Sex at Dawn and the future of the polyamory movement
"Sex At Dawn is the single most important book about human sexuality since Alfred Kinsey unleashed Sexual Behavior in the Human Male on the American public in 1948."
—Dan Savage (read more).
This summer a new book, Sex At Dawn, created something of a pop-anthropology craze. The co-authors Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá — a husband and wife duo — argue that the human organism is designed to seek sexual variety and cite adultery amongst our ancestors across all cultures and eras....
—The Independent, London (read more).
Whether or not this book will really make such a splash in the wider world, I believe it is the most important thing to happen for the polyamory-awareness movement in a very long time.
Brief recap: Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality makes a well-documented case that for a million years or more, our hunter-gatherer ancestors evolved with an easy-going, egalitarian, polyamorous approach to sex and relationships. This crucial aspect of human nature was overridden and denied beginning relatively recently, when the invention of agriculture got large-scale civilization going. But modern anthropology has exposed our past and our evolved nature and made them undeniable, overthrowing the "standard model" that humans are naturally monogamous — much the way (says co-author Christopher Ryan) that accurate measurements of how the planets moved finally overthrew the increasingly awkward pre-Copernican model of the solar system. See my previous post.
Despite its fast, breezy style, the book provides a massive scientific underpinning to what we polys have been saying for years. It blows away the conventional wisdom that multiple relationships are unnatural or cannot fit with jealous human nature. In fact, it reverses the human-nature argument 180 degrees. No future discussion of the anthropology of sex will be able to ignore this work.
Why does it matter so much to us?
For most of the polyamory movement's 30-year history, advocates who have sought to give poly a theoretical foundation have generally turned to New Age or spiritual philosophies, involving things like the limitless nature of love, the spiritual heart of the universe, and other concepts that I find fairy-taley and unproductive. By unproductive I mean that theories built on them never seem to lead anywhere predictive or useful, as a good theory must.
Ryan and Jethá have now given us a theoretical underpinning that is concrete, scientific, and evidence-based. They show that polyamory matches what human nature actually evolved to be. Seen in this light, the modern, ethical, egalitarian version of poly offers a path to a saner future — in which humans are not so perpetually conflicted with themselves, and are less driven by the insatiable needs and neuroses that in many ways are causing us to ruin the world.
Yes, it's an important book.
Its impact on the poly awareness and acceptance movement isn't yet fully felt. Look in the book's index, and the word polyamory only appears on a few pages in the last chapter where the authors speculate about the future. In interviews, Ryan has said repeatedly that they don't really know what their findings imply for how people should handle their lives. Except they do say that couples should discuss from the start whether they want an open or closed relationship, and that everyone should realize that choosing monogamy means choosing a path that will become inherently difficult (though achievable), rather like choosing a life of celibacy or vegetarianism (both of which are unnatural but achievable).
Sound familiar? The need to have forthright relationship discussions, and to make deliberate relationship choices, is what the poly-awareness movement advocates. For instance, that's the gist of the position that the Polyamory Leadership Network agreed upon at its meeting last February. If anything, we are readier than Sex at Dawn to say that monogamy is the natural, hard-wired choice for many people.
At any rate, I think we're a little ahead of the Sex at Dawn authors in exploring how our true, ancestral nature can fit happily right into modern civilization. And perhaps make modern civilization itself a little more sane.
I won't try to keep up with the all the media attention the book is getting. Use Google News and see Ryan's Facebook page. But here is one article that goes into more depth than most. It's the cover story of the national news magazine of New Zealand, The Listener, for August 7-13:
By Hamish McKenzie
Here's the truth about sex: monogamy isn't natural, most libido-deprived marriages are no one's fault, and we like to do it in groups. A new book says we have been at war with eroticism for centuries, suppressing biological imperatives while attempting to abide by a societal structure set down by religious, political and scientific forces that have misinformed us about our sexuality. In service of the monogamy myth, marriages have been needlessly broken, families torn apart and political leaders from Bill Clinton to Don Brash humbled and humiliated. "By insisting upon an ideal vision marriage founded upon a lifetime sexual fidelity to one person — a visit most of us eventually learn is high unrealistic — we invite punishment up (ourselves, upon each other, and upon our children" writes psychologist Christopher Ryan....
