“We are not very much to blame for our bad marriages. We live amid hallucinations; and this especial trap is laid to trip up our feet with, and all are tripped up first or last. But the mighty Mother who had been so sly with us, as if she felt that she owed us some indemnity, insinuates into the Pandora-box of marriage some deep and serious benefits, and some great joys.” —Emerson
Consistent with some research, people tend to believe women are more inclined to monogamy than men—that women desire it more than men do, it being more satisfying for women than for men, who, it is thought, are especially fond of sexual variety. Back in February, in a piece for The Atlantic, Wednesday Martin called this popular notion into question. Said Martin:
A 2012 study of 170 men and women aged 18 to 25 who were in relationships of up to nine years…found that women’s sexual desire, but not men’s, “was significantly and negatively predicted by relationship duration after controlling for age, relationship satisfaction, and sexual satisfaction.” Two oft-cited German longitudinal studies, published in 2002 and 2006, show female desire dropping dramatically over 90 months, while men’s holds relatively steady. (Tellingly, women who didn’t live with their partners were spared this amusement-park-ride-like drop—perhaps because they were making an end run around overfamiliarity.) And a Finnish seven-year study of more than 2,100 women, published in 2016, revealed that women’s sexual desire varied depending on relationship status: Those in the same relationship over the study period reported less desire, arousal, and satisfaction. Annika Gunst, one of the study’s co-authors, told me that she and her colleagues initially suspected this might be related to having kids. But when the researchers controlled for that variable, it turned out to have no impact.
Although I have no wish to dispute these findings, I should say that all social science research should be taken with a grain of salt. In 2015, the Open Science Collaboration project, led by University of Virginia psychologist Brian Nosek, found that only about one-third of the psychological studies in premier journals replicate. The world is a big, varied place, and even when studies are accurate, we should not assume that they hold for all people in all places and times, but rather for those persons who were studied at the time in question.
And yet there is undoubtedly a human nature. Otherwise, as Noam Chomsky has often said in response to those who criticize his conception of the mind and language, we might develop into amoebas rather than men and women. Still, it is exceedingly difficult to distinguish universal and ahistorical human traits and behaviors from culture-specific practices and customs. This difficulty is especially challenging in the case of women. Amy Wax, no feminist, observes that
If we mean by “what comes naturally” the spontaneous exercise of personal inclination under conditions free from deliberate outside interference, force or pressure, then historical practice provides little empirical support for the view that some social roles belong to women by nature.
So, perhaps the common belief that monogamy is more consistent with “female nature” than “male nature” is a myth. After all, writes Martin,
Many women want monogamy. It’s a cozy arrangement, and one our culture endorses, to put it mildly. But wanting monogamy isn’t the same as feeling desire in a long-term monogamous partnership. The psychiatrist and sexual-health practitioner Elisabeth Gordon told me that in her clinical experience, as in the data, women disproportionately present with lower sexual desire than their male partners of a year or more, and in the longer term as well. “The complaint has historically been attributed to a lower baseline libido for women, but that explanation conveniently ignores that women regularly start relationships equally as excited for sex.” Women in long-term, committed heterosexual partnerships might think they’ve “gone off” sex—but it’s more that they’ve gone off the same sex with the same person over and over.
There is indeed ample evidence that the female libido decreases more than the male libido over the course of marriage. In their 2018 paper “The Mask of Love and Sexual Gullibility,” Baumeister et. al emphasize this well-known phenomenon. They also argue that we delude ourselves about the positive qualities of our romantic partners, even as we ignore their faults and flaws. In these respects, the argument is essentially the same as that of Arthur Schopenhauer’s cynical 1818 essay “Metaphysics of Love.” Of course, poets and novelists have long shown that love is deceptive, too. What we have here, then, is an idea of love that makes us what Schopenhauer called “the dupes of the species.” Our passions, though so strong and pleasurable at first, are typically more complicated and less satisfying than they initially seem. But for all that, they yet serve Nature’s ends.
Women, Martin suggests, are “monogamy’s victims.” Well, no wonder. She has a PhD in Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies from Yale, where women learn, partly through female groupthink, that anything negative in life is a matter of victimization, for which men are usually to blame. Yet Martin thinks she has a solution:
It’s not uncommon for women to let their straight partners play in a “monogamy gray zone,” to give guys access to tensional outlets that allow them to cheat without really cheating. “Happy ending” massages, oral sex at bachelor parties, lap dances, escorts at conferences…influenced by ubiquitous pop-cultural cues, many people believe that men need these opportunities for recreational “sorta sex” because “it’s how men are.” It’s how women are, too, it seems.
Women cannot be pigeonholed; the glory of human sexuality is its variation and flexibility. So when we speak of desire in the future, we should acknowledge that the fairer sex thirsts for the frisson of an encounter with someone or something new as much as, if not more, than men do—and that they could benefit from a gray-zone hall pass, too.
Whether not being satisfied by having sex “with the same person over and over” is really a problem depends on your perspective—that is to say, on what you think marriage and romantic relationships are for. Survival and the perpetuation of a certain lineage and tradition? As a part of one’s individuation? Like most liberals, Martin never asks herself what would happen to families and the culture as a whole if everyone were to act on a philosophy of free love. “Go, girl,” she says in short. “What’s good for men is good for you, too.”
