Author Christopher Ryan and the socio-evolutionary reasons for non-monogamy

Pub date November 4, 2011
WriterYael Chanoff
SectionSex Blog

Love your partner and love to fool around with other people? Author Christopher Ryan says that’s perfectly natural. A psychologist and historian who insists that human beings are not cut out for sexual monogamy, Ryan’s hitting SF next week (Wed/9-Thu/10) to talk about the evolutionary reasons for why that’s so.

Sure the freaks will be out in force for his events, but Ryan says that his book’s message is not just for people who already embrace alternative sexuality identities. 

Sex At Dawn shows that they’re not freaks because they find so-called traditional, strict monogamy to be stilted and unnatural for them. There’s a good reason for that, it is unnatural for them, and for the rest of us.” Ryan told the Guardian in a recent interview.  

But Sex at Dawn is not about modern non-monogamous types. It’s an ancient history that traces human evolution and focuses on pre-agricultural societies. Ryan explains, “Our ancestors evolved for 95 percent or more of our existence as a species of nomadic hunter-gatherers. In nomadic hunter-gatherer society, the central organizing principle is sharing. Sharing of childcare, sharing of food, defense, shelter, access to the sprit world, medical shamanic principles.”

His book argues that sexual pleasure was a no less communal practice for these early humans. 

“You look at our bodies, you look at anthropology, you look at all these different sources of information and you see, no, they weren’t possessive about sexuality in a way that they weren’t about anything else.”

But he has little idea on how to apply these historical tendencies to a modern society hooked on the one-plus-one-equals-two arrangement.

That’s partly why Andrew Sullivan, the organizer of next weeks’ events, wanted to present Ryan’s theories with the work of San Francisco’s esteemed sex activists. The expert panel backing up the author at Club Exotica will include relationship coach Marcia Baczynski, the founder of Kinky Salon Polly Pandemonium, and sex-positive icon and founder of the Center for Sex and Culture Carol Queen.

Says Sullivan: “Ryan talks about this pre-agricultural state, but he doesn’t really talk about — well, what do you do. He doesn’t deal with that. And that’s why I wanted to have him do this presentation, provide the science, provide the motivation for the work.”

He thinks these events will attract Bay Area residents from all walks of life.

“The cross-sections of life that are intersecting around this book are extremely diverse. You’ve got Republicans on the other side of the tunnel who are coming to an event like this because it hits them. They’re like, that’s part of my life, but its something they hide from out there, and they’re afraid of. All of a sudden they’re at the same event with somebody whose got a whip and rope and somebody else who is in a completely different socio-political mindset than they are, but they’re all going ‘we share something in common here.’”

The party that follows the Nov. 9 panel is sure to bring people together on whole other level. Sullivan says the event will “transition into an actual environment, this essential erotic environment that actually facilitates these kinds of connections. That’s why I call it the full spectrum event. It’s all right here. It’s like Woodstock for alternative relationships.”

On Nov. 10, economists and alternative currency advocates will gather to discuss sex and scarcity. Ryan says the talk will compare pre-agricultural society to our current system. “Our ancestors’ societies were based on sharing resources, which means they’re based on a notion of plenty — there will always be enough. Whereas post-agricultural societies, like our own, shifted 130 degrees to an orientation of scarcity. There’s never enough.” 

Ryan applies this scarcity theory to modern-day relationships. 

“You say well, I have to have my sex partner, I have to have my lover because she’s the one who gives me sexual pleasure, the stuff that I need, companionship, intimacy, security. If I lose her, I’m screwed, I’m alone. Because we live in that sort of fractured world. But our ancestors didn’t live in that sort of world, they lived in a world where hey, it doesn’t matter. I’m with her, I’m with her, she’s with her, she’s with him. You know we’ve all got multiple lovers, so if one relationship isn’t working, it’s not the end of the world.  It allows the social groups to function much more smoothly without all this conflict.”

He’s even found a way to connect this scarcity-plenty conundrum with the zeitgeist of our times.

Says Ryan, “I think that the message from the Occupy Wall Street movement, and Occupy different cities all around the country, is that no society can last if we lose sight of the fact that we’re in this together. That we are a species that evolved sharing resources and taking care of one another. And the more we lose sight of that, the more miserable we become. I don’t care how rich you are. I’ve known a lot of very wealthy people in my life, and they are not the happiest people I’ve known. The happiest people I’ve known are the ones who are living in communities where they’re taking care of each other and there’s a sense of unity and fairness that people respect. So I think that’s their message. That we have to get back to this understanding of what sort of animal we are and what sort of social system works best for us.”


Club Exotica presents Sex at Dawn

Wed/9 8 p.m.-2 a.m., $10-$35


657 Harrison, SF



“Sex at Dawn: Modeling a New Culture of Sharing”

Thurs/10 free for members, guests $20 

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