If you say you’re enjoying sex with the same person after three years, you’re either a liar or you’re on something.”
– Sebastian Horsley, The Observer Magazine, 15 January 2006
The Observer (aka The London Observer) has had quite a makeover for the New Year. Down from broadsheet to Berliner size and with reorganised sections. Still good, informative and well-reported coverage of a wide range of topical news issues, both domestic and foreign.
As part of this makeover, The Observer’s longstanding and well-respected colour magazine has a new regular feature: The Sex Columnists – in which Sebastian Horsley and Marion McBride offer his ‘n’ hers perspectives on issues raised by readers.
The opening quote to this Blog was the beginning of Sebastian’s reponse to a reader writing in: “I’ve been in a relationship with my soul mate for three years, but our sex life has almost ceased. I’m terrified if I raise the issue he’ll say he no longer finds me attractive.”
Sebastian goes on to say: “Of all the sexual perversions, monogamy is the most unnatural.” Given that point of view, it’s no surprise that he recommends the reader to end the relationship and move on.
As I point out in the Lifespan feature Is Sexual Infidelity inevitable?, ‘romantic love’ is one of the most powerful memes ever to have infected human minds. ‘Forever’ and concepts of ‘soul mate’ are all memes which tie in to this incredibly powerful ‘mind virus’. Yet Sebastian Horsley disses it all!
His argument reads like an advertisement for sexual libertarianism – a BEIGE/RED vMEME harmonic driven by a touch of the temperamental dimension of Psychoticism: we need to have sex but doing it repeatedly with the same person inevitably becomes boring, so it’s natural to move on to someone else. Accept it – and get on with enjoying yourself!
Although many men – and not a few women! – justify serial short-term monogamy, cheating on their partners and outright promiscuity with these kind of arguments, science, thankfully, does not back them up. Or, at least, not as they would like it.
I say “thankfully” because Horsley’s view would doom all human sexual partnerships to little more than the length of the initial novelty that tends to find the couple at it like rabbits on cocaine.
So what does the science say…?
Firstly Evolutionary Psychology is very much of the view that people are driven at an unconscious level to spread their genes through reproduction. Since men make sperm in their millions, it’s an adaptive strategy to impregnate as many women as reasonably possible. Men can play the ‘numbers game’. Some of their prodigy are bound to turn out all right. Thus, male promiscuity gets a sheen of scientific approval.
For women, it’s a little more complex. Since women have a fairly limited supply of eggs, they need to nurture and protect their offspring – which is a pretty demanding job. Hence, security and preferably a supportive partner in a stable relationship are important to women. However, getting the best genetic match for their eggs is important, too. No point in putting all that effort into raising a dud! Thus, the women who cheats to get pregnant by a hunk-with-better-genes and then dupes her regular partner into thinking the child is his also gets a sheen of scientific approval.
What we are talking about are unconscious, animalistic, BEIGE-level drivers.
But, if that’s all there is to it, why is that meme of ‘romantic love’ so all-pervasive? Even in cultures where arranged marriages are the norm, it is usually hoped the couple will find love. So, how does that happen?
Biologically, when a couple have good sex, the hormones vasopressin and oxytocin are released into the endocrine systems of the partners. A study by Sue Carter & Lowell Getz (1993) into the unusually-monogamous American prairie vole has associated vasopressin and oxytocin with bonding. So now we have a biological explanation of why good sex makes us feel a lot closer to the person we’ve had that good sex with. Especially if liking that person as a person ‘authorises’ those intense bonding feelings. Add to that, an effect of conditioned positive reinforcement brought on by repeated good sex and it’s relatively easy to see how sex and love go together in happy relationships.
So, yes, at a very basic BEIGE level, there is an unthinking drive to reproduce which can lead to promiscuity – particularly when exploited by the RED vMEME’s need to self-express without restraint. However, nature has also given us a biological bonding mechanism. This effectively give us a more complex BEIGE/PURPLE harmonic – an urge to attach to our sexual partner.
So, sorry, Sebastian, you’re wrong! Though clearly monogamy is not the only way to be, it is not at all unnatural to be monogamous.
The danger in words!
At the risk of going against that cherished meme of ‘free speech’, the kind of erroneous assertion made by Horsley is highly dangerous.
As said, it legitimises RED’s I can do what I want to do with whomever I want to whenever I want to exploitation of BEIGE level drivers. In a partnership with sexual problems, RED will use Horsley’s assertion to justify to a weak BLUE infidelity or even ending the relationship. Why do the ‘right thing’ and try to sort things out? An expert on sex has said it’s only natural to get bored with your partner and want to sleep with other people.
People who are high in Psychoticism will be particularly vulnerable to this kind of ‘get-out’, as high Psychoticism is associated with promiscuity. As Psychoticism is attributed to elevated levels of the male hormone testosterone, it’s hardly suprising that, in assessments, men are usually higher in Psychoticism than women. And men usually are more susceptible to the temptations of sex with other people than their women.
