How do you maintain desire in a long-term relationship? How can you keep that edge of excitement and danger through long years of monogamy, convention and familiarity? How do you keep rutting like horny adolescents when you're pushing middle-age?
Daniel Bergner, author of What Do Women Want? Adventures in the Science of Female Desire, is asking readers to contemplate such questions at Slate's Double XX. Specifically, he asked, "How can women maintain desire within long-term committed relationships?" In response, readers have written in with a series of predictably titillating responses from the familiar grab-bag of shocking alternative lifestyles and fetish. You've got threesomes, you've got costumes, you've got group sex, and so forth. As of this writing we haven't gotten to bondage or S&M yet, but presumably something along those lines will show up before we're done.
The almost ritual tour of kink suggests strongly that Bergner's question is less an interrogative, and more an excuse. The way the issue is framed—how to maintain desire?—makes the answers inevitable. This is, clearly, good copy—everybody likes to read about sex. But it seems like the predetermined nature of the exercise might, possibly, be leaving something out.
Specifically...is it necessarily true that everyone, in every marriage, wants to maintain desire? Obviously, pretty much nobody wants their sex life to completely roll over and die. But, on the other hand, one of the things that's great about marriage is that it frees you from the constant, incessant treadmill of sexual obsession. I was single for quite a while, and the worst part was not the lack of sex (since really you can have sex quite efficiently with yourself) but the waiting, the hoping, the crushes, the uncertainty, the self-doubt and self-loathing—in short, that thing that some religions call the wheel of desire. When Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins tells me that I could maintain desire by dating outside my marriage, all I can say is, hell, no. I hated dating. I was bad at it, it made me miserable, and I'm sure it wasn't particularly enjoyable for the folks who had to share my misery either. My wife rescued me from that, bless her. No way am I going back.
Bergner's book argues, in part, that women are worse at monogamy than men are. So, perhaps, he would reply to me by suggesting that while I may be happy enough with a marriage that is not flaming with desire, my wife is not. However, I do talk to my wife on occasion, and as far as dating being a hideous burden that we are well out of, we are in accord. Of course my wife is attracted to other people occasionally—but her reaction to such crushes is not exactly what Bergner seems to think it should be. On the contrary, the last time my wife was truly, thoroughly smitten at first sight by a dashing, androgynous indie hipster, she didn't want to have sex with him. She wanted to get away. "It's like being 18 again," she said. "Yuck."
Just to be clear, I'm not suggesting that any of the people who wrote into Slate are immoral, nor even that they are doing it wrong. I have nothing against threesomes or costumes or bondage or water sports or pretty much whatever consenting adults want to get up to behind closed doors. Marriage and monogamy aren't a suicide pact; as long as everyone's honest with themselves and each other, couples should be allowed to negotiate the boundaries of their relationship in whatever way makes sense to them. To the extent that Bergner and his interlocutors are showing people that they have options, they're providing a service.
But if Bergner is opening up some options, it sure feels like he's closing down others. Certainly, I read his essay and the responses and I feel like every possible lifestyle choice is validated—except that old, boring one, where you have sex occasionally with your wife and maybe go to Good Vibrations if you're in San Francisco, and generally enjoy your marriage in part because it means you don't have to place desire at the center of your lives. How many people will react to this essay by assuming that my marriage is less stable than I think it is, or by thinking that I'm missing out on real passion and real love and real life? The one sin left, it sometimes feels like, is not being sexy enough.
Hugo Schwyzer argued that Bergner's book is a feminist wake-up call—a declaration that women love sex as much as men, and that women, and especially men, need to throw aside traditional gender roles and fears and get out there and get busy. To which I say...well, maybe. But the demand that everybody self-actualize on the count of three sounds to me less like liberation, and more like the old, not especially liberating discourse of self-help, which demands that we all become better, more fulfilled, more unique individuals through the same Puritan work ethic of escalating effort and virtue. Desire doesn't have to be yet another way to assure yourself and others that you are climbing ever upwards towards success. If you want your marriage to be about an Olympics of kink, that's fine—but making it mandatory seems like it has the potential to be as cruel, and as restrictive, as the monolithic monogamy from which we are supposedly being liberated.