Q&A WITH CHRISTOPHER RYAN – AUTHOR OF SEX AT DAWN
By: Tobin Wait.
An interview with Christopher Ryan, New York Times best-selling author, Guinness drinker, Vancouver resident, and a genuinely cool dude.
Q: Chris, in 50 words or fewer, can you sum up the major argument of Sex at Dawn?
A: The major argument is that the primary function of human sexuality is not in fact reproduction. Most human sexual interaction doesn’t, or even can’t, result in conception. And like other highly intelligent species, like chimps, bonobos and dolphins, human sexuality functions primarily as a means of maintaining complex social networks. Reproduction is sort of a happy by-product that occasionally results from that. In fact, we are one of very few species, along with chimps, bonobos and dolphins, where the female can and is willing to have sex when she is not ovulating, and we also have sex in ways that cannot possibly result in conception.
Q: I suppose the standard question must also be asked: Why this book? What drew you to this topic?
A: There are many ways to answer that one. What drew me to the topic…was that I was a horny teenage boy, and I experienced the world through my brain a lot more than my body – I wasn’t an athlete or a dancer or an artist, and I was more intellectually oriented. So I found sex interesting. It was like a puzzle to me. So I guess that originally drew me to the this kind of topic.
Later, when I was in Graduate School in San Fransisco, I was living with my girlfriend, who was a stripper, and trying to decide what to write my dissertation on. I was also working for a non-profit community group, where there were fifty women, and me. So I was surrounded by women. Then I read an amazing book called The Moral Animal by Robert Wright, which traces the history of cultural psychology and the life of Darwin. And I thought “wow,” this explains everything. What we call in Sex at Dawn the “Standard Narrative:” men trade protection and status and meat to women for sexual fidelity as a way to ensure paternity certainty, so they don’t have to invest time raising someone else’s offspring. And this was fascinating to me. But I was surrounded by all these strong women who said, “That may make sense to you, Chris, but that is not how women really experience the world. That’s a very uptight, Victorian, sex-negative view of human sexuality.” And I respect these women, and they are telling me that the Standard Narrative doesn’t make sense on a very deep level. So I went back and started to look at the original research…and I discovered bonobos, and tribes around the world where the men don’t give a damn who the women are sleeping with, and their child care is communal. So I found this thread in the big tapestry and just started pulling the thread, and the whole tapestry fell apart.
Q: Upon publication, the book stirred up quite a bit of controversy. Were you ready for that? Was it something you wanted?
A: Well, you don’t write a book that challenges the basic mainstream view of human sexuality without expecting controversy, and hoping for it, really. I think it was Oscar Wilde who said, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” I mean, this started as my doctoral dissertation, and I didn’t even expect it to be a book, or even published. So when I was writing it as a book, I didn’t hold back; I just went for it. And then it gets published, and Dan Savage noticed it, and then it became a bestseller and that got other people’s attention. And what started as a little spark became a bit of a brushfire.
Honestly, once I knew it was going to be published, I expected a lot more criticism, and the response has been 95% positive. And the 5% negative is so over-the-top emotional, vehement, craziness that I don’t even respond. These people are offended…because in the book we argue that not only are men attracted to a lot of different people, so are women…by their nature! In fact, women are sexually a lot more voracious then men could possibly be. Why, for example, are women capable of having multiple orgasms? While guys last 15 seconds and then go watch the game? There must be a reason. And this is why people get upset.
Q: The book contains a lot of information, data and research, but is actually quite witty and humourous in tone and style. Was this done to make the book more accessible, or was it perhaps a natural extension of the subject matter?
A: I think maybe it’s more of a reflection of me. My approach to life is that if it’s not fun, I generally don’t do it. I haven’t had a job since the mid 90’s, and before that the previous job was in the mid 80’s. I mean I do things to make money but I’m not a punch-the-clock kinda guy. I tend to see life as an adventure, so if I can’t have fun writing something or researching something, then I don’t have the discipline to follow through. And my dad, who was a writer, told me when I started writing to write like I was talking to my friends. If you treat the reader like an enemy or you talk down to them or treat them like they’re stupid, why would people spend money to be insulted?
