Book Reviews

The Sex Contract: The Evolution of Human Behavior

By Helen E. Fisher
William Morrow & Company, Inc., New York, 1982

Book Review by William A. Spriggs
Origin: April 24, 2008

When Time Magazine came out with its annual body/mind annual issue, January 28, 2008, there were several articles that were inter-twined with the work of Dr. Helen Fisher.  I’ve only read one other book of Dr. Fisher's several years ago and that was The First Sex, (1999) and was greatly impressed.  I recall her crisp explanations of the human female’s multi-tasking abilities that would be well suited for the economies of the 21st and 22nd centuries.  Then I remember reading elsewhere about the graduation numbers at American Universities which revealed that there were now more females graduating from colleges than males.  I also remember at that time, my imagination leaping into the future and visualizing an America that had a Congress – in both the House and the Senate -- with majority populations of females -- not just majorities, but non-veto proof majorities.

I thought: could it be possible that if all of our elected assemblies on planet Earth were composed of veto proof majorities of females, would those august bodies lead to sensible concerns for all of our planet’s citizens?  Would talk about caring about the poorest of the poor amongst us finally see action and not merely words?  Would compassion be the guiding principle of politics in this ‘brave new world’?

Would wars finally become obsolete?  Because, as we all know, it is the female that is the nurturer and not the destroyer of life and that the only reason there are wars today is that males have convinced their respective cultures that “only they can protect their populations again the ‘evil’ that lurks beyond the horizons.”  And, unfortunately, it is also the consensus view of the supporting dominate female’s point of view as well.

Since the publication of the January 28, 2008 Time issue, I have purchased three of the four books of Dr. Fisher’s that I did not possess, and decided to create this special section to her work.  This is the beginning of four book reviews centered on the works of Dr Fisher’s since her first book appeared in 1982 as I intend to re-read The First Sex and comment on it at length as well.  The more that I read and learn about her work, the more that I believe we should recommend her work to those who would like to learn more and to “man the barriers” on the front lines of evolutionary feminism.  She may not be aware of my elevating her to this lofty “revolutionary” position, but the biological basis in all of her writings, her respected scientific credentials within the evolutionary community, and her overall mission in her books of keeping the science boiled down to the simplest of writings so that more “common persons” can understand her work has placed her automatically in that position.

In the January 28, 2008 Time magazine article they called Dr. Fisher, “the queen mum of romance” most likely because of the influence from the publication of her last two books, Anatomy of Love, and Why We Love which appear to focus on the common person’s conception of “love.”  But, then again, the esteemed anthropologist was merely using that frame, or “hook,” to get the common person interested in the biological origins of our species’ mating habits – “Because I am interested in bringing anthropology to the public, I have elected to write a book for a general audience.” P. 16.  And she has been doing it for 26 years as the following passages in this 1982 book will show.  She hits the ground running from the very first page when she discusses Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and the phrase “survival of the fittest.” (Yes, I know, it was Herbert Spencer that coined the phrase, and Dr. Fisher does correctly state this fact in another section of the book). 

“…He also proposed a second, complementary concept – that of sexual selection.  This is the mating game, the battle of who will mate and breed with whom.  Every man and woman plays it.  Who wins, who loses, determines which genes will reach the next generation and which will become an evolutionary dead end.  So the game of love matters.  So much in fact, that it has influenced the entire course of human evolution and made us the remarkably sexy creatures we are today.”  P. 15

And then in the very next paragraph she goes first from anthropologistic to philosophical with these series of questions: 

“But why did we come down from the trees, evolve big breasts and penises, learn to bond and to raise families as “man and wife”?  Why do human beings feel sexual guilt and jealousy?  Why are we promiscuous?  Why do we lie?  Why do we smile?  Why are we the only animals that cry tears?  Why do human beings call someone aunt or cousin, fear incest, follow rules of whom to marry?  Why do we endlessly recombine our squeaks and hisses, coos and grunts to make complicated words with complicated meanings?  Why do we theorize about life, prepare for death, make love and war?” p. 15.

If you’re looking for the answers to these questions, this book is a great start as she does a fantastic job of answering every single one of these questions within the book.

But, let me just digress here for a moment.  As I read the first sentence, I thought -- wait a second, I wrote an essay about big human breasts and big human penises.  But recalling my “inspiration” for my essay, the idea came from reading Geoffery Miller’s 2000 Book, The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature.  Then I read the next page of The Sex Contract, and found this gem: “And those few who enjoy working on the maze of human roots have almost entirely overlooked the role of sex – the spark that I believe ignited all of human social life.” P. 16.  Then I thought, well, heck, maybe Mr. Miller got his idea from Dr. Fisher’s book because “Sexual Choice” is about sexual selection, and “human social life” is really “human nature.”  There is nothing to be ashamed of here – no one “stole” anything from anyone because the vast majority of science is really about standing on the shoulders of someone else’s theories or ideas that came before.  I just wanted to make the point that I now believe Dr. Fisher was the fountainhead to those two streams of thought even though I have no firm basis to state that fact.