...In the mid-1990s, Ryan was at San Francisco's Saybrook University casting about for ideas for his PhD thesis in evolutionary psychology.... [Ryan] had just read The Moral Animal, Richard White's best-seller on evolutionary psychology.... He started to see that the standard narrative [that humans are monogamous by nature] was naive in many ways. "It equated human beings with birds while ignoring the sexuality of chimps and bonobos, who are right next to us on the evolutionary tree." Ryan figured if he took that narrative and shifted it so the core principle became that humans evolved in groups that shared everything, including sexual pleasure, then everything started to make sense. "All of the different things, which, in the standard model have individual, mutually contradicting explanations — in our model they all fit into the same argument, and they're mutually reinforcing."
To turn his dissertation into a book, he spent five years reading up on primatology, anthropology and anatomy. What he ultimately found challenges or contradicts a slew of heavyweight intellectuals, including Steven Pinker, Helen Fisher, Napoleon Chagnon, Thomas Hobbes, and even Charles Darwin, who, though otherwise unimpeachable on evolution, apparently didn't know much about sex....
...The idea that monogamy isn't natural might not come easily to us. "It's normal that people are going to feel threatened by this," Ryan concedes, "because a lot of people, especially people who haven't read the book, think we're saying, 'Hey ladies, you should just let your husbands screw around and go back to the 50s when nobody made a big deal of it' — which isn't quite what we're saying." On the contrary, Ryan presents strong arguments for preserving marriages and useful advice for saving them. He talks about the power of "soul passion" over "sexual passion" and points out that all available statistics show single-parent kids do worse in life than kids with two loving parents. He is, in fact, married — to psychiatrist Cacilda Jethá , a Mozambique-born Indian with a Portuguese passport who shares an author credit for Sex at Dawn. Ryan and Jethá are simultaneously comforted and unsettled by the book's conclusions, but they hope they help, rather than hinder, marriages.
"We're not advocating anything except a candid and honest assessment of what we are, as animals," says Ryan. "Our greatest ambition for Sex at Dawn is that it will encourage and empower people to clarify their sexual nature and their sexual compatibility before they sign on to a long-term commitment that can't be renegotiated later without a huge amount of suffering for everyone involved."
...Ryan offers a sharp distinction between love and being in love. The former is deep and real, he argues, while the latter is probably just pleasantly delusional, a hasty misinterpretation of the hormonal frenzy that comes with initial, and ultimately fleeting, sexual passion (which lasts about two to four years).... But none of this is to say that love is doomed and there's no hope of finding a meaningful lifelong companion with whom to share intimacy... "We equate being in love with building your house on December ice," he continues with Northern Hemisphere-centric metaphor. "It's going to shift. It's not a very good idea. You're building on something that's not going to last very long. That's sexual passion. But there's a passion of the soul that doesn't dissipate with age and isn't touched by sexual attraction to other people...."
Ryan allows that his book's premise may not necessarily be right, but he did spend five years looking for a reason it was wrong and didn't find one. "If it is truth," says Ryan of his theory, "then it's completely predictable that the process of arriving at a life that incorporates that truth is going to be disruptive, because what you're doing is replacing one paradigm with a different paradigm, and that's always disruptive." But coming to terms with our sexual nature is, Ryan concludes, "ultimately liberating and invigorating". If he is right, then Western society, among a few others, may need to do some serious soul-searching....
...Of course, one of the big unanswered questions is why is jealousy such a powerful emotion, especially if monogamy was never meant to be such a big deal, and paternity certainty isn't as paramount as we at first thought. The standard evolutionary explanation holds that jealousy helps to ensure paternity certainty — making a man more sure about whether a child who emerges from a new mother's loins is his own. But Ryan argues this is a cultural construct with an economic justification. In its basic form, he says, jealousy is just fear of losing something that seems essential. "If you look at sexuality as a commodity — as it is now and has been for 10,000 years, more or less — it makes perfect sense that people are very afraid of losing it, because like all other commodities, it exists in the context of scarcity," he says. "So we fear losing our lover or relationship because we can't imagine ever replacing that feeling that we get from that person — that feeling of security, that feeling of intimacy. "If you imagine a society in which sexual pleasure — and intimacy and companionship and help with the kids and all the rest of it — was not a commodity and was not a scarce commodity, then people wouldn't be scared of losing it."...
The whole long article will be available online after August 28, 2010.