US author and psychologist Christopher Ryan, in Australia for Sydney’s recent Festival of Dangerous Ideas, told the Star Observer he was revelling in the attention his recently-released book Sex At Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality was garnering.
“It’s great, I’ve always wanted to be dangerous. I’m a dorky white guy, so it’s not easy to do,” the affable Ryan joked.
The book, co-written with his wife Dr Cacilda Jetha, is an illuminating look at some of the biggest issues facing modern relationships, both gay and straight: namely, why so many find long-term fidelity difficult, and why sexual passion can fade even as love deepens.
Gay American author and sex columnist Dan Savage called it “the single most important book on human sexuality since Kinsey unleashed Sexual Behaviour of the Human Male on the American public in 1948”.
As Ryan explained, too many modern unions falter when couples put an overwhelming emphasis on the importance of sexual fidelity.
He and Jetha are not here to tell us monogamy is wrong. Rather, they offer a compelling explanation (based on everything from our prehistoric ancestors to our modern-day primate relatives) for why we find it so difficult.
“We have an omnivorous sexuality. It’s clear in our genitalia, our behaviour, our physiology,” Ryan said.
“And yet we live in a society that tells us — in terms of sexuality — there’s something wrong with you if you feel that way. All we’re saying is, let’s reframe this discussion in a more accurate way.
“Don’t feel like you’re a bad person because you feel this way. It’s because you are a person that you feel this way.
“Approach your relationship from an informed, realistic perspective and you’ll have a better chance of succeeding. Guilt-tripping and ignorance don’t work very well.”
Despite their combined years of experience in sex research, Ryan admitted that much surprised he and Jetha when writing the book.
“All the stuff about the invention of the vibrator — that it was a technological response from doctors whose arms were tired from masturbating women all day because their sexuality had been pathologised into hysteria!
“And partible paternity — people who believe the fetus is made of accumulated semen, so the woman has sex with five or six different men in order to get all their different qualities into her baby. All those things and many more blew my mind.”
The book makes particularly empowering reading for women, as it traces how forces as disparate as religion, medical science and agriculture have conspired to thwart female sexuality.
“We’ve received more than a few emails from women who’ve said they’ve had to stop reading every few pages and masturbate. If women feel this libido, and live in a society that tells them, ‘It’s wrong, it’s pathological, don’t admit it even to yourself’, to read a book like this is very liberating.
“I knew women would respond to the book — never in my life did I think it would turn them on.”
Ryan said, when it comes to facing our sexual desires, it’s not just gay and lesbian people who need to ‘come out’. Heterosexuals should follow our lead and undergo some self-examination too.
“The last section of the book is called ‘Everybody Out of the Closet’. People who don’t fit the dominant paradigm, in order to be true to themselves, have to go through a process of confronting the ways they don’t fit into the expectations placed upon them,” he said.
“That’s a very difficult process, but also very empowering, because you come out the other side without a lot of your bullshit — it gets stripped away.
“What we’re trying to say in the book is it’s not only gay people who have to do that — we all do.
“The problem is for straight people it’s much easier to go through life with all that bullshit still clinging to you and to never confront it. So you’ve got guys who know in their hearts they’re not monogamous, but who swear on the Bible, sign the [marriage] papers and then are out screwing someone in secret two weeks later.
“You don’t find that as much in gay relationships, because they talk about what they feel. They’ve worked too hard to live a lie. Heterosexuals should learn that from the gay community.”
While Ryan and Jetha keep a dignified silence about their own relationship (“We decided the smartest way to deal with it was with a stock answer: ‘Our relationship is informed by our research’,” he chuckled), he said it was important for couples to discover what works for them.
“The assumption that open relationships don’t work always cracks me up. I hear it from therapists a lot. I tell them, ‘Happy couples don’t come to your office — isn’t that obvious?’ ”
INFO: Sex At Dawn (Scribe Publications) out now.