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Sexual Habits of our Ancestors

by (273)
Updated about 13 hours ago
Created October 14, 2010 at 3:05 AM

What were the sexual habits of our paleolithic ancestors like? Did they primarily have one partner, or various partners? Were they more sexual in Spring then Summer, or sexual in all seasons like modern humans? Was it everyone for themselves? How do these sexual habits of our ancestors influence us now?

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923 · August 27, 2011 at 4:39 AM

"Humans have generally been monogamous," Nope.

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1377 · August 26, 2011 at 1:41 PM

@ Grace: Jealousy certainly isn't just a neolithic feeling! Humans have generally been monogamous, with a definite propensity for infidelity (polygamy for males, hypergamy for females), the exception being powerful males who developed large harems (no female equivalent). While I don't have anything against polyamorous relationships built on honesty and openness (besides the fact that they're very hard to pull off), monogamy and infidelity are much more "Paleo." If anything, polyamory is about as modern as it gets.

A0f2f0f632d42215944a798486bddde1
1377 · August 26, 2011 at 1:40 PM

@ Grace: Jealousy certainly isn't just a neolithic feeling! Humans have generally been either monogamous, with a definite propensity for infidelity (polygamy for males, hypergamy for females), the exception being powerful males who developed large harems (no female equivalent). While I don't have anything against polyamorous relationships built on honesty and openness (besides the fact that they're very hard to pull off), monogamy and infidelity are much more "Paleo." If anything, polyamory is about as modern as it gets.

70c80ef4af756841d1d0913c619cccba
2153 · January 18, 2011 at 5:07 AM

grace- I have lots of friends who are polyamorous. The rules vary for each couple and honesty, integrity and trust is paramount. Most are very satisfied and fulfilled. I think the general idea is that its is very hard to fulfill a person's needs in every way. Being a sexual, spiritual, emotional, and intellectual partner to someone is a huge role for one person to fill. Having several or other partners helps relieve that pressure and fills in gaps. Just because you enjoy another person sexually doesn't necessarily decrease your love or affection for another.

70c80ef4af756841d1d0913c619cccba
2153 · January 18, 2011 at 5:00 AM

in response to your rape comment Women's bodies have a pretty strong mechanism to deter rape. In modern women, we call it vaginismus because it usually causes problems instead of prevent them. back then (and sometimes now) it was useful to keep women from devoting their bodies and time to offspring from a mate she didn't choose. the pelvic floor is able to seize/contract to restrict entry. This can prevent penetration. For modern women who suffer from vaginismus, it means painful if not impossible sex. Also, if you look at the research, many rapes are spawned from a need for power not sex.

3864f9a2af09b1b447c7963058650a34
3703 · October 18, 2010 at 2:54 PM

I see. Why we are hard wired for so many multifaceted emotions can be endlessly beguiling.

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923 · October 17, 2010 at 10:49 PM

I think the importance of Sex at Dawn lies in its throwing another wrench into the modern narrative that claims monogamy as the "right" way to live. The book is certainly not perfect, but it doesn't need to be. I've particularly enjoyed the angry sputtering that its caused from folks like Megan McArdle at the Atlantic. Jealousy is such a multi-faceted beast. Its resentment, its low self-esteem, its culture, its so many things; it requires a great amount of onion-peeling to figure out. Poly is the opposite of avoidance. Its about understanding the why, and applying reason.

3864f9a2af09b1b447c7963058650a34
3703 · October 17, 2010 at 8:59 PM

Keith, That is curious!! What are your thoughts on avoiding jealousy and any other 'neolithic' feelings regarding sharing partners? Is this avoided and how?? Like others here, I loved reading Sex at Dawn however I think the authors over emphasized the love lives of primates. Red Queen by Matt Ridley is more expansive surveying almost the entire animal kingdom which is an approach I highly appreciate! Thanks! G

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56596 · October 14, 2010 at 9:55 PM

Anatomy way, unlike ducks, we don't seem to have evolutionary adaptions to rape.

9d43f6873107e17ca4d1a5055aa7a2ad
56596 · October 14, 2010 at 9:54 PM

No way of knowing this.

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2437 · October 14, 2010 at 6:16 PM

Where did you read this?

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6157 · October 14, 2010 at 3:44 PM

I think I agree with you on the point that women are genuinely attracted (in general). My earlier comment was a bit facetious. I don't think women consciously try to breed with the alpha and trick the betas. But I think the data suggest that about 15% of the time, women are invested in relationships with their mate, but end up getting pregnant by another (presumably more attractive?) man, and she and the mate end up rearing the child, the mate none the wiser.

