There’s an old joke about U.S. president Calvin Coolidge.
He and his wife were being shown around a farm. Coolidge’s wife noticed, upon coming to the chicken yard, that the rooster was mating vigorously. “How often does he do that?” she inquired of her tour guide.
“Oh, dozens of times a day.”
With a sly smile, she said, “Tell that to the President when he comes by.”
The President passed by the chicken yard and was told of the rooster’s sexual prowess. “Same hen every time?” he inquired.
“Oh no, Mr. President. A different hen each time,” his tour guide explained.
“Tell that to Mrs. Coolidge,” the President replied.
Scientists loved the joke. Today, the ability of a male to regain sexual interest when presented with a new partner is known as the Coolidge effect.
That’s not news to any of us. Of course men lose interest with the same sexual partner over time. There’s not a man out there who won’t attest to the power of novelty.
But what no one has known until recently is that women need novelty even more than men.
Monogamy is hard on female desire. A Finnish study looked at how female sexual desire fluctuated over a 7-year period. Researchers found that desire dropped most among women who were in a stable, monogamous relationship.
A Canadian study agreed. They found that female sexual desire dropped by a consistent amount for each month she was in a relationship. Indeed, “relationship duration was a better predictor of sexual desire in women than both relationship and sexual satisfaction.”
Which means that a woman’s desire isn’t tied to how much she loves her partner and wants to be with him. Nor is it tied to how good things are in the bedroom.
Instead, one of the biggest causes of declining female desire is…
How long she’s been monogamous.
But wait a second!
Men are the one who are supposed to want variety and novelty. Women are supposed to want one committed partner. You know that saying?
Women need love to have sex, and men need sex to feel loved.”
We’ve been told that, as women, our sex drive is emotional, not physical. We’ve been led to believe that sexual nirvana lies in the arms of our future husband. Nothing is better than sleeping with the same man each night for the rest of your life…
Until it isn’t.
Love is no guarantee of desire. What does make a difference—to both women AND men—is novelty.
When a woman does something new with her partner—outside the bedroom as well as in it—her sex drive gets a boost.
When her relationship ends and she meets someone new, her sex drive gets a boost.
And it’s not just human females.
Female macaque monkeys lose desire if they’re limited to the same sexual partners. Kim Wallen at Emory University’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center found that they needed to introduce new male monkeys to their macaque population every three years if they wanted females to keep breeding.
In many simian species, the females are the sexually aggressive ones. Capuchins, tonkeans, pigtails, bonobos, langurs, rhesus monkeys… They know what they want, and they’re not afraid to ask for it.
Wednesday Martin is the author of Untrue: Why Nearly Everything We Believe About Women, Lust, and Infidelity Is Wrong and How the New Science Can Set Us Free. She believes we’ve got female sexuality all wrong.
We’ve painted women as the sexually passive ones, hounded into sex by lustful males. But, in fact, women are just as likely to seek partners for sex when that act won’t get them pregnant, hurt, or ostracized.
Marriage historian Stephanie Coontz agrees. For most of human history, women were considered the lustful sex. A glance at Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales shows that neither marriage nor age was impediment to a woman’s healthy sexual appetite.
But along came the Victorians, with their belief that women naturally have no interest in sex. An emotionally healthy woman is fully satisfied in her role as mother and mistress of her home. She submits to sex for the purpose of procreation, but it brings her no pleasure.
We’re still dealing with the fall-out today.
But surely, you might say, the advent of birth control and the sexual revolution changed things. Women were given permission—perhaps for the first time in history—to “have sex like a man.”
Except that “having sex like a man,” in practice, meant having sex the way men like it.
The full structure of the female clitoris was only discovered in 1998, the year I graduated from college. Like most college graduates, I thought that I knew everything there was to know about my anatomy. I’d read the books. I’d taken the classes.
I had no clue.
Like most young women of my time, I thought this part of female anatomy was—as artist Sophia Wallace describes it—more like a button than an iceberg.
Even those of us who took our last sex ed class decades ago need an updated sexual education. Artist Sophia Wallace wants to help. Her Cliteracy Project aims to raise awareness about what we’ve learned about female sexual anatomy over the past 20 years.
What it means to “have sex like a woman” is something we’re still coming to understand. We simply don’t know all that much about how female desire works or why it behaves the way it behaves. But we’re learning.
Popular culture is slow to catch up. It still portrays women as more interested in love than sex … except when it portrays women as sexually indiscriminate “sluts” who act like a man in bed.
In my work, I come across advice that presents as sex as something a woman “gives up” to a man for the purpose of luring him into a relationship. Then, once they’re in a relationship, her job is to fulfill his desires so well that he never need look outside the relationship.
That’s not how sex works in the 21st century. Women have desires, too. They need novelty and fulfillment, too. Their sexuality is equal to a man’s in every way.
But let’s not leave out men. Today, men want monogamy and marriage just as much as women.
The Pew Research Center found that “55% of [never-married] men and 50% of women say they would like to get married someday.”
As someone should have pointed out to President Coolidge and his wife, we’re not chickens.