Sex & Relationships

How We Mate and Why We Cheat on Each Other

Christopher Ryan, coauthor of "Sex at Dawn," discusses the essence of human sexuality.

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.”

There’s a line in an essay by Robert Frost called The Shape a Poem Makes, “Like a piece of ice on a hot stove, a poem must ride its own melting." And I thought, I’m going to take my 20’s and ride my own melting. I’m just going to see what happens. I’m not going to go to graduate school; I’m not going to get married; I’m not going to have a career. I’m just going to float around the world open to whatever comes my way.

McNally: I had a similar experience, but for only a few years. I had an intense, very successful time in college; did some amazing things; helped start an alternative high school that I was the director of; helped run a camp for chronic schizophrenics. Great stuff. But when I graduated Harvard in 1969, I felt, I don’t want to be part of this institution, part of this establishment.

I spent the years until 1974 living on communes, including a sailing commune; organic farming; attending art school in Mexico; living out of my van; national staff of the McGovern campaign, etc. I just moved from thing to thing. What surprises me about your biography is that you actually go back and get a master’s and a PhD 20 years later. What led you to that?

Ryan: Following this sort of intentionally winding path, I ended up in Barcelona. First night in Barcelona, I had my bag stolen, passport, everything. While I was waiting for a new passport, someone offered me a job, someone else offered me a room, and I started meeting some pretty interesting women. I thought, well, I’ll just hang out here for the winter. That was 1989 and I’ve been based there ever since. Never assume an experience is bad until you see how it plays out down the road. Getting robbed might turn out to be a good thing.

I got to my mid-30s or so and I was getting frustrated. I was teaching English, doing some translating. I was living well but it wasn’t adding up to anything. You get to a point where you start to say, getting another stamp in my passport isn’t really doing it for me any more.

I hithchiked through England, which I would not recommend to anyone because nobody picks you up, and I got to Findhorn. I just wanted to see the place, because I’d read about it in The Secret Life of Plants.

I went into an information office, and a woman asked whether I was going to take some courses. I said, “Oh no, I can’t afford to do any courses. I’m just hitchhiking through.” She gave me pen and paper, and told me to sit down and write, who you are, what you’re doing, where you are in your life, and she would see what she could do. I wrote a little thing, and she came back a couple of hours later, and said, “Okay, you’re invited, one week, all expenses paid. But you can’t live in your tent, you got to live in the place with the other people and work in the gardens and in the kitchen.”

McNally:To earn your keep?

Ryan: Not really, but you do get to see the way the whole thing works and you do classes. It was transformative. I met people who had PhDs in psychology who were not watching rats in mazes. I’d always thought a PhD in psychology was behavioral, analytical, either very clinical or very quantitative. Here I saw people doing really interesting stuff, and that opened up a door. I knew I wanted to do something with my mind, and the way to get recognition and pay for that is to have letters after your name. So I sat down in the middle of the night a couple of months later and wrote a letter to Andrew Weill, who was at Harvard around the same time you were.

McNally: I met him for the first time then. He was at the med school studying marijuana among other things.

Ryan: I really admired his writing, the way he managed to combine multicultural perspectives in the medical model. He picks and chooses from different traditions. If you’ve got a chronic skin condition, he might consult an ayurvedic approach or Chinese. If you have a stress condition, he might look into yoga. But if you have a car accident, go to the hospital.

This must have been ’91 or ’92, long before email. Out of the blue, I wrote, "I admire your work. I admire the multicultural approach you take, and I think I’d like to do something like that with psychology. I’ve been traveling around the world; I’m very interested in the way different cultures approach universal human concerns, like sexuality or altered states of consciousness. Can you recommend a grad school or things to read?"

I didn’t think I’d ever hear from him. I’m sure the guy gets hundreds of letters from people with desperate medical issues. A couple of weeks later there was a message on my answering machine, “Hey Chris, this is Andy Weill, I got your letter, blah, blah, give me a call sometime, here’s my home number….” I couldn’t believe it, a) because he was so generous, b) because I hadn’t included my phone number in the letter. He’d called Spanish Information and got my phone number.