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15583 · October 14, 2010 at 3:33 PM

Some, yes, that's what the point about being attracted to alphas near ovulation and betas all the rest of the time is about, but the point is that the women *are* actually sincerely attracted at both these points, not really attracted to alphas but fooling betas all the time. Since humans require extended periods of attachment and co-operation it makes sense to be genuinely invested in these relationships.

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273 · October 14, 2010 at 1:31 PM

Monogamy does seems like the evolutionarily sound option in present days. I believe it also builds character, discipline, and some other good traits that help one to realize their full potential. But it's also not for everyone.

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6157 · October 14, 2010 at 1:15 PM

David, it would make some evolutionary sense to try to breed with the alpha and trick the betas into raising them, no?

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15583 · October 14, 2010 at 11:55 AM

The claim about the alpha male seems flatly contradicted by the empirical evidence, given that women's preferences for alpha/beta style men seems to vary with their menstrual cycle (and with a million other factors). Female mate-selection seems a lot more complex than simply 'alpha male = good.' It's even been shown that in animals where there is nominally a monopoly on mating for the alpha male, that a large number of offspring are fathered by the beta males. In a species where offspring need so much investment it would make no sense for all females to be attracted to the alpha male.

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1132 · October 14, 2010 at 8:27 AM

Jared Diamond talks about the sexual habits of Hunter Gatherers in his book "Guns, Germs and Steel". They couldn't reproduce more than once every 4 years, because of the need to stay mobile. Most likely each tribe had one "alpha" male who had several female partners, until he was displaced of by the next "alpha" male - like gorillas, lions, wolves. Monogamy is not natural to us, we our only bound to it by modern society. Girls are always attracted to the "alpha" male even today.

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15583 · October 14, 2010 at 7:51 AM

That probably makes sense in a context where food is comparatively scarce (not that I think this was true of all paleo communities, but doubtless true for some places some of the time). Also I recall reading (http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/131734.php) that when men are more stressed they tend to prefer women with less small waists, since this signals a greater cortisol response on the part of the woman (more akin to a man's) and more ability to deal with stress. That said there's every reason to think that the figure is a caricature rather than a literal representation of anything.

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2437 · October 14, 2010 at 6:36 AM

I've never read of one source on any hunter-gatherer tribe which "fooled around." Actually there was one instance recorded on the !Kung and the man was killed. Instead every tribe I've read about practiced marriage but there marriage was easy to change. Some stayed with one partner for life, some left one and married another. Almost no sex outside of marriage but marriage was not a rigid arrangement.

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28 · October 14, 2010 at 5:52 AM

Population growth during Paleolithic times was at a stable equilibrium and only exploded with the agricultural revolution. Interestingly it did so not because of improved health or nutrition (as we know the opposite was the case), but probably reduced birth spacing.

5c6d2426000079749240d1a566017369
28 · October 14, 2010 at 5:49 AM

Population growth during Paleolithic times was at a stable equilibrium and only exploded with the agricultural revolution. Interestingly it did so not because of improved health or nutrition (as we know the opposite was the case), but probably due to reduced birth spacing.

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4089 · October 14, 2010 at 5:23 AM

The odd thing is that if this theory is true, Paleo humans' ideal woman looked like she'd porked out on the SAD.

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24523 · October 14, 2010 at 3:46 AM

Oh boy, she needs to get on a webcam asap!

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4089 · October 14, 2010 at 3:43 AM

We had culture, ethics, and morality back then too, albeit not quite as detailed, and lawyers are definitely a neolithic development...

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4089 · October 14, 2010 at 3:39 AM

Don't be so sure that Grok lived a pron-free life. There's a theory that those "cave Venus" figurines (of fat women with big breasts and buttocks) could very easily have been pr0n. The following may be NSFW if you work in a H/G environment: http://www.palaeogeek.net/2009/06/ancient-ivory-figurine-deserves-a-more-thoughtful-label/

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56596 · October 14, 2010 at 4:27 AM

I did a post about our promiscuous heritage recently after reading Sex at Dawn. It's funny because that knowledge makes me MORE committed to monogamy, or at least serial monogamy. The truth is that STDs and unplanned pregnancy are a real worry these days. But the benefits of "unprotected" sex and the detriments of birth control are also very real. I definitely think that it's healthier physically and mentally to have large amounts of real sex with one partner who you are in a committed and stable relationship with than to load your body up with hormonal pills to have plastic "protected" sex with a bunch of people.

