Sex at Dawn

Exploring the evolutionary origins of modern sexuality

Ill-Fated Interview Part IV

Part 4 of my interview with Mark Leviton

Here's the fourth part of my ill-fated interview with Mark Leviton.

LevitonReligious groups, and a large number of anthropologists and other researchers and writers, talk about pair-bonding and monogamy and marriage as the baseline of modern society, that it occurs all over the world, and that many animals are monogamous.

Ryan:  It's very important to distinguish between social monogamy and sexual monogamy.  That distinction wasn't clear until relatively recently due to sophisticated DNA testing.  What happened was, fifteen or twenty years ago, when biologists saw for instance bluebirds, a classic example, but most birds were considered similar, a male and a female teaming up to bring back food to the nest, take care of the eggs etc.  It was assumed they were monogamous, and it's announced 90% of all birds are monogamous species.   Then they start doing the DNA testing, the chick's feathers compared to the male's feathers, and they find a huge amount, sometimes upwards of 40% depending on the species, of chicks that were not biologically fathered by that male who was taking care of them.  Then it became important to recognize just because you saw a male and female teaming to raise young, which is almost always for a single mating season, not for life, that doesn't mean that's a sexual union, that there's sexual exclusivity there.

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As far as human beings go, Cacilda and I argue that monogamy and sexually-exclusive long-term pair bonding is not an intrinsic human behavior, it does not arise from our biology.  It arises from economic conditions, from an overpowering obsession with paternity certainty, and that arose from property and an economic system that came from the agricultural revolution.  It's one of the few areas where I would agree with Freud, that the repression of sexual energy did really give rise to what we call civilization, whether that's a good thing or a bad thing.  But there's a clear connection between the repression of our real sexual nature and our complex social systems.

Leviton:  Many moral philosophers and religious people might look at what's natural and say, fine, but civilization depends on overcoming that.  When a system like marriage isn't functioning, with most failing, and second and third marriages failing even faster, they don't give up on the system.

Ryan:  Yes, they're going to go down with the ship.

Leviton:  But you don't really advocate in the book how you think society should be organized.  You seem to stop, and refuse to go the next step, and have a position more like "We're providing people with information."  Are you afraid of the reaction you'd get if you wrote a "and therefore" chapter?  Where you would just write plainly that monogamy is doing a disservice to humanity?

Ryan:  I'll tell you the truth, when we pitched this book, there were about twenty publishers very interested, enough to call me in Barcelona and talk for hours.  Probably fifteen of them wanted the book you just described.  I remember one publisher after five minutes saying to me "Okay, okay, let's say I agree and you're right.  Now what?  That's the book.  Now what?  What does this mean for my marriage?  What's it mean for my workplace?"  And I said I can't write that book yet.  I need to write this book, because why should anyone care what we say if we haven't taken the time to present our evidence and convince people we're right.   If you think this is true, that this look at human sexual evolution is more accurate, aligns better with your own experience, answers your questions, if all that fits for you, then maybe there's a chance for us to be audacious enough to try to tackle those issues.   And neither Cacilda nor I consider ourselves experts on absolutely everything that's ever happened in history.  We don't give people advice, we don't even know what to do with this information ourselves.  Cacilda's a practicing psychiatrist, I'm a psychologist, we've had enough interactions with other people's relationships and the sexual lives of others on both clinical and personal levels to know everybody's an entire world.  And then you put two people together and it's exponentially more complex.  What's happening today in this relationship won't be happening in three years, when they have a kid, or five years later when one of them is ill, or older, or in menopause.  To give one-size-fits-all advice like "you should have an open marriage" or "you should have a special deal for weekends" - that's not us.

Leviton:  But the book is being used by the polyamory community and other "outsider" communities already living out some of the implications of the book, and it's becoming one of those books like The Ethical Slut and Opening Up used to validate their view of what makes for a good choice for many people.  I noticed you are speaking at the polyamory "Loving More" conference, and I suspect it will continue that these groups will want you to carry their torch on this subject.

Ryan:  I'd rather stand in the glow of their torch.  The overriding message we're trying to get across in the book  is that long-term monogamy does not come easily to our species, and the book explains why. It's like choosing to be a vegetarian, a wonderful, ethical and healthy choice for some.  My parents just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, beautiful, I would never criticize choosing that path through life.  But don't expect it to be easy, just like you can't be a vegetarian and expect the barbecue to immediately stop smelling good.  By having a realistic sense of what it means for two Homo sapiens to say "OK for the next fifty years, 'til we die, we're only going to have sex with each other" can only help people.  You might think "that's not what I want to do, and I'm not going down the Tiger Woods route of lying to my intimate partner, and breaking up my family and abandoning my dignity as a man or a woman" or "OK, I'm going to do this, but I enter into it with full knowledge of how we're going to do this together."  We're advocating communication, realism and marriage that's not based on sexual attraction alone.

I think a lot of people get married because they really like having sex with each other.  Five years later when that has worn off and they're left with differing tastes in food, in friends, in music, in travel, they might have a pretty bad relationship.

Leviton:  One of the things you point out, if people are going to make an informed decision, is that women seem to have developed, due to various pressures I think you could say, a disconnect between their bodies and their minds.  You talk about a pornography study where straight men, gay men, and gay women all report accurately whether they are sexually aroused, what they say in words matches the results obtained by the physical monitors on their bodies.  But heterosexual women are physically aroused and reporting that they're not.  That seems a very significant problem for women trying to make a good choice.

