Hardcore Zen: Sex At Dawn
Nov 2010 01

Hardcore Zen: Sex At Dawn

Posted In Blog,Books,Entertainment,Love,Relationships,Sex,Society

by Brad Warner

Everybody’s talking about this new book on sex. According to Dan Savage it’s “the single most important book on human sexuality since Kinsey unleashed Sexual Behavior of the Human Male on the American public in 1948.” That’s pretty strong praise. And I’m a fan of Dan Savage so when I was in New York a couple weeks ago I bought myself a copy of Sex At Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha. And while it’s very good, I’m not sure it’s quite as massive as they’re all saying.

The basic premise of the book can be stated pretty simply. The authors contend that the story we’ve all been told that human beings are by nature monogamous or pair-bonding creatures is wrong. The evidence they’ve collected leads them to conclude human beings evolved as sluts and playboys, that our bodies tell the story of animals designed by nature to have as much sex as possible with as many partners as we can lure into our caves. This, they contend, explains why monogamy is such a difficult thing to accomplish. It clarifies why marriage has always been protected by the threat of dire punishment even death, and why so many people chose to risk everything just for a little piece on the side.

I have to say that I find most of their arguments highly plausible and convincing. Their writing style, on the other hand, I find somewhat annoying and overly defensive, though often very funny. I think I’m getting a taste of how some readers feel about my writing style!

I can understand why they’d be so defensive. What they’re saying is bound to be controversial. In the past, people who suggested that monogamy might not be the best possible way of life have been killed just for voicing their opinions. But we live in different times. I’m not sure they need to be quite so self-protective. Then again, this book came out through a major publisher and is aimed at the mass market so maybe it will get a big backlash from right wing types.

One of the things the authors do that gets very tiring after a while is the way they keep assuring us that their descriptions of all the sexy fun our primitive ancestors supposedly had – and that the few remaining hunter-gatherer people still have – doesn’t mean they think those people were/are living in a hassle-free utopia. They make this qualification over and over again while simultaneously insisting that everything was better before humans invented agriculture and fucked everything up forever. The authors contend that hunter-gatherers live longer, healthier lives than we do, free from stress and strain and war, working only a few hours a week to gather plentiful and easy to find food while enjoying tons of leisure time and mountains of guilt-free hot sex with whoever they feel like fucking. After we discovered farming, they say, we invented the concept of private property, which extended to our sexual partners and then everything went to hell. But the state we had before that wasn’t utopia. OK. Tell us why, then.

At least that’s the impression I got. But I wonder how much better off our ancestors really were. Would we have actually come up with the idea of farming if there really was no clear advantage to it? And those hunter-gatherer societies, are they really that wonderful? The authors never present any evidence to the contrary though they take great delight at poking merciless fun at any author who presents a view they feel is one-sided. It feels a bit hypocritical after the seventeenth or eighteenth time.

Still, these are comparatively minor criticisms of what is otherwise a very good book. And even this annoying stuff is at least entertaining. This is never a boring book and that’s saying a lot since most books I read lately bore the crap out of me so thoroughly that I never even finish them.

It’s not until the final chapter that the authors really start saying what I think actually most needs saying. “Having written a whole book about sex, we’d like to confusingly suggest that most of us take sex way too seriously,” they write. “When it’s just sex, that’s all it is. In such cases it’s not love. Or sin. Or pathology. Or a good reason to destroy an otherwise happy family.”

Great stuff. And, by the way, it’s the same stuff I say in my own new book Sex, Sin, and Zen: A Buddhist Exploration of Sex from Celibacy to Polyamory and Everything in Between. I know it’s cheesy to compare their book to mine. But I never said I was above such things and I think the comparison may be useful.

While most Buddhists I’ve met who’ve read my new book have been very supportive, I’ve also been lumped in with what some call “teachers of anything goes, feel good philosophies that tell you that whatever you’re doing is OK no matter how self destructive it is.” In my book I talk openly about pornography, BDSM, polyamory and a bunch of other subjects that more conservative types in the Buddhist world find distressing.

But as the authors of Sex At Dawn say, “a reasonable relaxation of moralistic social codes making sexual satisfaction more easily available” would be of great use in our contemporary society. They go on to observe (as I also do in my book, just FYI) that, “This appears to be the overall trajectory of history,” which, they say, “appears to be flowing back toward a hunter-gatherer casualness” what with all the hooking up and sexting and legal recognition of the rights of populations previously considered to be dangerously deviant in their sexual ways.

I agree completely. I feel like a lot of people who get into Buddhism in the West are deeply confused about its fundamental attitude. They see Buddhism as a religion. And when you’re dealing with a religion, you’re dealing with social and moral codes dating back thousands of years. The ideal in most religions appears to be trying to live the kind of life people did at the time those religions were founded. Some religions are very open about this and state it directly, while others have the same view but tend to try and hide it. But it seems to be a pretty universal part of the Abrahamic traditions and also quite prevalent in certain forms of Hinduism and a few other Eastern religions.

Buddhism is completely different. What worked in Buddha’s time doesn’t always work in ours. And Buddha even said this would be so when he was alive. That doesn’t mean I think “everything is OK no matter how self destructive it is” as my critics have alleged. It’s just that what is actually self destructive in terms of sexual behavior can and does change over time and according to culture. In terms of Buddhism there really are fundamental truths that do not change over time. But the particular ways those truths manifest themselves can change. And that’s confusing to people who want things spelled out to them very literally.

It’s not that everything is OK. But at the same time very few things are held up as universally not OK. The third Buddhist precept says, “Do not misuse sexuality.” In the ancient past what was considered a misuse of sexuality in Buddhism was spelled out in often ridiculous detail. Later Buddhists did away with those specifics and left the precept deliberately vague. This was not an oversight. It’s up to each person to come to terms for her or himself what is a misuse of sexuality.

This is why I think that Buddhism could be a very good way to cure some of the evils that have been wrought by our other religions. As Buddhists we are not forced to choose between the demands of the spirit and the demands of the flesh. We’re not asked to deny our desires. That’s a common misunderstanding. We’re asked to see them for what they really are, and, in doing so, come to understand clearly which of our desires ought to be satisfied and which ones ought not to be. There is no notion in Buddhism that the spirit is loftier than the body. Both are equal. They are manifestations of an underlying reality that is neither matter nor spirit but includes and goes beyond both. And there’s also no concept of sin – either sexual or otherwise – in Buddhism.

Like most Westerners, the authors of Sex At Dawn seem completely unaware of Buddhism. And, oddly, they also seem completely unaware of Japanese culture whose Buddhist-informed views of sexuality are very different from our own. Yet the Japanese are as far removed from hunter-gatherer roots as we are. Maybe they should study Japan’s sex culture since it might be more relevant than studying the sex lives of people whose entire societies are so completely different from ours.

And so my verdict on Sex At Dawn is that it’s a very good read and a very important book. I highly recommend it. It goes a long way toward providing a reasonable explanation for the way human beings really are sexually. It doesn’t say much as to how we ought to deal with this information. But that’s not really its purpose.

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Sex At Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha is available from Amazon.com.

Brad Warner is the author of Sex, Sin and Zen as well as Hardcore Zen, Sit Down and Shut Up! and Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate. He maintains blog about Buddhist stuff that you can click here to see.

Buy the new CD by his band Zero Defex at CD Baby now!