- Austin Examiner
- by Sadie Smythe, August 27th, 2010
I recently had the opportunity to speak with psychologist Christopher Ryan, one of the authors of a revolutionary new book that debunks the theory that monogamy is a natural and thus appropriate construct for our species. The book is entitled Sex at Dawn; The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality and was co-written by Ryan's wife, psychiatrist Cacilda Jetha.
--What was the catalyst was for the inception of your book, Sex at Dawn?
I did my doctoral research on human sexual behavior in prehistory. Once I started to see how much the conventional narrative departed from what the data actually suggested about our sexual prehistory, I felt a book coming on. But I knew it would take a long time to bring my knowledge up to speed in the various areas I'd have to understand in order to put together a compelling argument: primatology, comparative primate anatomy, anthropology, archeology, psycho-sexuality, etc. It's impossible to say much about our sexual behavior in prehistory without getting into other aspects of what human life was like, in terms of politics, male/female relations, child care, diet, health, and so on.
--Those of us in non-monogamous open relationships have grasped the notion that sex and love are two very separate entities. It is clear that your book strives to enlighten others to this concept. How was it that the two became so inextricably linked in the first place?
Human beings are, perhaps more than anything else, a species that feels love: "Love is all you need." "God is love." "Love is all that matters." So, from a cultural perspective, if you can link love with a desired behavior, you've got a very powerful way to control behavior. Because of the inherent intimacy of sex, it's not hard to add love and convince people the two things are inseparable.
But love is equated with other, less likely, behaviors as well. I was struck recently by an interview I saw with Sebastian Junger, who's just published a book about American soldiers' experiences in Afghanistan, called "War." He was asked (I'm paraphrasing), "Given all the political complexities of modern wars, where it's not clear to most soldiers why they're fighting in a particular place and time, what motivates men to risk their lives in war?" He replied, "Love. They fight to protect their buddies. Even if they can't stand each other in normal life, once the bullets start flying, they'll risk everything for each other." He went on to say that this intense intimacy is what veterans report missing most about their time at war.
--I find it fascinating that people are so surprised that humans are not designed for monogamy, despite the rate of infidelity and the social tolerance surrounding it. What do you suppose is the reason for this disparity?
Human beings are extremely susceptible to cultural norms. People are surprised that they get obese from doing something as "normal" as drinking a 64 oz. bottle of Coke with every meal. They're amazed their arteries harden after a few decades on the sofa watching TV. "Everybody does it," they'll say. As a species, we've got an amazing ability to ignore the reality right in front of us if it doesn't fit with the dominant narrative we've internalized. I think it was the author Philip K. Dick who said, "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't disappear."
--When you studied jealousy (or the lack of jealousy in other cultures), did the concept of compersion, which is sometimes referred to as "the opposite of jealousy" come up at all? (The ability to feel empathetically the pleasure that your partner feels, even if the source of that pleasure is someone else)
No, I don't remember coming across that concept. But that doesn't mean people don't feel it. Most of the reports we have are filtered through anthropologists or explorers who may not have thought to ask about these sorts of feelings (as they would be so far from their own expectations) or who wouldn't have reported them even if they'd had such conversations, due to the very controversial nature of such notions. So much important information has been lost, or just not collected, because it could call into question the dominant paradigms of love and sex. I know of several modern anthropologists who openly admit that they left out of their ethnographic reports sexual information that they felt personally uncomfortable with. Then you've got cases like Darwin's daughter, who deleted any references to human sexuality she found to be too racy from his later works, including his autobiography (and she was an incredible prude!). Richard Burton, who was probably the greatest scholar of human sexuality in human history is another tragic case in point. He traveled the world, studying (and experiencing) the sexual practices of many different cultures. He was the first Westerner to visit Mecca (in disguise), first to translate the Kama Sutra to a Western language, spoke two dozen languages. Upon his death, his wife burned all his notes and writings on human sexuality. Thousands of pages of first-hand accounts lost forever because she feared they would tarnish his reputation.
--Since you admit to not "knowing what do to with the information" you present in your book in terms of negotiating or navigating new relationship styles, what do you suggest to your readers who might decide as a result of your findings that they want to follow their natural and biological inclinations and give non-monogamy a try? Do you feel a responsibility for providing such clear-cut information in terms of how others might proceed based on what they've read?
We made a conscious decision to try to stick to the science in this book. We're working on a follow-up book now that explores some of the ways people navigate their way through this tricky terrain, but in this book, we really wanted to just make the scientific argument and leave it at that. Our editor convinced us to add that last bit at the end where we explore, very briefly, how some of these ideas might play out in a typical marital crisis, but our original manuscript didn't address this sort of real-world application at all. We didn't want to be seen as advocates for any particular approach, because we're really not. People are dealing with so many different factors that we could never anticipate or address adequately in something as impersonal as a book.
Every relationship is a constantly changing world, with rules and customs no outsider can really understand. Cacilda and I respect the uniqueness of other people's relationships and would never presume to tell anyone else how to live their lives. We just wanted to offer a more accurate assessment of the realities of human sexual nature so people can make more informed decisions about how to move forward, either individually or together. I don't think it's necessary to really spell things out for readers too much these days. Between the books we mention in the text and a few minutes on Google, any interested reader can easily find whatever they're looking for, in terms of alternatives to conventional monogamy.
--So, do you agree with Freud's classic assertion that we are a species driven primarily by our libidos?
I do, actually. Freud was so very wrong about so very much, but I think his most basic insight was deeply correct and actually quite courageous: Human beings are highly libidinous creatures in conflict with "civilizations" that seek to repress and redirect those energies in ways that hurt us individually.
I'm sure there are Freud scholars who would disagree with my expression of the essence of "Civilization and its Discontents," but that's what I remember from reading it years ago. Forget all the Oedipus nonsense and the penis-envy crap that followed. That central insight is radical and, I think, very accurate.
Little known fact: apparently, young Sigmund was a chronic masturbator. His father told him that if he didn't stop masturbating, he'd cut off his penis. Thirty years later, Freud proposes that every man suffers from castration anxiety. Speak for yourself, Siggy!