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by Leonard Shlain
Penguin Books, 2003
Review by Jodi Forschmiedt, M.Ed. on Jan 1st 2005

Sex, Time and Power

In this ambitious tome Shlain sweeps the millennia, suggesting that all of the puzzling or bizarre human behaviors seen nowhere else in the animal world boil down to a simple economic truth: women need iron-rich food (meat) that only men can acquire; and men need sexual access to women.

Shlain traces the origins of our sexual issues back to the early days of bipedalism.  Having become upright and developed large brains (and therefore large heads), humans had a problem unique to the species.  Childbirth was so difficult and dangerous that fertile women were likely to die that way.  And so, Shlain suggests, females figured out the connection between sexual intercourse, pregnancy, childbirth, and death.  Having assessed the risk, they began to refuse to copulate.

Clearly, a species cannot survive if it fails to reproduce, so a series of adaptations ensured that offspring would be produced.  The first: iron deficiency.

Human females lose blood, and therefore iron, with every menstrual cycle.  They lose more iron to their fetuses during pregnancy, and the blood loss that comes with childbirth depletes their stores even further.  The result is a constant need for iron-rich food to maintain health and vitality.

In contrast, human males do not lose their stored iron on a regular basis, and therefore could live quite well on an all-plant diet.

Hence the deal.  In order to ensure the propagation of the species, Mother Nature endowed men with a hyperactive sex drive.  Males, wanting sex, will hunt and bring women the meat that they need.  Females, unable to hunt due to menstruation, pregnancy, and the care of small children, will dole out sex to their providers.

From this early transaction flowed the tense relations between the sexes that continues to this day.  Shlain painstakingly discusses human issues such as misogyny, homosexuality, incest, prostitution, and pornography within that framework; and uses it to propose explanations for some reproductive mysteries, such as the purpose of menstruation, the female orgasm, and early menopause.  Even language, Shlain claims, came about as a means for males to convince females to bestow their favors upon the smoothest talker. 

Parts of Shlain's argument seem tenuous, with a little too much conjecture pulling together the threads to fit the overall thesis.  For example, Shlain feels certain that it was the females of the human tribe who first understood the concept of time, an inspiration brought about by their cyclical menstruation.  But it seems to me that the natural world provides more than enough opportunities to observe the cyclical nature of time (night follows day, the moon's appearance and disappearance, the tides, the seasons, animal migration, etc).  The ability to use time to plan and anticipate future events may have been imparted to men by menstruating women, but a hard conclusion seems unwarranted.

Sex, Time and Power is aimed at an educated lay audience.  For those readers (like me) the book is a fascinating journey through evolutionary theory.  Anthropologists and biologists will undoubtedly find much to dismiss or contradict.  Shlain is a surgeon with an abiding interest in evolution and sexuality.  His work provides an excellent bridge for the public to access those subjects.


© 2004 Jodi Forschmiedt



Jodi Forschmiedt, M.Ed. reads, writes, and teaches in Seattle, Washington.


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