Either way Sex At Dawn is a great read.

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273 · October 14, 2010 at 1:31 PM

Monogamy does seems like the evolutionarily sound option in present days. I believe it also builds character, discipline, and some other good traits that help one to realize their full potential. But it's also not for everyone.

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960 · October 14, 2010 at 3:25 AM

Oh, goodness. Well, the jury is certainly out on this one (these ones? you posted a lot of different habits to address), and probably will be for some time. For a few examples,

evolutionary psychologists seem to be leaning towards polygamous and frequent sex-- with also a whole lot of monogamy in between. Some researchers have pointed out that the human male testes size is right in the middle of testes size for primates, and there seems to be a scale: large testes = polyamorous, small testes = less so.

No one really knows why female genitalia "moved" to the front. Some believe it may have even precipitated the development of language, as men and women were forced to communicate.

No one is really sure why female sexuality seems more fluid and aroused by more things (watching both males, females, and animals having sex) than male sexuality. Some attribute it to protective measures--so that the female is always 'ready' to be penetrated, whereas others point instead to the social structure of our bonobo relatives, which includes inter-female sexuality.

Some think children were raised nuclearly--that is, by a monogamous couple--whereas others think children were raised more communally, since it would have been difficult to discern who the father always was. Others, of course, assert that both of these possibilities were probably practiced.

Some researchers propose that rape was an evolved mechanism to spread seed. Other researchers really don't like this one.

I'm sorry I don't have citations for any of these. I could probably find a few. But if you want a reliable source I would check out any of the pop sci books out there today, or also this book: http://www.amazon.com/Evolution-Human-Sexuality-Donald-Symons/dp/0195029070 (pricey). Or this: (more accessible):http://www.amazon.com/Evolution-Desire-Revised-4/dp/046500802X/ref=pd_sim_b_1

As a final caveat, evolutionary psychology in and of itself is on a wire these days. Post modernist society questions (condemns?) the cultural context from which we all look back on our acestors, and in particular condemn gender norms for skewing our biases. Its hard to see human nature in the past clearly when we don't really have an understanding of human nature in the present.

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2153 · January 18, 2011 at 5:00 AM

in response to your rape comment Women's bodies have a pretty strong mechanism to deter rape. In modern women, we call it vaginismus because it usually causes problems instead of prevent them. back then (and sometimes now) it was useful to keep women from devoting their bodies and time to offspring from a mate she didn't choose. the pelvic floor is able to seize/contract to restrict entry. This can prevent penetration. For modern women who suffer from vaginismus, it means painful if not impossible sex. Also, if you look at the research, many rapes are spawned from a need for power not sex.

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923 · October 17, 2010 at 4:55 AM

I see that Sex at Dawn has already been recommended a few times. The central thesis of that book being, that, for most of our history, humankind was essentially non-monogamous; if you accept that premise, I would recommend "Opening Up" by Tristan Taormino for a good primer on living a modern polyamorous life. Its not as scary or risky as some folks may think.

Bcad307b240275ae3f5820ba6eb4a712
923 · August 27, 2011 at 4:39 AM

"Humans have generally been monogamous," Nope.

A0f2f0f632d42215944a798486bddde1
1377 · August 26, 2011 at 1:41 PM

@ Grace: Jealousy certainly isn't just a neolithic feeling! Humans have generally been monogamous, with a definite propensity for infidelity (polygamy for males, hypergamy for females), the exception being powerful males who developed large harems (no female equivalent). While I don't have anything against polyamorous relationships built on honesty and openness (besides the fact that they're very hard to pull off), monogamy and infidelity are much more "Paleo." If anything, polyamory is about as modern as it gets.

A0f2f0f632d42215944a798486bddde1
1377 · August 26, 2011 at 1:40 PM

@ Grace: Jealousy certainly isn't just a neolithic feeling! Humans have generally been either monogamous, with a definite propensity for infidelity (polygamy for males, hypergamy for females), the exception being powerful males who developed large harems (no female equivalent). While I don't have anything against polyamorous relationships built on honesty and openness (besides the fact that they're very hard to pull off), monogamy and infidelity are much more "Paleo." If anything, polyamory is about as modern as it gets.

