Despite the fact that all I want in life is a daemon familiar and a wand and a sarcastic dappled mare who really gets me and violet eyes and a tower, in actuality I'm forever harping on the fact that magic isn't real. There are no magic Spanx that will turn you into Cindy Crawford. There is no magic begoggled top hat that will transport you out of the "friend zone," and there is no magic vision board that will manifest a sarcastic talking Lamborghini (that really gets you!) in your driveway while you sleep. It's just not real. Nothing is easy and nothing is free. But...what if it was? Not magic, precisely, but a workaround—a shortcut from one side of one of life's seemingly insurmountable challenges to the other. What if you could take a pill and fix your broken relationship?
There was a fascinating piece in the New York Times yesterday about the search for a sort of "female Viagra"—which is a bit of a misnomer, as it's a pill to mend not women's sexual function (as Viagra does for men) but women's sexual desire. As women age, research suggests, our libidos wane much more rapidly and drastically than men's: it's estimated that 10-15% of women suffer from hypoactive sexual-desire disorder, or HSDD. Daniel Bergner's descriptions of women (and, in heterosexual relationships, men by extension) suffering from HSDD are heartbreaking:
When they were dating and out with other couples, Linneah would think, “I just want to get home with him, I just want to get home with him,” she recalled. But that lust had dwindled. Around the arrival of their second child in 2004, something insidious crept in, partly fatigue but partly something else that she couldn’t name. She talked about her to-do lists, the demands of the kids, “but let’s face it,” she said, “sex doesn’t take that much time.” Rather than feeling as if she still wanted to grab her husband’s hand and hurry him up the stairs in their small brick house, on many nights she waited in bed, somewhat like prey, though the predator was tender, though he was cherished.
Around once a week, her husband tried to reach through the invisible barriers she built — the going up to bed early, the intense concentration on a book, the hoping he was too tired to want anything but sleep. “He’ll move closer to me in bed, or put his arm around me, or rub my back.” She willed herself not to refuse him. And mostly, she didn’t. Usually they had sex about four times each month. But it upset her that she had to force herself and that she put up those barriers to deter him from reaching more often.
As the old evo-psych tropes would have it, this is all because of biology. Women aren't meant to want sex once we're done plopping out young and lapping up our placentas—we're nesters. We nest. We find a mate, we cling to him, we nest, our eggs drop and rot and run out and we die. Men, meanwhile, are all sex-hungry Johnny Applesemens with no expiration date, biologically programmed to stride around the prairie with a pot for a hat, fore'er frosting the world with the seed of life. You know, HOW HUMANS DO.
Unfortunately, Bergner argues (cordially!), evo-psych looks to be a bunch of bullshit—willfully misconstruing regressive cultural conditioning as biological fact in an effort to uphold those same pillars of regressive cultural conditioning. We've long assumed that HSDD was just a natural process concomitant with age in certain women, but Bergner's reading of the body of research on women's libidos points to a much different conclusion: boredom.
Studies conducted recently are beginning to hint that female eros isn’t in the least programmed for fidelity. These range from close focus on the sexual habits of our primate ancestors to research exploring women’s wish for casual sex. An experiment led by Samantha Dawson, a Ph.D. student in clinical psychology at Queen’s University, in Kingston, Ontario, and another by Stephanie Both, a psychologist and assistant professor at Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands, looked at the issue in another way. Heterosexual women and men watched pornographic film clips while their vaginas and penises were monitored. The subjects watched a one-minute sex scene repeatedly, with breaks in between to let genital blood flow return to a baseline state. Dawson’s and Both’s results show women’s responses leaping at first, then, in Dawson’s study, tracking the rapid downturn of the men, and in Both’s, plummeting while the men’s reactions stayed surprisingly constant. When the researchers introduced what are called “novel stimuli,” in this case new clips of pornography, “vaginal pulse amplitude,” like penile engorgement, spiked immediately.
The implication, of course, is that non-monogamous relationships might be the cure for HSDD. Heterosexual women are conditioned to believe that our purpose in life is to find one man, settle down forever, weather any and all storms, and then die. That expectation is loosening up, but it's still the underpinning of the majority of modern relationships. And that hurts women and men. People stay in terrible relationships for their entire lives, or they stay in good relationships despite complete sexual dysfunction. Women, especially, are conditioned not to take control over our sex lives—not to demand what we need or investigate what's wrong. If opening up some monogamous relationships might help women rediscover their sexual desire, then that's a good thing, right?
