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How We Mate and Why We Cheat on Each Other

Christopher Ryan, coauthor of "Sex at Dawn," discusses the essence of human sexuality.
 
 
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Photo Credit: HarperCollins

 
 
 
 

Are human beings monogamous by nature? According to the conventional wisdom, it is in the interests of a woman to keep a male as a protector/provider, and in the interests of a man to provide only for his own children.

In Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships, Christopher Ryan and coauthor Cacilda Jethá aim to answer the question, “What is the essence of human sexuality and how did it get to be that way?” They contend that, “Cultural shifts that began about ten thousand years ago rendered the true story of human sexuality so subversive and threatening that for centuries it has been silenced by religious authorities, pathologized by physicians, studiously ignored by scientists, and covered up by moralizing therapists.”

And that true story? They liken us most to bonobos. “We didn’t descend from apes. We are apes.” Further, “Human beings evolved in intimate groups where almost everything was shared—food, shelter, child care, even sexual pleasure.”

Terrence McNally: Could you talk about your path to the work that you do today?

Christopher Ryan: My father taught literature in university, my grandfather taught literature in university, and my mother was an English teacher. I grew up in a house of books, and I love books.

I was doing my undergraduate work at Hobart College in upstate New York, and the student body was all sort of right-wing, George Bush’s niece was in my class. This was ’80 to ’84. The Reagan revolution was in full swing; everybody was chasing money. It was frat-boy central, but the faculty was sort of radical left-wing, Marxist, feminist. I ended up connecting much more with the faculty than with the student body. I was hanging out with the professors, winning awards, on the fast track to academia.

McNally: Going into the family business…

Ryan: Exactly.

I found a loophole in the student handbook that would allow me to graduate on time but skip my junior year, so I took advantage of it. My parents were paying cash for a very expensive education. I told them, “Look, I can save you guys a year’s tuition and I can go have an adventure. Then I’ll come back and finish up.”

I hitchhiked from New York to Alaska, did salmon fishing and worked in a cannery gutting salmon. I was this self-proclaimed pedantic little genius with my collected poetry of DH Lawrence in my backpack. A lot of the people who picked me up along the way were unimaginably generous and kind to me. They’d put me in the back seat with their little kids. They’d take me home and let me sleep in their house.

Why were these people so trusting and kind? I started to see that they were not at all intellectuals, but that there was a deeper kind of intelligence at work that I had not really thought about.

I ended up having a midlife crisis at 20. I looked back at my friends in the university world who were really smart, super high IQ, and I realized that if these people I was meeting had appeared in our world, they wouldn’t have been met with the same sort of generosity and kindness.

I started thinking, “Who do I want to be like? What kind of life do I want to have?”

That summer I said, “Okay, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing with this life and I’m too young to make a decision. So until I’m 30, I’m not going to make a commitment to anything or anyone.”