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The Dawn of Swinging: An Interview With Christopher Ryan
By Kamela Dolinova
Created 09/22/2010 - 11:58am
Sex at Dawn , the new book on prehistoric human sexuality by Dr. (of psychology) Christopher Ryan and Dr. (of psychiatry) Cacilda Jethá, has already gotten heaps of media attention—with good reason. Using evidence from psychology, archeology, physiology, anthropology and primatology, the book traces the sexual behavior of our hunter-gatherer ancestors and comes to a culture-shocking but inescapable conclusion: as a species, Homo sapiens is not naturally monogamous.
Intelligent, iconoclastic, and wildly entertaining, the book takes on the "standard narrative" of the withholding female and the jealous male and turns it on its head. Reviews  and interviews  abound summarizing, praising and challenging the work, but we wanted to know: what does all this mean for the sexual activists and adventurers of the modern world?
I asked Christopher Ryan some questions about the things that matter to those who care about sexual freedom.
Kamela Dolinova: I understand that you are a psychologist and your wife is a psychiatrist. What led you into working on this book?
Christopher Ryan: I wrote my doctoral dissertation on human sexual behavior in prehistory and Cacilda did research on human sexuality in Mozambiquean villages for the World Health Organization back in the 90s, so this book has been percolating in both of us for a long time.
KD: I thoroughly enjoyed this book, both on an intellectual level and as entertainment. I've seen people comment, however, that your humorous style felt flippant or dismissive. In a field that is already so open to ridicule, why did you choose to write Sex at Dawn this way?
CR: Our goal was to write a book that was both informative and fun to read, but some people think that a serious book has to have a serious tone. We disagree. Humor can be very serious, and serious issues can be pretty funny. Plus, we're liberated by not being academics, so we don't need to worry about faculty meetings and tenure committees. I tried to have fun in my dissertation, but one of the readers on my committee kept writing, "Save it for the book." So I did.
KD: Many "experts" seem to believe that open relationships are impossible, and I've been surprised at the violent reaction  some people have had to your book. With all the misery that the "standard narrative" causes, what do you think people are so afraid of?
CR: When people feel threatened, they fear any relaxation of structures they think are protecting them. From Vietnam to the war on drugs, Americans refused to give an inch until millions of lives were needlessly destroyed. Often, the greatest threat we face is our refusal to accept the inevitability of change. By refusing to accept it, we surrender our opportunity to shape it.
Everybody knows that conventional marriage is a failed institution for the vast majority of people, but rather than allow it to change with the times, these reactionary types are digging in their heels. It's a very unfortunate pattern we see playing out in practically every arena of American society right now.
KD: I live and write in a loose-knit community of polyamorists, and know many people who make it work beautifully. What do you think is the next step for modern romance and family life?
CR: I suspect the next few decades are going to bring a radical reconfiguration of American society. Romance and family rituals generally follow and adapt to economic conditions, so we may well see realignments resulting in multi-family homes and off-the-grid communal situations. Some of these could involve some form of group parenting, home schooling, and so on. But a lot of this depends on what happens economically and politically in the U.S. Crisis brings opportunity for change, and major crisis looms ever larger these days.
KD: One of the things that struck me most strongly about this book was its powerful feminist message: your impassioned defense of female sexuality, and the descriptions of the brutal treatment women have received in the process of its repression. How much of writing this book, for you and Cacilda, was about this issue?
CR: Divide and conquer is the oldest trick in the book, and dividing men and women is probably its oldest application. The thing we most passionately wanted to convey in this book is that men and women are not from different planets and the so-called "War Between the Sexes" is a dangerous distraction from the real enemies targeting all of us. We need to be united against those who tell us we are born in sin and must live our lives in shame and guilt. We need to work together to overcome those who are trying to convince children that God hates them for their natural curiosity, refusing homosexual couples the dignity and legal protections of marriage, and legislating morality they themselves don't follow.
Much as we respect and admire Darwin, we thought it important to show how misogynistic the Darwinian view of human sexual evolution really is. We're all susceptible to social influence, and people need to understand how deeply Victorian morality is entwined in some Darwinian theory. [In Darwin's day], the notion that women are not particularly sexual beings and that they naturally trade their sexual "favors" for what they want from men [was common]. This same unwarranted assumption about female sexual appetite being limited to whores and nymphomaniacs fueled the pathologizing of healthy female sexual response [that continues to this day].
KD: I write about kink as well as about open relationships, and I noticed that you write only briefly about "paraphilias," and paint them in a negative light as the result of sexual repression. But you spend no time discussing the wide variety of kinky sex and fetishes that many enjoy in the modern world. Do you believe that the pain and power play that kinksters engage in is solely a result of the patriarchal power dynamics that emerged when our species went agricultural? Is there any evidence of "kinky" sex in hunter gatherer societies?
CR: Apart from group sex, partner-swapping, trans-gender acceptance, higher tolerance for child sexuality, and a lot of homosexuality, we didn't come across many indications of sexual practices that Westerners would consider kinky. This could simply reflect the fact that most anthropologists would be uncomfortable writing about these things, but it's more likely an indication that there's not much of a BDSM presence in hunter gatherers. It seems that when sexual satisfaction is relatively easy to come by [as it is in many such cultures], these more elaborate expressions of libido—particularly those related to pain and control—tend not to develop.
KD: One subject that didn't get a lot of treatment in your book was sex work. As a sex-positive feminist, I believe in women's rights to do sex work safely and consensually. Following from the theories in your book, sex work would have been wholly unnecessary until the dawn of agricultural civilization. Did you do any research as to when "the world's oldest profession" actually began, and what are your thoughts on sex work in the modern world?
CR: This would depend on how you define prostitution. As we discuss in the book, women often offer themselves sexually in order to motivate men to get out of their hammocks and do something productive. We also talk about a woman going with work parties to have sex with the men at the end of the day as a way to make the work more palatable. But this isn't really prostitution, as there's no money changing hands and the women, according to the anthropologists' reports, don't feel put upon in any way. This is just their way of contributing to the effort. So, if you're defining prostitution as money for sex, then it couldn't logically have arisen before the advent of agriculture which, if we're correct, was when sex (along with most everything else) shifted from an economy based upon sharing and plentitude to one organized around scarcity and hoarding.
As George Carlin observed a long time ago, how can it be legal to sell things and legal to have sex but illegal to sell sex? Any adult should be free to do whatever he or she wants with their mind and body. If someone wants to sell an hour of sex for $50, how is that different from agreeing to an hour of sex after eating a dinner that cost $50? It's nonsense. And it's dangerous nonsense because its illegality creates unregulated markets, inflates prices, and empowers the criminal element—just like we see with drugs. Declaring war against human nature is always a mistake, but we appear to be unable, or unwilling, to learn that lesson.
Sometimes I think the human brain is nature's only example of an animal having an organ it doesn't know how to use.