What I liked best about this book is the mixture of fiction and fact used to simplify a truly difficult transition piece about the evolution of our human ancestors and their early sex lives.  She has the courage to announce that “though the facts in this book are the product of years of technical research by many accomplished scientists – to whom I am very grateful – the hypotheseis and syntesis are mine.  They are the product of my Ph.D. dissertation and subsequent research.” P. 16.  And once again, Dr. Fisher seemed to be already standing in that place when I tried to create a fiction section of my web site that was imbedded in the evolutionary perspective.  As you can see if you visit the web page, it really is a neglected area of my site.  But, once again, I have never read any of Dr. Fisher’s early works until last month.

But even more than the mixing of fiction derived from structured study, I was drawn into the book by the mere honesty and matter-of-fact descriptive prose.  It is totally from the female’s perspective and I was in awe as I could not recall ever reading a more detailed explanation of the female sexual orgasm -- wonderful in the fact that it was right there in front of me without any censorship or added comment, or, in many cases, carrying moral luggage; it comes at the end of the chapter called Sex Athletes:

“As a woman becomes sexually excited, blood pours into the vessels of the genitals and the general pelvic area. The nerve bundles begin to expand. The muscles around the clitoris, vaginal opening, and the anus begin to swell with blood.  This pressure is known as the “vaginal ache, “ Shortly, the spongy sacs that surround the vaginal opening expand to three times their normal size; the inner lips double their size, and the muscles of the entire genital area become engorged with blood.

“Then suddenly the distended tissues revolt.  They have become overwhelmed with blood and fluid.  The pressure is too great, and they contract to expel it.  First the wall of the uterus pulsates, followed quickly by the muscle of the outer third of the vagina, the sphincter of the rectum, and the tissues around the vaginal opening and clitoris.  About every four fifths of a second a new contraction hurls blood from the pelvic area back into the general system.  These rhythmic contractions constitute an orgasm.”
P. 31.

Wow -- See what you missed when you skipped your high school biology class that day?  Yeah, right -- we can only wish that these marvelous truths could be taught in all “free” public high school education arenas.

In The Sex Contract, Dr. Fisher sets the stage for the explanation of how the human female began her sexual voyage by teaching us a basic fact:
“…the human female is capable of constant sexual arousal.  She is physically able to make love every day of her adult life.  She can copulate during pregnancy, and she can resume sexual activity shortly after having a child.  She can make love whenever she pleases.” P. 24.  It is at this point where Dr. Fisher takes us down the path of the female primate’s “period of heat” – or estrus and it is also where she begins to take us on her fictional voyage of a young female baboon. 

Just prior to the introduction of the physical description of the female orgasm, Dr. Fisher reminds us how unique the human female is in her sexual arena.  The modern female can make love every day during her mating years -- including when she is pregnant, if she chooses.  In the animal kingdom, most females ‘come into heat’ during various times in their lives; some monthly, others yearly.  But not the human female.  In fact, “it is almost as if nature had wished human beings to make love daily, for in fact the human female is particularly designed to do so.” P. 31.  And, as a true gentleman, will not bring up the female’s ability to have multiple orgasms even though I must admit some jealously.  Yes, the human female is truly unique. Nature has designed the female not only to enjoy sex at the drop of a hat, but if she is fortunate to become pregnant and become a mother, she is given a bonus:

“Pregnancy and motherhood bring sexual rewards too.  During pregnancy, new capillaries are built to feed the expanding pelvic area, and fluid congregates in the genitals – heightening the force of orgasm.  Childbirth provides the genitals with added circulation too.  So for a mother the contractions of orgasm are more intense than they are for a childless woman.  And sex gets better with each new child.” p. 33.

It is after this marvelous introduction on human sexuality that Dr. Fisher then tells us that we – both females and males -- have become the sexy creatures that we are because it was in order to survive.  She then leads us into the chapter entitled, Before Adam and Eve in which her fictional prowess gives us the benefit of her superb imagination linked with scientific knowledge.  She takes us back 17 to 18 million years ago in Africa as the continents begin to shift beneath our ancestor’s feet and forced them to move into to their new home and the lush woodlands surrender to miles and miles of savannah fields.
But the book’s main purpose is to teach us what brought about the sex contract the book title carries.  What’s she means is that yes, the female is the reproductive vehicle in which we humans duplicate ourselves, but before she gets to the main event, Dr. Fisher needs to explain why the female ended up needing assistance from the male for child rearing in the first place.

