Neuroplasticity Explains Why Women May Be Less Monogamous Than Men
A bevy of new research is proving wrong many of our preconceived notions about women and sexuality.
Daniel Bergner is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and the author of four books of nonfiction: What Do Women Want?, The Other Side of Desire, In the Land of Magic Soldiers, and God of the Rodeo. In the Land of Magic Soldiers received an Overseas Press Club Award for international reporting and a Lettre-Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage and was named a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year. God of the Rodeo was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. In addition to the New York Times Magazine, Daniel’s writing has appeared in the Atlantic, Granta, Harper’s, Mother Jones, Talk, and the New York Times Book Review, and on the op-ed page of the New York Times. His writing is included in The Norton Reader: An Anthology of Nonfiction.
Daniel Bergner: There’s some pretty stark research out there now that, oddly enough, I think doesn’t get quite as much attention as it deserves. I’ll just talk about one study. This was done by a German scientist who looked at 2,500 committed couples, so no small number. The results are probably no fluke. And he measured their desire progressively over time within their committed relationships. The desire starts at right about the same point for the men and for the women so again debunking this idea that somehow male desire, male libido is far stronger innately than female libido. But what happens interestingly is that male desire declines gradually over time. Female desire dives much more dramatically than male desire within those committed relationships. And I think two things are worth saying. First again at the very least this calls into question this idea that somehow women are comparatively better-suited to monogamy than men are. But second I think the reason for the disparity showing women even less well-suited sexually for monogamy than men has to do with cultural lessons and their effects on the brain.
So I think most of us have heard this phrase or at least are familiar with the concept of brain plasticity. That is the brain is shifting neurologically, sometimes slightly, sometimes in a significant amount, in response to what we do with it. That’s why we’re told to do lots of crossword puzzles as we get older and that will strengthen our memories a bit. That’s a sort of simplistic form of the brain plasticity concept. Well what happens to the brain if we’re taught very different lessons about sexuality from early on? Boys are of course taught right from the playground really that being a little bit of a Romeo all to the good. Girls are taught a very different and more constrained lesson even in our seemingly unconstrained society. And that lesson or those two divergent lessons continue right on up through high school. You know, I've had firsthand experience with this with a son and daughter who are now just finishing or just graduating from college. And this I believe and I think researchers are starting to look into this has its effect on the brain. It has its effect on the robustness of those neurological paths that have to do with eros. And I think what we’re seeing within monogamous relationships is that the male neurological sexual pathways being built up over time and being somewhat more robust are in a way more resilient to that natural decline whereas women’s may not be — may need more of a charge, may need more novelty. And so, again, for just focusing on sexuality itself, on eros itself for that reason women may be feeling even more of a decline than men within those long-term, committed relationships.
A bevy of new research is proving wrong many of our preconceived notions about women and sexuality. Author Daniel Bergner explains.
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