Read: Multiple lovers, without jealousy
Many women want monogamy. It’s a cozy arrangement, and one our culture endorses, to put it mildly. But wanting monogamy isn’t the same as feeling desire in a long-term monogamous partnership. The psychiatrist and sexual-health practitioner Elisabeth Gordon told me that in her clinical experience, as in the data, women disproportionately present with lower sexual desire than their male partners of a year or more, and in the longer term as well. “The complaint has historically been attributed to a lower baseline libido for women, but that explanation conveniently ignores that women regularly start relationships equally as excited for sex.” Women in long-term, committed heterosexual partnerships might think they’ve “gone off” sex—but it’s more that they’ve gone off the same sex with the same person over and over.
What does it all mean for Jane and the other straight women who feel stultified by long-term exclusivity, in spite of having been taught that they were designed for it and are naturally inclined toward it? What are we to make of the possibility that women, far from anxious guardians of monogamy, might on the whole be more like its victims?
“When couples want to remain in a monogamous relationship, a key component of treatment … is to help couples add novelty,” Gordon advised. Tammy Nelson, a sex therapist and the author of The New Monogamy and When You’re the One Who Cheats, concurs: “Women are the primary consumers of sex-related technology and lubricants, massage oil, and lingerie, not men.”
Of course, as Jane’s example shows, lingerie might not do the trick. Nelson explains that if “their initial tries don’t work, [women] will many times shut down totally or turn outward to an affair or an online ‘friend,’ creating … a flirty texting or social-media relationship.” When I asked Gotzis where he thinks John and Jane are headed, he told me he is not sure that they will stay together. In an upending of the basic narrative about the roles that men and women play in a relationship, it would be Jane’s thirst for adventure and Jane’s struggles with exclusivity that tear them apart. Sure, women cheating is nothing new—it’s the stuff of Shakespeare and the blues. But refracted through data and anecdotal evidence, Jane seems less exceptional and more an Everywoman, and female sexual boredom could almost pass for the new beige.
Read: Why are young people having so little sex?
It’s not uncommon for women to let their straight partners play in a “monogamy gray zone,” to give guys access to tensional outlets that allow them to cheat without really cheating. “Happy ending” massages, oral sex at bachelor parties, lap dances, escorts at conferences … influenced by ubiquitous pop-cultural cues, many people believe that men need these opportunities for recreational “sorta sex” because “it’s how men are.” It’s how women are, too, it seems.
Women cannot be pigeonholed; the glory of human sexuality is its variation and flexibility. So when we speak of desire in the future, we should acknowledge that the fairer sex thirsts for the frisson of an encounter with someone or something new as much as, if not more, than men do—and that they could benefit from a gray-zone hall pass, too.