Does Monogamy Cause Female Sexual Dysfunction -- And Could A Pill Be The Answer?

Does Monogamy Cause Female Sexual Dysfunction?

There has been talk of a female equivalent to Viagra for years. Now it may become a reality -- one that could be in pharmacies within the next few years, according to a May 22nd New York Times magazine article by Daniel Bergner. The piece -- and the drug itself -- bring up a fascinating question: Could some women's low libido be due in part to the very fact that they are in long-term, committed relationships?

The pill, Lybrido, was created to increase female sexual desire, but unlike Viagra, it targets what Bergner refers to as "the psyche," not just the physical body. What Bergner doesn't note, at least not explicitly, is that this difference in approach is indicative of the fundamentally different ways that medical community views and treats female and male sexual dysfunction. The prevailing perception is that female sexual dysfunction is about not wanting sex, while men just need their equipment tuned up.

That's not to say that the science is wrong. There are biological differenes in how arousal interacts with libido in men versus women, which Bergner summarizes:

Give a man an erection, and his sensitized nerves and enhanced feelings of power are going to feed his drive. Women, research has shown, are less cognizant of genital arousal, and probably for this reason, Viagra-like substances haven’t done enough to raise women’s ratings of desire in past experiments, even while the chemicals have added to blood flow.

But he goes on to suggest that monogamy is one of the major sources of hypoactive sexual-desire disorder (HSSD), "lack of lust, when it creates emotional distress." The clinical disorder affects anywhere from 10-30 percent of women between the ages of 20 and 60, according to the New York Times. It's essentially a clinical version of the sexless marriage stereotype. "It is women much more than men who have H.S.D.D., who don’t feel heat for their steady partners," writes Berger. And though some evolutionary biologists and psychologists like to argue that this simply boils down to women not having the same level of sex drive as men, others say that it's more about culture and that this disparity only really exists once a woman has been with the same person for an extended period of time. (Plus we know anecdotally that there are plenty of married women who have difficulties in their relationships precisely because they want sex more than their male partners.)

So what if monogamy really does damage desire -- not because of some biological, gender-specific reason, but because it becomes difficult to sustain that desire when you are having sex with just one person over a long period of time? The logical conclusion one can draw from Bergner's is that perhaps none of us, male or female, are actually biologically "programmed" for a one-and-only sort of sex life. “The impact of relationship duration is something that comes up constantly,” Lori Brotto, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia told Berger. “Sometimes I wonder whether [HSSD] isn’t so much about libido as it is about boredom.”

If this is true, then the invention of Lybrido could potentially provide a medicinal boost to flailing monogamous relationships. Would people be less likely to step outside of their long-term, committed relationships if they had a little [insert color here] pill to bring back the sexual desire they once had for their partners?

Jezebel's Lindy West argues that a pill like Lybrido could be a wonderful answer for (some) couples who are struggling with the sexual issues that come along with long-term monogamy but don't want to enter into an open relationship, something that can come with its own host of emotional complications. "Lybrido and Lybridos ... could be just the workaround that some couples need to save their monogamous relationships -- or, to allow monogamy and longterm sexual satisfaction to coexist for couples grappling with HSDD," she wrote.

Of course, as the research surrounding Lybrido breaks down some stereotypes, such as the idea that women biologically have weaker sex drives than men do, it upholds others. The Cut's Kat Stoeffel points out, "By offering a pharmacological cure, Lybrido is still reinforcing the idea there’s something wrong with non-monogamous women." It also places the burden of fixing a relationship squarely on the woman and her body. Your low libido, you take the pill.

Stoeffel is right -- searching to cure something implicitly states that there's something to cure in the first place. But for women who have grown up being conditioned for monogamy and find themselves fighting to stay happy and sexually satisfied in their long-term relationships, a pill like Lybrido could offer a practical helping hand. It's not the ideal, but it's something.

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