Try a Little Tenderness

The BBC reports on a new German study that finds “four years into a relationship, less than half of 30-year-old women wanted regular sex,” but “the proportion of men wanting regular sex remained at between 60-80%, regardless of how long they had been in a relationship.” The study’s lead author, Dr Dietrich Klusmann, a psychologist at Hamburg-Eppendorf University, attributes the differences to human evolution.

I can’t find the actual paper on the study, but the first thing I’d want to know is whether the researchers controlled for children and division of child-rearing labor. I’m a 32-year-old woman who’s been married for four years, and I can’t say that my sex drive has decreased—but it does ebb, expectedly, with increased stress or exhaustion or illness. The thing is, we don’t have kids. I haven’t had the hormone changes that accompany pregnancy and childbirth; I haven’t had to do late-night feedings; I don’t have to worry about Junior interrupting us. I’m sure there are women who have kids whose sex drives don’t change significantly with the birth of children, but I imagine mine would.

I’m also curious to know if the women had a decreased sex drive full-stop, or just a decreased interest in her long-term partner, and, in either case, why they thought it might be. If women tended to answer, “My libido just isn’t what it used to be,” that’s a much different issue that if they tended to answer, “I’m bored as fuck.” Maybe the logical explanation is evolution; maybe it’s more about emotional maintenance. Without knowing anything else about the study, it’s hard to say.

Another finding of the study, however, certainly seems to suggest to me that emotional vigilance could be playing a big part in the libido issue.

About 90% of women wanted tenderness, regardless of how long they had been in a relationship, but only 25% of men who had been in a relationship for 10 years said they were still seeking tenderness from their partner.
Of the 75% of men who aren’t still seeking “tenderness” from their partners, how many of them do you think are endeavoring to provide it nonetheless? With 90% of women still wanting it, but probably nowhere near 90% of men still supplying it, its absence may be indicative of why women’s sex drives wane.

We are animals, but we’re animals who experience a heavy association between emotion and sex, which makes biological determinism, extrapolated from the animal behavior studies of other species, a dubious prospect when it comes to providing explanations for human sexuality. Thusly, I get a bit annoyed with studies that purport to explain women’s sexual behavior with evolutionary rationales, particularly when within the same study there are indications that social conditions may provide valuable insights. If there is a biological reason for diminishing sex drive in women, fair enough—but asserting such a conclusion in spite of other possibilities is the kind of thing that leads to the marketing of pills and potions claiming to “solve” women’s “problem.”

Perhaps their “problem” is just down to being stuck in unfulfilling relationships created by a culture that seeks to strip men of every emotional impulse and expression unless it’s somehow aggressive. We’ve been told endlessly that the disparity in emotionality between the sexes is also biological, and while there are certainly general differences, any man, straight or gay—especially those who were regarded as “gentle” or “sensitive” as a child—can share stories of being told to “toughen up” or “be a man.” Boys don’t cry and all that. We do socialize boys differently than girls when it comes to the expression of emotion, and not to their benefit, either, considering that men who can healthily express emotion are less disposed to heart disease and other stress-related illnesses.

It doesn’t seem particularly radical to me to suggest that the disparity in emotional involvement in long-term relationships is quite likely inextricably linked to the disparity in sexual interest, nor that addressing the former would benefit both sexes.

(Hat tip Sara.)

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