And it Has Nothing to Do With You (Ladies)
As the daughter of a father who cheated on all four of his wives, my expectation that men are bound to get bored and eventually stray is partly what made the discovery of the option of polyamory so appealing to me.
From my observations growing up, cheating seemed to be a natural part of the male condition. My dad cheated, my grandfather cheated, my uncles cheated, and my great, great, great … great, great uncle Benjamin Franklin cheated. None of my boyfriends cheated (that I know of), but they all got bored a few months after we started having sex and moved on to the next new, shiny piece of ass.
As a teenager and young adult I took this very personally. One of my biggest goals in life was to make a man fall in love with me and stay in love with me. The problem was I didn’t understand the difference between love and sexual passion, and neither did the men.
When my first boyfriend told me he was “falling out of love” with me, neither of us understood that what he really meant was he was falling out of passion with me.
Those devastating words – “I’m falling out of love with you” – haunted me for the next dozen years. I’d learned to play hard-to-get harder than ever. “Pretend you don’t care, mock them, tease them, make them work for it, keep them guessing even after they catch you, keep playing the game, keep his interest…” were the affirmations I told myself when trying to catch or keep a man.
The problem was I sucked at the game. I could only keep up the Anne of Green Gables and Gilbert act for so long. I could only pretend to be the boy’s enemy for a few months before I fell hopelessly into his bed and gave him my whole heart on a platter. I always spent so much energy anticipating the same ending to the story – the once-obsessed-with-me boy getting over me, over and over – that I became fixated on “fixing” the man… If only I could teach one how to really, devotedly love a woman… to get in touch with his emotions, to be vulnerable, to not fear intimacy, maybe he would stick around, I thought.
A few years later, after reading Sex at Dawn and related writings, I’ve learned it is not intimacy men fear, but a lifetime of sexual monogamy. It doesn’t matter how beautiful or perfect or amazing their partner is, the thought of having sex with one woman for their rest of their lives is terrifying to men, and whether they are conscious of it or not, that is why they avoid “intimacy” and certainly “commitment.”
The Coolidge Effect
From Sex at Dawn:
President Calvin Coolidge and his wife were visiting a commercial chicken farm in the 1920s. During the tour, the first lady asked the farmer how he managed to produce so many fertile eggs with only a few roosters. The farmer proudly explained that his roosters happily performed their duty dozens of times each day. “Perhaps you could mention that to the president,” replied the first lady. Overhearing the remark, President Coolidge asked the farmer, “Does each cock service the same hen each time?” “Oh no,” replied the farmer. “He always changes from one hen to another.” “I see,” replied the president. “Perhaps you could point that out to Mrs. Coolidge.”
The invigorating effect of a variety of sexual partners has become known as “the Coolidge effect.”
I don’t know about you, but I can totally relate to Mrs. Coolidge. It was only six months ago that I was her – lust starved and begging my partner to “service” me more often. I took his lack of sexual desire for me extremely personally. But now, I am beginning to notice a pattern. Whenever Brad has a date or a casual sexual encounter, his attraction to and desire for me is immediately “reinvigorated.” It’s as if sexual experiences (or even sexually suggestive experiences) with other women serve as an aphrodisiac for us.
This might explain why a group of Melanesian island women celebrated their cultural practice of allowing married men to have young lovers. The women – who reported several orgasms to each of their husbands’ one – expected that their husbands’ interest in them would pale after a few years of marriage, and therefore welcomed young concubines to “reinvigorate” their libidos. Until the imposition of colonial laws against the practice, that is. Both men and women regard the loss of the tradition as the worst result of contact with European culture, Sex at Dawn authors Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha say.
“The strongest explanation for the prevalence and intensity of the Coolidge effect among social mammals is that the male drive for sexual variety is evolution’s way of avoiding incest … To avoid the genetic stagnation that would’ve dragged our ancestors into extinction long ago, males evolved a strong appetite for sexual novelty and a robust aversion to the overly familiar,” Ryan and Jetha write.
“When a couple have been living together for years, when they’ve become family, this ancient anti-incest mechanism can effectively block eroticism for many men, leading to confusion and hurt feelings all around,” the book says.
There are all kinds of logical evolutionary reasons men are driven to have sex with as many women as possible – to prevent incest, to encourage them to branch out to a wider gene pool for genetic variety, to promote sperm competition to ensure health and vitality of offspring, to create social bonds and networks – and therefore driven to cheat in a culture that condemns promiscuity.
Men might not understand the biological reasons for their sex drive, but their bodies do and their hormones reward or punish them based on their ability to satisfy that drive.
Low testosterone is an increasingly common diagnoses for excessive fatigue, weakness, depression and low sex drive, according to a recent WebMD article.