Um, NOT REALLY! I mean, not for me personally. However fashionable non-monogamy might be among the sex-positive set right now, and however much I might support it in principle, I just don't want it for myself. At all. I'm a pretty radical left-wing harpy, but my dumb American heart still tugs me toward bullshit like the idea of a wedding-wedding. Napkin rings. Flowers. A "venue" instead of just "party at my house." Caterers instead of just "pile of Cadbury Mini-Eggs." Randy being scandalized because I said the word "boobs." Negative fifty thousand dollars. I hate all that shit, and yet part of me is programmed to want it desperately.
I'm totally supportive of all of the different [consensual] ways to love [that don't hurt anyone], and utterly delighted by all of the different shapes of families that are starting to gain mainstream visibility and acceptance. Woooo! GET IT, other people! But personally, as much as I fear becoming that frigid-old-wife-putting-up-invisible-walls cliche, I just really love being with one person. My boyfriend is the best, and I don't like most people, and I don't like talking to people, and my boyfriend is THE BEST. I know monogamy isn't perfect, but in my life (circumscribed, granted, by the same cultural conditioning I'm criticizing), it feels the least worst system. The worst form of joining messily and vulnerably with another person, except for all the others. That attitude in no way applies to all women, but I know I can't be the only confused progressive lady who feels that way.
So what do you do? What do you do if you're a gal who thinks cultural conditioning is bullshit but you feel biologically monogamous and then suddenly you find yourself avoiding sex a decade into your relationship with your awesome husband or wife or partner but the only thing worse than bed-death, to you, is the idea of bringing other people into that bed? Well, that's where lady Viagra—the magic pill—would come in.
Lybrido and Lybridos, the drugs profiled in Bergner's article, haven't seen much measurable success yet. But they could be just the workaround that some couples need to save their monogamous relationships—or, to allow monogamy and longterm sexual satisfaction to coexist for couples grappling with HSDD.
That's not to say that monogamy + magic pill = the "right" way to love. It's just one pathway that might become much less rocky in the coming decades. Human relationships are infinitely complex. But one thing is starkly obvious—our entire narrative of how women "should" think about sex and sexual desire and relationships is actively harming us all. This might be the most fascinating paragraph in Bergner's whole piece:
This interplay of experience and neural pathways is widely known as neuroplasticity. The brain is ever altering. And it is neuroplasticity that may help explain why hypoactive sexual desire disorder is a mostly female condition, why it seems that women, more than men, lose interest in having sex with their long-term partners. If boys and men tend to take in messages that manhood is defined by sex and power, and those messages encourage them to think about sex often, then those neural networks associated with desire will be regularly activated and will become stronger over time. If women, generally speaking, learn other lessons, that sexual desire and expression are not necessarily positive, and if therefore they don’t think as much about sex, then those same neural networks will be less stimulated and comparatively weak. The more robust the neural pathways of eros, the more prone you are to feel lust at home, even as stimuli dissipate with familiarity and habit.
Look. Here's the thing. You're born and then you're going to die. And in between you get to be alive. How exciting is that? Why would you want to stifle any part of that? Everything you do in life is a balancing act, prioritizing longterm satisfaction and security while feeding your desire for instant gratification. Right now, our model stigmatizes everything that isn't a "normal" monogamous relationship, effectively conditioning women away from every possible alternative, no matter how effectively it might foster longterm happiness. The idea that you should spend your life unhappy and unfulfilled and then die, because you made a promise to some outdated notion of fidelity, is regarded as an honorable and ideal way to live your life. That's bananas. Lybrido and Lybridos would be a convenient escape hatch for people caught in that system, or people (like me) who desire a monogamous structure despite its flaws.
But what we really need isn't just a pill—it's a new paradigm altogether. A new way of thinking about sex and gender and love, and we need it to permeate our culture and change our brains for the better and stop teaching us to cling to dissatisfaction because having something is better than the unknown. So...somebody get on that. That would be the real magic trick.
Image by Jim Cooke and Shutterstock.