This is something of a book review (actually, an audio book review, as I’ve gotten into Audible lately. I drive a lot.), but I’m planning to do it in two parts. One after I’m finished, to get a more considered view of the book as a whole, and one to give my impressions as I’m reading (listening) to the book. What’s relevant to this blog is that I’m examining that newest fad that’s sweeping the not-quite-mainstream nation, Sex at Dawn. You probably know the basic premise, but if not, the book is intended as a refutation of the idea that monogamy is a universal and basic part of human evolution and prehistory.
“Smug” is the word that I want to begin with. I’ll get into the information–which is quite good–in a moment, but the tone of the book is almost unbearably smug and snide. I’m deeply sympathetic to the conclusions, and the interpretation is quite good, but I keep wanting to smack the author. It’s not the audio presentation, either; Allyson Johnson’s recitation is almost robotically flat. But the book’s delivery is unrelentingly snide, the way that only someone who feels oppressed by a majority that they disagree with can be. Ryan and Jetha react to the superculture’s lionization of monogamy the way that Dawkins reacts to theism; like an asshole.
It’s not that I don’t get it. I understand why someone would act this way, and it’s something you’ll see all over any subculture I’ve dealt with: gamers, engineers, scientists, the polyamorous, knitters, Discordians, etc. It’s a way of policing the borders, and protecting a group that’s been attacked from further attacks. It’s also satisfying, for those who already agree. It’s often funny; this is a very funny book. What it is not is a way of convincing anyone who is unconvinced. Sex at Dawn isn’t just a sermon aimed at the choir; if you don’t already agree, they don’t want to let you in the church.
Which is a shame, as the arguments that Ryan and Jetha marshal are, left to their own devices, highly convincing. There are a couple of logical flaws I’m noticing that I will let slide until the second review when I’m done, but if the tone didn’t interfere this would be an excellent way of introducing people to a counterintuitive argument, and useful for anything from demonstrating how a non-monogamous lifestyle is also non-pathological to shutting down the “traditional marriage” arguments against gay marriage. This book fills a sorely needed niche, and partly because of a dearth of accessible arguments in the same vein, I’ll probably end up recommending it to some people who may need this kind of primer, but I’ll do so with a caveat.
This is an excellent book overall, and as I dive into the second half, where the data gets harder and the tone more serious, it’s shaping up very well. But the extent to which it engages in not just dissection of arguments but outright mockery of the people making them is a shame, and it isn’t justified. Even taking as read the idea that the multi-male, multi-female mating systems they discuss are, in fact, closer to a state of nature than the western ideal of monogamy, the people whose arguments they are shooting down are steeped in a culture that teaches them otherwise, and it’s fairly understandable that swimming against that tide would be difficult for them.