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February 18, 2013

Why I LoveSex at Dawn, Volume 2




The Authors, a Couple of Goddam Gibbons: Who’d Ja Rather?



Last time out, I introduced you to my latest literary crush, Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha. I reveled in the authors’ reinforcement of several of my long-cherished beliefs, notably:

* that orgasming a lot, no matter how old and grody you may get and regardless of your choice of muse (i.e., live or cinematic or robotic, or some combination thereof) is a many splendored thing;

* that sexual possessiveness and jealousy are unnatural constructs imposed on our modern psyches by that prehistoric Dumb and Dumber combo Agriculture and Land Ownership;

* that lifelong, monogamous pair-bonding was, and is, a really, really icky idea; and

* that the most natural and relaxing form of intercourse for humans—as it is for chimpanzees and bonobos—is the female-initiated gang-bang that frees each male participant from the burden of single-handedly satisfying the hostess.

All well and good, and if you’re like me, just basic stuff that you’ve taken for granted for years. Well, except for maybe the female-initiated gang-bang thing: have to admit, that one kind of snuck up on me. But authors Ryan and Jetha did not simply intuit these conclusions: they nailed them down with research.

How, then, did they prove scientifically that humans are essentially non-monogamous creatures, other than by locking eyes and gasping at the instantaneous recognition of a shared urge and stripping naked and licking each other’s taut, pliant bodies and EXPLORING EACH OTHER’S EVERY ORIFICE AND THEN GRABBING ANY WILLING PASSERS-BY BE THEY HUMAN OR SIMIAN OR EVEN VAMPIRE-BATTIAN AND DRAWING THEM INTO THEIR EVER-EXPANDING WEB OF HOT LICKITY-SUCKITY-MUTUAL-ORIFICE-EXPLORATORY PASSION?

Sorry about that.

But, really, just take a look at that promo pic of the authors up top there, and tell me when you last saw a pair of anthropologists this smoldering, and tell me if you don’t imagine some heavy hand action going on just below the crop. Claude Lévi-Strauss and Margaret Mead they ain’t! Hard to believe that not a few late-night skull sessions dedicated to, say, how best to write up the manner in which female orgasms provoke changes in vaginal acidity didn’t devolve into, at the very least, some vigorous dry-humping and ululating.*

But I digress. How did they prove the non-monogamous nature of the human beast? Well, by seeking out examples of societies yet untainted by the blight of Agriculture—some human, some not quite so—and observing how folks in those pre-Fall-of-Man environments conduct their business, poontang-wise. If it’s not too late, I’d like to be the first to call such idyllic societies “SILFs,” and here are a few of my faves.


The Matis of western Brazil

The Matis are one of a number of small indigenous groups cited by the authors as examples of people who subscribe to the notion of “partible paternity”—that is, that it may require semen from a number of males to jump-start a fetus and keep it humming toward full-fledged baby-hood. In short, Heather may have two daddies in the very literal sense—or eleventy-seven daddies, for that matter, if Mom was a cheerleader. All these semen contributors then feel, the authors aver, a share of responsibility for the resulting child:

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.

Specific to the Matis, the authors quote anthropologist Philippe Erikson:

"Extramarital sex is not only widely practiced and usually tolerated, in many respects, it also appears mandatory. Married or not, one has a moral duty to respond to the sexual advances of opposite-sex cross-cousins (real or classificatory), under pains of being labeled ‘stingy of one’s genitals,’ a breach of Matis ethics far more serious than plain infidelity.” …

Being labeled a sexual cheapskate is no laughing matter, apparently. Erikson writes of one young man who cowered in the anthropologist’s hut for hours, hiding from his horny cousin, whose advances he couldn’t legitimately reject if she tracked him down.


Okay, so the ancient life wasn’t all roses and margaritas. Occasionally, there was obligatory ugly-cousin sex and, one supposes (shudder) occasional aunt-sex as well. P.G. Wodehouse never could have survived in an aunt-o-sexual society, and I must confess that I would have struggled with that duty as well.

