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Editorial Reviews

In Sex at Dawn, husband and wife team Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá have written a book that questions both modern-day standards of human sexual behavior and the scientific history of our early ancestors. The book first explains and defines what it refers to as “the standard narrative”, the story of how humans evolved from our prehistoric ancestors to be monogamous beings with conflicting biological imperatives for males and females. Then, it goes on to refute this narrative, providing evidence from noted modern scholars like Steven Pinker, Malcolm Gladwell, and Frans De Waal, as well as renowned scientists and philosophers like Charles Darwin, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Thomas Hobbes.

Ryan and Jethá write, “Science all too often grovels at the feet of the dominant cultural paradigm.” Indeed, one of the most powerful ideas that Sex at Dawn puts forth is that culture has a way of coloring scientific and historical “fact”. Some of the examples given are quite disturbing, especially when large institutions are clearly engaged in cover ups of our true nature. The authors assert that many sexual myths (for example, that masturbation is some kind of medical affliction) have been repeated and disseminated over the years by religious, health, and state organizations. They take a controversial stance that this “cover up” tactic has also been applied to the non-monogamy of our closest primate relatives and early man. They believe that even if non-monogamy is not the dominant mode of being for contemporary humans, at the very least it should be viewed as a historic basis for our desires and behaviors.

The narration, which alternates between Allyson Johnson and Jonathan Davis, is clear and straightforward, particularly well-suited to this kind of book. Johnson especially makes the information, which can sometimes be dense, easily digestible and relatable. One of the authors, Christopher Ryan, reads the preface, which gives a hint of how he came to be interested in exploring the given subject matter. Through this section, we also get a way to connect directly to the authors and thus, the human (as opposed to the scientific) aspect of the issues discussed.

To claim that this work is exclusively or even mostly about sexual behavior would be a stretch. The book is very holistic, tackling bigger-picture issues of science, culture, history, and philosophy. That said, these large ideas are needed as building blocks for the claims the authors make about sex. Another triumph of Sex at Dawn is the attention the authors have given to presenting material on sex as it applies to men and women equally. Along those lines, another high point of the narration is that it echoes this sentiment through the interchanging male and female voices, reminding us that these ideas apply to both sexes in different ways.

What the book posits exactly is somewhat unclear. The authors themselves admit that they're not exactly sure what to do with all the information they have unearthed. That said, the great strength of Sex at Dawn is that it opens the discourse about human sexual behavior sans many of the taboos that traditionally accompany the topic. —Gina Pensiero

Publisher's Summary

Earphones Award Winner (AudioFile Magazine)

Since Darwin's day, we've been told that sexual monogamy comes naturally to our species. Mainstream science - as well as religious and cultural institutions - has maintained that men and women evolved in families in which a man's possessions and protection were exchanged for a woman's fertility and fidelity. But this narrative is collapsing. Fewer and fewer couples are getting married, and divorce rates keep climbing as adultery and flagging libido drag down even seemingly solid marriages.

How can reality be reconciled with the accepted narrative? It can't be, according to renegade thinkers Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha. While debunking almost everything we "know" about sex, they offer a bold alternative explanation in this provocative and brilliant book.

Ryan and Jetha's central contention is that human beings evolved in egalitarian groups that shared food, child care, and, often, sexual partners. Weaving together convergent, frequently overlooked evidence from anthropology, archaeology, primatology, anatomy, and psychosexuality, the authors show how far from human nature monogamy really is. Human beings everywhere and in every era have confronted the same familiar, intimate situations in surprisingly different ways. The authors expose the ancient roots of human sexuality while pointing toward a more optimistic future illuminated by our innate capacities for love, cooperation, and generosity.

BONUS AUDIO: Includes a Preface written and read by author Christopher Ryan.

©2010 Christopher Ryan, Cacilda Jetha (P)2010 Audible, Inc

Critic Reviews

"A surprisingly non-titillating book about sex among prehistoric people makes for a terrific audio adaptation...With their straightforward approach, the narrators show professionalism and authority in this anthropological discussion of sex." (AudioFile)
Sex at Dawn is the single most important book about human sexuality since Alfred Kinsey unleashed Sexual Behavior in the Human Male on the American public in 1948.” (Dan Savage)
"My favorite book of 2010...it's the only book I read this year that proved that I was badly mistaken about something." (Peter Sagal, host of NPR's Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me!)

