There were three main themes that emerged from their data: 1. institutionalization of the relationship, 2. over-familiarity, 3. the problem of de-sexualization. Fancy terms, I know, but what do they mean?
For starters, Sims and Meana agree with the oft-repeated contention that relationship issues are at the heart of women's desire loss. However, not in the way that most people think. The majority of their participants were perfectly happy with their partners -- just not their sex lives. And most of the women mentioned many reasons why their libidos took a hike.
Institutionalization -- Who Wants to Live in an Institution Anyway?
The first issue that emerged was institutionalization. For many of the women, marriage itself was something of a snooze factor. Rollicking, bed-breaking premarital sex dwindled, in many cases, to Saturday morning, missionary only encounters hurriedly sandwiched in between Junior's soccer game and Fluffy's deworming. One of the saddest truths about human sexuality is that what is often great for your emotional life (comfort, security, intimacy etc.) may not do your sex life any favors. Many of the women were simply bored by the routine of ever-available (and often unwanted) marital nookie. It was too sanitized and too socially sanctioned. One woman said:
There was a lot of desire when I was dating, excitement. On the flip side, when you’re married, I know exactly how my husband is going to touch me, I know how much he loves me and I’m not embarrassed to take my clothes off. There’s a comfort there that is important to me.
It’s just not as exciting . . . the desire is lost. You go from being real careful around each other and being on your best behavior. Then, of course, you start to get comfortable with one another and that changes—your bad habits come out, your bad moods come out.
That takes some of the desire away whereas when you are dating, it’s just so sexual and so amazing and so exciting . . . Desire dwindles as you become a couple.Plus, nowadays, a happy sex life is not only considered an important part of marriage -- it's an obligation. The fact that you are expected (or even required) to make your partner sexually happy can be a daunting responsibility -- and frankly, a real buzz kill. As one sex-weary young wife put it: “I just feel like I have to keep doing it, it’s like an obligation to me right now. Like, okay, it’s been a week. I need to give him sex or he’s going to be upset . . . ”
The equating of a happy marriage with hot marital sex is a cultural trend that became popular sometime around the turn of the last century. The Industrial Revolution eliminated many of the economic underpinnings of marital stability, and the "soul-mate" marriage, based on friendship and successful shagging, was created to take its place. Given our almost 50% divorce rate, some would argue, the success of this social "experiment" is debatable.
Familiarity Breeds Contempt
The second issue that the women complained about was over-familiarity. Many of the women lamented the loss of romance from the marital bedroom. But it was the romance of early love, the pre-relationship dating days with all of their novelty, anticipation, and uncertainty that they longed for the most. You know the old saying "familiarity breeds contempt", well this is never more apparent than in the bedroom. One of the biggest buzz kills of all is doing the same thing, the same way, every time. And some men (and women as well) are like Pavlov's dog, once they learn a new trick, they repeat it -- over and over again -- ad nauseum.
Many women talked about how they could predict exactly what their honey would do next, and in what order. Kind of like their husbands had a mental checklist that they were marking off on their way to the grand finale. There is a biological reason that this would be a huge turn-off. Desire is fueled by the neurotransmitter dopamine, which rises in response to novelty and anticipation. If you know exactly what is going to happen next, your brain (and other body parts), says "why bother?".
The women were also dismayed by their husbands ability to go from watching American Idol to grabbing a boob and hoping to get some action. Though oddly that kind of spontaneous, caveman behavior might have been a real panty-soaker earlier in the relationship. According to an exasperated 33-year-old:
One of the things we have spoken about and is really confusing to him, is things like grabbing me, touching me would really get me excited and then suddenly doing the very same things now completely turn me off. I have told him you cannot go and just grab my breasts like that anymore—It no longer turns me on—You just gotta stop.De-sexualized Roles
This one was a no-brainer. You work a double-shift, there isn't much left for anything else. Most of the women spoke of being absolutely depleted by their to-do list. And sex didn't have a high priority on that list. Plus, many felt that there was an incompatibility between the role of "mom" and the role of "vixen". After spending all day wiping noses and counter tops, transitioning into a night-time passion puss wasn't easy to do. And some women simply didn't have the energy after working at a job and then coming home to another one. Plus, for mothers of small children, the constant tactile demands of caring for a child left them feeling "overtouched" -- on sensory overload -- and not in the mood for more skin to skin contact.
I thought the article was fascinating to read. The authors brought up some interesting points regarding the nature of female desire -- one was the importance of novelty and transgression -- contrary to popular stereotype, it's not just about intimacy and safety. I have often thought that female desire, more so than male, is actually very contingent on a kind of arousing ambivalence -- a feeling of being slightly off-kilter -- but in a manageable way. As the authors pointed out, too much ambivalence and you are likely to feel too anxious, too little, and you're bored.
I think a lot of this stems from the way that women are socialized to view sex and love. I don't think that it is surprising that it is the rush of early romantic love that is such a sexual thrill. Most of us are are raised to romanticize sex. We wanted to be wanted -- often, more than anything. We fantasize that we are the object of some hot stud's desire (Fifty Shades of Grey, anyone). But, in being the object, paradoxically, we assume power. The rape fantasy is really all about being desired, it is NOT about being defeated or abused.
But there are real problems with this approach. It puts a woman in a passive position where she is not the driver of her sexuality. Often, female desire is divorced from the body and experienced in a relationship based way only. Women are not told about their anatomy, masturbate less than men, and have sex that is based on what works for men. Only 29% of women always have an orgasm during sex, in comparison to 75% of men. I couldn't help but think, while reading this article, that if more of these women found sex physically gratifying, they might not be so hung up on romance. And they might not regard sex as such a boring chore -- akin to taking out the garbage either.
What can be done to turn more women on? I don't know, but our current approach sure isn't working. Socializing women to be passive doesn't work in the long run. And the idea that life-long love means nonstop, smokin' sex is probably not realistic. Maybe if we could realize that, we wouldn't be so obsessed with trying to sex it up. If we could just lighten up about sex -- see it as adult play perhaps-- we would be better off. But, sadly, given all the heavy energy surrounding the whole issue of sexuality that is not an easy thing to do.