Christopher and Cacilda Jethá Ryan,
Sex at Dawn: Why We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships
( (Harper Collins, 2011).).
Sex at Dawn is a New York Times bestseller that claims to upend both traditional and contemporary perceptions regarding the sexual act, male-female relationships, and the biological and emotional nature of the human person. The authors’ overarching argument is that sexual monogamy is not only untenable, but in fact antithetical to the very nature of man. The book is a call to the reader to throw off the shackles of religious, economic, philosophical, and societal oppression and embrace the proto-man who longs to copulate freely.
The book opens with a search for the human person in his essence, a desire to find the proto-man who is unencumbered by cultural influence, philosophical rationalizations, or religious tenets. The authors believe that biological truths can only be arrived at after stripping the specimen of the accidents of history and environment or, quoting Joseph Campbell, to “discern the cultural from the human.” Surveying the research field, they caution against the intellectual trap of “Flintstonization,” the tendency of people to project their own experiences, emotions, perceptions, and culture on to persons who lived long ago. Yet Ryan and Jethá seem unaware that their entire argument relies on their own version of a pre-historic human person who hunts and gathers everything from nuts to sexual partners with equal liberality.
On the evolutionary timetable, the real problem seems to have started with the advent of agriculture. Although they state openly that they do not believe in the possibility of a terrestrial Eden, the authors blame agrarian society for the degeneration of hunter-gatherer man from a being who, like the bonobos (emphatically not like Darwin’s apes), shared resources without hesitation. Human beings only began hoarding sexual activity (monogamy) when they began hoarding resources (farming). “The shift from foraging to farming was less a giant leap forward than a dizzying fall from grace” because it transformed altruistic men into oppressors and women from equal partners into grubbing slaves.
Ryan and Jethá regard Genesis and Darwin with equal disdain. Both advance different versions of the same lie: namely, that there is something in man which impels him to procreate, and that sex is the method that makes this possible. These lies, for their part, exist to hide from view the essential truth that “preconscious impulses remain our biological baseline, our reference point, the zero in our own personal number system” and that any attempt “to rise above nature is always a risky, exhaustive endeavor, often resulting in spectacular collapse.”
And all of this, they say, to maintain patriarchal power. As evidence that the “standard narrative,” is a construct, the authors cite case studies of a few aboriginal tribes who lacked a clear understanding of the connection between sex and reproduction.
Yet it turns out that the authors’ warnings against “Flintstonization” and “assumed narratives” are the very traps they fall into themselves. Instead of Fred Flintstone, they see Rousseau’s noble savage; rather than believing in Jesus or Darwin, they believe in Nietzsche and Marx. They label the understanding of human sexuality that has been held for millennia (i.e., that the sex act exists in large part to continue the species) as “fundamentalist” and assert that any and all arguments are valid—except the one they have labeled “fundamentalist.”
And so, the authors begin with a conclusion: sex and procreation have very little to do with one another; therefore, individual people and society as a whole will find happiness only when they accept the fact that the two are not inextricably linked. The methodology follows the same simplistic lines—make a broad, previously unreasoned statement (i.e., paternity didn’t matter until the introduction of agriculture), quote a case study of an obscure tribe (the Tubis of lowland South America), cite a research paper on the habits of a certain species of primates (usually bonobos), then repeat the original statement, but more broadly and with greater force (paternity has never mattered for mankind).
The book as a whole is structured in the same way. Part I (“On the Origin of the Specious”) asserts that the “standard narrative” of the interdependence of men and women for mutual physical and social flourishing (including the perpetuation of the human race) is a myth which, if continued to be believed, will result in personal and large-scale frustration and disappointment. Parts II through IV (“Lust in Paradise,” “The Way We Weren’t,” and “Bodies in Motion”) weave together studies in primatology and anthropology to form a body of evidence which is more sensationalist than informative. For instance, an entire chapter is dedicated to measurement and meaning of the male anatomy of six species of ape (including human). A stick figure chart is included. Finally, Part V (“Men are from Africa, Women are from Africa”) restates the theme of freedom from extraneous limitations on the nature of our species. “There are an infinite number of ways to adapt a flexible and loving partnership to our ancient appetites,” they declare and encourage the reader to speak with his or her loved one(s) about how to move forward in their relationships armed with this new knowledge that one’s physical urges will, in the end, supersede any attempts to be faithful to any one individual outside himself.
Some reviewers have labeled Sex at Dawn as “pseudo-science,” a category which, at the very least, must be acknowledged if one wishes to address such broad topics as human sexuality with contemporary readers. True to much discussion in a post-digital world, what the argument lacks in scientific rigor or substance is supplemented with personality and social media marketing. The co-authors are a married couple; however, the book is really just Ryan’s online university PhD thesis. (One gets the sense that Jethá was brought into the project to lend the legitimacy of her psychiatric practice and World Health Organization research.)
Sex at Dawn was published seven years ago, but it was the stepping off point for Chris Ryan as a mini-celebrity with an air of academia. His website, www.chrisryanphd.com, links to his most recent TED Talk (2.1 million views), appearances on more than a dozen news and information shows, his ongoing podcast, and pre-order information for his forthcoming book, Civilized to Death (C2D for short). Given Sex at Dawn’s philosophical dead end, it’s not surprising to see that Ryan’s next work questions whether modern man can even experience happiness.
In the end, the popular success of Sex at Dawn—both as a book and as an argument for man as “sexual omnivore”—is due to Chris Ryan’s successful packaging rather than the strength of his argument. Yet this type of argument may be the primary source modern readers encounter, and those who wish to engage the culture in a serious way would do well to be aware of it.
Colet C. Bostick is a writer and editor living in Damascus, Maryland.
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Colet C. Bostick is a writer and editor living in Damascus, Maryland.