Sex at Dawn

Exploring the evolutionary origins of modern sexuality

An Inconvenient Truth: Sexual Monogamy Kills Male Libido

Human beings are evolved for sex lives full of novelty.

imageHere’s a suggestion: No serious therapeutic advice can begin with the word just. What would we think of a therapist who suggested that alcoholics should “Just stop drinking!” and that people struggling with obesity should “Just stop eating so much!”? Psychopaths should “Just develop some compassion,” right? Sure, that’ll work.

The problem with advice beginning with just is that it almost always turns out to be non-sense disguised as common sense. The insertion of just right there at the beginning suggests that we’ve been wasting our time talking about the problem, investigating its causes, exploring its complexities. Let’s get down to brass tacks. Forget all that brainy mumbo-jumbo and just do this. The power of this approach becomes obvious when we recall that America’s drug problem promptly ended when Nancy Reagan told us to Just say no to drugs. Gee, why didn’t someone think of that earlier?

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A recent article in Psychology Today profiles a therapist/author who suggests that married men with low libido can overcome this difficult situation if they just do it. According to this article, “their low sex drive often has little to do with hormones or biology and a lot to do with the women in their lives. Men today, often enough, are angry at their wives.” Readers are told that, “In the presence of a mismatch of desire, all intimacy drops out on all levels in addition to the sexual. Couples stop having meaningful conversations.”

I strongly disagree—both with this statement of the problem and the supposed effects on the relationship.

First, the problem. In fact, for most men in long-term sexually monogamous relationships, a steady decrease in libido has everything to do with biology and hormones and would be the same regardless of the particular woman in their lives. That’s right. The sexually-monogamous husband of the hottest woman on earth will start to lose interest at a certain point. Uma, Selma, it’s not your fault!

As for the men’s anger noted in the article, it’s more likely to be the result of our society’s unwillingness to face this biological reality – preferring to tell men there’s something wrong with them.

You want an inconvenient truth? Try this one: human beings are clearly evolved for sex lives featuring multiple simultaneous sexual relationships.

Men, especially, are designed by evolution to be attracted to sexual novelty and to gradually lose sexual attraction to the same partner in the absence of such novelty. The so-called Coolidge Effect is well demonstrated in social mammals of all sorts, and is old news to anyone knowledgeable about reproductive biology.

Boys will be boys, and men will be the way they are, despite the many ways our society tries to make them change.

Back in 1979, anthropologist Donald Symons pointed out that: “Human males seem to be so constituted that they resist learning not to desire variety despite impediments such as Christianity and the doctrine of sin; Judaism and the doctrine of mensch; social science and the doctrines of repressed homosexuality and psychosexual immaturity; evolutionary theories of monogamous pair-bonding; cultural and legal traditions that support and glorify monogamy.” Does anyone really need more examples of a man with a whole lot to lose risking it all for sex with a woman other than his wife? Surely, you can think of an example or seven.

To be fair, the therapist/author profiled in this article is far from the only source of misinformation on this touchy subject. No less an expert than Dr. Phil notes that “sexless marriages are an undeniable epidemic,” and he surely has his own home-spun, common-sense, utterly useless advice for couples. There is in fact, an entire industry of therapists and writers insisting that:

A. There’s something wrong with men who experience flagging libido in the context of a long-term sexually monogamous relationship (they’re emotionally immature victims of the dreaded Peter Pan Complex, they have issues with their mother, they’re addicted to porn, they’re afraid of emotional commitment, etc.), and,

B. There’s some magical way to address this problem that’ll make it go away.

Wrong and wronger.

Way back in 1964, when Vietnam was a new war and the sexual revolution was just getting started, Masters and Johnson noted that “Loss of coital interest engendered by monotony in a sexual relationship is probably the most constant factor in the loss of an aging male’s interest in sexual performance with his partner.” They further note that, “such a man may be rejuvenated by having sexual intercourse with a younger woman, although the young woman may not be as adept a lover as his wife.” Our research suggests that the age of the other woman is less important to this effect than is her otherness.

Now, what about the effects on the relationship? Is it true, as the article states, that “in the presence of a mismatch of desire, all intimacy drops out on all levels in addition to the sexual” (our emphasis)? Must “couples stop having meaningful conversations”?

Come on now.

If you know a couple who have been married for more than a few years, you know people who have spent significant time “in the presence of a mismatch of desire.” A couple is composed of two complex individuals, each following his or her unique, rocky path through life. Sexual desire fluctuates for each of us in accordance with many factors: seasons, work and financial pressures, pregnancy and child-care issues, the death or suffering of loved ones, overall physical health, age, etc. It’s absurd and destructive to suggest that a mismatch of desire need result in a loss of all intimacy and that meaningful conversations come to a screeching halt.

To be sure, sex can be an important part of intimacy, but it is not the essence of intimacy itself. In fact, high-libido sex can easily be an expression of the utter absence of true intimacy: the notorious one-night stand. Couples who do not understand this are unlikely to survive for long.

In fact, couples might find themselves having the most meaningful conversations ever if they have the courage to talk openly about these fluctuations in desire. One of the most important hopes we have for our book (coming July 2nd) is to make it easier for couples to make their way across this difficult emotional terrain together, with a deeper, less judgmental understanding of where these inconvenient feelings come from and a more informed, emotionally mature approach to dealing with them.

Christopher Ryan, Ph.D., is co-author of Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality (HarperCollins 2010).

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