Sex, in general, and female sexual desire, in particular, have been under the microscope rather a lot, of late. It all started in 2007 with the psychologist Esther Perel’s suggestion that infidelity might be an effective antidote to the monotony of monogamy. Three year’s later, Christopher Ryan’s book “Sex at Dawn’ used all sorts of selective evolutionary theory to argue that polygamy was, and still ought to be, our ‘natural’ state. Ryan’s arguments were roundly condemned by the Christian right, and loudly applauded by the influential American sex columnist, Dan Savage, who, in turn, proposed that we should all negotiate our own rules for ‘controlled infidelity’ prior to establishing committed relationships. Like thats ever going to happen.
Meanwhile, the New York Times journalist Dan Bergner had unearthed a smorgasbord of scientists and sex researchers who were, in their own way, challenging long held assumptions about women being more naturally monogamous than men. His book “What Do Women Want” is a digested guide to the multiple strands of investigation into female sexual desire, and it raises interesting questions about the inverse relationship between monogamy and sexual desire. Central to Bergner’s thesis is the work of the psychologist Meredith Chivers. She uses a device called a plethysmograph to directly measure vaginal arousal in response to erotic images. Her results show, repeatedly, that men are category specific about what turns them on, but women are completely indiscriminate. Straight men, for example, are turned on by images of men with women, or women with women, however her plethysmograph indicates that women are equally aroused by images of women having sex with women, men having sex with men, and even bonobo apes having sex with each other. Chivers has also used her plethysmograph in conjunction with pornographic audio tapes and these results show that female genital blood flow throbs eight times more powerfully when the subject is sex with a male stranger as opposed to a current partner.
Chivers believes that genital response is a more accurate measure of arousal because it bypasses potential cognitive censorship. In her accompanying self-report questionnaires, for example, none of Chivers’ female participants admitted, or possibly even recognised, that their vaginas had responded to such a broad range of erotica, yet at the same time, Bergner’s face to face interviews with women about the content of their fantasies read like a sequel to ’50 Shades of Grey”. Forced sex, group sex, sex with strangers… it’s all there in unapologetic spades. The conclusion is that women possess inherently rampant libidos which have been subdued by eons of self-regulation and social and constraint. Its probably true but sexual desire can’t be analysed in isolation. Firstly, it differs from one person to the next and it is, undeniably, affected by the quality and the duration of a relationship. You can’t compare the sex you have with someone you’ve known for six weeks, to the sex you have with someone who has shared your bed for sixteen, or even sixty, years.
As my mother used to say, “when you’ve taken the top off the lemonade and the fizz goes out, its hard to get it back in”. No one would deny that sex with a new partner has more bubbles, but a genetic propensity for sexual novelty still doesn’t equate to an entitlement. After all, the instinct to rape and kill came pretty naturally to our predecessors, but no would dare to suggest that we have any right to satisfy those urges. We are lucky enough to be able to exercise “free will’, but we are equally fortunate to have been taught the importance of ‘free-won’t’. The big problem with the ‘monogamy is boring’ debate is that it spectacularly fails to take into account the importance of familial and societal stability. The writer Ross Douthat sums it up perfectly when he says that “Monogamy is a fragile achievement of civilized life, not something that’s written in our glands and genes.” Ultimately, monogamy has evolved as a useful contract where people choose to give up complete sexual freedom in exchange for emotional and economic security. And thats not something you can measure with a plethysmograph.