Even more serious, during Matis tattooing festivals, having sex with one’s customary partner(s) is expressly forbidden—under threat of extreme punishment, even death.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Matis. Ya gotta love ‘em. I mean, literally, you’ve got to love them.


The Tahitians (of Tahiti, one supposes)

Dorothy Parker once showed up at a party and noticed a group of well-lubricated guests dipping their faces into a tub of water. When the host explained to her that they were ducking for apples, she muttered, “There, but for a typographical error, is the story of my life.”

While I doubt that Dorothy ever actually gave up the goods for a piece of fruit, her bouts of low self-esteem notwithstanding, it would have been as apt an exchange of goods for services as that practiced by Tahitian women of the eighteenth century, as reported by European explorers:

Samuel Wallis, [a] ship captain who spent time in Tahiti, reported, “The women in General are very handsome, some really great Beauties, yet their Virtue was not proof against a Nail.” The Tahitians’ fascination with iron resulted in a de-facto exchange of a single nail for a sexual tryst with a local woman. By the time Wallis set sail, most of his men were sleeping on deck, as there were no nails left from which to hang their hammocks.


The Marind-anim of Melanesia

Quoting anthropologist Robert Edgerton:

“Semen was essential to human growth and development. They also married quite young, and to assure the bride’s fertility, she had to be filled with semen. On her wedding night, therefore, as many as ten members of her husband’s lineage had sexual intercourse with the bride, and if there were more men than this in the lineage, they had intercourse with her the next night… A similar ritual was repeated at various intervals throughout a woman’s life.”

Sure, because…why not?


The Kulina of Amazonia

The women carry out a pre-hunting ritual called the “order to get meat,” in which they go in a group from house to house and implore the menfolk to go out and bring home the bacon, as it were. At each man’s home, one or two women (though never the man’s wife, as that would be bad form, not to mention boring) step forward to promise sexual favors in exchange for protein.

At the end of the day the men return in a group to the village, where the adult women form a large semicircle and sing erotically provocative songs to the men, asking for their ‘meat.’ The men drop their catch in a large pile in the middle of the semicircle, often hurling it down with dramatic gestures and smug smiles… After cooking the meat and eating, each woman retires with the man whom she selected as her partner for the sexual tryst. Kulina engage in this ritual with great humor and perform it regularly.

I hope the reader will not be too disillusioned to learn that the game is rigged. Before returning to the village, the men rendezvous to share the day’s kill so that no one goes home empty-handed.


The Vampire Bats of Wherever They Want to Be

So you see, non-agricultural peoples have found the sharing of themselves not just loads of fun, but also an effective way to maintain a peaceful society to boot. To drive home the point:

This sharing-based social life is far from uniquely human. For example, vampire bats in Central America feed on the blood of large mammals. But not every bat finds a meal each night. When they return to their dens, those bats who have had a good night regurgitate blood into the mouths of bats who have not had as much luck. Recipients of such largess are likely to return the favor when the conditions have reversed themselves, but are less likely to give blood to bats who have denied them in the past.



We hope the thought of vampire bats coughing up (coughing down?) blood for their non-blood relatives is graphic enough to convince you that sharing isn’t innately “noble.” Some species, in some conditions, have simply found that generosity is the best way to reduce risk in an uncertain ecological context. Homo sapiens appears to have been such a species until relatively recent times.


World War II Top Gun Pilots and Spouses

According to journalist Terry Gould, “key parties”…originated on these military bases in the 1940s, where elite pilots and their wives intermingled sexually with one another before the men flew off toward Japanese antiaircraft fire…

Joan and Dwight Dixon explained to Gould that these warriors and their wives “shared each other as a kind of tribal bonding ritual, with the tacit understanding that the two thirds of husbands who survived would look after the widows.”



The Mosuo, Lugu Lake district, southern China

The Mosuo…oh, man, where to begin with the Mosuo!

