Let’s consider the lust of an arachnid called a book scorpion. Studying the sexual habits of this species may seem like a strange way to look at women’s desire, but sometimes scientists go to extremes to get beyond the distortions of human culture — the societal pressure, distortion, constraints imposed on women’s sexuality, even in our seemingly unconstrained times. Take a female book scorpion, let her have sex with one male and, afterward, offer her the same partner. Forty-eight hours will have to go by before she’s psyched about mating again, though he is full of sperm and fully motivated. But provide her with a new male, and she’s primed for sex within an hour and a half.
Lately, the field of evolutionary psychology has offered us a nice, neat way to understand the differences between men and women. Men (and I am simplifying the theory here) are genetically programmed to spread their seed, we’re told, while evolutionary forces have scripted women to settle down with a solid provider. One of the lessons we’ve absorbed is that, compared with male sexuality, female desire is innately, biologically, much better designed for monogamy. And yet, some scientists have wondered whether culture, rather than nature, is mostly at work in the belief that women are sexually suited to fidelity, whether we might have more in common than we think with our remote ancestors, the arachnids.
What if we strip away, as much as possible, societal expectations — as one researcher did in an ingenious study offering hetero women and men an array of fantasy one-night stands. You can read about these experiments, interwoven with the erotic lives and dilemmas of everyday women, in my book, “What Do Women Want?,” but quickly I’ll mention the results of this last study here: Women were just as interested in casual sex with hot partners.
Nothing is certain. But let’s accept for a moment what seems, from a growing number of original studies on desire, perhaps true: nature hasn’t made women for monogamy at all, that women’s desire may well be oxygen-starved, if not suffocated, by constancy, as I outlined in the New York Times magazine cover story this weekend about sex in monogamous relationships.
Most of us aren’t about to give up on monogamy as the governing principle of our romantic lives. So what to do? This is the question I keep getting asked. How can women maintain desire within long-term committed relationships? There are no good empirical studies.
So I’m asking you: to share a solution that’s worked pretty well or even ecstatically; to share an effort that’s failed; to share an attempt you wish you or your partner were brave enough to make; to share the fact that this isn’t a problem for you and your theory as to why; to share your wisdom — or your further questions — in any form. Send your replies to firstname.lastname@example.org and put “what do women want — monogamy” in the subject line.
Daniel Bergner is a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine.