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Sex At Dawn: a boon to the open relationships crowd

From the Sex At Dawn website
From the Sex At Dawn website
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For polyamorists, swingers, and other practitioners of open relationships, America just became a slightly better place, thanks to the publication of Sex At Dawn, the new popular anthropology book that has been tearing up the blogosphere and major news outlets for several weeks now.  Since no lesser light than Dan Savage called the book "the single most important book on human sexuality since Kinsey unleashed Sexual Behavior in the Human Male on the American public in 1948," word about husband and wife duo Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha's work has been spreading like...well, like prehistoric women's legs. 

According to Ryan and Jetha, the overwhelming physiological and archeological evidence shows that our pre-agricultural ancestors were not monogamous, nor even serially monogamous as some more liberal thinkers claim.  Instead, these hunter-gatherers lived in "fiercely egalitarian" societies where everything was shared: food, shelter, parenting, and yes - sexual partners.  The common mode of living in early human bands was apparently closer to a communal marriage than what we think of as a "traditional" one, in which paternity certainty was unimportant and women - as well as men - had sex as often as they wished with as many as they wished. 

Predictably, a few misguided idiots and plenty of random internet commenters are responding to the book with a certain amount of vitriol.  But more surprising is that the first three pages of today's Google search for the book's title are full of praise for the work - a wave of mainstream media acceptance of the idea that maybe, just maybe, our species isn't naturally monogamous after all.

Ryan himself (clearly the public face of the book) has repeatedly said that people shouldn't take their findings as carte blanche to cheat on their spouses, or that everyone should be polyamorous.  In fact, it's impossible to say at this moment what the impact of the findings might be on the lives of people who now, 10,000 years after the advent of agriculture, live so very differently than their ancestors did.

Nonetheless, as Alan at Polyamory in the News points out, the popularity of this book and its scientific underpinnings are a huge step in the literature for those of us who have refused to buy into the monogamy deal.  The idea that jealousy is not an inherent human state, that the exchange of sexual exclusivity for security and support is a cultural construct, and that the natural state of human sexuality is much more complicated than the overculture would have us believe may not go over well with everyone, but it is a great leap forward from the slew of evolutionary psychologists and other authorities from Darwin onward who have insisted on our species "natural" propensity for pair-bonded monogamy.

I look forward to interviewing Christopher Ryan soon.  If you'd like to submit some questions for him, please do so in the comments!  I also highly recommend reading this fun and fascinating book - pick it up at your local bookstore.


  • Christopher Ryan 4 years ago

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Looking forward to the interview.

  • Alan PolyintheMedia 4 years ago

    Hi Kamela, and thanx for the link.

    I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop -- for someone to come out with a serious rebuttal to the book, as opposed to half-baked rants. The book zings and disses so many big names in the anthro world, and has turned Ryan into such a pop phenom, that I'm sure knives must be sharpening right now. Should be interesting (stocks up on popcorn).

    Alan M.

  • Alan PolyintheMedia 4 years ago

    Okay, a question for your interview:

    "Megan McArdle, the business and economics editor for The Atlantic, accuses you of 'cherry-picking' data to make your case. How do you respond?"

    Alan M.

  • Nick S 4 years ago

    Alan, personally, I'd respond "that's what Megan McArdle says every time she disagrees with anyone on anything".

    Kamela, much as I certainly welcome the findings here, I think it's overly tempting to use the idea that something is a state of nature as an argument for it. The fact that our ancestors did something is no more an argument for the things that we agree with (communal marriage, not bombing people) than the ones we disagree with (chattel slavery, wiping out whole species because it's easier than hunting them individually).

  • Anonymous 4 years ago

    I'd say the same about Megan McArdle; the less added to her addled commentary, the better.

    I hear you about being suspicious of calling something "natural" just because it agrees with our desired outcome; I'm wary of it as well. If you read the book, you'll see that Ryan and Jetha aren't arguing for polyamory as a new social structure; they are merely pointing out some of the possible, very compelling reasons why monogamy and its strictures seem to be so difficult for most human beings to manage well. What I like about this is not the easy out of saying, "Hey, our ancestors did it; that means it must be right." In fact, they consistently strive to point out that they are not trying to paint our ancestors as more "noble" than us; just using different survival strategies. What the book does do is give us some perspective on a huge cultural crutch that we have been told time and time again is the natural state for our species: monogamous pair-bonding. Having some solid evidence that the vast majority of us who cannot and do not mate monogamously for life aren't broken, wrong, or insane is, well, nice.

    Also, just for the sake of accuracy: I'm fairly sure that the nomadic, non-agricultural, hunter-gatherer tribes that they focus on weren't ever slave-holders; they'd have no reason to be. And there's some recent evidence that humans did not hunt mammoths to extinction.

  • Kamela 4 years ago

    That "anonymous" commenter was me (Kamela), by the way.

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