“As their testosterone levels decline with age, many men experience a diminishment of energy and libido, an intangible distance from the basic pleasures of life,” the authors of Sex at Dawn concur.
To some degree, it’s normal for “men’s testosterone levels recede over the years,” write Ryan and Calilda. “But it’s not just the passing of time that bring these levels down: monogamy itself seems to drain away a man’s testosterone. Married men consistently show lower levels of the hormone than single men of the same age; fathers of young children, even less. Men, who are particularly responsive to infants show declines of 30 percent or more right after their child is born. Married men having affairs, however, were found to have higher testosterone levels than those who weren’t.”
The book’s authors tell the story of a friend they’ve pseudo-named “Phil” – the handsome owner of a successful software company, husband of a gorgeous, accomplished physician and father of three brilliant, beautiful daughters. Ryan and Jetha refer to him as the “icon of male achievement.” Phil risked and lost his “seemingly perfect life” for a short-lived affair with a coworker.
Asked if sex with his coworker was better, he said sex with his wife was “much better – the best I’ve ever had, really – at the beginning, you know, those first few years. I mean, with Helen it was never just sex. We both wanted to spend our lives together, so there was a depth, and, and, well, a love and spiritual connection I’ve never had with anyone else.”
“Then why the hell would he throw it all away?” you might be asking.
“Over the years… you know how it is… the passion faded and our relationship changed,” Phil said. “We became friends… best friends, but still… siblings, almost. It’s not her fault. I know this is all my fault, but what can I do?” His eyes tearing up, he said, “It felt like a life or death situation. I wanted to feel alive again. I know how ridiculous that sounds, but that’s how it felt.”
Having an affair was a “life or death” decision?? Sound a little dramatic? According to Sex at Dawn, Phil might not have been exaggerating:
Researchers have found that men with lower levels of testosterone are more than four times as likely to suffer from clinical depression, fatal heart attacks, and cancer when compared to other men their age with higher testosterone levels. They are also more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, and have a far greater risk of dying prematurely from any cause (ranging from 88 to 250 percent higher, depending on the study … There is good reason to believe that even casual contact with novel, attractive women can have a tonic effect on men’s hormonal health. Researcher James Roney found that even a brief chat with an attractive woman raised men’s testosterone levels by an average of 14 percent.
“How many families have been ripped apart because middle-aged men misinterpreted the surge of vitality and energy resulting from a novel sex partner as love for a soul mate – or convinced themselves they were in love to justify what felt like a life-affirming necessity?” Ryan and Jetha ask. “And how many of these men found themselves isolated, shamed, and devastated when the curse of Coolidge returned after a few months or years to reveal that the now-familiar partner was not, in fact, the true source of those feelings after all?”
“If it’s true that most men are constituted, by millions of years of evolution, to need occasional novel partners to maintain an active and vital sexuality throughout their lives, then what are we saying to men when we demand lifetime sexual monogamy? Must they choose between familial love and long-term sexual fulfillment?”
And again, I quote from the book, because I can’t say it better:
For most men and many women, sexual monogamy leads inexorably to monotony. It’s important to understand this process has nothing to do with the attractiveness of the long-term partner or the depth and sincerity of the love felt for him or her. Indeed, quoting Donald Symons, “A man’s sexual desire for a woman to whom he is not married is largely the result of her not being his wife.” Novelty itself is the attraction. Though they are unlikely to admit it , the long-term partners of the sexiest Hollywood starlets are subject to the same psychosexual process. Frustrating? Unfair? Humiliating on both sides? Yes, yes and yes. But still, true.
Ryan and Jetha argue that modern, mainstream society has given married men three bad options for dealing with their declining sex hormones and health:
1. Lie and try not to get caught.
2. Give up on having sex with anyone other than your wife for the rest of your life. Maybe resort to porn or Prozac?
3. Serial Monogamy. Divorce and start over.
These are terrible options. Let’s get real people. It is not fair to make men – or women – choose between losing their often highly compatible life partners and children, and their sexual freedom, physical and emotional health. It’s about time we all grow up and have a mature conversation about what our sexual needs are, and how to get them met, without destroying our families. If nothing else, do it for the children, because, as the book says, it’s not fair to inflict emotional trauma on the kids simply because we are too chicken to face to truth about sex.
P.S. If you’ve been following this blog, you know Sex at Dawn spends several chapters talking about the “myth of the coy female,” the fact that women often have even higher sex drives than men, and that women are also highly attracted to sexual novelty. And of course, women cheat too. This particular chapter of the book just happens to focus on men’s historical rap for cheating, whether it’s because of social pressure against women doing it, or whether male sex hormones make them all the more desperate for it. This article suggests men have stronger sexual impulses.