I confess that I myself have never found monogamy easy or very enjoyable. Neither do I know of a more agreeable bodily pleasure than sleeping with a new, beautiful woman. I know, too, that monogamous marriage has not been the norm throughout human history. I recognize, however, that monogamous marriage promotes social order and the flourishing of families. Far from being the natural or default condition of mankind, monogamous marriage, like many other valuable institutions, was arrived at through hard experience, through trial and error, pain and suffering. If promiscuity and infidelity historically have been less acceptable for women than for men, it’s certainly been in order to prevent unwanted children and children born of cuckoldry. Some years ago, a woman I was dating told me that, though her parents had long been unhappy in their marriage, they nevertheless chose to stay together for the sake of the children. Now that marriage increasingly means “personal fulfillment,” that value is rather less common than it used to be, and children are suffering as a result.
A culture of free love affords lots of fun times for some, but it also makes for rampant narcissism and chaos in the sexual marketplace, as seen from the #MeToo madness of the past few years. Divorce, illegitimacy, violent incels, bitter cat ladies, terrible loneliness, people for whom “love” means sheer manipulation and the profoundest disillusionment—all of these have come to characterize love under liberalism. That liberalism—with its characteristic autonomy and freedom from past mores and constraints—is not good for love is not a theme of many contemporary imaginative writers, in part because they themselves are overwhelmingly liberal, and so blind to liberalism’s weaknesses. The writings of the French conservative novelist Michel Houellebecq contain dark depths that are not found in liberal eminences such as Jonathan Franzen, Ben Lerner, Joyce Carol Oates, or Jeffrey Eugenides. In his novel Whatever (1994), Houellebecq writes:
From the amorous point of view, Véronique belonged, as we all do, to a sacrificed generation. She had certainly been capable of love; she would have wished to still be capable of it, I’ll say that for her; but it was no longer possible. A scarce, artificial and belated phenomenon, love can only blossom under certain mental conditions, rarely conjoined, and totally opposed to the freedom of morals that characterizes the modern era. Véronique had known too many discothèques, too many lovers; such a way of life impoverishes a human being, inflicting sometimes serious and always irreversible damage. Love as a kind of innocence and as a capacity for illusion, as an aptitude for epitomizing the whole of the other sex in a single loved being rarely resists a year of sexual immorality, and never two. In reality, the successive sexual experiences accumulated during adolescence undermine and rapidly destroy all possibility of projection of an emotional and romantic sort.
Having read several of his novels, I find that Houellebecq’s apparently absolute despair about love goes too far. Nevertheless, there is plenty of truth in it, and he is an important and insightful writer, in part because his necessarily limited and anguished characters show that, to borrow an apt phrase from Mark Bauerlein, liberalism is bad for literature. In Bauerlein’s words,
When individualism triumphs, when romance and marriage are entirely an individual thing, the drama of the characters narrows accordingly, and social, religious, political, and other obligations are recast as impositions….
A good plot needs conflict, an unsettled situation whose outcome we care about. For more than two centuries, the theme of “individual vs. society” provided a ready tension for it, as in Huck Finn’s personal feelings for Jim clashing with the norms of slave society, or Edna in Kate Chopin’s ‘The Awakening’ rebelling against patriarchal demands in turn-of-the-century Louisiana. The conflict worked precisely because the social side isn’t powerless and on occasion voices a legitimate criticism of the specific individual with whom we sympathize. Once all legitimacy lies on the individual side, once social institutions have no claim upon the one, tension dissipates and the novel reads like a chronicle of events in the life of _____, not a meaningful examination of human affairs in this or that setting….
The dominant venues of our culture empower the personal perspective, a do-whatever-you-want-as-long-as-you-don’t-infringe-on-others outlook, and the contemporary novelist interested in current conditions represents sensibilities that result from it. But the more those characters care about themselves and circle events, ideas, places, books, and everything else back into the sphere of their direct experiences, the less we care about them.
Needless to say, Bauerlein’s acute take is a long way from the shallow Martin, who evidently regards liberal individualism as an unmixed good. For Martin, it seems, people are to spend their days like so many smitten and horny 20-year-olds who can’t get enough of each other, or rather, of somebody, since “the glory of human sexuality is its variation and flexibility.” By contrast, when my grandmother waited for my grandfather to return from World War II so they could marry, she surely did not envisage a life of happiness and endlessly delightful orgasms ahead of her so much as survival with a decent and responsible and interesting man. To my mind, eros, for mature adults, should constitute a special friendship, a haven from suffering and the hostilities of the world. A person who expects other people to “fulfill” him would do well, I submit, to take a close look at the nature of animal existence. Are we really here to be “fulfilled”? How tenable is this expectation?
I myself aim to achieve something with my days on this strange and mysterious planet. Such a sense of purpose is not for everyone, of course. Still, free-love enthusiasts, and women who resist being “pigeonholed,” should know that erotic pleasure is fleeting in character; and its high comprehending its low, it often proves to be a vexed thing. In “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” the poet John Keats writes that “human passion” “leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,/A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.” A parching tongue, you see, because romantic longing itself is the source of the pain we associate with it.