Since the lush woodlands were disappearing, our ancestors had to search for food in wider and wider circles from their primary nesting grounds.  This sometimes meant that they had to carry items for long distances, and thus, forced them to use two hands to carry those items.  This in turn, forced our ancestors into an upright position.  Another prominent theory as to why our ancestors started to stand upright was that it was a small relief from the sun as standing would lead to less exposed body space.  But I prefer the “need to carry ‘stuff’” as the most logical explanation.  Let me quote lightly from several pages:

“Habitual carrying had forced them onto two legs instead of four and the ensuing genetic changes would eventually produce the sex creatures we are today…but the new stance and evolved skeleton created complications for females, complications that were to set them on the road to human life…with the reshaping of their pelvises, the diameters of their birth canals reduced in size – no longer permitting easy passage of their young.  Gradually, most females would experience difficult births and many died delivering their young Natural selection stepped in.

“In all living groups of organisms, there is variation between individuals.  And among the protohominids a few females displayed an unusual genetic trait: They bore their young too soon.  Under different circumstances the genetic capacity to deliver premature infants would have been undesirable, but among our first ancestors this quirk became essential to survival.  These mothers delivered infants with smaller heads – heads that easily navigated the shrinking birth canal…And gradually the descendants of these females proliferated in the protohomind population.

“Nature had solved the problem.  But now females were left with a new burden – premature infants who would require many extra months or even years of care…their infants were premature and more vulnerable.  They had to be fed and protected much longer.
“Gone were the days when female protohominids could independently cope with their young.  Now they would be forced to make a deal with males.  With this bargain the sex contract would begin.” 
Pp. 82-83.

Dr. Fisher, in the opening paragraphs of her most important chapter – the one with the same title as the book – echoes the modern day complaint of the modern female -- That the toughest thing in a relationship that a woman can get from a man is commitment.  It is the basis of every romantic comedy or tragedy in film or novel in modern times; it is also the bedrock foundation of the modern nuclear family.

“But when protohominid females started to struggle to raise their young they began to look around for help.  Everywhere was an untapped working force, a cornucopia, a gold mine – protohominid males.  They needed only to woo these males into helping them and their young survive.  But to charm them into a parental commitment would require more than wits.  I would demand a sexual revolution – the most spectacular the world would ever witness.” P. 87.

It is at this point, in order to explain how this transformation took place, Dr. Fisher returns to the female primate estrous cycle and reminds us that after the conception, birth, and nurturing of the infant, the female primate does not enter into estrous.  The sexual attractant of being in estrous, and thus, the ability to attract new male suitors is basically abated for the next two years.  As already explained above, “[as] females started to struggle to raise their young they began to look around for help,” the revolution began:

“But those females who came back into heat soon after delivering their young received the attentions of an entourage of suitors.  Everywhere they went they were in the middle of the group.  This had tremendous gains.” P. 90

Dr. Fisher continues that when a new mother came into heat she was the center of attention and when the morning came; her day started with sex, and always remained the center of attention.  When the female had sex, she put her progeny down in the center of the group where no predator could snatch it.  Furthermore, as Dr. Fisher exclaims: “The meals were good.” P. 90.

“Thus the new mother who came into heat soon after parturition received extra meat and protection for the part of every month she provided sex.  These profits she shared with her infant.  And because of these special benefits, her baby had a better chance to live to adulthood than did the infants of nonestrus mothers.  More of the infants of sexier mothers did live, grow up, and breed – passing this genetic anomaly to a greater percentage of the next generation.  Selection had begun to favor those unusual females who resumed sexual activity soon after delivering their young.

“Like these females, those who offered sex during pregnancy received the benefits of male attention too.  When meat was hauled back to a central spot, these females got more meat than did pregnant females who couldn’t offer sex.  Furthermore, while these females foraged, a group of males followed.  So they also got more protection on the savannah.  Thus more of these females lived through the vulnerable period of pregnancy.  They bore more young.  Their young had these same genetic traits.  And with time, females who engaged in sex during pregnancy proliferated in the protohomind population.”

“There you have it.  As generations passed, selection gradually produced more and more female protohominids who copulated for a longer period of their monthly cycle; who made love during pregnancy; who had sex sooner after parturition.  Protohominid females were beginning to lose their period of heat.”
Pp. 90-91.

Well, there it is ladies – straight from the “queen mum of romance” and her years of research.  I’m glad she wrote this structured, speculative piece and not me – I don’t think that I would be able to duck fast enough from the cascade of slings and arrows thrown my way from radical feminists.  I mean, reducing the beginning of humanity to an exchange of meat for sex?  Yep. Deal with it conservatives.