One of the things he recommended was a school in San Francisco, CIIS, California Institute of Integral Studies, I ended up moving to San Francisco and took a few courses there. Then I found out about Saybrook and did a PhD at Saybrook.

McNally:You follow an impulse which you know is a mad impulse -- to write Andy Weill. You act as if that will solve your problem, and it does.

Did you originally know that you’re going to focus on sexuality?

Ryan: No, at that point I was very interested in shamanism and altered states of consciousness. I did some work with MAPS, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies.

I think the reason I was so interested in altered states of consciousness was the same reason I’m interested in sexuality, which I hinted at earlier. These are universal phenomena that all people in all cultures experience, but they interpret them in very different ways. For example, every culture that’s ever had access to psychedelic plants has seen them as the greatest gift of the Gods -- except us. We throw people in prison longer for selling mushrooms than for second-degree murder. What does that mean?

McNally:Because America has such influence over international drug laws, their attitude has spread to a lot of western Europe hasn’t it?

Ryan:Particularly since the Reagan administration, because a lot of foreign aid depends on following the line.

McNally:Not just on drugs but also on birth control.

Ryan:Casilda, my wife and co-author, worked in Mozambique in the early ‘80s. She did research for the World Health Organization on sexuality, and ran straight into that problem. The funding depended upon people using condoms to combat AIDS, but as anyone who’s lived and worked in that part of Africa knows, nobody’s got money to buy condoms and nobody uses condoms. WHO wanted condoms and monogamy. She told them, “I grew up here. You’re not going to convince these people to be sexually monogamous. It’s just not part of their reality, so you’ve got to take a different approach.”

There was no other approach available or allowed. I was interested in sexuality as a way to tease out the differences between what’s human, what’s cultural, and what’s up to the individual. We’ve got three different parameters intersecting.

McNally: What’s determined by nature, what’s determined by culture, and what’s determined by the individual…

Ryan:It was Bill Clinton who led me to focus on sexuality. I’d done most of the coursework, and was casting about for topics for a PhD dissertation, when the Clinton and Lewinsky thing was happening.

I thought, if men have controlled all the levers of power since the beginning of time—military, economic, physical, whatever—how did they design a world in which the most powerful man in that world is publicly humiliated for doing something most men would do?

No-strings-attached sexual encounter, your wife doesn’t seem to mind, why not?

But he does that, and suddenly it’s a huge hubbub with Gingrich the hypocrite-in-chief leading the charge—while also cheating on his wife. What is going on here? I read a book called The Moral Animal by Robert Wright, a very well-written summation of the neo-Darwinian view of human sexual revolution. It’s beautifully designed: one chapter is theory and the next chapter is biographical sketches from Darwin’s life that illustrate the theory from the previous chapter. It’s a very good read.

McNally:Robert’s one of the big thinkers.

Ryan: And such a convincing writer. So I read that book, loved it, and started proselytizing. I was working for a non-profit group, Women in Community Service in San Francisco – basically 50 women and me. I laid out to them what in the book we call the standard narrative – men trade their resources for the fidelity of the woman to assure genetic paternity certainty and all that. These really smart, articulate women were not buying it, You know, that seems like a very Victorian, male vision of human sexuality. That’s not really how we’re experiencing this.

So out of respect for them, I went back and looked at the original research that Wright was referring to, and that’s when I found bonobos. Interesting. Bonobos are as relevant to human evolution as chimpanzees, and Wright had all kinds of references to chimps and very little about bonobos. Then I started finding cultures in which paternity was not an issue, but…well, it was an issue but in the opposite sense. There seemed to be rituals built into the society to intentionally obscure paternity.

McNally: So children exist in a tribe and no one knows who the father is?

Ryan:You can’t possibly know who the father is. There are seasonal rituals in which you cannot have sex with your normal partners, punishable by death, in some of these cases. There are dozens of societies in the Amazon and scattered around other parts of the world that believe that a fetus is literally composed of accumulated semen. If a woman wants to have a kid who’s smart and funny and good-looking, she’ll make sure she has sex with the smart guy, the funny guy and the good-looking guy to get the essence of all these different men into her baby. When the child is born, three different men will all acknowledge their paternity. Paternity is not seen as something that can only be with one man, it’s seen as something that can be shared among several.

