPR: Oh yeah. In fact, that may be why I’ve lived in Spain for so long! Despite the history of Catholicism as the “official religion,” urban Spanish people, at least, are far less conflicted about sex than the typical American. One of the first things that struck me was how openly and unashamedly Spanish people flirt. I’m not, and never have been, a particularly great-looking guy, but after a few weeks walking around in Barcelona, I felt like Brad Pitt! It’s not sleazy or even necessarily sexual, but women look in your eyes and, if they like what they see, they smile. So simple. There’s not that fear and suspicion of strangers one finds so often in American cities, where eye contact is to be avoided at all costs. In the U.S., there seems to be an assumption that any man you don’t know could very well be a rapist/pervert/murderer or creep of some sort. I’m not blaming women for having that fear, of course, but it’s pretty depressing for men and women. In Barcelona, you can walk down the street and be smiled at by three or four lovely women per block. It sure makes walking a lot more fun!
Cacilda gets the same sort of ego-boosts all the time. (But she is particularly beautiful, so it’s less surprising.) Nothing sleazy, mind you, but just guys who say things like, “Hi. I just wanted to introduce myself and ask if you’d like to have a drink sometime. You’re really lovely.” There’s an innocence around flirting here that’s been lost in the States. It’s a shame, as it’s very much a win-win situation that dramatically improves quality of life for everyone involved.
DS: What was the most surprising thing you learned while working on Sex at Dawn?
CPR: So many things come to mind, but probably the most mind-blowing was the information about the first “key parties” having been started by elite WWII pilots who were facing very high fatality rates, the highest in the whole military. It was so moving to think about what motivated them to open their marriages with other couples. They were cultivating these webs of love, or at least real affection, because they knew that some of the men wouldn’t survive the war, and they wanted the widows to have as much support and love as possible. This confluence of selflessness and sexuality seemed to connect so directly to the hunter-gatherer groups, where men also have a high mortality rate from hunting accidents, falls, animal attacks, and so on. It was an unexpected, yet very clear reflection of the distant past.
DS: Has the experience of publishing this book changed you in any way?
CPR: Interesting question. It has. It’s made me much less critical of other people’s books. I don’t think I could write a negative review at this point. When I was younger, it was easy to point out the flaws in books, but at this point, I’m much more aware that there’s a person on the other side who did their best. If I were writing Sex at Dawn again, I’d probably tone down some of the snarkier bits.
I’m also more aware of just how impossible it is to please everyone. We’ve been incredibly fortunate in the response to this book, but still, for every nine comments we get congratulating us for writing the book with humor, we’ll get one or two describing the writing style as “sophomoric” or “unserious.” Some people think serious issues can only be discussed in serious tones. It’s interesting to have become a public figure, even in the very limited way I’m experiencing it. People have the right to their responses to your work, positive or negative. I’ve learned not to take it personally, in either case.
2. Sometimes people ask how we managed to write a book together without killing each other, or why the voice sounds like mine and not much like Cacilda’s. Here’s an explanation that was included in the original manuscript, but which our editor thought was superfluous.
Over the years, like many couples, Cacilda and I have settled into a comfortable division of labor. I clean the cat boxes, take out the garbage, and do the writing. Cacilda does everything else.
As you might imagine, I'm not eager to renegotiate our deal.
But at a certain point pretty early on, it became clear to me that there was no way I could claim to be the only author of this book. The realization hit me one night when I was lying awake trying to think of how I could adequately acknowledge Cacilda's contribution to my book. No matter how purple the prose I imagined, how cheesy the heartfelt thanks I envisioned, nothing conveyed an honest and honorable acknowledgement of the insight, patience, experience, and care my best friend, colleague, and wife had contributed to transforming this from a collection of half-considered ideas to the book you hold in your hands. It was then that I finally remembered what a wiser man would never have forgotten: sitting in front of a computer day after day is only the most obvious part of creating a book. Coming home from a long day working with troubled patients and their families, Cacilda spent countless evenings carefully reading, rereading, and reading again drafts of the same chapters again and again (in her sixth language, no less), offering smart advice and gentle correction, questioning questionable conclusions, and providing often-unwarranted encouragement. Without her participation, this would be much less of a book – if a book at all.
So, for better or worse, the voice you hear in these pages is mine, as are any mistakes of fact and judgment, tone and organization. But whatever is worthwhile in these pages comes from us both and was born, as most worthwhile things are, in loving collaboration.
- Sex at Dawn
- Persian Edition
- NSFW Reader Photos