14 August 2006
Can't We Just Cuddle?
by Paul Aitken
Sex whenever we want. It's been the fantasy of every male since we evolved from the monkeys. It's not an exaggeration to say it's played a hand in most of the wars fought in human history. I'm not talking about the large scale political maneuvers that have defined war over the last few millennia. I'm referring to the small scale wars tribal wars that have shaped our existence and evolution over the last million or so years. Anthropological research into such wars amongst 20th century Stone Age tribes of the Amazon and New Guinea has revealed that, contrary to expectation, such wars are less about scarce resources and the thrill of pillage than they are about procuring women to have sex with. Now, you might think that because there's a fifty-fifty ratio of boys-to-girls at birth and many more men than women die stupidly in the prime of life; that there should be enough women to go around, but unfortunately, it isn't so. The reason? Men want to have sex more than women. A lot more.
There's some overlap to be sure. There are men who'd rather play with their Xbox and there are women who are borderline nymphos (although they're more to be found in myth than reality). And everybody knows that in the first few months of a relationship you're basically testing the limits of what you're physically capable of. And if you're in the throws of your first romance and you think it's gonna last forever, I've got some sad news for you. After a few months you're going to notice a change. It's subtle at first. She'll start to slip into bed with her panties on. Her periods will begin to last longer. She'll start reading books that she just can't put down. And then there'll be headaches/fatigue/gotta get up early. Research has shown that the first flush of romance lasts a few months (9 1/2 weeks according to one study - hence the movie) and while sexual frequency may remain high for the next couple of years, it usually undergoes a sharp drop-off thereafter.
Then of course there is the subset of men who've truly lost out in the mating game and don't even get off the starting grid. Here we find the weak, the meek, the geeks and freaks who stand as much chance at scoring in bed as they would in a World Cup soccer game. The desire is there in spades but is unmet by its requisite counterpart.
What if anything can be done to bridge this desire gap? Well, war was one method, as was no doubt the Alley Oop caveman version of courtship (man + club = woman). But in the post-stone age world these are no longer practical solutions. Instead, we quickly learnt that what we couldn't steal, we could always pay for; hence the world's oldest profession. Even when it wasn't a direct transaction, sex has always been a commodity of sorts. In most ancient cultures, the rich and powerful could possess several wives. In harem cultures, a very few lucky guys could have as many as sixty. Suicide bombers are promised 72 virgin wives in the hereafter (interesting that the male version of heaven involves lots and lots of sex). And even in situations where women aren't commoditized, those with sufficient sexual appeal - rock stars, elite athletes, and (go figure) Colin Farrell - get laid as much as they damn well please. But note that all of the above are zero-sum solutions. The pie doesn't get any bigger, just some of the allotted proportions. The more one guy gets, the less another guy gets.
The only truly equitable solution is for women to want more sex (OK, maybe it would be equally equitable for men to desire less sex, but who the hell wants that!?). Now, before you roll your eyes and sigh: "Yeah, right. Good luck with that buddy," note that sexual desire in females is largely psychological. The part of her anatomy you need to arouse first is between her ears, not between her legs. If you're deficient in hygiene, never do the dishes and you suck in bed; it's pretty much a given that your sex life will be adversely affected. But even if you look like George Clooney, you've got a dick to die for, you're an extremely cunning linguist, you pick up your dirty laundry, you bring home flowers, you leave little notes telling her how wonderful she is and you take the kids out for the afternoon so she can nap; you're still not guaranteed a satisfying sex life! She'll be happier no doubt, but that happiness is unlikely to manifest itself into a daily draining of your one-eyed custard chucker. Why? Because the female libido is enormously complex and nobody, not even women themselves, have any real idea what turns them on.
But that doesn't mean there isn't hope. The success of drugs like Viagra and Cialis in curing erectile dysfunction has set off a veritable gold-rush in research aimed at finding the female equivalent. It was initially thought, perhaps optimistically, that Viagra itself would work for women. Sadly, this appears not to be the case. While Viagra improves blood flow to the genital region in both sexes and encourages vaginal lubrication in females, it apparently doesn't do much for overall libido. But then this shouldn't come as any surprise because it doesn't do much for libido in men either. Viagra improves erectile function for men that want erections. If you have no interest in sex, then save your money.
What does seem to improve libido in both sexes are androgens (male hormones), specifically testosterone. Testosterone supplements have been shown to be particularly effective in improving sexual libido in women who have undergone menopause. They also improve libido in men that have undergone andropause (male menopause). But note that testosterone supplements are most effective when there is a testosterone deficiency. If your partner is young and healthy, dropping testosterone in her diet coke just so you can score some nookie just ain't cricket, and worse, it could be dangerous. An overabundance of testosterone is not good for women. It can permanently lower their voice, encourage hair growth in all the wrong places and raise their likelihood of developing breast cancer. Besides which, abnormally high levels of testosterone don't seem to have much effect on a woman's libido.
What we'd want to replicate, if we could, are the chemical conditions that exist during that first 9 1/2 weeks of romance when sexual frequency is highest. While there is some evidence that women during this phase have higher levels of testosterone, testosterone is just one chemical among many that are in abundance during this period. Add to the list estrogen, oxytocin and the brain chemicals PEA (phenylathylamine), dopamine and norepinepherine. But no one knows whether these chemical levels are pushing the feelings, or, being pulled by them. It's very likely that a woman's physiological and psychological states during this period are induced by external chemical signals called pheromones. So far nobody has been able to isolate an effective pheromone (though you wouldn't know it by the level of Internet spam), but a whole lot of big pharmaceutical money is being bet on the possibility that someone will.
But even if we could lure a woman chemically into a permanently heightened state of sexual interest, should we? Probably not. It's likely that the chemicals that induce or coincide with that first flush of sexual romance are damaging in the long-term and this is one of the evolutionary reasons why romance fades (not feeding the kids because you're too busy screwing may be another). There's a reason why nature has designed us in the way it has. Nature may have played a big joke on men by making them want sex way more than women, but if we mess too much with nature the biggest joke could well be on us. It's sad to say that the only real solution to the desire gap is to take matters into our own hands.