Ryan:  And if you think of anorgasmia, where women have trouble achieving orgasm (although I recognize much of the data comes from American college students), we might have around 30% of women who never or seldom reach orgasm.  I asked Cacilda what she thought the rate would be in her native Mozambique and she said "zero point zero."  I've talked to Brazilian women about it, and they don't see it happening at all.  There's a book called Sexual Fluidity by Lisa Diamond, about this idea that female sexuality is so different from men's in many ways, and this fluidity is one of them, women are very susceptible to social pressure.  Men—for better or worse—are what they are, and it's going to come through.  You see this in the priest cases in the Catholic church.  You don't see a lot of cases of nuns accused of abusing altar boys.

Leviton:  In American, we pretty much have an agreement that men are perpetually randy, and what do you expect?  We have a real problem with women, who we say are indifferent to sex, but nonetheless need to be constantly monitored and watched.  We have our modern versions of chastity belts.

Ryan:  And women are constantly insulted, called sluts and whores if they do enjoy sex openly.  In Spain as well, just about ever swear word you can come up with involves "puta," whore.  What is a whore?  A woman who's put in a position where she'll do anything to feed her children.  It's male pressure saying "We control women's sexuality, never step out of line or we'll bury you up to your head in the desert and stone you to death," as they're doing in Iran right now.  The pressure on women to not express their sexual autonomy is overwhelming, and has been for millennia.

Leviton:  And supposedly good anthropologists can't seem to find matriarchal societies, or powerful women, which you suggest is because they are looking for a patriarchal society with the sexes reversed, with women in charge and the men suffering.  They never seem to think "If women ran a society it would look different than a mirror-image of what we already see."

Ryan: Yes.  Bonobo society is female-dominated.  Chimps are male-dominated.  The female dominance is expressed very differently as you say, party because the females are still smaller and not as strong as the males, so female bonding is crucial to keeping males in check.  If a male bonobo gets out of line and attacks a female, all the females will go after him.  In female-dominated societies the males are much better off.  What men and males in general don't understand is that saying a society is a patriarchy doesn't mean you are going to have any power, dude.  It means 3 or 4% of the men are going to have all the power, and the rest will be much worse off than they would be under a female-dominated group.  With bonobos there's more sexual opportunity, and far more peace in general.

Leviton:  A patriarchy oppresses everyone except the small slice of males in charge.

Ryan:  There's this fascinating case that Robert Sapolsky talks about among the baboons in Kenya.  Baboons are very hierarchical, and male-dominated.  He's been studying one troupe for twenty years.  A tourist hotel has a dump behind it, and the dominant male baboons get the food from this dump.  The others sit around and watch them eat, maybe they get some scraps.  One year, there's some tainted meat thrown out, and highest-ranking males were wiped out by the disease, tuberculosis, I think.  Among baboons, males have to leave their native group at a certain age and fight their way in to another, which is a very brutal ordeal.  Now there's no dominant male class in this particular group.  You'd expect there to be a bloodbath, when the pirates show up.  It turned out no invasion took place.  This troupe developed a peaceful culture that persisted for years.  Each year Sapolsky would go back expecting "here it comes" and there was still very little high/low hierarchy, plenty of grooming behavior between the males, plentiful mating opportunities for lower-ranking males, and even the males that did transfer in, who could have dominated it ruthlessly, learned the existing culture and became more peaceful.  Fascinating.

Leviton:  These alternatives are not on the news, not talked often about in the mainstream.  There are alternative organizing systems that most Americans can't even consider.  You make some radical arguments in Sex At Dawn.  What's the reaction been to the book? 

Ryan:  What's disturbing is the lack of criticism so far, it's a little worrying and not what we expected.  We anticipated 70% negative and a strong, happy positive 30% response, and it's been almost overwhelmingly positive.  The negative has been typified by the article in The Atlantic by Megan McArdle.  "I'm only halfway through the book but it reads like horse feathers.  For example, like a lot of evolutionary biology critiques, this one leans heavily on bonobos (at least so far). Here's the thing: humans aren't like bonobos. And do you know how I know that we are not like bonobos? Because we're not like bonobos."  Case closed!

Leviton:  We are often trapped in the paradigms of our culture without recognizing it.  You write about  pro-slavery Dr. Samuel Cartwright in the Civil War era, who reported in "Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race" about drapetomania, the disease he identified "causing Negroes to run away from service."

Have you become aware of any prejudices you were carrying as you wrote this book, that prevented you from getting outside the assumptions of our time and place?

Ryan:  When people say "this all makes sense, but I don't care, I'd be angry if my wife had sex with someone else," I understand that.  I know there's nothing inherently wrong with eating insects like many indigenous peoples do, but for me to eat a bug, I'd have to be starving.  The disconnect between understanding and behavior is very strong in everyone, including me.  So I don't always know.

Leviton:  Many people do see monogamy failing, marriage as an institution falling apart, yet want to believe in it as an ideal, and recognize no structural flaws that can't be overcome by applying more effort.  There's a lot of cognitive dissonance, which requires the repression of contradictory ideas.

Ryan:  I wonder, where's the backlash against the book?  Angry denunciations are few.  I figure that at this point in history it's so clear to everyone that the current system doesn't work.  The Catholic Church is imploding, shamefully.  Homophobic politicians are being identified as closeted gays themselves.   The people you would expect to object to our book as an attack on marriage - like the Family Research Council, which believes the traditional family unit is the only option - you'd expect them to lead the charge.  But they're exhausted and demoralized, because even they can't row a boat that's taking on water this fast.

Leviton:  They're defending a vision, an ideal.  Whether we're radicals or conservatives, we often focus on a dream, an intention.  We may not believe it will come to fruition now, but can we make progress toward the goal?  Yes, we can try.

Ryan:  But isn't there an assumption that the dream could actually happen someday?  Don't you think there's a Vietnam 1972 moment that comes, when you know it's just a question of time before we abandon the enterprise?

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Christopher Ryan, Ph.D., is co-author of Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality (HarperCollins 2010).

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