70c80ef4af756841d1d0913c619cccba
2153 · January 18, 2011 at 5:07 AM

grace- I have lots of friends who are polyamorous. The rules vary for each couple and honesty, integrity and trust is paramount. Most are very satisfied and fulfilled. I think the general idea is that its is very hard to fulfill a person's needs in every way. Being a sexual, spiritual, emotional, and intellectual partner to someone is a huge role for one person to fill. Having several or other partners helps relieve that pressure and fills in gaps. Just because you enjoy another person sexually doesn't necessarily decrease your love or affection for another.

3864f9a2af09b1b447c7963058650a34
3703 · October 18, 2010 at 2:54 PM

I see. Why we are hard wired for so many multifaceted emotions can be endlessly beguiling.

Bcad307b240275ae3f5820ba6eb4a712
923 · October 17, 2010 at 10:49 PM

I think the importance of Sex at Dawn lies in its throwing another wrench into the modern narrative that claims monogamy as the "right" way to live. The book is certainly not perfect, but it doesn't need to be. I've particularly enjoyed the angry sputtering that its caused from folks like Megan McArdle at the Atlantic. Jealousy is such a multi-faceted beast. Its resentment, its low self-esteem, its culture, its so many things; it requires a great amount of onion-peeling to figure out. Poly is the opposite of avoidance. Its about understanding the why, and applying reason.

3864f9a2af09b1b447c7963058650a34
3703 · October 17, 2010 at 8:59 PM

Keith, That is curious!! What are your thoughts on avoiding jealousy and any other 'neolithic' feelings regarding sharing partners? Is this avoided and how?? Like others here, I loved reading Sex at Dawn however I think the authors over emphasized the love lives of primates. Red Queen by Matt Ridley is more expansive surveying almost the entire animal kingdom which is an approach I highly appreciate! Thanks! G

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4059 · October 14, 2010 at 4:10 AM

Well, they all did it enough times over like 3 million years to add up to 6 billion people, so I'd say pretty freakin' active.

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28 · October 14, 2010 at 5:52 AM

Population growth during Paleolithic times was at a stable equilibrium and only exploded with the agricultural revolution. Interestingly it did so not because of improved health or nutrition (as we know the opposite was the case), but probably reduced birth spacing.

5c6d2426000079749240d1a566017369
28 · October 14, 2010 at 5:49 AM

Population growth during Paleolithic times was at a stable equilibrium and only exploded with the agricultural revolution. Interestingly it did so not because of improved health or nutrition (as we know the opposite was the case), but probably due to reduced birth spacing.

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20 · October 14, 2010 at 3:39 AM

Other than curiosity, you need to think about why you ask this question, and how you choose to apply the answer, if you ever get one.

Whatever sexual practices may have been, this is one area that may not transfer to the present like a good evolutionary diet does.

Society today is not the same. Sexually transmitted diseases are not the same.

Today we have culture, ethics, morality, and an expectation of honorable treatment. The fact that some people, and my soon-to-be-ex-wife in particular, exhibit none of these, makes them no less important.

Perhaps more so. Today's tribes are often 2 plus children. If you can't trust your partner to watch your back, and protect you from STD's via monogamy, who can you trust?

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4089 · October 14, 2010 at 3:43 AM

We had culture, ethics, and morality back then too, albeit not quite as detailed, and lawyers are definitely a neolithic development...

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588 · October 14, 2010 at 3:37 AM

I would say like most things its a bit of both and everything in between...

One good indicator of monogamy vs polygamy is the size difference between males and females, when the male is much larger than the female he typically has many partners, when they are of similar size you tend to get monogamy...

But as recent studies of "life long monogamous" birds has shown, appearances can be deceiving! I beleive both females and males in a partnership do "wander" at certain times of year or circumstances.

I think almost certainly there was a typical nuclear like family (we have evidence for this in burials) but also a lot of fooling around going on! Remember we are them, they are us! Indefinitely is incredibly common, and I am sure most men can attest to the fact that even being head over heals in love doesn't stop the blood pumping and inappropriate thoughts at the siting of a sexy reproductivly able random female ;)

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2437 · October 14, 2010 at 6:36 AM

I've never read of one source on any hunter-gatherer tribe which "fooled around." Actually there was one instance recorded on the !Kung and the man was killed. Instead every tribe I've read about practiced marriage but there marriage was easy to change. Some stayed with one partner for life, some left one and married another. Almost no sex outside of marriage but marriage was not a rigid arrangement.

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24523 · October 14, 2010 at 3:32 AM

I'm not sure about those questions, but it is important to note that they didn't have access to unlimited free pornography.

