I have a really good male friend who lives with a woman. He also can’t keep it in his pants. He’s not a jerk, but when he’s on the road, which is a lot, he makes with the local fare. It doesn’t affect his home life; they aren’t that tight of a couple in the first place. But he still insists on referring to himself as a “slimebag” and a “sociopath” because that’s just how he rolls. This makes me sad.
Honestly, while it’s not ideal that he’s not super-up-front about his habits, this doesn’t make him a sociopath. It makes him not monogamous. Which is not a crime, a moral failing, or a sign of immaturity, according to two new authors.
Christopher Ryan, co-author of Sex at Dawn, wants my friend — and anyone else calling him- or herself nasty names because they don’t fit the marriage-plus-two-kids-forever mold — to know that the long-accepted idea that humans are naturally monogamous ain’t necessarily so. Give him a chance. At first, he sounds like he might be Mr. Leisure Suit with the cocked eyebrow and the vasectomy pin … and then? Then you start realizing he makes a lot of sense.
And it’s ideas like his that might do more to save marriage than anything else in today’s social-theory landscape. Seriously.
Start with his central argument: “The generally accepted myth of the origins and nature of human sexuality is not merely factually flawed, but destructive, sustaining a false sense of what it means to be a human being … It amounts to false advertising for a garment that fits almost no one. But we’re all supposed to buy and wear it anyway.” Wow!
So what is this destructive myth about how human sexuality works?
Christopher Ryan: Well, the standard narrative has many different parts, but the crux of it is that paternity certainty has always been of central concern to human males. So, there’s allegedly been this exchange between men and women that goes back to the origin of species, in which women trade sexual fidelity for material support and protection from a particular man.
Which seems to make perfect sense. That’s what we’ve always been told.
Christopher Ryan: It does! It makes so much sense to people who look around and say, “That’s the central exchange in the relationships in my life.” So they project it into prehistory, something I call Flintstonization, and assume that’s how it’s always been. It’s comforting for people who want to keep the status quo.
The trouble with it is that we’ve found that in prehistoric times — before our society became agrarian — there was no reason women had to trade sexual autonomy. Everything was shared, from sexual partners to childcare. This central conclusion concerning monogamy is just not backed up.
What’s destructive about this myth?
Christopher Ryan: It’s wrong. Adultery has been documented in every human culture studied, including those in which fornicators are routinely stoned to death. In light of all this bloody retribution, it’s hard to see how monogamy comes “naturally” to our species. If monogamy were an ancient, evolved trait characteristic of our species, like the myth says, adultery wouldn’t be an issue. No creature needs to be threatened with death to act in accord with its own nature.
One of the things that really propelled us to write this book was the feeling we got that the standard narrative is like the pre-Copernican version of the solar system. It’s so complicated, and it’s layer upon layer of explanation that doesn’t fit together.
The mainstream authorities have tried to plug it all together, but there are so many holes in their argument, it’s just sort of absurd.
How do bonobo apes factor into all this?
Christopher Ryan: Bonobo apes and chimps are our closest relatives on this planet. We share more DNA with them than we do with, say, gorillas. We’re more closely related than the African elephant is to the Indian elephant. So while people like to compare humans to, say, lions or walruses, and extrapolate the reasons for our behavior from the animal world, they really should be looking at the bonobos.
So? How do the bonobos work?
Christopher Ryan: They have a lot in common with us. They have sex even when the female is not ovulating, which is quite unusual. They spend most of their lives on the ground and are highly intelligent and intensely social. Their vaginas are more front-facing, making it easier to have missionary-position sex. They stare into each other’s eyes and kiss when they have sex, something that sets them apart from every other primate except for humans.
And they’re quite promiscuous. They don’t pair off for life. Rather, they live in close-knit groups where nobody’s quite sure who fathered any of the children of the group, which means everybody has a special interest in all of the children of the group.
Monogamy isn’t natural to any primate except — if we believe this narrative — us.
