Ask any person on the street which sex struggles more with monogamy, and they’ll probably wonder why you even have to ask. Conventional wisdom is that men crave novelty, and some evolutionary psychologists even argue that men are hard-wired to have sex with as many people as they can.
But in his new book, What Do Women Want?, New York Times journalist Dan Bergner argues that women might actually find monogamy more challenging than men—and studies backing this claim are beginning to pile up.
Sex researchers often point to studies to prove that men crave novelty more than women. One popular study presents a college student with an attractive stranger and then asks the student if he or she would be willing to have no-strings-attached sex with the stranger. Unsurprisingly, men are more likely to say yes to the tryst than women. But critics have argued that these studies neglect important cultural factors. Women, for example, might be afraid of being alone with a stranger or feel ashamed of their sexual desires. Without controlling for these issues, self-reports don’t provide much insight.
Sex and Culture
The belief that men are more sexual than women hasn’t always been so popular. In the Victorian era, for example, mental health researchers argued that women were much more sexual than men, and women were more likely to be diagnosed with hypersexuality than men. Religious texts present stories of promiscuous women, and sometimes portray women as the more sexual sex, advocating for measures to control women’s sexuality.
Beliefs about sex and sexual behaviors are heavily influenced by sex. In a world where women are penalized for enjoying sex or behaving in a promiscuous fashion, they may be less likely to express sexual desire. And when men are told that they’re more promiscuous or sexual than women, it may serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Recent research is calling conventional wisdom about monogamous women and promiscuous men into question. One recent study, for example, found that women were more aroused by fantasies involving sex with strangers, and a second showed that women favored pornographic images that were novel over those that were familiar.
Bergner emphasizes that women are more likely to lose interest in sex with their partners than men are, and argues that this may mean monogamy is harder for women than for men. The fact women lose interest in sex has often been used as evidence that they’re less sexual than men. However, it could be that they’re simply less interested in sex with their partners and still entertain an active fantasy life involving new partners. Statistics on infidelity vary, but women and men usually have similar rates, and some studies even claim that women cheat more often than men.
Scientists have long sought the holy grail of sexuality treatment: a pill that will increase women’s sexual desire. Some women’s advocates have argued that the fact there’s no female equivalent of Viagra is the product of cultural influence; many women are desperate for something that can bring their libidos back. But it may be that the issue has little to do with biology and everything to do with boredom. Research into how to recharge sexual desire in a stale relationship could be the next step toward helping both men and women maintain satisfying sex lives in monogamous relationships.
- Bergner, D. (2013, May 26). Unexcited? There may be a pill for that. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/26/magazine/unexcited-there-may-be-a-pill-for-that.html?pagewanted=all
- Dawson, S. J., Suschinsky, K. D., & Lalumière, M. L. (2013). Habituation of sexual responses in men and women: A test of the preparation hypothesis of women’s genital responses. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 10(4), 990-1000.
- Marcotte, A. (2013, May 23). Women struggle with monogamy more than men. XX Factor. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2013/05/23/nytimes_on_lybrido_women_get_bored_with_monogamy_faster_than_men.html
- Valenti, J. (2009). The purity myth: How America’s obsession with virginity is hurting young women. Berkeley, CA: Seal Press.
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