Studies of our closest ancestors – particularly chimps, bonobos and early humans – indicate that there are evolutionary reasons as to why we are, at heart, massive sleazes and whores.
I wish my girlfriend would cheat on me. That’s the first suggestion you’re given if you type the words: “I wish my girlfriend…” into Google. It’s also exactly how I feel.
When I was 15 years old my then-girlfriend gave an American guy in the year above us a blowjob on the back seat of a bus. His name was Viktor. He was tall and nerdy, he really liked video games and punk music and he was just a very nice boy, if I’m being honest.
After a few days she confessed – in tears, on the phone, while Don’t You Cry by Guns ‘n’ Roses played in the background – and then she told me that we had to break up.
I was really upset. But I wasn’t heartbroken about the cheating. I was just sad that we couldn’t see each other anymore.
The iron-clad rule that “cheating” is bad and if someone does it everything has to be over is drilled into us by our culture. But no matter how much I thought about her and Viktor and their fumbling exchange of teenage oral sex on Sydney public transport, I just couldn’t feel angry. In fact, the idea excited me.
At 15, the realisation that you’re really turned on by the thought of your girlfriend’s mouth on someone else’s peen is pretty surprising to say the least.
I was a confused young man. I kept that information to myself.
It wasn’t until six years later, as a sort of grown-up, that I interviewed an anthropologist named Christopher Ryan and started to realise that I might not be so strange after all. Christopher was at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas promoting a book he had co-authored with his partner, Cacilda Jethá, called Sex At Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Human Sexuality. The book is an investigation into some of the stranger science behind human sexuality, and argues that “human beings evolved in egalitarian groups that shared food, child care and, often, sexual partners”.
Ryan and Jethá look at the primates that are most closely related to humans, particularly bonobos and chimpanzees, and they examine the sexual behaviours these creatures exhibit in the wild. It turns out our chimp cousins (who share roughly 98.7% of our DNA) are no strangers to swinging. Outrageous 10-peens-to-one-veen group sex is just a normal part of everyday life for the average bonobo.
The authors also look at human anatomy, particularly reproductive anatomy and the physiology involved in orgasm and attraction. It turns out our biology just doesn’t make sense for an animal that is supposed to be totes comfy with monogamy.
Here’s an interesting example: the head of the human penis has evolved to act as an extremely effective shovel, almost perfectly designed for scooping up and getting rid of the semen left behind by other men.
Then you’ve got sperm warfare: once inside a woman’s giney, only a small percentage of sperm are trying to reach the egg. The rest are a brutal army hell-bent on finding and killing other men’s wiggling little white tadpoles.
One of the main reasons early humans were able to get along well enough to start building civilisations may have been the fact that they were able to do their sexual competition inside the body instead of hitting each other with improvised weapons like rocks or fallen wood or bits of dead elephant until there were no more competitors to the throne of putting a baby inside a tum-tum.
Ryan and Jethá also look at contemporary psychosexuality, what sort of pornography turns people on and the problems we encounter in our relationships.
Interestingly, being cuckolded consistently appears near the top of married men’s sexual fantasies, and pornography in which sperm competition is at play– where multiple men make love (hahaha) to one or two women– is astonishingly popular.
And then we have this lovely little tidbit: almost one in every 10 people wasn’t actually fathered by the man they believe is their dad.
Finally, Sex at Dawn delves into anthropology and the information we have on people in other cultures – particularly those who resemble the way our ancestors lived – and the way these people confront sexual issues and how they experience their sexuality.
The picture of human sexuality painted by Ryan and Jetháis of a species that evolved to mate regularly with multiple partners. We’re so hardwired to be dirty rotten cheaters that we actually become chemically unbalanced if we go for too long without banging a new person.
So what went wrong? Why do we get jealous? Why don’t we live in a society where it’s totally normal for the audience of Q&A to gang-bang each other into oblivion on a Monday night while Tony Jones wanks himself silly as he fingers his own bumhole and lovingly tells his guests to “suck my bonobo?”
Christopher Ryan blames all the cultural conditioning that was brought on by the agricultural revolution. “The advent of agriculture introduced private property, accumulated resources, hierarchical governments, specialisations…” he says. “It’s a radical transformation of human social organisation. Very different from the way we had lived, more or less in a steady state, for hundreds of thousands of years. There had never been private property, no one was living in settled villages or harvesting grains that had to be saved until the next year. Suddenly you had something to fight over, something to defend, something to accumulate.”
With agriculture came the need to control and trade for resources. Sex, and the guarantee of paternal certainty, was a powerful currency indeed.
Now we live in a modern world. We don’t face the same problems our freshly agricultural ancestors did. But we also don’t live in a simple, pre-historic tribe. What’s the alternative to modern monogamy? Free love? Swinging? Open marriages?
“I hear this a lot,” said Ryan, “I hear it from marriage counselors, for example, saying: ‘Oh come on, people tried open marriages in the ‘60s and it didn’t work!’” Ryan, however, makes a salient point: “Of course they haven’t [met happy couples in open relationships], they’re marriage counsellors! They’ve never seen a couple that was happy in any marriage!I think we really have no idea how many people have private arrangements that they don’t talk about publicly. The only time we get a little hint at it is occasionally when somebody gets caught with their pants down, and that person’s husband or wife doesn’t react the way we expect them to. Hilary Clinton didn’t divorce Bill, and a lot of people were surprised by that…”
So that’s the science. But what’s it like in practice? What’s it like when you’re Othello and, instead of strangling Desdemona to death you’re all like: “Yeah, give that strawberry handkerchief to whomever you want and let me wank into it when you’re done, baby”.
It’s no secret amongst my circle of friends that I want everyone to have sex with my girlfriend. In fact I’m pretty sure I’ve said: “Please, please have sex with my girlfriend, please” on a shamefully large number of occasions.
The big question is usually: “Aren’t you scared?” and I can certainly understand why.
What if they’re bigger than me, funnier and simultaneously as handsome, charming, as good of a director, song-writer, singer, bass player, DJ and writer as I am? Personally, I’m not too worried – and that stems as much from over-confidence as it does from the excitement that comes from the adrenaline rush of thinking about losing everything.
For me, that’s where it gets a little more complicated.
The science is clear on the straight-down-the-line biology of it – human beings are into watching each other bang. But it doesn’t explain the emotional side of things – what’s so exciting about the wrongness of it?
A friend told me that when her partner was cheating on her, she felt angry and jealous but also really turned on. She thought it might be some kind of defense mechanism. She suggested that for people with high anxiety, bathing themselves in fantasies about worst-case scenarios is a way to release the stress of worrying about it sub-consciously.
I can certainly relate to that – there’s a big thrill that comes from confronting some of the deepest, darkest fears and seeing them come true in a situation you can control.
The first time I watched my girlfriend have sex with another man was a nerve-wracking experience, but I don’t think it was that much different from any other first-time sex. Most of the anxieties were just the typical fears about performing in front of a new person.
It’s been almost a year since we started experimenting with an “open” relationship, and nothing’s changed. The world hasn’t collapsed, we haven’t been torn apart or got bored of each other’s company or found anyone that we like better.
At first, we set boundaries: You can’t do it with that person, you can’t do that thing with another person, you can only do it when I’m there. But I quickly realised that any lines I’d draw in the sand just ended up making me even more excited about them being crossed.
But there’s one rule that’s stuck, a primal tactical urge for the upper hand on the battlefield of sperm warfare:
I get to come last.
Will Colvin, contributor