Sex at Dawn

Exploring the evolutionary origins of modern sexuality

Ill-Fated Interview Part V

Part 5 of my interview with Mark Leviton

Here's the fifth part of my ill-fated, and never published, interview with Mark Leviton.

Leviton:  What was the context in which you decided this subject interested you and was worth researching?

Ryan:  When the Lewinsky scandal led to President Clinton's impeachment in 1998, I was working in San Francisco for an organization called Women In Community Service (WICS), a non-profit that provides services for the homeless, medical care, job training for kids etc.  I believe I was the only heterosexual man working there, with about 60 women.  I was thinking "How is it possible, that if men have controlled all the levers of power since time immemorial - economic power, political power, physical power, military power, every type of power you could imagine - that the most powerful single man in the world is being publically humiliated by having a consensual sexual relationship with someone other than his wife?  And his wife isn't really part of the condemnation.  How have men painted themselves into this corner?  That got me interested in reading about evolutionary psychology, particularly a book called The Moral Animal: Why We Are The Way We Are by Robert Wright, a beautifully written book, with chapters alternating presentations of evolutionary theory with demonstrations of that theory in action using Darwin's biography.  You learn a lot about Darwin, and about his theory.  (At this point I disagree with many of Wright's conclusions, but I still respect the book.) 

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It really energized my thinking.  It presented a structure, a framing of sexuality and human interaction that offered an explanation for so many different things.  It was a beautiful presentation of what we call in Sex At Dawn the "Standard Narrative."  So for six months to a year I had the passion of a convert and was going around, telling everyone how women were selecting men who could provide for them and that whole narrative.  But many of the women I was working with in San Francisco were, thank God, very smart, outspoken, lesbian, feminist intellectuals, and they listened to me going on about this stuff and several of them said "That makes sense except for this vision of female sexuality, which sounds like a Victorian male projection."  So we had a lot of debate about that.

I went back to the original data and started digging in a little bit, and the further I dug the more apparent it became to me that they were right, this vision of female sexuality really didn't align with what we know about our closest primate relatives, didn't align with the antropological evidence that I was starting to find, and certainly didn't align with what I found in my own sexual experiences.  All the different data points were contradicting this standard narrative, so that got me on the road.  I had been casting about for a doctoral thesis topic, and I abandoned the one I'd been working on in favor of looking into sexual behavior in pre-history.  Thanks to Women In Community Service.

Leviton: At the time did you have a conventional view of monogamy, for yourself?

Ryan: I had struggled for years, in two different relationships, that were very satisfying in many different ways, but I found I was restless, constantly hyper-critical, but I think it was dawning on me that  my dissatisfaction really had nothing to do with the women.  It was really about me.  When I was in my twenties I assumed it was a question of not wanting to commit to a monogamous relationship, that I'd regret it later because I was travelling around the world, and had an adventure-based approach to life.  But as I got older, in my mid-thirties when the Lewinsky thing was going on, I realized it was like when your parents say "it's a phase you're going through" and then you're in your thirties and you're still there.  Well, it's probably not a phase.  I was ripe for the sort of insight that Sex At Dawn I hope provides, which is that there's a reason sexual monogamy is a challenge for a lot of people.

I guess the big step I took thanks to Women In Community Service was that I probably saw it as an exclusively male issue, and the research led me to realize it's not, that it's a human issue, that the standard narrative that pits men against women is a "false flag operation" trying to divide and conquer, and really it's all of us being victimized by an imposed social norm that doesn't align with our biological inheritance.

Leviton: So would you say researching and writing the book, for you and your wife, moved your consciousness?

Ryan:  No.  The writing of the original dissertation did, certainly.  I didn't meet Cacilda until 1999 when the dissertation was more or less finished.  And by the time we met we'd both come to the same conclusion independently.  At the very beginning of our relationship we talked about these issues.  I remember knowing this was going to become an important relationship, not just someone I was meeting and hanging out with for a while, and I sat her down and said "I really need to come clean about something, something I believe about life." She'd done sexuality research for years in Mozambique, had been married and divorced, had "been around."  She said "Well, you know I grew up in Africa, and I've always known this, but you are the first man I've seen acknowledge and talk about it, and I appreciate that."

Leviton:  So both of you understood intellectually the standard narrative doesn't hold water, but it resonated for you personally as well.