I felt like I was pulling on a thread and suddenly the whole tapestry was starting to come apart.

McNally:The standard narrative?

Ryan: The standard narrative. I started to see how deeply political it is, as opposed to scientific. Everyone, including Darwin and me, chooses the evidence that fits our preconceived biases. I’m one of them. Things jump out. When I read that shared paternity stuff, boom, a bomb went off, because that fit my sense of reality.

On a personal level, all those years traveling around the world, I was doing a bit of research into human sexuality across cultures. One of the things I saw was that there’s an immense response sexually among women, when they feel safe, when they feel protected, when there’s no shame holding them down. But over 90% of the research in human sexuality is based on American undergraduates.

McNally:That’s also quite true of psychology. From the ‘50s to maybe the '90s, the subjects in most psychological studies, are college students or grad students ‘cause that’s who’s around and available, who’ll give you an hour for five bucks. I believe we’ve got to put an asterisk on most of that research.

When do you write this book?

Ryan: I did my dissertation on human sexual behavior and prehistory. “A Challenge to the Darwinian View” was the subtitle. This is fun stuff, juicy material, so as I was working on my dissertation, I would get a bit creative and throw in a little irony, a little nuance. Every time my professors on the committee would cross it out, and in the margin, they’d write, “Save it for the book.”

The dissertation was easy compared to the book. All I had to do was convince three people, but the book goes out into the world. I’m assumed I was going to get attacked from five different angles. I would need to know a lot more about primatology; about anthropology; about archeology; about human physiology and anatomy; about contemporary psychosexual research. In order able to defend my ideas, I felt I needed to know all five of those fields like a PhD in any one of those fields,

McNally:…because you’re not just adding the latest iteration of what’s already out there, you’re attacking and subverting the conventional ongoing thinking a bit in all of these fields, they’re going to come after you.

Ryan: As they should. That’s the scientific process.

I also didn’t want to be humiliated, I didn’t want to publish something and have somebody say, “Excuse me, you haven’t considered the gorilla, you know…” 

Between that caution and my natural proclivity to procrastinate, it was probably seven years before I got around to actually writing it. The idea was to release the book in 2009, the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth. When I initially pitched the book, it was called What Darwin Didn’t Know about Sex, modeled after Robert Wright’s book. I would use Darwin’s sexual biography as a way to show how his lack of experience -- at least his lack of breadth of experience with different women in different cultures—misinformed his understanding of human sexuality. But the publishers convinced me that was too narrow.

McNally:Yeah, that might get you the Darwin fans.

Ryan: And it will get them angry at me. So we broadened it a lot.

By that point I’d met Cacilda, in keeping with my attraction to multiculturalism. She’s half Indian, half Persian, and was raised in a Muslim Hindu family in Mozambique, Africa. She looks Indian; she’s got an African soul; because of the civil war, she was sent off to Portugal when she was 13, so her education is European. Just after getting her MD she went back to Mozambique to work as the only doctor in an area of 50,000 inhabitants about the size of Delaware. She drove in a pickup truck from village to village treating whatever she found.

Cacilda’s amazing, she diagnoses you by looking at your tongue and smelling your breath and that kind of thing. She’s from another world.

McNally: When I asked if she could join us, and you told me that a condition of her being coauthor is that you handle all the media.

Ryan: That’s right. She’s a private person.

She’d come home every day from running a mental hospital and the first thing she’d do is read what I’d written and give me wonderful, sometimes uncomfortably honest feedback. When I considered how to acknowledge her, I thought this whole book is about sharing and it wouldn’t exist without her. She didn’t sit down and write it but she’s a coauthor. Her thoughts and experience have informed every page.

McNally: Let’s return to the standard narrative which hangs on the reasons men and woman choose each other.