What Dr. Fisher is also teaching us is that the extension, or period of time, of the sexual “window” when a woman can have sex has also led to the physical change of what is known as “hidden ovulation.”  My own theory on the loss of the red sac that drove hunky alpha males up the sexual excitement wall fits nicely into Dr. Fisher’s theory.  Since the alpha males had the pick of the crème de la crème of the females who displayed the brightest, roundest, firmest, and the most symmetrical angogential sexual sacs out there; those who were not the “sexiest” were forced to the outer circle away from the alpha inner circle into ‘beta-land.”  It was the “survival of the prettiest” features whom got to remain in the primate “winners” inner circle.  It is my theory that those women who were forced to the outer circle of the groups with the other “loser” beta males, were the ones who found that those males were the most compliant and agreeable males to the new sexual contract that was being offered in front of their noses.  And it was within these “loser” groups of males and females who could not rely on their physical prowess but instead slowly shifted to the mental abilities to survive from which evolved the human body and survival spirit.  

Along with this new found mental capacity was the discovery of cooperation and sharing; no longer tooth and claw tearing at the fabric our of souls, they found a new way to survive.  But it was the female that sparked the evolutionary revolution and the man followed the female’s leadership in the new survival partnership.

“For this they had to work together.  He had to curb his selfishness when the food was low.  She had to check her anger when he lost his bearings.  But most important, they had to be willing to die for one another – and for her young.  As females had gradually lost their period of heat, males and learned to help care for the young around them.  But as bonding became a way of life, the males had to learn to protect these young.  To survive the rainless weather they had to learn compassion, allegiance, cooperation, and most important, the selflessness that would keep their tiny family alive.” P. 111.

Now I consider Dr. Fisher’s introduction to “post Darwin” theories of evolution to be one of the best I have ever read in a three page brief.  You can find these gems on pages 112 through 116 in the chapter called: The Social Consequences.  They cover, William Hamilton’s “inclusive fitness,”; Robert Trivers’ “reciprocal altruism,”; Eward O. Wilson’s 1974 book, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis; John Lock’s “tabula rasa,” and Herbert Spencer’s “Social Darwinism.”  It was Hebert Spencer who coined the phrase, “survival of the fittest,” not Darwin.  And it was, as Dr. Fisher points out concerning the historical period of the mid 19th century:

“These concepts suited the times.  Europe was in the grip of the industrial revolution and the political world embraced laissez-faire capitalism, colonialism, and expansionism.  Europeans were spreading out to Africa, Asia, and America, gobbling up land, subduing the natives and even massacring them.  But any guilt the harbored now vanished.  Spencer’s evolutionary theories vindicated them.  Even Darwin would call Spencer “by far the greatest living philosopher in England.”  Darwin’s Origin of Species, published in 1859, delivered the coup de grace.  Not only racial, class, and national differences but every single human emotion was the adaptive end product of evolution, selection, and survival of the fittest.” P. 116.

It was a giddy time for the male in the industrial societies of northern Europe.   They really thought that they were on top of the world in terms of financial wealth -- read the accumulation of ‘stuff,’ -- science, and industrial power.  At home, the female was expected ‘to know her place’ called the ‘home and hearth’ and she was expected to nurture the young, in their ‘proper’ roles.  The elevated ‘moral’ climate of the day was evangengical Christianity, and it was from all that was warm, cozy, and fuzzy came the traditions of Santa Claus and excessive consumerism; it also bred poverty and disease.  It was a time and conditions in the social world that lead Charles Dickens to write The Christmas Carol to remind the dominates that while they constructed a perfect world for themselves, they ignored the messages of Jesus and taking care of the poor.

Unfortunately, it was also the female who thought that this “excellent” way of life was also the best for her progeny at the expense of her fellow sister’s misery.  I know that it is unfair to criticize the female of the 19th and 20th century for their behavior because of their lack of knowledge of the evolutionary perspective.  So, it is with hope in my heart that I believe that the message will be sent forth to all the corners of the globe: rise up ladies.  Now is the time for your leadership.  And don’t worry; the men will follow – just as they always have.

I’m going to end this book review here as I have to move on to the next book by Dr. Fisher as I mentioned.  Here is a rundown of each of the chapters in the book.
Appendix A: Trajectory of Human Evolution.
Appendix B: Man’s Family Tree

This book is a wonderful introduction to the evolutionary and biological perspective of the origins of our human species and, in particular, human sexuality and its focus on the female perspective.  It is simple to read, well-written and fact verified.

I am placing in my recommended reading list, second level.  It would be helpful if basic biology is understood before reading and perhaps several introductory books on evolutionary psychology before diving into female psychobiology and psychology of mating.

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