Often, the evidence suggests, sex in long-term relationships.
What most people know about Sigmund Freud could fit on the head of a penis. But many are familiar with his late-life lament: “What does woman want?” In 2009, reporter Daniel Bergner wrote a piece for the New York Times Magazine titled What Do Women Want?, in which he reported on research into the nature of women’s sexuality. This week the magazine published Bergner’s latest article, which might well have been titled “What Does Woman Not Want?”
Dietrich Klusmann, a psychologist at the University of Hamburg-Eppendorf in Germany, has provided a glimpse into the bedrooms of longtime couples. His surveys, involving a total of almost 2,500 subjects, comprise one of the few systematic comparisons of female and male desire at progressive stages of committed relationships. He shows women and men in new relationships reporting, on average, more or less equal lust for each other. But for women who’ve been with their partners between one and four years, a dive begins — and continues, leaving male desire far higher.
The actual title of Bergner’s new article is Unexcited? There May Be a Pill for That, in which he describes the development of medication for women seeking help with flagging sexual desire. It seems that a Dutchman named Adriaan Tuiten has finally invented a drug, in two variations called Lybrido and Lybridos, that is effective and may soon be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The ill and the elderly aside, why do many women in good relationships avoid sex with their partners? Among the usual suspects: fatigue from juggling home and job; poor body image due to aging, lack of exercise, and childbirth; aversion to her partner’s out-of-shape body; and, of course, the festering resentments that infect even healthy relationships. Also, leave us not forget men’s relentless empty-out/fill-up sexual cycle, at obvious odds with many women’s longer cycle during which sexual desire peaks just before menstruation.
But what’s most likely to dash the hopes of men in relationships who feel deprived of sex has only just begun to be presented as a coherent whole. Setting – dinner, dress, intimacy – have traditionally been deemed important in aiding women, especially those in lengthy relationships, to “get in the mood.” In fact, enhancing desire thusly may come in a distant second to a mechanism Bergner outlines in the earlier article. He begins by explaining that
The generally accepted therapeutic notion that, for women, incubating intimacy leads to better sex is, [Professor of Psychology at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas Marta Meana] told me, often misguided. “Really,” she said, “women’s desire is not relational, it’s narcissistic” — it is dominated by the yearnings of “self-love,” by the wish to be the object of erotic admiration and sexual need. Still on the subject of narcissism, she talked about research indicating that, in comparison with men, women’s erotic fantasies center less on giving pleasure and more on getting it.
“When it comes to desire,” she added, “women may be far less relational than men.”
Broadly generalizing, if Professor Meana makes sense to you, sex for men is about women; sex for women, about women. Many women need to think of themselves as desirable to become aroused. But it doesn’t seem to matter to most men if women experience themselves as desirable. (Would that more men spent time making clear to their partners how desirable they find them. Facilitating that can be achieved, in part, by establishing setting, not to mention making themselves presentable.)
What’s more, while men are famous for looking for sexual thrills – as embodied, for example, by the phrase “get some strange” – that may better describe what women yearn for, according to Professor Meana. From the first article again.
… Meana thinks of female sexuality as divided into two systems. … On the one hand … there is the drive of sheer lust, and on the other the impetus of value [by which she means] the closeness and longevity of relationships: “But it’s wrong to think that because relationships are what women choose they’re the primary source of women’s desire.” [Emphasis added]
As I interpret Professor Meana, most women, like most men, first seek to meet their primary need. But, unlike men, they experience difficulty getting their primal needs met within the context of their relationship.
Meana posits that it takes a greater jolt, a more significant stimulus, to switch on a woman’s libido than a man’s. … And within a committed relationship, the crucial stimulus of being desired decreases considerably, not only because the woman’s partner loses a degree of interest but also, more important, because the woman feels that her partner is trapped, that a choice — the choosing of her — is no longer being carried out.
Some women just like the idea of sex and devote themselves to it as if it were an artistic pastime. But few individuals – men as well as women – are inclined to turn “in theory” into “in practice” on a regular basis. Bergner’s recent article reveals some of the issues the availability of a prescription raises.
But of course swallowing a tablet can take us only so far. Chemically enhancing a woman’s desire might play out in all kinds of ways within a relationship. … Women might feel yet more pressure to perform: Why not get that prescription? their partners might ask; why not take that pill?
As if to confirm their apprehensions, one of the article’s commenters, who calls herself Jewels, wrote:
Oh, ugh. Now I have to figure out a way to keep the nyt magazine out of my husband’s paws this weekend. … Just what he needs and I don’t: some ammo to wave around! “You should look into this pill! Right now!!!”
Implicit in her objection is what will likely prevent drugs such as the Lybridos family from ever achieving the mass popularity of erectile dysfunction drugs for men. In other words, many women don’t want to want sex. This includes, per Professor Meena, not only women who are unenthusiastic about the prospects of quotidian sex, but those who long to act on their fantasy of sex with an exciting stranger. They would be especially responsive, according to another researcher in the earlier article, to one who taps into a “take me” fantasy.
As you can imagine, when a woman demonstrates no interest in improving her sex life with her partner, the red flag it unfurls flaps wildly in the storm winds of a marriage. Her partner can’t help but conclude that his worst fears have come true and that, stuck in a sexless relationship, he’s now certifiably undesirable (never mind that may actually be the case), his masculinity shattered.
If he can afford to, a man can arrange to secure sex elsewhere. But, furtiveness inevitably erodes what’d left of the relationship. If up front, he’s likely to find that, to his partner, extramarital sex still qualifies as unfaithfulness and, despite herself, evokes jealousy.
With more people retaining their health longer, some speculate that – child-custody issues aside for the moment – succumbing to the seven-year itch deserves to sheltered under the same umbrella of social mores as, increasingly, same-sex marriage has been. In fact, though, not more than a handful of men and women have the stomach to purposely weather both the devastation of uncoupling and the subsequent grueling search for new love. Ultimately, most men seek one committed relationship. Women? The same, but, to many, sex is a clause that can be excised from the “contract” a few years later without necessarily renegotiating.
There may be no short-term answer, but, long-term solutions are readily apparent. We can begin by accepting that Professor Meana may be right and that, for many women, sex may never be part of daily life. Instead, we need to focus on what can change. Women should not be made to feel that that something is wrong with them just because they decline sex within a committed relationship. No one should attempt to shame them into taking medication.
Besides, that only succeeds in reminding them of all the men who have leered at them, groped them, perverted the concept of seduction by turning it into coercion, and, worst-case scenario, raped women or sexually abused them as children. No matter how wild women’s fantasies – still tame compared to those of many men – lack of interest in sex is more likely to be a symptom of how women have been treated by men both from their own births and from the beginning of the Neolithic Era than any “hard wiring.”
Credit is due those women who stand ready to seek medication to increase their sex drives. Nevertheless, it’s patently unfair to place more than a small portion of responsibility for any lack of interest in sex on women. It’s lamentable that, at this late date in history, it requires spelling out. But respect for young women in their formative years may be the truest indicator of sexual passion in the adult woman.