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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Christopher Ryan Debunks Theory That Humans Are 'Hard-Wired' for Monogamy

Posted on Tue, Nov 8, 2011 at 9:30 AM

Christopher Ryan
  • Christopher Ryan

The "standard scientific narrative" about human romantic and sexual relationships goes like this: Men are obsessed with sex and determined to control their mates' sexuality to ensure they continue their own lineage. Women engage in sex with men only to make sure that they and their offspring have food and shelter. Thus, it's "natural" for men and women to pair-bond and be monogamous. So it went for generations. And then along comes Christopher Ryan. In his book, Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships, Ryan and co-author Cacilda Jetha use humor, logic, and boatloads of their own research to debunk the scientific literature that insists humans are "hard-wired" for monogamy, men are "born to cheat," and women tolerate sex but don't really like it.

Ryan, who has a doctorate in psychology and a bachelor's degree in English, appears Wednesday in a panel discussion at Supperclub San Francisco with sexologists and relationship-theory experts. The discussion is followed by a dance party. We spoke with Ryan recently about his book and his research.

How did you go about dismantling this "standard narrative" about human sexuality?

Four ways. We studied the behavior of the two primate species -- chimps and bonobos -- that are most closely related to humans. Second, we studied the human anatomy and how it has evolved as it relates to sex. Third, we looked at existing cultures that closely resemble the hunter-gatherer way of life that was prevalent before our current agriculture-based economy. Lastly, we considered psychosexual tendencies in humans.

What did you find?

We found the attributes that many scientists have applied to our species since its beginnings are really pretty recent developments. In the hunter-gatherer societies, for example, the current concept of one man providing food and shelter for his family didn't exist. Hunter-gatherers shared everything -- food, child rearing, sexual partners. In fact, if you didn't share food you were cast out from the group. Women also had a much larger role in the functioning of those societies and a higher status. So the idea of a woman needing to "keep a man around" by having sex with him just didn't apply.

How about the primate species?

Chimps and bonobos, like humans, are highly intelligent species with complex social groups that contain multiple males. Neither species is monogamous.

What led you to write the book?

It started in San Francisco in the mid-1990s. I was living with a stripper who worked at the O'Farrell Theater. She was a feminist, and lots of the women who worked there were too. At the time, I worked for a group called Women in Community Service -- I was the only het guy working there. It was me, a couple of gay guys, and about 50 extremely smart women who were politically -- and sexually -- savvy. I read The Moral Animal by Robert Wright, which is a version of the standard narrative about sexuality. I was blown away by it. It offered a way of understanding human behavior and sexuality. Then I began talking to the women I worked with, who said "That might make sense from a male perspective, but it's a really outdated, Victorian, male point of view." So I started my own research, and quickly I encountered a lot of information that undermined that narrative.


What are some common misconceptions people have about nonmonogamy?

The main one is people assume a relationship is either open or closed, and there's nothing in between. They don't appreciate the different gradations and the variety of arrangements couples can come to. There's an assumption that if you're not strictly monogamous then you're out in the streets, screwing people in public restrooms.

Do these assumptions spill over into scientific communities?

Absolutely. For example, in a lot of research, if there's any evidence of paternity outside a certain pair of animals, the researchers refer to it as "cheating." There's no concept that it could be consensual -- even among penguins. The language used to describe animal behavior is incredible, especially around sexuality. Another example, if one animal is hunting and kills another, it's often referred to as "murder" in the scientific literature.

A common quote about nonmonogamy is, "We tried all that in the 1960s and '70s -- and it didn't work." What do you say to that?

I hear that a lot from marriage counselors. The funny thing is, the people who say this don't think about certain truths. The first thing is, happy couples who have open relationships don't come to marriage counselors, so the counselors don't hear about arrangements that work. Society at large doesn't see more examples of successful nonmonogamous relationships because it's often wise to be discreet. Straying from tradition marriage is still risky -- it can end a political career, cost you friends, cost you a job. Because someone doesn't know about it, it doesn't mean it's not happening. Think of how some people thought about other sexual and relationship issues in the 1950s -- "I've never met any gay people, so there must not be any."

Are you against monogamy?

No. Nonmonogamy isn't for everyone. But neither is monogamy. In fact we don't advocate anything -- we're not interested in telling people how to live their lives. Our goal with this book is to say, "Here's what kind of animal we are. Do with that what you will."

What kind of response have you gotten from readers?

We have gotten tons of e-mail, and the overwhelming majority of it has been positive. Many people have said things like they feel "liberated." Many have thanked us for letting them know that they're "not crazy." And about 70 percent of it has been from women.

Christopher Ryan appears at 8 p.m. at Supperclub San Francisco, 657 Harrison (at Hawthorne), S.F. Admission is $25-$35.

For more events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.

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