Q: Does it concern you that some may use your arguments as a justification for “non-monogamous” behaviour? (eg: Sorry, I slept with your sister, but according to this book, it’s how I am wired!)
A: I think we are very vehement in the book to address that question. I think we quote Schopenhauer when he says, “Man can control what he does, but not what he wants to do.” So in the book we are clear about offering justification for desires. The fact that you love your husband but you are looking at other dudes too, or the smell of your tennis coach drives you crazy…that’s cool, that’s ok. Don’t blame yourself, don’t blame your husband, don’t blame your marriage; there’s nothing wrong with that. Your feelings, your desires, that’s all natural, that’s to be expected. Now, what you do with all that is your business. We don’t give any advice in the book, and we make it clear that what we are calling for here is greater communication, greater sincerity, greater honesty. We ALL need to come out of the closet. I said this at my TED Talk recently: “This book is not an indictment of monogamy any more than saying that human beings are naturally omnivorous is an indictment of vegetarians. But just because you decide to become a vegetarian doesn’t mean that bacon doesn’t smell good anymore.
Q: In the book, you identify the problem, but offer no solutions – a conscience decision on your part. But, really, we are so deeply entrenched in our attitudes and habits, can we change? Can we become more open?
A: I think the evidence is overwhelming that we can, and that we are. I think society is changing in radical ways faster than I would have thought possible a decade ago. Since ten years ago, the United States, one of the most conservative cultures in the world, has gone from overwhelmingly against same sex marriage to overwhelmingly in favour of it. American society, which is a little behind Canada and Europe, is changing so quickly and radically toward a more liberal understanding, and if you look at anyone under 30 who is uptight about same sex marriage, they are considered weird, the minority. And young people today are so well-informed about sexuality, and I give a lot of credit for that to Dan Savage, who I think is a historical figure.
Q: You have lived all over the globe, and still call Barcelona home….what brought you to Vancouver, of all places?
A: Well, I had been here when I was doing a speaking tour for Sex at Dawn. I really liked it, met some great people. Cacilda wasn’t with me – she was still in Barcelona, running a mental hospital. And I was trying to convince her to take a break from her job so we could go live somewhere else for a while, and it made sense for me to be close to LA for media stuff. So I told her we could live wherever she wanted, anywhere in the world, and she said, “what about Vancouver?” She had never lived here, but really liked the sound of it. So we moved here last Summer, and she loved it – in fact, she’s down at Kits Beach right now. We’re here because we could be anywhere and I think this is the most beautiful city on the planet.
Q: So what’s next for Christopher Ryan?
A: A lot of things. I am working on a website: www.kotango.com, which is about to be launched. It’s an online community, a site for people to share information. It’s an International Non-monogamy Website, where you can hook up with people or get information or meet people or mentor. I’ve got a production company in LA that is shopping a TV show which would be me talking about sex around the world, in the same vain as Anthony Bourdain’s culinary travels. I’ve got another book under contract which will be called Civilized to Death. But what’s really taking up my time right now, is my podcast, Tangentially Speaking, which is available on ITunes, or at my website: ChrisRyanPhD.com. It’s really taking off, with about twenty thousand downloads per episode. And I love it; it’s a lot more fun talking to people than writing.
Q: Finally, just to up the intellectual level of our conversation, I would like to end with a little game I play with my daughters called Pick One. I will give you two random choices of things, and you simply pick the one you prefer.
Q: The Beatles or the Stones?
Q: Whiskey or wine?
Q: Hemingway or Joyce?
Q: Chocolate or vanilla?
Q: North America or Europe?
Q: Dogs or cats?
Q: Humility or strength?
A: Humility is strength
A perfect ending to a very enjoyable conversation.