Ryan:  We'd seen through it.  I came to her with an embryonic alternative paradigm, which she added to and which grew as we researched the book.  We have tried to offer an alternative explanation for how things got to be this way.

Another important essay I read in this period was "A Ladies' Man and Shameless" by John Perry Barlow, which was published in the online magazine Nerve.  He wrote lyrics for the Grateful Dead, was involved with early issues of intellectual property in the Internet age, an interesting guy.  It's a short essay, but very moving.  He talks about how he went through the grieving process after his partner suddenly died unexpectedly, and how he couldn't connect deeply with another woman, a lot of fear of loss, and then as he healed and recovered he developed good relationships but couldn't go back to an exclusive mode.  He felt that it was cutting himself and them off, reducing the richness of life.  It resonated very deeply with me because it was an expression of love, not of horndog selfishness.  He asked why we cut ourselves off from love, and in the process restricting ourselves and constraining ourselves in a way that contaminates even the one love we've allowed ourselves.  That crystalized it for me.

Leviton:  Did you talk to Cacilda about how publishing Sex At Dawn might make you targets for the "sanctity of marriage" people?

Ryan: Yeah, sure.  I was more worried about her than me, because she's got more to lose.  She's a professional, well known in her field, and a kind of celebrity especially in Portugal, where she's on television a lot, she's very beautiful and articulate -- but also fearless.  She said "If it's true, it's true and I don't care what happens."  The only deal we made was that I would "do the media" in English.  She's an interesting mix of traditions, her family's Indian, she was raised in a Muslim environment most of the time.  Her biological father was Hindu but her parents split when she was young.  So in some ways she's very traditional, like the woman who's walking two steps behind the man, pushing me into the light and standing aside, but on the other hand is very well educated, can be very assertive and not afraid of the limelight.  But our deal was that I'd be the public face of the book.

Leviton:  How have therapists and counselors reacted to Sex At Dawn?

Ryan: Surprisingly, unbelievably positive, for the most part.  We were expecting negative reaction because we critize marriage counselors for not being open to alternatives to strict monogamy.  The book won an award for the best popular book about sexuality given by the Society for Sex Therapists and Research, and it's been nominated for two more awards from other professional organizations.  There's an extremely positive review of the book in the current issue of Contemporary Sexuality, the publication for the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists, another in the Electronic Journal of Sexuality.  We haven't seen much criticism from clinicians or researchers. There's been some, of course, but not as much as we expected, given the nature of what we wrote. And frankly, much of the criticism seems motivated more by emotion than a substantive disagreement with our thesis.

Leviton:  Many people believe being sexually non-monogamous will necessarily negatively impact their social bonds.  What examples do you have of long-term pair-bonding that co-exist with sexual non-monogamy?

Ryan: How about F.D.R. and Eleanor Roosevelt?  (Laughs.)  That's a pretty high-profile example.

I think  we're now entering an age where we'll see far more of that, because the repercussions have been reduced to the point where people are willing to say they're not monogamists.  When the actor Will Smith and his wife are openly non-monogamous, and actress Tilda Swinton talks freely about her open relationship with two partners, when Dan Savage writes about it as a cultural force and argues for "monogamish" relationships, the seeds are there.  The bond a couple has doesn't have to break down simply because they explore non-standard approaches. This is something Esther Perel writes about very powerfully in her book, Mating in Captivity.

But the framing of the question itself is problematic.  After all, the bond often breaks down in strictly monogamous relationships as well, but we rarely blame that on fidelity!

Leviton:  But people do often identify infidelity as a betrayal that cannot be forgiven.  It's a reason to break up even a long-term successful relationship.

Ryan:  If statistics were available, which they're not as far as I know, I'd bet more couples break up because of the absence of sexual opportunity outside of marriage than because of infidelity. In other words, they break up because it's the only way to have any outside sexual contact.

Leviton:  And of course the hidden, furtive parts of the extra-marital sex are destructive, as any secrets and lies are.  If people could openly negotiate with their partners, maybe fewer marriages would fail.

Ryan: Yes.  Is the danger in the drug, or that it puts you outside society, subjects you to arrest, can lose you your job, makes you vulnerable to blackmail?  It's the same kind of thing.  If society makes some space for alternative behaviors, gives some leeway, then most of the consequences get mitigated immediately.

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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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