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The monogamy myth

The monogamy myth

The monogamy myth
12 August 2013

Good news! Your girlfriend wants to have sex with lots of other men. New findings about female desire could spell the end of monogamy. Tracy Ramsden asks whether anyone wants this


You know that scene in Shaun Of The Dead where Shaun and Ed are ensconced in their flat, afraid to venture to the corner shop for a Cornetto? Well, what if the zombies were horny women who didn’t want to kill you at all? Instead, like sex-starved animals, they just wanted to sleep with you? Would you fend them off by Frisbee-ing vinyl at them? Or would you invite them in?

It may read like the plot of a very niche porn film, but if Daniel Bergner’s new book What Do Women Want? Adventures In The Science Of Female Desire is anything to go by, it’s a scenario we shouldn’t rule out.

The book sets out to answer the question that has underpinned every pub discussion, relationship debate and Woody Allen film since year dot. And now, finally, Mr Bergner is about to put us all out of our misery. So what do women want?

Sex, apparently. And plenty of it. Bergner’s book weaves scientific research, anecdote and case study to quash the common perception that women are the less libidinous sex. Instead, he argues, women are programmed towards promiscuity and will tire of a sexual partner over an extended period of time.


When we meet in a London hotel, Bergner’s conversational prose (much like in the book) is littered with sexual metaphors. Backed up, possibly unconsciously, by demonstrative hand gestures. So, what was the impetus for a man to write a book about female desire?

“As humans, we want to get inside of each other [cue slow parting of the hands] and inside each other’s minds. When I walked into Meredith Chivers’ lab, here was a woman shaking the foundations of what we believe about female sexuality, and it was fascinating.”

The study in question was the curious lab work of psychologist Chivers, who used a plethysmograph (an instrument for measuring blood flow) to detect arousal in women. Reclining in La-Z-Boy chairs, the women were treated to a slideshow of pornographic images – heterosexual, homosexual and, oddest of all, monkey sex. The results? Women were equally as aroused as the men, even more so when it came to watching the mating bonobos. But few gave a true account of what they felt.

In short, the entire female population is in a state of latent horniness verging on breaking point. Monkey gags aside, surely it’s news plenty of men would welcome?

“What, like this is the science version of Girls Gone Wild?” Bergner asks incredulously. “Quite the opposite. The majority of responses I receive from men are of unease. The first male friend who read it dryly told me, ‘Well, this is a cause of deep concern.’ Another said, ‘This scares the bejesus out of me.’ But look how many more women are watching porn, look at Fifty Shades Of Grey [5.3 million UK copies sold]. It’s happening.”

Granted, EL James’ brand of erotica popped up everywhere from the 8.45am train to Doncaster to – even more disturbingly – your mother’s nightstand. But I have spent the best part of the past decade writing for women’s magazines where orgasms were in as much reader demand as equal pay, career success and on-trend shoes.

For Sarah, 34, a TV producer, it’s all a bit no-sh*t-Sherlock. “The image of the sex-starved husband who runs off with his PA when his wife’s libido inevitably wanes is no more than a cliché. In my circle of friends, it’s more likely to be the women who get bored when their husbands become fat or lazy or both. I know more women who cheat than men.”

If we are to believe that women – the perceived gatekeepers of monogamy – are in fact sexual deviants, then that alters traditional relationship models. Perhaps we are headed for a return to the free-love utopia of the Sixties.

Polyamory is hardly mainstream. And when our only mass-media reference is Rita, Sue And Bob Too, it’s far from aspirational. More recently, though, Hollywood has glossed up polyamory in films such as Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona and tackled the more realistic possibility of commitment-free sex in rom-coms Friends With Benefits and No Strings Attached.

The appeal is self-explanatory. “I have the fun and freedom to go on dates and have one-night-stands, but I also get to enjoy a loving relationship,” says David (not his real name), a 35-year-old who has two complicit long-term girlfriends.

I ask him what the ground rules are. “You have the same respect as in any relationship. I wouldn’t, for example, turn up to a party with a girlfriend then proceed to flirt with somebody else. It is more about saying, I’m going to be away for a few days because I’m meeting somebody. It’s not like a tacky swingers’ scene. This is about having more than one meaningful relationship.”

Obviously, this isn’t the case for everyone. Frances, a 26-year-old research assistant, had no idea she was in an open relationship until her boyfriend introduced her to his other girlfriend. “Ultimately, I became their girlfriend and it was great. For me, it avoided the boredom that can arise in monogamous relationships.”

After 18 months of bliss, jealousy kicked in. “I grew to feel inadequate and jealous towards the other woman. I felt cheated at having to share my partner.”


Could it be that this cavalier approach to commitment is nothing more than a harmful attempt at having it all? “It’s a nice fantasy,” my friend Lou tells me. “One hot-but-dim guy for the bedroom; another who makes all your mates laugh; one for dinner parties, all co-existing like a boyband at an orgy.”

“That’s called being single,” adds another friend, Katherine, ever the voice of reason. “We have friends, family and colleagues for all the emotional support we need. Open relationships are only about the sex, anyway. And if your bloke isn’t doing it for you – at least some of the time – then you should find a new one. Not three or four new ones.”

So is monogamy really dead, I ask Bergner. “The honest answer is no. As human beings we tend to cling on to who we are, rather than embracing invisible possibilities. What I hope the book does, though, is encourage more honest conversations within relationships. No matter how uncomfortable that might be for us men with our fragile egos.”

I ask my boyfriend of two-and-a-half years, hypothetically, what he thinks about having an open relationship. He pauses for some time. “So, what you’re saying is that if you get to sleep with that bearded bloke behind the bar, I get to ask out my female tennis coach?”

It’s my turn to pause thoughtfully. “Um, yes, I guess so.” He looks from the bearded guy to me. “Nah, I think I’ll pass. I kind of just like you.”

I think back to all the features I’ve written on sex and relationships. Yes, women want the best sex they can possibly have. Why wouldn’t they? But they also want stability, intimacy, ups, downs and the adventures that abound in a long-term relationship between two equally complex human beings. So what’s monogamy, then, if not having it all?

And if those monkeys have taught us one thing, it’s that contrary to popular belief, women aren’t turned off by excess hair, round bellies and a penchant for scratching one’s armpits. Who knew?

(Illustration: Jamie Cullen at Synergy Art)