Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen in Take This Waltz.
Here’s a way a bloke can get a room full of women to cheer. Tell them that they are a hotbed of sexual desire and that they are suppressing their lust. Daniel Bergner did just that at the ‘All About Women Festival’ on the weekend. Cheers turned to giggles when he revealed women’s sexual tastes are so varied that we get turned on by watching animal sex.
But the ‘aha’ moment came when Bergner announced that in long-term relationships men’s desire declines very slowly and steadily while women’s desire plummets off a cliff after 3 years.
It’s great to give the finger to evolutionary psychologists who have told us men are designed to spread their seed and women were made clingy creatures who trap blokes and bohos into monogamy. It’s fun to realise women may be less suited to monogamy than men. It’s inspiring to see women strip back the restrictions of culture and upbringing and reconnect with their underestimated and constrained desire.
But what are we to do with this information if we are partnered?
Do women have to escape the ‘cultural cage’ of marriage to feel fully sexual?
Because while our vaginas may not be built for monogamy, our society is still constructed for love and marriage going together like a horse and carriage, despite the invention of the car. During the sexual awakenings of the seventies some couples attended key swapping parties, women occasionally invited the milkman in for what Erika Jong called the ‘zipless fuck’ and young hippies orgied in communes. But the free love phase didn’t last. Perhaps because emotions like jealousy got in the way. Perhaps because the liberation mostly benefitted men. Perhaps because generations who married later felt they’d had their fun and were more ready to ‘settle down’. Of course there are some polyamorous communities working on establishing different ways of loving but for most women and men monogamy seems to work for us. In mind and spirit.
Just not in body. At least not all the time.
International surveys show the number one sexual concern for western women is lack of libido over time in monogamous relationships. In a far funnier and more raucous sex session at the festival, sexual anthropologist Dr Bella Ellwood-Clayton and writer and cartoonist Kaz Cooke discussed in part how to climb back up the sexual cliff.
Let’s start with kids. They blame us for everything so we should blame them for some of this problem. They may have been formed in a hot sex session but they sure can cool down desire after they come out. The loving intimacy of a baby can be so intense and sensual that sex gets forgotten. Sleep becomes the orgasmic release we crave. Then the baby becomes a toddler that climbs into the parental bed. The good news is I have friends who talk of a revival of sex life now their kids are tweens and teens. But that’s quite a few years of lazy libido.
Women are often embarrassed about their bodies. A study found 70% of women feel too fat to undress for their partner. Dr Ellwood-Clayton believes our hyper-focus on appearing gorgeous means we can be too busy chasing a look of desirability to actually desire. In an uber-sexual culture anxiety about appearance further disconnects us from our sexual core.
Our strength at multi tasking is also an issue. Dr Bella Ellwood-Clayton’s book ‘Sex Drive in Pursuit of Female Desire’ says our multitasking mind decreases our sex drive. We need to learn to turn off to turn back on.
But whether you blame advertising, fat, our monkey mind or the monkey like tendency for our body to want a new partner every 3 years there is only an issue if we decide it is. Or when one partner is still keen and the other is not. The nature of declining desire that Daniel Bergner maps means often guys still want it when wives don’t, but of course, sometimes it’s the other way around. So do we lie back and think of monkey sex? Or as Bettina Arndt suggests ‘take one for the team’ ?
Dr Ellwood-Clayton has other ideas. Like scheduling a date and sex night, ‘bringing back the pash, turning off the TV to go to bed early and naked, or my personal favourite, ‘bringing back danger with activities like rock climbing’. Actually no that’s not my favourite, I prefer another of her hints - ‘red wine’.
At end of the day sometimes you have to make a choice. To accept the peaks and troughs of sexual desire in a long-term relationship or to try and spice it up. To try an open relationship. Or an affair. For many, divorce is the best choice. Perhaps we need to incorporate infidelity into our sociological structure. Oh look at those French!
Or here’s another idea - we could change our expectation of marriage acknowledging it can’t always give us co-parenting, companionship, cleaning, cooking, love, desire, laughs and great sex all at once. Or we could wait until pink Viagra hits the chemists.
But know this. The same pharmaceutical companies looking for such a pill provide much of the funding for sex research. It’s in their interest to pathologize low libido. In a society that glamorizes sex and uses it to sell nearly everything we tend to assume everyone is doing it endlessly. Yet a study by Durex fund 60% of Australians are actually only bonking once a week. In sexy Sweden – the land of spa baths and paternity leave, parents of young children only get it once or twice a month.
Low libido may not be a disease but a normal lapse. Parenthood changes us. Monogamy changes us. Daniel Bergner may be right to urge us to reconnect with our sexual selves. But climbing back up the cliff of desire is not easy when we have to consider the feelings of others. Unfortunately dealing with desire is not as easy as lying back and watching monkey sex or even rock climbing.
I await your thoughts and ideas.