Roll Me Over in the Clover
I felt very adult and very sophisticated when I first learned the song:
Roll me over in the clover,
Roll me over, lay me down
And do it again.
I was perhaps eleven or twelve and didn’t really understand what the song was about. I just knew it was a dirty ditty and it gave me a sense of self-importance and maturity.
Years later, when my children at about the same age, came home from summer camp singing the same song, they were appalled and horrified when their mother and I joined them in lustily singing the chorus, Roll me over, Lay me down and do it again.
If half of what I recently read in Sex At Dawn, How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships is true, rolling in the clover, whether fresh and in the field or dried and in the barn, has gone on for eons of time. It’s not a recent summer camp phenomenon. When Little Bo Peep journeyed into the meadow, sheep may not be the only thing she was looking for.
Authors Christopher Ryan, a PhD psychologist who has spent a large part of his career analyzing prehistoric roots of human sexuality, and his partner Cacilda Jetha, a psychiatrist who conducted research on sexual behavior of rural Mozambicans in order to help develop more effective AIDS-prevention efforts, published Sex At Dawn in 2010. I first heard of it in an NPR author interview and it’s been on my to read list ever since. Dan Savage, nationally syndicated sex-advice columnist, called the book, “...the single most important book about human sexuality since Alfred Kinsey unleashed Sexual Behavior in the Human Male on the American public in 1948.”
Why is this book so important? Ryan and Jetha provide convincing proof (with 62 pages of notes and references) that most evolutionary biologists, anthropologists and psycho-sexual researchers have been guilty of what they term the “Flintstonization of Prehistory.” That is, they have mapped modern mores backward on to our ancient ancestors. They have started with the premise that humans evolved to be monogamous, then selected evidence that supports that thesis.
The authors debunk much of what we think we know about sex and argue that human beings evolved in egalitarian hunter-gatherer bands in which sexual interaction was a shared resource, much like food, child care, group defense, and so on. Our current sexual practices, including monogamy and the nuclear family, are all a cultural construct dating from the advent of agriculture and civilization—a relatively recent act on the stage of world history. In the hundreds of thousands of years before recorded history, the evidence from multiple disciplines shows that we evolved to be highly sexualized creatures who used sex as a form of social communication and bonding.
The book is written not as a text, and, while chock full of data and research, it contains a liberal sprinkling of humor, interesting asides, and skillful writing.
As an older gay male who was in a conventional marriage for thirty-five years, I’ve long been aware that the model we hold sacrosanct—monogamy—doesn’t work for most people straight or gay. With a divorce rate hovering close to 50% and many marriages hanging together “for the sake of the children,” there are also an untold number of couples who tolerate a sexless companionship and call it marriage.
Sex At Dawn provides a context to understand our current dilemma by understanding the sexual patterns of our ancestors in prehistoric times. I had no idea of the amount of sex research going on around the world measuring the penis size of apes and bonobos, the testicular mass of chimps and gorillas and the copulation duration and ejaculation amount of humans and other “great apes.” Nor did I have any idea of the amount of anthropological and biologic dogma we hold dear that’s based on faulty assumptions.
The authors are careful not to draw conclusions about modern sexual morality. However, one of their concluding paragraphs is worth further discussion and consideration.
“Despite centuries of religious and scientific propaganda, the basic illusions underpinning the supposed ‘naturalness’ of the conventional nuclear family are clearly exhausted.… Rather than endless war between the sexes, or rigid adherence to a notion of the human family that was never true to begin with, we need to seek peace with the truths of human sexuality. Maybe this means improvising new familial configurations.… Or maybe it just means we must learn to adjust our expectations concerning sexual fidelity. But this we know: vehement denial, inflexible religious or legislative dictate, and medieval stoning rituals in the desert have all proved powerless against our prehistoric predilections.”
And that’s worth remembering.
John Siegfried, a former Rehoboth resident, lives in Ft. Lauderdale. Email John Siegfried