Sex by Numbers 

Polyamory has gone from being a fringe scene to a veritable subculture. But can having multiple partners ever be widely accepted?

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And that led him to the bonobos. Ryan contends that if you want to challenge the standard narrative of human sexuality, you can't just start at the beginning of civilization — you have to go all the way back to our primate ancestors. He explained it thus to a crowd of roughly a dozen acolytes at San Francisco's Center for Sex and Culture: "If your dog shits on your bed, and you want to know why, you're not going to study birds. You're going to look at wolves, and foxes, and coyotes." Similarly, if your girlfriend sleeps around, and you want to know why, take a look at the female bonobos at the San Diego Zoo. As Ryan's friend Carol Queen pointed out, you'll see a lot of parents at the zoo covering their children's eyes: Bonobos love to hump.

There's really no way to answer an essential question about human evolution without resorting to conjecture, so Ryan and his co-author (and wife) Jetha tried to have some humility about it. They also tried to incorporate data from as many disciplines as possible — primatology, archaeology, nutritional biology, psychology, contemporary sexuality, pornography, you name it. They drew some interesting conclusions: first and foremost, that monogamy really began with the advent of agriculture. That's when we became concerned about ownership and possession. That's when men decided that the only way to uphold a property-based society was to control women's bodies. In Ryan's estimation, it didn't take that long — evolutionarily speaking — for us to invent the phrase "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife."

But there's more. Ryan and Jetha also discovered some interesting and oft-maligned facets of female sexuality that was borne out in bonobo research. Namely, that women are raving perverts, that they're way more "bisexual" than men, and that they make a lot more noise during sex. Even more importantly: We're all perverts. Or, as Ryan would put it, we're "promiscuous" beings — promiscuous not in the sense of prurience, but in the sense of wanting to mix, being fiercely egalitarian, and wanting to have sex with as many different people as possible.

We've been taught to think in terms of competition and scarcity, Ryan says, meaning that we're told if we don't ensnare one partner within a certain time frame, our chance at reproduction will run out. He contends that this line of thinking is culturally imposed, and that in reality, we're not thinking about procreation every time we have sex — we're doing it for pleasure. "Think about the number of times you've had sex," Ryan said to the audience at Center for Sex and Culture. He paused, allowing us to mentally calculate. "Now divide that by the number of kids you have." A few people chortled, though some hid their faces uncomfortably. Point taken.

Ryan isn't particularly doctrinal — he purposefully left the pedagogical, thumb-sucking, "Where to go from here" chapter out of Sex at Dawn. But his book, which quickly landed on The New York Times bestseller list, has become a de facto Bible in the polyamory community. John and Jessica both invoke his theories when trying to define their relationship. "Monogamy automatically assumes all these rules," Jessica said. That's why, when you desire someone besides your one life partner, it's called "cheating."

John would venture even farther, arguing that open relationships are actually a more natural state than marriage and the nuclear family. "Okay, like 10 percent of people in this society say they're gay, right? I think about the same amount of people are naturally born monogamous." He continued: "But from day one, as a society, we're immediately routed towards monogamy. This shit starts right when you get out of the womb, man. Wrap that colored blanket around them, put the mother and father on the birth certificate. Boom."

He's rankled about that. "The whole 'It takes a village' thing? It shouldn't be a foreign concept." John added that Ryan's book merely validated feelings he's had for years. "It helped me find words to express how I function." John will readily admit that his parents were monogamous, and that he grew up without any kind of progressive, open relationship model to use as a reference point. Nonetheless, he's says he's been poly his whole life.


One of the people who attended Ryan's lecture was Polly Whittaker, a slender, freckled blond who is a veritable Johnny Appleseed of the local polyamory community. Whittaker is one of those rare people who can flaunt her sexual preferences without compunction, since she works in the alt-sex world full time. Born in the UK and raised in a fairly permissive family — her parents were both sex therapists, and her mother "turned a blind eye" to her father's multiple affairs — she started going to fetish clubs as a teenager, immersed herself in the "sex underground," and entered her first open relationship after immigrating to the US in 1999. "The first weekend I came was the Folsom Street Fair," she said. "It was amazing. I was like, 'Yay, this is my town, I've arrived.'"

Some people only recognize Whittaker by the costumes she wears at sex parties, which involve a lot of pink wigs and corsets. In person, though, she's polite and down-to-business, and exudes a surprisingly small amount of sexual energy. In fact, she looks like a grown-up version of the Swiss Miss hot chocolate logo: cute, fair-skinned, and much younger in appearance than her 36 years. She says that by day she's focused on writing; her partner, Scott Levkoff, is a puppeteer.

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