Things your parents probably didn’t know

A few thoughts on Sex, A Natural History, by Joann Ellison Rodgers

There is a lot that I do not know.

I think it is very helpful to be reminded about that from time to time. This is partly, I am sure, why I read non-fiction. And on the subject of sex I am particularly clueless (something to which, mercifully, only relatively few of you are witness). So this seems like a bonza of a book, chock full of updates on the state of scientific knowledge on a subject of crucial importance but where most of us (notice what I did there?) are lacking in a few clues.

And in many ways it delivers. In its five hundred pages are a chapter on genes and theories on why sex exists, one on what your bits are up to during sex, one on what your brain is doing, some stuff on first meetings, on how dating works, on aphrodisiacs, committment, sexual deviance, and alternatives to the standard model. A bewildering variety of interesting issues. And covered not just from a human point of view – you may be alarmed or amazed by how similar human sexual activity is to that of other animals.

It is also, I think, about 10% too long, a bit repetitive, and generally a little under-edited in parts. Sometimes it felt like a reference book than one of popular science. A few more sub-headings would have helped to understand where we were at. Some of the pointy-headed scientific stuff (particularly on genes) was way over my head. And it might have even benefited from a summary in each chapter of the key points. But then these days I struggle to stay attentive sufficiently long to follow complex argument. So perhaps you might not have such trouble.

The book often comes across as unduly rational and practical on issues that are much more complex and emotional in real (human) life than in the case of scientists observing animal sexual behaviour in the lab. This makes the book interesting at a theoretic level, but practically not that helpful or insightful at predicting actual human behaviour. In particular, humans come across as highly unusual amongst animals in that they mostly end up in stable long-term relationships with one other person that are the basis for bringing up children, and those children remain dependent on their parents for an inordinately long period of time. It is fine, and all very interesting, to point out why this might or might have been the winning approach from an evolutionary point of view, or from the point of view of the genes or gametes involved. But it does rather trivialise all the other parts of the sex equation that real humans face up to in real life day to day, and the kinds of issues that are relevant in their sexual and relationship decision-making.

I also personally struggle with theories that hark back to caveman times to explain anything, i.e., evolved approach x to issue y would have been optimal for stone-age people for reason z. It just seems like the justifications could be entirely made up. The real world has a way of being much more complex, and no one can tell either way what Barney and Betty (or Wilma) were up to back then anyway.

The most interesting parts were the ones that described how people actually behave, especially in first meetings, in flirting and dating, and the chapter about people with non-standard heterosexual desires. The former because I can see around me every day in every bar the behaviours described, and see them in myself as much as I hate to admit that I am both predictable and typical. And the latter because everyone is curious about deviance, and I suspect, at least in the case of sex, that we are all doing things we would rather no one apart from our partner ever found out about. And even with him/her we might be a bit squeamish about discussing it in the cold light of day.

Plus it has “SEX” written across the cover in large letters. Which means that no matter where you are when you read it, people wonder (but do not ask) what you are up to. Fun times.

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