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  • Carolyn
  • Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
  • 09-18-12

Strawmen and Ad Hominems

This book was somewhat interesting, but certainly nothing new if you know much about human sexuality. I went into reading this book agreeing with their general premise that early human culture probably involved multiple sex partners, not monogamy. That makes logical sense to me and I was looking forward to learning more about it.

However, I found the book majorly bogged down with taking things that disagree with the authors way too personally. Having actually read a lot of the scientific literature they reference in the book, I was quite unimpressed by how egregiously they deliberately misinterpreted it so that they could argue against their misinterpretation. For example, The Selfish Gene says many times that it absolutely does not imply that people or animals are selfish, just that genes are. People (and animals) can absolutely behave non-selfishly, and we do so because that kind of behaviour is better for our genes than selfishness. This book uses the fact that "people" (without ever pointing to an example of such a person) could interpret the title of the book to mean that people must be selfish and so they need to spend ages proving it wrong. It was ridiculous. The things they included in the "standard narrative" were mostly things no scientist would really argue for because they are obviously not true and scientists have known that for decades. Because of that, I doubted a lot of their other details that I'm not as familiar with as well. It seems as though the thing they were trying to disprove - their so-called "standard narrative" - is a combination of outdated, pre-1970s anthropology and misinterpretations of real scientific data.

Honestly, I only finished this book so I could review it. The first half was so full of strawman arguments and flimsy, emotional attempts at persuasion that I nearly stopped listening to it. The second half was somewhat better, but the evidence was nothing new (the sweaty t-shirt test, the difference in which men women are attracted to during ovulation and not during ovulation) and the big points were often "duh" moments. It was clear that the authors felt persecuted somehow by both the scientific community and society at large for their point of view and felt the need to make personal attacks on other scientists and to completely denounce monogamy as an option in order to make their point. It came across as bitter and angry, which really turned me off. If you're a scientist, part of that is criticism. It's how science works - you come up with an idea, you're criticized, you prove it, you're criticized, you refine it, you're disagreed with, and with time the best theory wins out. If you wanted to not face negative reactions to your theory - which is in fact a good one - then make it a religion. If you want it to be generally accepted science, it has to be challenged, tested, and proven before that will happen. Get over it.

I agree with other reviewers that the narration was strange. They should have stuck with one narrator for all of the text or else split it chapter by chapter or something more logical like that.

Overall, I was very disappointed with this book. Even though I agreed with their premise, the arguments were so poorly executed that I lost respect for them. This is a topic more people should know about, but from someone with more ability to be objective and who won't rely less on ad hominem and strawman arguments to make their point.

128 of 137 people found this review helpful

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too much focus on academic in-fighting

I knew nothing more about evolution, evolutionary psychology, and anthropology than what I learned in high school. I was hoping this book would introduce me to some of the key issues in these fields. It didn't. The authors have what appears to be a counter-establishment theory about early human society. To the extent that they explained and supported it, it seems perfectly plausible. However, without exaggerating, they spend less than 20% of the book articulating their theory. The remainder is them bashing all sort of other theories. Their critiques seem reasonable enough, but listening to academics criticize each other over study methodologies is simply not interesting to someone outside the field. They also adopt a snarky tone about the theories they criticize that makes the whole book seem far more petulant than necessary.

There are two readers. The female reader is great. However, she is periodically interrupted by a male reader reading short passages. On paper, this is a nice idea. There are two authors (male & female) and Audible wants to reflect that by having two readers. But, it just doesn't work in practice. You kinda buy into the idea that this woman is telling you a story. You get into it. Then some disembodied male voice interrupts for a short while. It's really distracting.

64 of 71 people found this review helpful

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Good, not great

This book had some good things going for it, but I couldn't bring myself to give it 5 stars. This was a more polemical work than I would have liked. It was very much written in a style to convince the reader/listener of the author's ideas. I honestly got the feeling that they were only giving me the information that supported their thesis rather than a balanced look at facts, or giving honest alternate explanations/ideas. It also made use of "straw man" items where the authors would give an opposing opinion in its worst light and then rather than explain that idea went on to ridicule it.

