October 7, 2011
Fifteen was big for me. I was named MVP of the varsity basketball squad even though I was the smallest cat on the team. A woman was fully naked on my bed for the first time. I received my first ever blow job (there may or not be a correlation between the final two items and the basketball thing). And I read the book that changed my life in ways no book had before. And maybe since.
The book? The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley. Let me give you some context. I attended Catholic schools all my life even though I wasn’t really a Catholic. When grade 11 rolled around every student at my high school had to take this world religions course; which I guess was supposed to make me an open minded and well rounded Catholic (well, one out of two isn’t bad). But I wasn’t just open minded, I was curious. In fact my curiosity knew and still knows no bounds (Once, while driving a car on the highway I decided to close my eyes and count to 10 just to see what would happen). But I was also sceptical. And cynical. And really, really, really, noticing the female form for the first time. I questioned everything and I do mean everything. So, at the point in my life where I was really doubting the whole religion thing and really getting into the premarital sex thing and thereby trying to find answers for myself I stumbled upon Alex Haley’s classic biography of the former Malcolm Little.
I cannot emphasize enough how Malcolm’s life story impacted and continues to impact all facets of my life, especially as far as the big three of politics, religion and sex are concerned. This may not make any sense to those of you who haven’t read the book but reading about Malcolm’s transformation and evolution from son of a Pan-Africanist into a street hustler into convicted felon into minister and spokesman for the Nation of Islam and then into founder of the Pan-Africanist Organization of Afro-American Unity was a revelation to me. It was riveting. Not necessarily because of what happened but how it happened. Here was a man whose long neglected intellectual curiosity wasn’t ignited until he was behind bars. But once the flame was lit it underpinned all his life’s work; from then on Malcolm never stopped trying to learn, never stopped seeking knowledge, never stopped questioning the status quo. The relentlessness of his mind informed his opinions and his work during the Civil Rights era. And though he’s often depicted as the yin to Martin Luther King’s yang, as supporting violent insurrection (by any means necessary!) versus pacifism (non-violent resistance) the truth is much more nuanced; the truth is Malcolm continued to evaluate and re-evaluate his own positions and convictions. Malcolm believed strongly that having an opinion meant nothing if you didn’t know why you held that position. Malcolm spoke with conviction and believed in his ideas but wasn’t afraid to change his mind, wasn’t afraid to admit error and change course once new and better avenues presented themselves.
For a kid struggling to reconcile his desire to live a “good” life with his urge to f**k everything moving with his guilt over no longer really “believing”, Malcolm’s life story was manna from heaven for the heart, the soul and the intellect. I’ve never forgotten that feeling, that feeling of discovering new ways to see the world and your place in it, that “a-ha” moment when someone articulates something you’d always known or felt without quite realizing it. Only a handful of books have been able to replicate that feeling since. I’d almost forgotten what it felt like. Then I read Sex At Dawn.
Written by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha, Sex At Dawn examines modern human sexuality by deconstructing the sexual behaviours and attitudes not just of our ancestors but of our closest primate relatives. Ryan and Jetha cast doubt on accepted “truths” of human sexuality while providing compelling evidence for a human sexuality that has its roots in egalitarian groups that shared food, child care and yes, even sexual partners.
In “What Darwin Didn’t Know About Sex”, the second and one of my favourite chapters in the book, Ryan and Jetha skilfully and entertainingly illustrate how much of Charles Darwin’s ideas and findings as expressed in his landmark On the Origin of Species were influenced (one might say he was blinded actually) by the Victorian era in which he lived. Big deal you might say, but think about it, we actually use the term Victorian to describe something or someone whose attitudes are restrictive, reserved and or prudish yet we let theories and attitudes from that period inform and/or reinforce the relatively strict sexual mores of modern life.
Throughout Sex at Dawn Ryan and Jetha illustrate just how off base these assumptions are. This may sound like heavy stuff but believe me this book is a joy to read. Ever wonder why women make so much noise while in flagrante delicto? Well, the chapter titled “When Girls Go Wild” is for you. Want a little cock talk? Well, ‘Sometimes a Penis Is Just a Penis” has got your name on it. If those chapter titles haven’t given it away this book really doesn’t take itself too seriously. The authors discuss weighty issues with ample grace and wit.
In the end Sex At Dawn’s most significant contribution isn’t whether or not Ryan and Jetha disprove much of what we’ve been taught about our sexual selves or whether or not they are right and legions of evolutionary psychologists, anthropologists and learned men are wrong. No, the true value of Sex At Dawn is in the questioning of unexamined yet widely accepted assumptions of what is “normal” and “natural” sexual behaviour.
I had numerous “a-ha” moments while reading this book, moments wherein I could recognize my own experience of sexuality and reconcile deeply held thoughts and feelings about sex and relationships within a larger human framework. In other words, reading Sex At Dawn helped me understand that many of my sexual thoughts and experiences might not be up to snuff according to accepted conventional wisdom but they are something better: They are human and they are natural.
In the years since first reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X I’ve continued to follow Malcolm’s example in many areas of my life. I vote how I vote not according to accepted orthodoxies but because of my own strongly held convictions. I eschew organized religion for reasons I won’t get into here. And I sure as hell sleep with who I want to, when I want to and how I want to with growing disregard for the accepted wisdom and greater for regard for what feels right and what feels natural.
The fact is I’m not 15 anymore. I can’t remember the last time I played basketball. And having naked women in my bed or receiving a blow job isn’t that big of a deal anymore (well, that’s not really true, seeing a naked woman and receiving a blow job still is quite a thrill.) And luckily for me there isn’t necessarily a correlation between basketball success and sexual success. But books and ideas still matter. The Autobiography of Malcolm X still matters to me. Sex At Dawn matters to me. Read them both if you get a chance.