Monday, August 14, 2006

Not so fast, Doctor

I don’t know where to start with this story that claims women stop wanting sex when in a secure relationship.

Actually, that’s not true.

How about I start by saying: this is one of the most ridiculous reports I’ve read in a long time. It misreports and exaggerates the findings to give it journalistic bite, fails to take causal factors into account and arrives at a hypothesis which is not borne out by the data. Plus it irritated the shit out of me.

Sound Byte Journalism
“The female sex drive starts sputtering to a halt as soon as a woman has got her man”. Sounds drastic, huh? It continues:
“Women's libido plummets so rapidly when they believe they are in a secure relationship that after just four years the proportion of 30-year-old women wanting regular sex falls below 50 per cent.”
Wow. Ignoring the hideous syntax for a second: Below 50% in only four years? That is indeed a rapid plummet. Except if you read on.
“While 60 per cent of 30-year-old women reported wanting sex "often" at the start of a relationship, the figure fell to below 50 per cent within four years.” So actually, within four years of a steady relationship, only 10 per cent of female respondents reported a decrease in sex drive.

Ignoring Causal Factors
These are 30 year olds, by the way. Do you want to guess what the average age of woman experiencing her first pregnancy is these days? Google is frustratingly silent on the subject of German rates, but in Australia it’s, what do you know, age 30. Not that that could have anything to do with it.

Also, 90% of the respondent women, irrespective of how often they wanted sex, reported wanting tenderness. Male desire for tenderness fell off rapidly (and you can’t fake tenderness, so if they’re not wanting it, they’re probably not creating it). Which is causing the other?

So [only] ten per cent of women experience a decline in sex drive in the first four years of a committed relationship – the same years, incidentally, in which they are the most likely to bear and rear young children, and in which their mates show a decline in tenderness.

Clearly, social science has no part to play in this!

Interpreting Data to Fit Hypothesis
“Dr Klusmann [...] has compared his findings to the sexual habits of prairie voles and offers an evolutionary explanation.

He believes that women, having found a man with whom to procreate, keep "resources" scarce to keep the man interested. Men, on the other hand, maintain a higher sex drive in the hope of keeping their mate faithful and other men at bay.”

Prairie voles?

I looked up prairie voles. They are 'famously monogamous’ and form pair-bonds for life. Like humans, the prairie vole releases a chemical called vaspressin when it mates, creating an addictive reward cycle such that it is drawn to mate again and again with the same vole.

And…that’s it. That’s the basis of comparison. Clearly the two species are practically one.

Let’s revisit the good doctor’s theory.

Women, having found a man with whom to procreate, keep ‘resources’ scarce to keep him interested. Men maintain a higher sex drive in order to keep their mate faithful and keep other men at bay.

I am reluctant to speak to the second half of this claim (but please, men, comment!) so I’ll concentrate on the first sentence.

If it’s true that a man’s desire to have sex with his life partner doesn’t decrease throughout the relationship, a premise which is at the heart of this article, what possible reason or motivation would women have to do this? From this particular evolutionary perspective, wouldn’t women be more likely to want to continue to have sex with their men, thus ensuring that they stay around and help rear the children rather than go off and form new pair-bonds?

There's no suggestion that this 'withholding of resources' contributes to the fact that male libido stays steady through a relationship. This, therefore, makes no sense at all.

In addition, there are much-vaunted reproductive advantages for women in having one regular sexual partner. The risk of pre-eclampsia (a dangerous condition in pregnancy) goes down where the woman has had one regular sexual partner for a longer period of time. There is evidence that female fertility is improved if having intercourse with one partner.

In both of these cases it is not the security or emotional wellbeing that makes the difference; it is the sex, or more specifically, the semen. Having regular unprotected intercourse with one man makes the female body more receptive to that DNA. Infrequent intercourse would work against a woman who is trying to optimise her reproductive abilities.

Also, if the above were a compelling reason to withhold sex, wouldn’t more than 10 per cent of women employ the strategy?

Shoddy journalism and shoddy science. That’s all this is. And you just know it's going to be all over the popular media.


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