Ryan:This is the conventional view: Men choose women for their fertility and their indications of fidelity, and women choose men for their resources. Women needed the men for protection, for status, for shelter, for meat. Women are vulnerable when they’re pregnant and nursing, and can’t do all these things for themselves.

McNally: And men?

Ryan:Men don’t want to make an investment in someone else’s genetic legacy. The man is saying, “I don’t want to invest my time and effort and resources in someone else’s kid so I want to make sure you are not having sex with anyone else.”

McNally:And that man and that woman were living in a world of which Hobbes wrote…

Ryan: “Before the State, life was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

McNally:But your research tells you that, at least until agriculture, things were very different, how so?

Ryan:The world was always in flux. People lived in different areas; volcanoes erupted and changed the climate, ice ages happened, sea level rose and fell. There is no one savannah. Having said that, there are universal traits of immediate-return-hunter-gatherer societies wherever they’re found.

McNally: And immediate-return-hunter-gatherer societies were the norm pre-agriculture?

Ryan:That’s the way animals live, and we are animals. Our ancestors were moving around from one source of food to another. When they’d overhunted the rabbits in one area, for example, they just moved down to the beach. Research has shown that 70,000 years ago there were about 3,000 breeding human beings on the planet. The world was a pretty empty place.

McNally: How big were the groups they were living in?

Ryan:They generally didn’t get beyond 150 people. This is based on research by Robin Dunbar, and 150 is called Dunbar’s Number in honor of his research. That’s about the number of people that any one of us can keep track of.

McNally:Trust was based on the fact that there were no strangers.

Ryan:You knew everyone personally. When you get above 150, people start to become abstractions, and that changes our behavior toward one another. If your wallet’s on the table, I would never think of taking money out of it, right? But if you’re some nameless, faceless corporation and you undercharge me on a bill, maybe I won’t point it out to you. This is very important when you consider not just sexual issues but political issues; economic issues; questions of warfare; violence, all these sort of questions about human nature.

McNally: In these immediate-return-hunter-gatherer societies, no one was a stranger, and life was egalitarian?

Ryan:Pretty much every anthropologist who’s studied these people would concur with that. Because people are so interdependent, the worst thing that could happen is for schisms to develop within the group. And the best way to develop schisms is to have differences in power, in autonomy, in resources and so on.

The standard narrative posits that a guy goes out, kills a deer, comes back and says, “Okay I’m going to share this meat with my woman and our children. Sorry, rest of you, too bad.”

McNally: “Good luck hunting.”

Ryan:“Go get your own.” This presumes a sort of nuclear family prehistoric suburbia, with people living independently in their little houses. That’s not the way these people live. In fact, if you kill a deer, you may not even bring it back because there are so many rituals involved in making sure nobody gets proud. You might leave it outside the village and mention to someone else that it’s there. Men will exchange arrows so you can’t identify whose arrow killed a particular animal. There are all sorts of things built in to many of these societies that show how consciously they were avoiding the sorts of status accumulation that the standard narrative assumes and depends on.

McNally:So you’re sharing food, you’re sharing childcare, you’re sharing sexual pleasure. To what extent, and how much does this vary?

Ryan: We’re looking at immediate-return-hunter-gatherer societies that still exist, and it varies a lot. Of course, you can argue, how can you know? These societies have been evolving, they live in the present just like we do, they’re affected by disease. Nobody in the world is untouched by Western civilization. That’s a legitimate point in any of these sorts of discussions, so we look at other sources of information, one of which is human anatomy.

McNally:Comparing human anatomy to chimps and bonobos.

Ryan:…and gorillas, who after chimps and bonobos are the next closest relation to humans.

McNally:Are we equally close to chimps and bonobos?

Ryan: Exactly. The best way to think about this is as if I’ve got twin brothers—one’s a chimp, one’s a bonobo. They’re very closely related to each other, but next comes me.

Although they look very similar, their behavior is extremely different, particularly in terms of sexuality and politics. Frans DeWaal, probably the world’s best expert on chimps and bonobos, other than Jane Goodall perhaps, has said that chimps use violence to get sex and bonobos use sex to avoid violence. Chimps are male-dominated; bonobos are female-dominated.

