The History of Human Sexuality: The Standard Narrative

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Sex at Dawn" by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why do the authors of Sex at Dawn say the standard narrative of the history of human sexuality is incorrect? What do the authors claim is the standard narrative? Do other scientists agree?

In their book Sex at Dawn, Ryan and Jethá argue against the standard narrative of the history of human sexuality. They begin their argument by laying out the supposed standard narrative in preparation to refute it. However, some scientists claim that what Ryan and Jethá are using is actually the cultural narrative.

Keep reading for Ryan and Jethá’s version of the standard narrative of the history of human sexuality.

The History of Human Sexuality

Before we dive into the authors’ arguments in the book Sex at Dawn, we need to understand the traditional description of evolutionary human sexuality—the “standard narrative”—that Ryan and Jethá argue against. The standard narrative describes the way men’s and women’s approaches to reproduction evolved over time. (Shortform note: In general, when Ryan and Jethá refer to “men” and “women,” we can infer that they’re specifically referring to cisgender people. Sex at Dawn was published in 2010 and does not explicitly mention transgender or intersex people.)

According to the standard narrative, this is the history of human sexuality: If a man and a woman find each other desirable, they’ll form a long-term, monogamous bond (from which they’ll periodically escape for flings with other partners). This pairing offers women the security of access to resources and offers men the all-important certainty that they are their children’s biological father. 

(Shortform note: In Mating in Captivity, couples therapist Esther Perel argues that the nature of monogamy has continued to evolve beyond this narrative in that modern monogamy is less of a practical exchange of resources and more of an expression of love and commitment to a partner.)

According to Ryan and Jethá, the standard narrative is an example of “Flinstonization,” or the tendency to use modern cultural mores to explain historical human behavior. For example, we frequently hear stories of women “settling” for partners who can provide financial security, even if they’re not a love match. According to the authors, we then mistakenly project the same expectation backward onto prehistoric women because we assume that “settling” must be an innate (rather than culturally-ingrained) behavior. However, prehistoric humans lived in very different social and physical environments than modern humans, so it’s unwise to assume they went through the same thought processes as modern humans in choosing whether or not to commit to a mate. 

(Shortform note: Flinstonization is a form of the “narrative fallacy.” In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman describes the narrative fallacy as the human tendency to rearrange facts into consistent stories in order to make sense of the world. When scientists Flinstonize the past, they’re essentially rearranging the evidence to fit the current cultural story.)

Assumptions of the Standard Narrative

According to the authors, the standard narrative relies on a set of basic assumptions, which we’ll explore below. Each of these assumptions is based on the underlying idea that passing on one’s own genes is the ultimate motivation for all human beings. 

(Shortform note: In The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins argues that the motivation to reproduce happens at the level of each individual gene, not the whole-organism level. That’s because, if individual organisms (such as humans) were motivated to reproduce their entire genetic codes, they wouldn’t focus on sexual reproduction, which only passes down half of their genes. In Dawkins’ view, the fact that humans are so focused on sexual reproduction disproves the idea that our objective is genetic reproduction.) 

Assumption 1: Monogamy Is “Natural.” 

According to the standard narrative, monogamy is the natural result of men’s and women’s differing reproductive imperatives. This logic requires its own set of contributing assumptions:

  • Women’s libidos are naturally lower than men’s. Thus, in the standard narrative, a woman’s interest in sex is primarily economic: She grants a male partner exclusive sexual access and, in return, he provides resources exclusively to her and her children. (Shortform note: The assumption that women have naturally lower libidos than men may be due to the fact that women experience spontaneous, unprompted sexual desire less frequently than men do. However, research shows that women are more likely than men to experience “responsive desire,” or sexual arousal in response to physical stimulation. In other words, women don’t have lower libidos, they have different libidos.) 
  • “Male parental investment,” or fathers’ investment in the survival of their children, is dependent on paternity certainty. According to the standard narrative, men are biologically driven to have as many children as possible and to ensure the survival of those children in order to perpetuate their genetics. Thus, men are motivated to protect and provide for only the children they are 100% positive are their biological offspring. (Shortform note: This idea, like the rest of the standard narrative, refers to our most primal human nature. Even scientists who support the standard narrative would likely agree that cultural patterns can sometimes trump these “natural” patterns—for example, in the case of step-fathers and adoptive fathers happily raising children they’re not biologically related to.) 

According to the authors, the standard narrative insists that monogamy is the only system that allows both men and women to meet these reproductive goals. However, the standard narrative also acknowledges that both men and women will be motivated to cheat on their partners if someone with more desirable genetic traits becomes available. 

(Shortform note: The motivation to meet reproductive goals is how the standard narrative explains the development of human monogamy. However, other researchers argue that monogamy actually developed as a way for non-dominant males to gain access to females without having to fight dominant males in the group. Instead of fighting, the non-dominant males began sharing their food with females—in return, females granted these males sexual exclusivity. Observation of this behavior led to the idea of monogamy as an exchange of resources. This model of resource-sharing also explains the development of infidelity—if a male came along with access to more or better food, it made sense for a female to abandon her previous mate for the new one.) 

Assumption 2: Jealousy Differs Between the Sexes

According to the authors, the standard narrative states that men naturally get jealous when their female partners are sexually intimate with other men, while women naturally get jealous when their male partners are emotionally intimate with other women. This is also a direct result of their competing agendas: Men need to know their children are their own, so they’re threatened by the idea of another man impregnating their partner. Meanwhile, women need to maintain access to men’s resources, so they’re threatened by the idea of another woman convincing their partner to divert his economic resources to her children. 

(Shortform note: Research shows that gender isn’t the only important factor determining how people experience jealousy. For example, one study found that people from collectivist cultures experienced higher rates of sexual jealousy, but not emotional jealousy. The same study found that people who had been cheated on by a previous partner experienced higher rates of both sexual and emotional jealousy, regardless of their gender. Therefore, gender is likely just one of a host of factors that predict jealous reactions.)

Is There Really One “Standard” Narrative? 

We’ve discussed what the authors claim constitutes the standard narrative, but does a single “standard” narrative even exist? Researcher Emily Nagoski argues that there’s no such thing as a standard scientific narrative. Instead, Nagoski believes that what Ryan and Jethá are refuting is a cultural narrative that misrepresents the science behind it. However, when Nagoski asked Sex at Dawn co-author Christopher Ryan about this, he clarified that the “standard narrative” is meant to be scientific, not cultural. 

Nagoski argues that this definition makes Ryan and Jethá’s argument collapse on itself, because if the standard narrative were truly a scientific argument, it would be impossible to refute it using science as the authors do in Sex at Dawn. In other words, the authors are using science both to support and refute their own argument, which creates a contradiction. 

However, Nagoski’s argument assumes that evolutionary science is purely objective. In reality, different scientists can, and do, disagree on how to interpret the same data and use these disagreements to drive scientific discovery. 
The History of Human Sexuality: The Standard Narrative

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Here's what you'll find in our full Sex at Dawn summary:

  • Why everything we think we know about prehistoric human sexuality is wrong
  • Why so many marriages end in divorce
  • How humans are designed to be polygamous

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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