PROS:
Lots of facts
Unconventional take on human prehistory
Good job of "thinking outside the box" and giving lots of facts/data to back up their ideas
Entertaining, not "dry"

CONS:
Some mentioned above.
Odd use of 2 narrators where 1 narrator read quotes to open each "section/chapter" and maybe a stray sentence here and there. It was really odd to periodically get a different voice for just a few seconds and then back to the usual reader
Too many tongue-in-cheek comments and adolescent humor.
Overly romanticized subsistence hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

Is it worth listening to/reading: Yes...I would recommend it.
Is it a work that contributes to understanding prehistory: Maybe
Is it entertaining? Yes

34 of 39 people found this review helpful

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A scientific veil over popular culture.

What could have made this a 4 or 5-star listening experience for you?

The book contains some interesting information and is well written, but it is primarily just another response to cultural trends. The authors are unendingly critical of earlier scientists, participants in the "standard model", because they were so dominated by their Victorian culture. They then proceed to reinterpret everything through the dark glass of their own culture. Obviously, the book is far more supportive of open sexual relations, women's sexuality and a host of currently popular notions. I am not critical of their opinions, but the thin guise of scientific credibility is disappointing. As with all anthrepological work, it is riddled with unverifiable supposition and assumptions, presented without caveats. There is a fair amount of work cited, but no consideration for the credibility or motivation behind the cited work and no contrary studies are considered. A great deal of time is spent on the genetic and biological driving forces behind sex, but the issues they are contending with are equally, if not more, driven by culture, which is just as real and just as valid. If you are looking for a justification for a choice of lifestyle, this book will offer you any excuse you need, but if you are looking for objective science and understanding, keep looking. It is not to be found here.

25 of 30 people found this review helpful

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  • ICE
  • Nunavut, Canada
  • 12-31-10

interesting if it doesn't annoy you

There is a lot of interesting information in this book, and it is pretty good to listen to. I have two problems with it. One is how the authors constantly summarize and rephrase scientific information in a very glib and slang way, in fact rather mis-stating what they are trying to explain. I guess this is for common appeal? It comes off as disingenuous and often as judgmental. Second, this is one of those books in which the authors say that common beliefs on their subject are wrong and they are going to prove them wrong by presenting and supporting their new thesis on the subject. But they spend a ton of time saying how their new idea that they're going to share disproves the common idea, and very little time actually sharing, explaining and supporting their new idea. They continually say how they disagree with "the standard narrative", that it is wrong. And then spend hours of the book explaining and supporting the standard narrative--much more time than they explain what their new and different idea is. I kept thinking, OK, here's the part where they are going to say why this is wrong and tell me what is right... But you kind of keep waiting. If you are not paying close attention you end up taking in the standard narrative as the information the authors are trying to get across, and not as what they are trying to disprove. They sort of shoot themselves in the foot on that. Even when they present their differing idea its not very well supported.

72 of 90 people found this review helpful

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Takes an Open Mind

I am a christian male who has been happily married for over 33 years. My wife still turns men's heads at 53. Throughout our marriage I have wondered why I have been attracted to other females, when I am so happy at home. Why do so many men married to super star women cheat on their wives (Brad Pitt, Tiger Woods, etc.)

This puts out the argument that we were not meant to be monogamous. Monogamy is unhealthy.

They also show evidence that moving from hunter gathers to an agricultural society is the cause of many of our ill's today. We were not kick out of The Garden of Eden, we were kicked into it.

I am not a bible scholar, but think about this: God wanted us to trust him fully. Perhaps the tree of knowledge was the knowledge on how to grow apples. We started growing crops and not depending upon God. To be healthy we need to eat a variety of foods. Cultivation has lead us to stay in one place and eat the same foods. This leads to vitamin deficiency. A book offered by this club that I have not read yet is called Wheat Belly, which is supposed to be about how wheat makes us fat. Was Cain's sacrifice to God not appreciated because it was grain? Cain and the apple tree are not mentioned in the book, they are what I thought of because this book makes you think, but you have to be open minded.

The book is very entertaining and reminded me several times of Jean Auel's series. She has taken grief sometimes because of her randy cave men. This shows that she may not have showed them as randy enough.

The book is very one sided and it has not convinced me to cheat on my wife or join a commune, but it is a different way to think about our society past and present and I always enjoy writings that challenge the norm. If you can not be open minded about your religion our belief system then you will hate this book. If you like to challenge your beliefs then this is food for thought.

16 of 21 people found this review helpful

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Excellent, accessible, thought provoking

The controversy in the reviews of this book speaks to its importance. As a committed Darwinian, who has been having a tryst with Lamarck-ism since the advent of epi-genetics, this book was a delight. It takes apart the accepted dogma on a variety of post Darwin science by examining the religious and cultural bias that is built into many of these theories.

