With its argument that humans evolved as communal animals who shared partners, enjoyed regular group sex and raised children as a tribe, Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá’s 2010 book Sex at Dawn has already earned a place among the must-read tomes of modern polyamory, alongside The Ethical Slut and Opening Up.
We are closer to our hypersexual bonobo and chimpanzee cousins, write Ryan and Jethá, than to dull-witted, solitary and thoroughly monogamous gibbons.
The authors take on a long line of anthropologists who declare human monogamous marriage “an unquestionably correct principle” and “as close to being a human universal as anything about human behavior can” be. Instead, Sex at Dawn claims that monogamy is extremely difficult and even dangerous to human health.
Christopher Ryan sat down with Xtra before his talk in Vancouver on Aug 7 to discuss non-monogamy, authenticity and his new website for the sexually liberated. This is an excerpt from that interview.
You write in your book about the “nuclear meltdown,” in which the nuclear family is falling apart. Why do you think this is happening right now?
A couple different reasons. One is that until relatively recently monogamy really only applied to female sexual behaviour; it didn’t apply to men. Monogamy was about the woman not having sex with any other man; it wasn’t about who the man had sex with.
Once we got to the point where women had leverage, there was a decision to make. We had to say, “Okay, either men have to follow the same ridiculous rules as women, or we acknowledge that this is all a bunch of bullshit and nobody has to follow the rules.”
So we had free love and Woodstock and also this other movement saying that men have to follow the same rules as women. In general, the latter group won out. And when we try to repress something that is a very basic human appetite, we end up with a crisis.
The other reason is the internet. It’s possible for men or women to go online and say, “I’m into this or that,” or “I’m non-monogamous,” and find a whole community of people who support them.
In your book you make a very powerful case that monogamy isn’t good for us and that we seem hard-wired to be non-monogamous. But at the end of your book, you’re actually very conservative with your prescriptions.
When we pitched the book to publishers, a lot of them said, “We need a prescriptive book. We’ll double or triple the advance; just restrict all this scientific shit to the first part.” We said we weren’t going to write that kind of book.
I’ve got very little respect for people who claim the authority to tell other people how to live their sexual lives without ever meeting them. I don’t know anything about you and I’m going to tell you how to organize your fucking intimate life? That’s ridiculous.
We told them, “What we’re going to do is write a book presenting the science. This is how we are as an animal; this is the evidence. What people do with that information is completely up to them. I can’t tell people what to do.”
Could you shed any light on why gay and lesbian people have been so much more successful at polyamory?
That’s a good question. Many of my closest male friends have been gay, and I think the reason is that gay people go through a process of self-discovery, coming out of the closet, and acknowledgment of their own truth. That often makes them more authentic people. Heterosexuals can go through life faking it; gay people can’t.
There’s something about being gay that often makes people face truth and often makes them courageous and open and accepting about a reality that may be in conflict with what their society says it should be. I write at the end of my book that everyone’s got to come out of the closet. If you’re straight or gay, come out of your fucking closet.
But the other thing is that a gay couple doesn’t have to deal with the very different perspective of the opposite sex. Two men can say, “Hey, we’re both guys, we know what it’s like to be guys.” There’s a shared perspective.
You talk about poly people only very briefly in your book. Do you think the poly community is moving more in line with the hard-wired human nature you talk about in your book?
Well, yeah, but the gay community is as well. I think anybody who is moving away from a life of deceit and falsity towards a life of authenticity is moving in the direction that we talk about in the book. Polyamorists often say, “We’re doing the same thing as everyone else, we just don’t lie about it.”
Authenticity doesn’t necessarily lead to polyamory, or an open marriage, or being a swinger. Authenticity just leads to authenticity.
Tell me about the website you’re starting, KoTangle.
I tell this joke at the beginning of the presentation where I say, “You’re all really here to meet each other, not to hear me.” When I was in San Francisco, people told me, “Yeah, you’re right, we want to meet this kind of people, but we don’t know how.”
There’s something about the book that connects people. When you meet someone who’s into the book, you already know they’re going to be smart and open-minded and erotic.
The idea is to create a website where you can connect with those people. We also want a big offline presence. We want to find places around the world where people can physically come together and have a drink and get to know each other.
You say in the book you want to start conversations. Do you hear from people?
Oh, fuck yeah. Every day. One of the first emails was from a woman who said, “I’m a 63-year-old widow. This is the most important book I’ve ever read. I wish I could live my life over again now.” Three sentences; I’ll never forget it.
About 70 percent of the emails I get are from women. A lot of women say, “I have to stop every 10 pages to masturbate,” which surprised me because the book’s not sexy. But the feeling of liberation that a lot of women get from reading the book turns them on, which is wonderful.
I’m sure the guys are jerking off every 10 pages, too, but they would do it anyway. I stopped every 10 pages when I was writing it to masturbate, so there’s some symmetry there.