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The Ugly Myth That Women Use Sex to Trap Men in Relationships

Want the truth? We really, really do need sex — but we need it to be good. Here's what that means for you

It’s not news that women are underserved by monogamy. In recent years, more and more research has found that, much to everyone’s dismay, men don’t have the monopoly on wanting variety, novelty and a lot of heat in the bedroom. Many women, it turns out, are all horned up with no place to fuck. Well, they can fuck at home — it’s just they don’t want to. Why? Because the sex there went bad a few months into a long-term relationship, and it’s never recovered.

Which raises at least one question: Does this at least mean we can retire the stereotype that women don’t really like sex, but merely pretend to so they can lock a guy down? Because letting go of that cliché, which shows up in sitcoms, films and bad standup, may be the only way to actually solve this issue of sexual incompatibility, which has nothing to do with the things we typically assume it does.

But first, we have to define the terms. Recently, the Atlantic wrote a piece rounding up the research-backed evidence that it’s women who get bored first with long-term sex, and it was shared and covered breathlessly. In part, it was the specificity of the anecdote Wednesday Martin included when she interviewed Manhattan shrink Andrew Gotzis, who told her this about his client, couple John and Jane, who are in their 40s and still fuck three times a week but aren’t happy about it:

“The problem is not that they are functionally unable to have sex, or to have orgasms. Or frequency. It’s that the sex they’re having isn’t what she wants,” Gotzis told me in a recent phone conversation. And like other straight women he sees, “she’s confused and demoralized by it. She thinks there’s something wrong with her.” John, meanwhile, feels criticized and inadequate. Mostly he can’t understand why, if his wife is having sex with him and having orgasms, she wants more. Or different.

What’s interesting about this anecdote is that it upends other presumptions about sex we’re always working off of when we try to make sense of mismatched libidos. One is that we think sexual incompatibility or displeasure must come from somebody (the woman) not getting off, when that’s not the case here, or always. They are both getting off. Another is that we think they must not do it at all or enough, which isn’t the case, as they’re doing it three times a week and the issue isn’t quantity for either of them.

Yet another assumption is that we think they probably just haven’t talked about what they want or don’t want sexually, when in fact Jane has made explicit what she wants. Yet another issue we presume to be the problem with sex stuff? That she probably hasn’t tried to make the sex the way she wants it to be by enticing him. But see, Jane is out there booking hotel rooms to spice things up.

What makes this so maddening is that the issue here is simpler but also harder to solve. Jane wants a different kind of fucking, and John won’t give it to her, either because he doesn’t want it, or he doesn’t think she should want it. That’s not about getting the right sex toy or trying the right position, so much as it’s about being open to doing those things so everyone’s sexual needs are met.

And therein lies the masturbatory rub. In my view, it’s gendered, received messages about how sex should be at first, or at all, that colors our ability to reconcile our sexual relationship with the idea of monogamy sometimes, and for men and women to sometimes accept the sexual appetites of their beloved.

In response to the Atlantic piece, Vice spoke to a psychotherapist and sexologist, Francois Renaud, who expanded on this notion from his own work:

Among couples who come to see [Renaud], the sexologist says that women often think that their spouse would have trouble accepting that they are “more sexual” than their partners. “To protect a little bit of the male ego and the role of the man who teaches sexuality to women, women curl up a little in a modest and conservative position,” said Renaud. The couple’s sex life then continues as usual, growing comfortable, redundant, and predictable.

It’s important we note that this idea has been percolating in the research for a while. Daniel Bergner wrote a book on this very idea way back in 2013, drawing on even earlier research that had been previously ignored that women seem like they don’t want sex when really they just don’t want the sex they’re being offered.

He noted in an excerpt:

But for many women, the cause of their sexual malaise appears to be monogamy itself. It is women much more than men who have H.S.D.D. [hypoactive sexual-desire disorder], who don’t feel heat for their steady partners. Evolutionary psychologists argue that this comes down to innate biology, that men are just made with stronger sex drives — so men will settle for the woman who’s always near. But the evidence for an inborn disparity in sexual motivation is debatable. A meta-analysis done by the psychologists Janet Hyde and Jennifer L. Petersen at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, incorporates more than 800 studies conducted between 1993 and 2007. It suggests that the very statistics evolutionary psychologists use to prove innate difference — like number of sexual partners or rates of masturbation — are heavily influenced by culture. All scientists really know is that the disparity in desire exists, at least after a relationship has lasted a while.

In short, women are getting fucked, just not how they want to be. They’re sometimes super-horny, but often super-repressed. They’re not always even aware enough to express it, but even when they are, the find out they’re not with the sort of partner who could handle it. But the thing is, they want this partner to get it, because the relationship may have all the other good stuff going for it. Call me old-fashioned, but I still think that’s a relationship worth saving.

But to be fair, it’s not just women who are dissatisfied with this arrangement. Last year, we wrote about the fact that more and more research is actually finding that men and women both find monogamy unsatisfying for their own reasons. For women, it’s all the above issues. For men, it’s the pressure to initiate all the time. It’s having to uncover the reasons for the dissatisfaction when she isn’t talking or isn’t even sure what the reasons are.

What we should be striving toward, then, is simply a more level playing field that accepts that in spite of how men may act sexually, we know they want to actually connect on an emotional level, too. In spite of how women may act emotionally, we know they want to connect on a sexual level, too.

This starts with even recognizing that teenage girls experience lust and horniness, too, and that sex for women isn’t all hope chests and dreams of future husbands. Sometimes it’s just dreams of future orgasms.

We should also stop pitching talking as the cure-all to sex problems. Talking only gets us so far, if once we have the information, we’re still unwilling to do anything with it or change the attitudes underneath.

In my view, this work could be done in the first part of the relationship. In the same way the beginning of a relationship is a chance to be up front about all your quirks and issues, because you’re being viewed in the most generous light, so we should be up front about our sexual desires, too, at a time of high receptivity and generous impressions.

Women shouldn’t have to be worried about looking promiscuous in order to admit they want a dynamic sexual relationship. Men shouldn’t make them feel that way or judge them for it, as if that makes them a bad potential long-term mate. They certainly shouldn’t find it intimidating.

For men, fucking up front might be a bill of sale. For women, though, it’s clear it’s more of a warmup. If we’ve reached the point where we can disclose our height, weight, religious views, drug preferences and how we voted before we even swipe, why can’t we just go ahead and admit how we fuck?

It’s still stuck in the attitudes. The idea that women want novelty and variety should be thrilling, not terrifying. Most of us have been told the opposite, that it’s men who are never satisfied truly with one women. Women have generally had no problem accommodating this: They buy endless lingerie and even wigs, they doll themselves up and get into role playing, ostensibly to satisfy the male need for a constant sexual thrill. So what if turns out women need the same catering? That should be a relief, not tragedy.

Because as always, there’s a universal aspect to sexuality that even conditioning can’t change. In the end, no one wants to not get fucked well, and no one wants to have to make all the moves. Being wanted intensely and fully and mutually, with the option for growth, is still one of the hottest things on earth for everyone. Period.