The Dawn of Swinging: An Interview With Christopher Ryan
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.