What’s So New About the New Non-Monogamy?

What’s So New About the New Non-Monogamy?

Photo credit:  Pedrosimoes7 via Creative Commons   “Monogamy Lite” For those of you who missed “Open Marriage,” the ethical non-monogamy movement of the 70’s: Ethical non-monogamy is back.  Not that it ever actually disappeared.  But it seems to be making news again. Last year the New York Times bestselling book Sex at Dawn (extensively reviewed on these pages)  argued that we’re all really designed for sexual promiscuity, and proposed that we adopt a more relaxed, European-style sexual ethic. This year sees couples expert Tammy Nelson’s thoughtful piece on “The New Monogamy” –which if I understand it correctly is not quite monogamy at all, but something closer to non-monogamy.  “Monogamy Lite,” perhaps. And last week in the New York Times Magazine,   Mark Oppenheimer’s article, “Married, with infidelities,”discusses the work of Dan Savage — writer, activist, and married but not entirely monogamous gay man – who feels that heterosexuals could learn from homosexual men to be more honest about extramarital sex.  And more accepting of it.   Why is Ethical Non-Monogamy Suddenly Hot Again? The internet, of course, for one. We leave denser electronic trails.   More secret infidelities get discovered — in private life, as well as in public life. When it’s  more obvious who’s being secretly unfaithful, it’s natural to wonder if there might after all be better alternatives to the traditional lying and cheating. Then there’s the “You Are Not Alone” factor.  The internet has fostered electronic communities of like-minded polyamorous and nonmonogamous people.  As it has for many other sexual minorities. But I think the strongest force bringing attention now again to non-monogamy may be  the successes of the gay civil...
Presentation of the 2011 SSTAR Consumer Book Award to Sex at Dawn

Presentation of the 2011 SSTAR Consumer Book Award to Sex at Dawn

April 10, 2011– I just returned from the annual spring meeting of the Society for Sex Therapy and Research (SSTAR).  The Society gathers leading sex clinicians and researchers from all over the country and the world, and features the most recent developments in sexual science and practice. As a member of SSTAR’s Consumer Book Award committee, I had the privilege of helping present the award this year to Chris Ryan and Cacilda Jetha, authors of the New York Times Bestseller Sex at Dawn.  Readers of this blog may recall our discussion of Sex at Dawn on these pages, in ‘Will Sex at Dawn influence sex therapy?” and in our interview with Chris Ryan. The following is excerpted from my remarks at the presentation ceremony at SSTAR this year: ______ Last summer on twitter, I started to hear about a new book, Sex at Dawn, that Dan Savage was calling the most significant new book on sex since Kinsey. The authors of Sex at Dawn — American psychologist Chris Ryan and his wife,  Portuguese psychiatrist Cacilda Jetha — were unknown to the American sex therapy and research community.  Turns out they’d been living more or less under the radar screen — in Barcelona, of all places — while working for the past decade on Sex at Dawn.   And now they’d sprung their book on the world. When the Award Committee members got a chance to review the book, each working independently without consulting the others, Sex at Dawn was the unanimous choice for the Award this year. What is it about Sex at Dawn that’s so important? It turns out that in almost...
Sex in the Wild

Sex in the Wild

A New Twist on the Apple At a recent informal meeting of New York City sex therapists to discuss his new book Sex at Dawn, psychologist Chris Ryan played us a videotape showing a bonobo orgy. The tape was several minutes long.  It showed a small crew of cute little apes cavorting in the grass in all possible heterosexual and homosexual variations.  He explained that this was a bonobo “quickie.”  There didn’t seem to be a lot of orgasms.  Each encounter was just a few quick strokes, then on to the next partner. Ryan explained that the group sex we’d just been watching had been prompted by someone throwing some apples into the midst of the group. The part about the apples didn’t make any sense, until he explained to us more about bonobo society. Bonobos like apples.  They like them a lot.    As a matter of fact, it’s difficult to do bonobo research without a supply of green apples to motivate them to do the experiments. But they like group harmony most of all.  And the sudden appearance of the apples in their midst immediately raises the threat of discord.  Who will get to eat the apples? If these were chimpanzees, the strongest males would immediately claim the fruit.   There would be a fair amount of shoving, and possibly some bloodshed. But bonobos are so communal that the tension produced by something so precious as an apple in their midst must be dispelled by a gesture of community. In this case, everyone gets to cool off with a little sexual comfort from their neighbor. Then, self-interest replaced by a certain yummy...
Sex At Dawn’s Christopher Ryan on Human Sexual Prehistory

Sex At Dawn’s Christopher Ryan on Human Sexual Prehistory

Recently SexualityResource reviewed Sex at Dawn, a new book drawing on a vast amount of cultural and physical anthropological scholarship to suggest that our human ancestors lived in sexually promiscuous groups of hunter-gatherers.  And that the development 10,000 years ago of agriculture, an ownership society, and sexual monogamy brought an end to this golden age of sexuality. Lead author Christopher Ryan is an American psychologist living in Barcelona. I was able to persuade him to make time for the following interview.     Chris, among sexuality scholars there’s always a tension between the essentialists who look for enduring truths, and the social constructionists who say all sexual norms are dictated by culture. Your book seems to move back and forth between these tendencies. How so? Sex at Dawn gives great examples of the social construction of tastes and attitudes, both sexual and non-sexual. For instance, some hunter-gatherers report that grub worms taste great. You suggest that if we saw our parents eating them, we would eat them too. But I should stipulate that I’ve never eaten a grub worm. I’m as much a victim of cultural programming as anyone! But then you tack in an essentialist direction – saying that we are “essentially” promiscuous by design. I think it’s pretty clear that human beings are both. We’re highly adaptive and responsive to cultural conditioning, but our experience and behavior also reveal deeply ingrained structures reflective of evolutionary pressures. Our culture has convinced many of us that a Big Mac, fries, and a milkshake constitute a good meal. But when we eat this way, our bodies inevitably rebel. So we’re...
Will “Sex at Dawn” Influence Sex Therapy?

Will “Sex at Dawn” Influence Sex Therapy?

Sex Secrets of Our Ancestors Recently, SexualityResource reviewed Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha’s Sex at Dawn—a new book arguing that our hunter-gatherer ancestors were sexual promiscuous in small groups. And that the development 10,000 years ago of agriculture, an ownership society, and sexual monogamy brought an end to this golden age of human sexuality. As a sex therapist in New York City (where the kind of ownership society begun 10,000 years ago has perhaps reached a pinnacle of development), I wonder about whether the ideas discussed in this book will influence my field much. So far, it doesn’t look promising. The dominant public reaction to the book in its first month has been that it “shows that humans are meant to be sexually promiscuous.” This is a subtle and understandable misreading of Sex at Dawn, but a misreading nonetheless. Let me explain why it’s a misreading, using an excerpt from Sex at Dawn that you may worry is a digression. But trust me, it’s relevant.   Human Nature?  It’s the Bananas, Stupid. During Jane Goodall’s first four years studying chimpanzees in Tanzania, according to Sex at Dawn, she observed them to be remarkably peaceful creatures. But they were difficult to observe, since they tended not to hang around her camp much. So she tried to attract them nearer by regularly feeding them bananas. The effect, evidently, was to make the chimpanzees more aggressive. Fighting between them increased dramatically. Now, which represented the chimpanzee’s true nature? The gentle chimpanzees happily feeding far apart in the forest, not bothering each other? Or the hoodlum chimpanzees shoving each other out of the way at the daily...