As in most of the western world, marriage, monogamy and the nuclear family have been the social mainstay mostly because of religious, and especially Judaeo-Christian, values. We still automatically assume monogamy is “normal”, but this is contrary to our essential nature, says human sexual scientist Christopher Ryan, author of a groundbreaking book, “Sex At Dawn”. By MANDY DE WAAL.
“First comes love. Then comes marriage. Then Mr and Mrs with a baby in a carriage.” The sing-song playground taunt children mockingly belt out to one another is very telling in terms of the expectations society has of relationships. If you’re in a serious courtship then the natural progression is towards the nuclear family where husband and wife are supposed to only have eyes for each other.
That’s not because it is what is best for you, but the progression is driven by what is best for capitalist society, say Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, who have written a book said to be the most influential tome on why we copulate since Kinsey put pen to paper.
“Sex At Dawn” hardly hit the bookstores when it featured on The New York Times bestseller list and had rave reviews from Dan Savage, the newspaper’s sex-advice columnist who called it: “the single most important book about human sexuality since Alfred Kinsey unleashed Sexual Behavior in the Human Male on the American public in 1948".
In the book Ryan and his psychiatrist wife Jethá not only trash a lot of what Darwin had to say about sex, but posit that monogamy is in conflict with our very nature and that humans are libidinous, if not downright promiscuous.
“We are mistaken if we think that societies are meant to benefit us, and to make life wonderful. The way I look at societies is as a super-organism, it is a system that arises and follows its own norms and its own appetites and this could be in direct conflict with individuals in that society,” says Ryan, speaking to The Daily Maverick from the US. “Marriage is essentially an economic institution and the nuclear family is an economic institution. This is not about making us happy or satisfying our natural appetites.”
There was a time when men and women were equal, but that changed with the advent of agricultural societies says Ryan, who argues that egalitarianism is the natural human position and that male superiority is a perversion brought about by the introduction of ownership of property. “What we are dealing with now is a distortion of human nature brought about by economic interests. To get at it directly, men controlling female human sexuality is all about property.”
Ryan says that before the rise of agriculture some 10,000 years ago humans had no notion of property ownership. “Our ancestors moved in nomadic groups so they didn’t have land they considered their own. Because they were moving around a lot they didn’t have a lot of personal objects they carried around. Further, it wasn’t important what man was the father of which child, because there wasn’t a reason to care. People only started caring about this when they had farms and domesticated animals.”
The notion of property ownership became evident during the agricultural era, when it became important for men to be sure of paternity because they wanted to leave their property to their sons. “In order to know who my son is, to be sure of paternity, is to control the sexual life of my mate, or my wife. This was the birth and origin of male and female inequality which was driven by the need to be assured of paternity and the only way to do that was by controlling the female. Before this when paternity was not an issue there was no need to control a woman’s sexual needs.”
Inequality is cemented by capitalism, consumerist culture and advertising which uses woman’s sexuality to sell things. “We use women’s sexuality to sell everything. A beautiful women standing next a car is supposed to make you buy the car so you get the woman. Hollywood movies, it is all about the rich man and the beautiful woman, and she is trading her sexuality for these resources. Using women’s sexuality to sell things cements the notion of women as property, and women as products.”
In their book Ryan and Jethá rubbish the conventional Darwinian view of sexuality that argues that women are whores by nature. “Darwinian biology will have us understand that women trade sexual access for resources, but we argue in the book that this is not true. Until 10,000 years ago everyone had direct access to resources and only in recent times was society arranged in such a way that the only way a woman could get any resources would be through her father or through her husband.”
Ryan says that women were forced to trade their sexuality for resources or else their children would starve or they would be cast out into the streets. He says to claim that women trade off of sex for resources is human nature is ridiculous. “The evidence is completely against this, but that is the view most people have including most scientists. So not only does Hollywood and commercial culture create this sense of women as prostitutes, but even conventional scientific views still perceive women in this shameful role of trading sex for stuff.”