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15583 · October 14, 2010 at 7:51 AM

That probably makes sense in a context where food is comparatively scarce (not that I think this was true of all paleo communities, but doubtless true for some places some of the time). Also I recall reading (http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/131734.php) that when men are more stressed they tend to prefer women with less small waists, since this signals a greater cortisol response on the part of the woman (more akin to a man's) and more ability to deal with stress. That said there's every reason to think that the figure is a caricature rather than a literal representation of anything.

Ce0b5fd94b1034e96cf710b6f138c29d
4089 · October 14, 2010 at 5:23 AM

The odd thing is that if this theory is true, Paleo humans' ideal woman looked like she'd porked out on the SAD.

21fd060d0796fdb8a4a990441e08eae7
24523 · October 14, 2010 at 3:46 AM

Oh boy, she needs to get on a webcam asap!

Ce0b5fd94b1034e96cf710b6f138c29d
4089 · October 14, 2010 at 3:39 AM

Don't be so sure that Grok lived a pron-free life. There's a theory that those "cave Venus" figurines (of fat women with big breasts and buttocks) could very easily have been pr0n. The following may be NSFW if you work in a H/G environment: http://www.palaeogeek.net/2009/06/ancient-ivory-figurine-deserves-a-more-thoughtful-label/

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20787 · October 14, 2010 at 3:30 AM

Hard to guess, but if you look at current tribes, there are trends. Most have bonded pairings/marriages that are supposed to be monogamous. In many, the pairings are arranged by parents/relatives. The men often have more choice than the women and play around more than the women. Sometimes, a dowry is paid either by the man's family or by the woman's family. Often, the woman goes off to live with the man's family or tribe, but not often the reverse. Women typically get paired off right around puberty.

I also saw one tribe in which sexual playing around outside the marriage was actually considered normal and allowed, but this does not seem to be the norm in many tribes.

I think we can only guess from what we see in various tribes now and in their recent history how it might have been further back. Since tribes vary greatly now, there was probably also a huge ton of variation back then. HOwever, each tribe would have had to work out a situation that allowed the tribe to thrive. But apparently, there are many ways that this can be done. I would guess also that the environment would effect how things were run. Nomadic peoples in areas of sparse resources would probably have set up their social system differently than people in say a rich tropical environment that allowed more of a stable village life.

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4089 · October 14, 2010 at 3:29 AM

Unfortunately, there's no way to really tell who was bonking who in what combinations, permutations, and frequencies, from the fossil record. Odds are we did what we do now, which is a majority of people hew to whatever the cultural norm is, and rather a lot of people don't. And those norms probably varied quite a lot. And there would have been a lot of gossip, and jealousy, and the odd fight, and, well, observe your local dating scene, whether it's singles bars or church socials. I think that "human mating practices vary widely" is about the only completely safe generalization you can make in this area.

As for seasonality, well, it is possible to have sex while winter camping. And in the spring, there are a lot of biting insects about. And this all varies according to climate anyhow. I think we're just wired to get as much as we can whenever we can.

There's a great little Aussie film called Ten Canoes that tells a story about love among pre-contact Australian Aborigenes. The story involves two brothers, one who has three wives, the other who has none, and wants his brother's third wife. It's probably pretty speculative and I wouldn't want to assume that its representations of Aboriginal sexual practices and morality is accurate, but it is worth a watch.

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641 · October 16, 2010 at 4:36 PM

Agree that there is no way to really know, but we can make educated guesses.

To get a substantial backgrounder, I suggest reading all of Jared Diamond's books (in the order that they were published), then reading "Sex at Dawn".

My takeaway: Sex was a lot more egalitarian and promiscuous than you'd think it was.

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1793 · October 14, 2010 at 11:35 AM

I haven't read any of the literature on this topic. A lot of smart people think our ancestors were rather permiscuous by modern standard. The question that comes to my mind is: If they really were polyamorous, how did they deal with potential inbreeding? A few years back I went to a part of southwestern China where there lives small group of people who practice a form of loose polygamy. A woman I met who was studying this and similar groups said inbreeding had been a problem.

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193 · October 14, 2010 at 12:56 PM

I think rape was common, unfortunately.

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56596 · October 14, 2010 at 9:55 PM

Anatomy way, unlike ducks, we don't seem to have evolutionary adaptions to rape.

9d43f6873107e17ca4d1a5055aa7a2ad
56596 · October 14, 2010 at 9:54 PM

No way of knowing this.

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2437 · October 14, 2010 at 6:16 PM

Where did you read this?

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