"Sex at Dawn" and the future of the polyamory movement
"Sex At Dawn is the single most important book about human sexuality since Alfred Kinsey unleashed Sexual Behavior in the Human Male on the American public in 1948."
"This summer a new book, Sex At Dawn, created something of a pop-anthropology craze. The co-authors Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá — a husband and wife duo — argue that the human organism is designed to seek sexual variety and cite adultery amongst our ancestors across all cultures and eras...."
—The Independent, London
Whether or not this book will really make such a splash in the wider world, I believe it is the most important thing to happen for the polyamory-awareness movement in a very long time.
Brief recap: Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality makes a powerfully documented case that for a million years or more, our hunter-gatherer ancestors evolved with an easy-going, egalitarian, polyamorous approach to sex and relationships. This aspect of human nature was overridden and denied beginning relatively recently, when the invention of agriculture got large-scale civilization going. But modern anthropology has exposed our past and our evolved nature and made them undeniable, overthrowing the "standard model" that humans are naturally monogamous — much the way (says co-author Christopher Ryan) that accurate measurements of how the planets moved finally overthrew the increasingly awkward pre-Copernican model of the solar system.
Despite its fast, breezy style, the book provides a massive scientific underpinning to what we polys have been saying for years. It blows away the conventional wisdom that multiple relationships are unnatural or cannot fit with jealous human nature. In fact, it reverses the human-nature argument 180 degrees. No future discussion of the anthropology of sex will be able to ignore this work.
Why does it matter so much to us?
For most of the polyamory movement's 30-year history, advocates who have sought to give poly a theoretical foundation have generally turned to New Age or spiritual philosophies, involving things like the limitless nature of love, the spiritual heart of the universe, and other concepts that I find fairy-taley and unproductive. By unproductive I mean that theories built on them never seem to lead anywhere predictive or useful, as a meaningful theory must.
Ryan and Jethá have now given us a theoretical underpinning that is concrete, scientific, and evidence-based. They show that polyamory matches what human nature actually evolved to be. Seen in this light, the modern, ethical, egalitarian version of poly offers a path to a saner future — in which humans are not so perpetually conflicted with themselves, and are less driven by the insatiable needs and neuroses that in many ways are causing us to ruin the world.
Yes, it's an important book.
Its impact on the poly awareness and acceptance movement isn't yet fully felt. Look in the book's index, and the word polyamory only appears on a few pages in the last chapter where the authors speculate about the future. In interviews, Ryan has said repeatedly that they don't really know what their findings imply for how people should handle their lives. Except they do say that couples should discuss from the start whether they want an open or closed relationship, and that everyone should realize that choosing monogamy means choosing a path that will become inherently difficult (though achievable), rather like choosing a life of celibacy or vegetarianism (both of which are unnatural but achievable).
Sound familiar? The need to have forthright relationship discussions, and to make deliberate relationship choices, is what the poly-awareness movement advocates. For instance, that's the gist of the position that the Polyamory Leadership Network agreed upon at its meeting last February. If anything, we are readier than Sex at Dawn to say that monogamy is the natural, hard-wired choice for many people.
At any rate, I think we're a little ahead of the Sex at Dawn authors in exploring how our true, ancestral nature can fit happily into modern civilization. And perhaps make civilization a little more sane place to be.
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