I have read all of Dawkin's & E.O. Wilson's books, the modern scholar series on evolutionary psychology, and about 10 other popular texts from this emerging field.

This book stands out, not because of the excellence of its scholarship, but because of the depth of its skepticism and the author's willingness to challenge existing dogma.

At regular intervals, despite my habitual eschewing of scientific mirth, this book had me in aesthetic. I highly recommend this book, and I offer my personal thanks to the authors and the narrator.

Gare Henderson

21 of 29 people found this review helpful

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Truly underwhelmed

Would you try another book from Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha and/or the narrators?

Never.

What could Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha have done to make this a more enjoyable book for you?

The quality of the writing was just exceptionally poor. Every paragraph was finished with a pseudo-witty tag line ("Way to go boys." "Now we're talking.") that sounded like the authors really wished the book could have been a snappy Cosmo article instead. It made for tedious listening.

What didn’t you like about the narrators’s performance?

The authors seemed exceptionally pleased with their own wit.

What reaction did this book spark in you? Anger, sadness, disappointment?

Annoyance. The authors' claim (that lifelong monogamy is NOT genetically encoded in al humans for millions of years) is utterly non-controversial in both science and culture today. Nonetheless, the authors pretend that pretty much everyone believes the opposite. They proceed to restate the opposite case in the most extreme and laughable terms (drawing on sources back to the 19th century for evidence of current thought). Having stated the other side in laughable terms, they never actually bother to prove their own case; they simply mock the other side and then list any evidence available for their own perspective without delving into any of the complexities of teasing out something as subtle as sexuality from the archeological and anthropological record.

Any additional comments?

Looking back, I suspect I bought this book because it had sex in the title. Having read it, I now feel a little dirty and ashamed for taking part in such a shallow enterprise.

23 of 33 people found this review helpful

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  • Brian
  • Louisville, CO, United States
  • 01-24-11

Couldn't get through it

I went into this with high expectations, based on reader and critic reviews, and was sorely disappointed. The central premise is intriguing, but the authors to little more than pick apart older models of human sexuality, with little hard scientific evidence. I may be biased since I'm a laboratory scientist, and am skeptical of sweeping conclusions drawn from scant unambiguous data.
If you're an academic studying social sciences or human sexuality, you may find this interesting, otherwise don't bother. The writing is dry and jargon filled, the narration is downright awful, and the attempts to make it accessible to the general reader amount to petty and flat sarcasm.

32 of 48 people found this review helpful

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  • Carl
  • West Palm Beach, FL, United States
  • 11-14-10

Mind Blowing.

One of those books that will change the way you think about yourself and others. Well read and performed. Intensive research. A science book that reads like a thriller. Amazing.

24 of 38 people found this review helpful

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  • Ekaterina Banina
  • 05-27-16

Good ideas presented in a suboptimal way

First of all, I surely learnt a lot from the book as most readers would do. It presents a lot of varied material supporting the theory of human natural promiscuity. In particular, the evidence presented in the last few chapters was very convincing.
what I didn't like, however, was the tone of the writing and the narration The book was full of scientific facts, but the style of delivery is far too casual and borderline disrespectful to the "standard narrative" or most other scientific theories. Comments like "Really?" (delivered in a characteristic tone) undermined the substantially of the evidence the authors were presenting it was very unnecessary Challenging the status quo is a hard task and is probably best tackled with less emotion and more common sense.
overall, however, I'm glad I've finished the book (even though I paused midway as the middle third of the book seemed to be repeating itself over and over).The book has definitely left me with some new thoughts and knowledge and I will be coming back to some examples from the story to better understand life, sexual and romantic relationships.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Amazon Customer
  • 01-20-15

Thought provoking and controversial

An excellent, alternative explanation for the sexual condition we find ourselves in. It made me realise just how taboo and unmentionable the subject still is.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Patrick
  • 02-13-14

Incredible read

If you could sum up Sex at Dawn in three words, what would they be?

insightful, inspiring, honest

What was one of the most memorable moments of Sex at Dawn?

when the author blew Steven Pinkers latest book out of the water with his incredible arguments.

What about the narrators’s performance did you like?

beautiful balanced female voice, although it was a male who wrote the book. fascinating effect

Any additional comments?

GET THIS BOOK!