McNally: Why the differences? Do we know?

Ryan:The best known theory, which I think was proposed by Richard Wrangham of Harvard, says that chimps and bonobos were probably one species. About a million years ago the Congo River shifted its course and cut that group in two. The chimps are on the north side of the river where there are also gorillas. There’s some overlap in the foods they eat, so there’s some competition. The bonobos are on the south side, with no gorillas and so less competition for resources.

The problem with that, according to classic Darwinian logic, the bonobos would have quickly saturated the environment and then had competition with each other. So it doesn’t really make sense, but that’s the accepted theory.

McNally: Why do you say we’re more similar to bonobos?

Ryan: Our sexual behavior is extremely similar.

A female chimp will never let another female chimp, much less a male chimp, hold her baby. Bonobos, shortly after giving birth, rejoin the group and let other bonobos hold their baby. We human beings give our babies to strangers in the grocery store.

Bonobos are the only other mammal that has sex face to face. They look in each others’ eyes, they kiss, they kiss each others’ hands, they hold hands. They have lots of same sex interactions, they practice, in fact, every possible combination other than mother-son

Bonobos are also very susceptible to stress. During WWII, there were some bonobos and chimps in two separate enclosures near Dresden, Germany. The bombing didn’t hit the zoo, but there was a lot of noise and chaos. All the bonobos died, and none of the chimps did.

McNally:  Different vulnerability to trauma…what does this mean for modern relationships?

Ryan: Different things to different people.

I didn’t pick the book’s subtitle -- How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships. The book is not prescriptive. When I give talks in public, I say, monogamy might not come naturally to our species, but there are lots of individual variations. For some people, it does come naturally; for most of us, it’s a challenge.

That doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with it. To me, it’s like vegetarianism, it can be very ethical, it can be wonderful, healthy, economical, morally superior. But just because you’ve decided to become a vegetarian, don’t expect that bacon will suddenly stop smelling good. That’s how I feel about monogamy. It’s not that it’s wrong or you shouldn’t do it, but you should understand that it may be challenging for both of you. Best to build some compassion and understanding into your relationship.

McNally: I think everyone understands that it’s a challenge. But you’re going beyond that. You’re also saying, “It’s not your fault.”

Ryan:Exactly. In a recent interview, the host called me a Shame Exorcist. I’ll accept that. “It’s not your fault.” It is your fault, however, if you’re going to lie and cheat and run around. I’m not supporting that behavior. I think it was Schopenhauer who said, “We can choose what we do but not what we want to do.” That’s the crux of the issue.

What you choose to do with this information is up to you and your partner or partners, but the information as far as I know is accurate. People do understand that marriage and long-term monogamy is a challenge, but I think there’s a lot of bias built into the cultural view that says, “If you aren’t willing to commit, there’s something wrong with you.” You’re immature or you have issues with your mother. Even though we know it can be work, I don’t think on a cultural level we acknowledge why. There are natural trajectories going in a different direction.

McNally:And that direction is?

Ryan:Sexuality for human beings is not about reproduction. Together with bonobos, we have sex close to 1000 times per birth. That’s unheard of for mammals; most mammals only have sex when the female is ovulating. It’s very goal-directed. But we have sex when the female is already pregnant; when she’s post-menopausal; when she’s menstruating; when she’s lactating. It doesn’t matter. Not to mention same sex encounters and all our different configurations.

McNally:All those things that don’t have anything to do with reproduction…

Ryan:We have sex for social reasons, not reproductive reasons.

McNally: At this moment, when folks—whether the church or right-wingers—are trying to legislate monogamy, even arguing in the Supreme Court that sex is illegal unless it’s for reproduction, I’d say these are worthwhile questions to look into.

Interviewer Terrence McNally hosts Free Forum on KPFK 90.7FM, Los Angeles and WBA I99.5FM, New York (streaming at kpfk.org and wbai.org). Visit terrencemcnally.net for podcasts of all interviews and more.