The last thing someone with high Psychoticism needs is for their RED to latch on to the kind of erroneous assertions Horsley makes. Given the immense benefits people in long-term relationships usually experience – not least, longer life and better physical and mental well-being – those with a tendency to Psychoticism need to focus on facilitating their PURPLE drive for attachment and their BLUE sense of ‘do right’. That way, they can teach themselves self-contol so that they can enjoy the benefits of their relationship.
Not that all struggling relationships should be saved. Sometimes ending a relationship really is the best solution. But, to end it on the erroneous assumptions that sexual boredom is inevitable and mongamy is unnatural is to risk throwing yourself into a life of emotional deprivation.
Now, I’ve implied sexual boredom is not inevitable. So we need to explore that issue.
Fighting the boredom?
In The Observer Magazine piece under discussion, Sebastian Horsley’s ‘oppo’, Marion McBride wrote that “hot sex can cool quicker than cocoa”.
She’s certainly not wrong about that!
In a 1981 study William H James established that most couples experience a drop of up to 50% in their frequency of coitus by the end of their first year cohabiting or married. He even termed this the ‘Honeymoon Effect’.
Of course, there will be far more factors than sexual boredom influencing this dramatic decline. Stress and fatigue from work, household chores, disagreements over how to run their home, friends and relatives taking up more time as the partners become a couple are just a few of the more obvious factors which will influence how often and with how much enjoyment a couple make love.
Nonetheless, ‘routineness’ can dull the senses and make sex more a function than an enlivening pleasure. As Fritz Perls, father of Gestalt Therapy, noted (1973), we are programmed to sense for difference. So, while the same moves and the same positions can be comforting at times, we also need the differences which will put our senses on alert and give us a little buzz in the brain’s limbic system.
The RED vMEME needs NOW!! excitement, so don’t be afraid as a couple to try some different moves and positions. Even games!
Marion McBride, to her credit, goes down this route in The Observer Magazine. She writes: “Try gently massaging whatever kink is closest to your man’s heart – dust down the fringed bra, the nurse’s outfit, the accidental ommission of underwear, whatever….” She may actually end up saving more relationships than Horsley destroys!
Certainly, there’s plenty of stuff out there to help if you need ideas or materials. Our society abounds with highly explicit sex education books and DVDs; and some of the gear in the better sex shops is enticingly tacky!
Some caveats go with this. What you try new has to be for both of you. Anal sex pushed onto an unwilling partner is more likely to disgust than arouse, for example. And I would seriously advise against any activities that involve other people. Such activities might excite the hell out of RED but they tend to tear at PURPLE’s security fabric.
PURPLE attachment is the key
So while routineness dulls the senses, sexual boredom is not inevitable. We simply have to feed RED’s need for excitement and adventure. Especially the more someone tends to Psychoticism.
PURPLE, though, is the key. A strong foundation of security between the partners facilitates the better sexual adventures.
Interestingly, the more secure we are as people, it seems the better our sexual/romantic relationships are likely to be.
In their famous ‘Love Quiz’ studies in 1987 and 1993, Cindy Hazen & Phil Shaver found that people who had been securely attached to their mothers as infants tended to have better relationships than those who had been insecurely attached. They had more realistic expectations of the relationship in that they anticipated highs and lows. And particularly relevant to our discussion , they regularly experienced resurgences of the kind of sexual passion they had when they were first together.
In fact, some of the couples Hazen & Shaver studied reported no noticeable diminution of passion at all, despite having been married for many years!
So, it would seem that PURPLE having its security needs met at an early age allowing the development of a healthy RED in the selfplex lays the foundations for having a healthy sexual/romantic relationship. Effectively, good parenting will most likely predispose you to emotional well-being and good sex in your adult relationships.
Hazen & Shaver’s findings have immense implications for families and parenting. Security in infancy will foster the ability to have secure (and fun!) relationships in adult life which, in turn, will more likely produce secure children who will grow up to engage in secure (and fun!) relationships which in turn….
Cycles of emotional health, rather than the cycles of emotional deprivation Sebastian Horsley’s strategies engender and which do bedevil so many families in the Western world.
Of course, there are many variables which could upset such idealised cycles of emotional health. But it’s interesting that Susan Johnson (1994), the pioneering Candian family therapist, has come to the view that ‘romantic love’ is about attachment. Her research has convinced her that, in healthy sexual relationships, the partners attach to each other in a similar fashion to healthy mother-baby bondings. Johnson is now pressing for romantic attachments to be treated with the same criticality infant attachments have been since John Bowlby’s groundbreaking work in the 1950s.
So, yes, RED needs excitement but, for the health of the whole persons involved, that excitement is best when on brought about on a foundation of security.
To sum up, then, monogamy is not unnatural – though it’s not the only natural way to be – and sexual boredom is not inevitable if you take active steps to feed your RED’s need for adventure and excitement. And the more secure you and your partner are as people, the better your relationship is likely to be. So nurture your PURPLE too!