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Anonymous User
  • 12-06-17

Who we are

Everyone needs to read this; the content speaks true, is highly enlightening and informative. A must read.

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  • Mr. S. R. Vidal Riva
  • 11-19-17

Paradigm shifting

Required reading for humans seeking to understand themselves and others better in the psychology of sex

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  • Sarah
  • 11-10-17

finished in 3 days!

Great book. Couldnt put it down. Eye opening and although a little bit corny in places gave me great overview for the debate on human mating systems.

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  • Anonymous User
  • 06-26-17

*Extremely Interesting*

So much information. I WILL DEFINITELY BE LISTENING AGAIN TO ABSORB ALL OF THE LESSONS.

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  • jason oleary
  • 06-11-17

Buy it, it's fascinating!

Witty, informative and totally fascinating. An alternative view on the somewhat Victorian ideas we are taught on Sexuality and our ancestors behaviour.

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  • marc.lavelle3
  • 05-29-17

nice alternative spin on human sexual narrative

A must for anyone interested in anthropology with a lash of sex. I really want to dive deeper into the subject after reading (well...listening, but whatever).

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  • Andrei S.
  • 05-13-17

Not just about sex, but also social history

A very interesting book telling the story of how society evolved with so many fixed ideas that influence everything from science to basic human emotions. The authors break apart basic myths and look at the root of each scientific theory and how many of these theories have been skewed by what people wanted to see. I highly recommend this book, although I know some people will struggle to accept it.

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  • Alan
  • 10-19-14

Amazing read.. will explain everything.

An essential book, opened my eyes to the world around me - sex, love, attraction, relationships - what it's all about. Can't recommend enough - everyone needs to read this.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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  • Anonymous User
  • 06-13-17

Interesting, but more questions than answers

I tried this book hoping to change my perception and lose my possibly "conservative" and societal driven perception of sex and relationships. I have studied varying amounts of biology, medicine and psychology at a university level, I'm well aware of convential theories on physiological and psychological levels.

The result? I'm extremely glad i found such a fascinating and entertaining read, but I'm not really changed in how i view the concepts. Though possibly i have a more morally sound appreciation of sex, i can't say it made the topic of multiple partners or random sex any more normal or attractive.
Convential science doesn't really disagree with anything said in this book. The complaints this author made about conventional science really focus around societal perspectives, 19th century scientist and old pyschology (an area of pure theory - a pseudoscience). So the problem is modern society and people. Not science.



1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Michael
  • 04-17-15

If you're a person, you should probably read this.

This book is a sociological and anthropological look at human behavior. The prose is entertaining, accessible and in no way condescending. The narrator was a perfect choice as her the tone of her voice is comforting and just emotional enough that you could sense the sarcasm intended by the authors from time to time. I recommend this book to all of humanity!!! That we might release ourselves from the scackles of cultural behaviors which hurt the relationships in our lives would be freeing..and IS necessary for our further evolution.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Rev. David B. Smith
  • 11-28-17

Brilliant!

A brilliant book on so many levels - not just in the questions it raises about contemporary sexual mores, but in the questioning of the scientific objectivity of previous studies on the subject.

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  • Tiit Pähn
  • 11-16-17

Eye-opening

Definitely gave me new insights about the topic and interestingly seems logical. would definitely want to try to live in this kind of secular society

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  • Anonymous User
  • 11-08-17

Confronting but mind opening

Having a better understanding of why men and women behave the way we do regarding sex and relationships makes it far easier and less painful, and gives us the tool of empathy on this topic.
Very scientific and very relatable. The book gives information that challenges the social narrative and even personal beliefs but I can't say I disagree with the authors. Everyone that has any kind of sexual relationship should read this 👍

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  • Joanna
  • 10-12-17

Extraordinary.

Once again my institutionalized views that have no basis in science have been confronted and found wanting. What an amazing age when I can listen to a jk and know more about a subject than 99% of the world.

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  • Anonymous User
  • 08-06-17

Life changing

Simply life changing. It alters your perspective on the agricultural revolution and how it has changed our species.

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  • Alex
  • 07-25-17

OK narrative Interesting Content.

I found the female narrator to be a bit monotonous at times, maybe even obnoxious when she did use use expression.
The content more than made up for what I found lacking in the narrative.

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  • Jeff
  • 07-08-17

Incredible

A very lovely well written, well spoken book.
Such exciting times. Definitely worth a read.