Are there are human societies where this is the case?
Christopher Ryan: Yeah. I go into it in depth in the book, but there are few examples. Paul Le Jeune was a 17th-century Jesuit missionary who lectured a Montagnais Indian man about their society’s promiscuity, and was told, “Thou hast no sense. You French people love only your own children. But we all love all the children of our tribe.”
And there’s the case of the Mosuo of Lugu Lake, in China. The have almost complete sexual freedom and autonomy for both men and women, which was first observed by the West via Marco Polo in the 1200s. They don’t marry, they call each other “friend” rather than “husband” or “wife,” and children are the paternal responsibility of a woman’s brother, not her husband. The Chinese have been trying to squelch this tendency since they gained control in 1956, but to no avail. The system continues to work in a peaceful way.
Let’s talk about female orgasms and how they factor into your argument.
Christopher Ryan: Well, it’s not the orgasms themselves. It’s the female copulatory vocalization. I’ve asked audiences everywhere: Raise your hand if you’ve ever heard your neighbors having sex. Now drop your hand if the man was making more noise than the woman. It’s universal: in every culture, the woman makes more noise.
It’s a direct contradiction to the standard narrative. If sex is universally shameful, and women are less libidinous, then why are they so likely to loudly announce their sexual pleasure?
It doesn’t fit into what we “know,” according to this central myth. But it does fit into our new paradigm, because the primate species where the females make the most noise are the one where the females are the most promiscuous, because this attracts other males.
Fine, I’m convinced that monogamy isn’t necessarily natural to our species, even though I’m personally happy to be monogamous. But weren’t the open-marriage experiments of the ’60s and ’70s sort of an epic fail?
Christopher Ryan: I question that the ’60s and ’70s were an epic fail. Everyone wants to say, “Well, we tried open marriage, and it was a disaster.” Well, we tried energy conservation in the ’70s, and it didn’t solve all our problems. Does that mean we never try again? You could say, “We tried racial integration, and it was a failure.” Was it? We don’t have a perfectly equal society, but we have a black president. Look at our social situation now — we’re debating gay marriage, and it has already passed in several states. Here in Spain, where I live, it’s completely accepted. In fact, it’s illegal to discriminate against LGBT people. The ’60s and ’70s laid the groundwork for what we have now.
When it comes to any sort of unconventional relationship that threatens the powers that be, success and discretion go hand in hand. Who knows how many people found their own non-standard ways of living and were completely successful? We hear about the failures. We don’t hear about private people who don’t want to attract attention to their arrangement, so they don’t run around proselytizing.
Now, that being said, it’s difficult to take a prehistoric sexual situation and insert it into a modern, capitalistic society. Like anything from prehistory — from diet to exercise patterns — we may know these things are healthy for us, but who has the time to walk 15 kilometers every day? Who wants to eat rabbits and insects? We are up against 10,000 years of agrarian culture. You don’t necessarily want this fluid situation for your kids when everyone else has fathers and central families at their school.
We don’t have the answer. We don’t know what to make of it either. But this pervasive myth has got to go. Our principal ambition for the book was that it would encourage and empower people to clarify their sexual nature before signing on to long-term commitments. All we’re advocating is to take a harm-reduction approach to infidelity rather than a “just say no” approach.
So, to those who say, “Just get divorced if there’s infidelity” …
Christopher Ryan: Marriages are not disposable TV dinners. It’s very American, this script that you just end the relationship. We’re calling for sex without lying. If that’s what you want, figure out a way to deal with these things without the deception, self-destruction and pain to both parties. You have to have the courage to come out of the closet about what you want or need, and you will eventually find people who understand that and can do that. You do it in every other aspect of your relationship. Be open about what you both need, and if you can’t figure that out ahead of time.
If you aren’t sexually compatible, that’s not a sign of immaturity. You can’t “just grow up” and change your nature. It’s a sign of being incompatible. Nothing more and nothing less.