During public talks once Ryan has explained the promiscuous nature of human sexuality the typical response he gets is: “You make us sound like animals talking about sex like this.” Ryan’s response? “What’s interesting is that most animals only have sex when the female can become pregnant, when she is ovulating. Human beings are one of few animals that have sex when the female is already pregnant, or when she is menstruating, or she is post-menopausal, or breast feeding. We have sex in ways that couldn’t possibly result in pregnancy, like oral sex and anal sex and all these other configurations. That is extremely unusual in biology. So, in fact, having sex very often and in lots of different ways is not animalistic at all, because animals don’t do that.”
Watch Christopher Ryan talking about Sex At Dawn:
Another Darwinian perception “Sex At Dawn” shatters is the view that men historically fought for the honour of having sex with one female. Ryan says that in pre-agricultural times several men would have sex with one female and sperm cells would compete within that one particular woman. “It wasn’t competition between individual men, but the sperm cells would compete within a female’s reproductive system which would distinguish the most compatible sperm cell for her genetics, and result in the healthiest baby.
“This is very compelling evidence, as it shows that human libido is not just to have fun, but that there are good biological reasons for an increased libido. In nomadic tribes it resulted in healthier children and reduced social conflict, which was very important for our ancestors.” Ryan says these nomadic tribes were very cooperative and men couldn’t waste time fighting each other all the time for sex. “They were not only sharing sexually, but they were sharing food, child care and the defence of the group. The whole society was based on sharing.”
Ryan believes that contemporary human sexuality is very primitive and that our ancestors were in many ways a lot more sophisticated than we are. “Sexual equality was a lot more balanced in prehistoric societies and hunter-gatherer societies than it is now, and woman had a higher or more equal status to men. When you take away the shame and power differentials that came after agriculture, you find that women’s status was very high in pre-agricultural societies and modern societies that avoided Christian missionaries.”
Watch Christopher Ryan being interviewed on monogamy by Thom Hartmann:
Ryan says that the principle ambition for writing “Sex At Dawn” was to educate people on the true nature of human sexuality in the hope of leading people to be more compassionate and tolerant of themselves and each other. “Knowledge is power, and the first step to human understanding is to comprehend what kind of creatures human beings really are.”
To achieve this Ryan says we need to see our species within the context of other animals and to understand where we are on the spectrum. “Once this is understood, there are many ways couples can reframe their relationship that might be helpful for them. People who haven’t read the book think it advocates polyamory or swinging, but not at all. One of the things I say is that we are not arguing against monogamy.”
Ryan explains the difficulty of trying to restrain sexuality using the metaphor of being a vegetarian. “What we are saying is that you can choose to be sexually monogamous for your whole life if you want to, but this is a choice like choosing to be a vegetarian. It can be an excellent decision morally, ethically, health-wise and on many different levels, but simply choosing to become a vegetarian does not mean bacon will stop smelling good.”
In other words one can choose to have a monogamous marriage, but it doesn’t mean falling in love or getting married will eliminate the natural appetite to have sex with other people. “Once you understand this then you don’t feel you are a failure because you have a fantasy about someone other than your husband. You don’t think there is something wrong with your husband or your marriage because you’re fantasising about someone else. No, it simply means that you are a homo sapien and that is how it is.”
Ryan says one can choose the context for relationships but people will have feelings and desires regardless of the decisions they make. “Once you understand your nature, and where these feelings come from, it is easier to control them if you choose to.” DM
- 'Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality' in Newsweek;
- Is Monogamy Unnatural? in The Atlantic;
- Our Promiscuous Prehistory in CounterPunch;
- 5 Things an Affair May Not Mean by Christopher Ryan in The Huffington Post;
- Mind Reading: Do Humans Prefer Free Love Over the Bonds of Nuclear Family? in Time Magazine.
- Visit “Sex At Dawn” online.
- Find “Sex at Dawn” on Facebook.
Main photo: Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá.