The fact that monogamy is a struggle doesn’t mean we’re sick; it means we’re human”
Research psychologist Christopher Ryan, PH.D., is refreshingly clear when it comes to monogamy, lust and marriage. In their recently published book ‘Sex At Dawn’, Ryan and his co-author Cacilda Jetha, take us on a fascinating journey through space and time to show the diverse nature of human sexuality and examine why modern humans struggle with monogamy.
‘Asked to imagine prehistoric human sex, most of us conjure the hackneyed image of the caveman dragging a dazed woman by her hair with one hand, a club in the other.’ Ryan and Jetha contest this image of prehistoric sexuality. They argue that prehistoric foraging societies in which human beings evolved were small-scaled, highly egalitarian groups who shared almost everything, including sex. Most adults, men and women, had several sexual relationships at any given time. Prehistoric humans were promiscuous, yet formed meaningful bonds with their sexual partners. Sharing was mandatory and life was not characterised by property or sexual possessiveness. All of this changed with the advent of agriculture. Private property replaced communal ownership and consequently paternity became a crucial concern. Women were the biggest losers in this new society. They went from occupying a central and respected role to becoming another possession for a man to earn and defend. Although we constructed a radically different society from our hunter-gatherer ancestors, we can’t deny our promiscuous past. According to the authors, it is this past which manifests itself in our current struggles over lust, monogamy and family.
What, in your opinion, has your research added to the existing literature on sex and monogamy? “We wanted to tell a different story of human sexuality and our sexual evolution. Almost all the stories being told by mainstream scientists, politicians, religious authorities and so on begin with the assumption that long-term sexual monogamy comes naturally to our species (or at least the female, in some iterations). So any straying from this ‘natural’ behaviour is a sign of pathology: something’s wrong with you, your partner, or your relationship. But our understanding of the data generates a very different narrative: long-term sexual monogamy is hard for many of us precisely because it’s not natural for our species. In fact, everything in our evolved nature leads us to seek erotic novelty, so the fact that monogamy is a struggle doesn’t mean we’re sick; it means we’re human. I think this is a very different place to begin the conversation, whether we’re speaking with our children, our therapist, or our partner(s).”
before meeting Cacilda (when I was working on my doctoral thesis on human sexual behaviour in prehistory), but I decided the book should be co-authored because she’d enriched the final product so much with her unique perspective as a woman of Indian background born and raised in Africa, who’d studied medicine in Portugal, done research for the W.H.O., etc. She brought so much knowledge and nuance to what I was writing that it would have been unfair and inaccurate to call her anything less than “co-author.” In addition to all those qualities, Cacilda has no problem telling me when a joke isn’t funny or a sentence doesn’t work.” Sex at Dawn’s basic message is that human beings are not, nor have ever been wired for monogamy. What are the most important factors which affect the success-rate of a monogamous union? “Several factors conspire to make longterm sexual monogamy difficult for people. As a species, we’ve evolved to be sexually responsive to novelty. From a genetic point of view, the lure of new partners (known to scientists as the Coolidge effect) combined with less responsiveness to the familiar (the Westermarck effect) motivated our ancestors to risk leaving their small hunter/gatherer societies to join other groups, thus avoiding incest and bringing crucial genetic vigor to future generations. Another problem is that most people in the West marry because they’re ‘in love,’which is a temporary, blissfully delusional state we should enjoy, but not expect to last forever. As the German poet,
“Most people in the West marry because they’re ‘in love,’ which is a temporary, blissfully delusional state we should enjoy, but not expect to last forever” Speaking of partners, you wrote ‘Sex at Dawn’ together with your wife who is a practicing psychiatrist. Was there any specific reason besides the fact you have the same disciplinary background, to team up with your wife?’ “Most of the book is based on research I’d done
Goethe put it, “Love is an ideal thing, marriage Your book has been a huge success; why a real thing. A confusion of the real with the do you think it became a bestseller?’ ideal never goes unpunished.” “Two words: Dan Savage [writer of the internationally syndicated relationship and sex advice column Savage Love]. He’s by far the Your book, which is a wide-ranging most read authority on sex and relationships investigation into prehistoric origins of in the U.S. Dan was our first—and most modern sexuality, has a powerful message passionate—supporter. When he demanded for women in particular. You refute that that all his millions of readers go out and buy a men and women always have been and copy, a lot of them did. That gave us a huge jolt always will be locked in erotic conflict. So of momentum.” we come from the same planet after all? “Divide and conquer is the oldest trick in the book, and dividing men and women is probably How about the book’s academic merit? Your its oldest application. The so-called “War of original approach and frank discussion of sex, the Sexes” is a dangerous distraction from the libido and fidelity must have been the biggest real enemies targeting all of us. What we need contributors to the book’s bestselling status. to do is stand together against those who try “Of course, if the book didn’t speak to people, to convince us that God hates us for natural interest would have quickly died out. We’re curiosity, refusing gay couples the dignity and very gratified that people don’t just like the legal protections of marriage, and legislating book, they get excited by it and tell all their morality which they themselves don’t follow.” friends. We’ve received many emails from people thanking us for saving their marriages, for helping them feel “normal” instead of In ‘Sex at Dawn’, you describe early hunter- ashamed of their sexual feelings, for showing gatherer women as sexually bold, independent how female libido is an important part of and thrill seeking. The suggestion that women human sexuality…. Clearly, many people were may have historically been just as open to sex ready to receive the message we tried to send as men, is one that many women find hard in Sex at Dawn.” to believe. What accounts for this skepticism? “It is hard for us to imagine how women would behave if they weren’t backed into a corner Currently ‘Sex at Dawn’ is being translated by being economically dependent on men. into Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Finnish, They carry several millennia worth of sexual Polish, Russian, Spanish and Ukrainian. Read repression on their backs. The effect of several more at www.sexatdawn.com millennia of humiliations, witch burnings, beatings, female genital cutting and stoning shouldn’t be underestimated in this context. That kind of campaign can really put a kink into someone’s sexual adventurousness! Women in societies that don’t cast them into the street as whores if they happen to get pregnant while single or humiliate teenage girls as “sluts” for texting a topless photo to a boyfriend seem to have much less trouble believing their female ancestors enjoyed active sex lives.” By Elke Weesjes 11