The Mosuo are a matrilineal, agricultural people, passing property and family name from mother to daughter(s), so the household revolves around the women. When a girl reaches maturity at about thirteen or fourteen, she receives her own bedroom that opens both to the inner courtyard of the house and to the street through a private door. A Mosuo girl has complete autonomy as to who steps through this private door into her babahuago (flower room). The only strict rule is that her guest must be gone by sunrise. She can have a different lover the following night—or later that same night—if she chooses. There is no expectation of commitment, and any child she conceives is raised in her mother’s house, with the help of the girl’s brothers and the rest of the community…

Particularly libidinous Mosuo women and men unashamedly report having had hundreds of relationships. Shame, from their perspective, would be the proper response to promises of or demands for fidelity. A vow of fidelity would be considered inappropriate—an attempt at negotiation or exchange. Openly expressed jealousy, for the Mosuo, is considered aggressive in its implied intrusion upon the sacred autonomy of another person, and is thus met with ridicule and shame.


Travel writer Cynthia Barnes chimes in:

“Although their lack of coyness draws the world’s attention to the Mosuo,” Barnes writes, “sex is not the center of their universe.” She continues: “I think of my parents’ bitter divorce, of childhood friends uprooted and destroyed because Mommy or Daddy decided to sleep with someone else. Lugu Lake, I think, is not so much a kingdom of women as a kingdom of family—albeit one blessedly free of politicians and preachers extolling ‘family values.’ There’s no such thing as a ‘broken home,’ no sociologists wringing their hands over ‘single mothers,’ no economic devastation or shame and stigma when parents part. Sassy and confident, [a Mosuo girl] will grow up cherished in a circle of male and female relatives… When she joins the dances and invites a boy into her flower room, it will be for love, or lust, or whatever people call it when they are operating on hormones and heavy breathing. She will not need that boy—or any other—to have a home, to make a ‘family.’ She already knows that she will always have both.”

The authors add:

As with bonobos, where female coalitions are the ultimate social authority and individual females need not fear the larger males, human societies in which women are "sassy and confident," as Barnes described the Mosuo girls—free to express their minds and sexuality without fear of shame or persecution—tend to be far more comfortable places for most men than societies ruled by a male elite.

Well, it works for me. I'm especially fond of the no-fault policy towards inadvertently created children. Also, if you find your favorite girl otherwise occupied, well, shoot, just meander down the street a little ways. You know the old saying: If you've seen the inside of one girl's babahuago, you've seen 'em all.

Nonetheless, the Chinese government, being composed for the most part of colossal ass-hats, has for decades been attempting to force the Mosuo to give up their indecent habits and adopt traditional marriage--so far with limited success.


And then you have your Gibbons. Your Goddam Gibbons...

In the previous post, I noted in passing the fact that gorillas, who practice a harem-style mating system in which the alpha male drives all rivals into a pornless and solitary wilderness and then gets all the gash, suck.

But if you are a male gorilla, you at least have a fighting chance at a gratifyingly promiscuous lifestyle. And even if you are among the multitudes driven into the wilderness, at least you’re still a male gorilla, for heaven’s sake, and thus fully capable of taking out your frustrations on pretty much the entire rest of the jungle community.**

And then you have your gibbons… Aw, Christ, the goddam gibbons:

The only monogamous ape, the gibbon, lives in Southeast Asia in small family units consisting of a male/female couple and their young—isolated in a territory of thirty to fifty square kilometers. They never leave the trees, have little to no interaction with other gibbon groups, not much advanced intelligence to speak of, and infrequent, reproduction-only copulation.

Apart from the living-in-trees aspect, there’s a joke in there about rural Arizonans striving to get out, but I’m too tired to midwive it.

Still have more to say on this astonishing book—and the backlash against it—but it will have to wait. For now, let the authors have the final word, vis-à-vis those god-awful gibbons:

Monogamy is not found in any social, group-living primate except—if the standard narrative is to be believed—us.




* For what it’s worth, it turns out that the authors are married. Like, to each other.





** If I were a sexually frustrated male gorilla, I'd while away the hours ripping full-grown bamboo stalks out of the ground and whapping unsuspecting elephants in the face with them, just for the hell of it. Later in life, I would undergo one of those transformation scenes into full-blown super-villain-hood, the type where the eerie gothic choral music plays while you pull on a sinister helmet for the first time. I'm thinking that I would call myself "Ape-Shittio" but I'm open to suggestions.