Tuesday, January 26, 2016

"Our Genes Can Be Heartless Puppeteers"

Note the grim, bored faces.
Too many orgasms for the Coolidges?
"Pete and I haven't had sex for awhile," said a friend. "I'm not particularly in the mood, but I feel like we should. You know, for the good of the marriage."

I murmured in an affirmative manner, conveying something along the lines of "Yeah, go hit that dutiful marital sex." After all, sex--even possibly tepid sex--has all kinds of benefits--the immune system boost, happy endorphins, lower incidence of incontinence and all that.

But, at it turns out, not only am I a sucky friend for putting her personal business all up in my blog, but I also might have given her exactly the wrong advice. At least according to the limbic system, a primitive part of our brain that doesn't care a whit that we've based our entire societal structure on the responsible-sounding, seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time ideal of monogamy.

By having sex with good old Pete, my friend would be inadvertently setting off a chain of neurochemicals that would actually increase marital ennui (it means boredom/lack of interest, if you happen to be afflicted with dictionary ennui). Surprisingly, sexual satisfaction kicks in a biological impulse full of monogamy-unfriendly side effects like making a couple more irritated with, and less attracted to, each other.

Marnia Robinson in Psychology Today reports that sexual satisfaction, specifically orgasms, actually compels us to want to move on to a new partner. 
[A] mating frenzy (hot sex, lots of orgasms) resulting in sexual satiation (that "I'm done!" feeling) plays right into Cupid's plan. Decreasing dopamine (after the delicious neurochemical blast of orgasm) tells your limbic system, "Fertilization duty is done here; time to find this mate less alluring-and respond to any potential novel mate with gusto."
The same cruel, cruel swirl of chemicals that make you swoon over another's perfection and general dreaminess, then:
 --makes you think it's a swell idea to bear children with this lovely person, 
-- fills you with a fiery rage toward this person who can't seem to fucking realize that wadding up a wet towel makes it moldy,
--makes you think a new partner would be a much more suitable mate. (I'm keeping a shortlist, just in case.)

Our bodies are, annoyingly, designed to make us stop desiring a mate once we've had our way with them. It's all about creating genetic diversity in our young, maximizing our fertility and all sort of other biological constructs that don't go over too well with a certain monogamous mate.

It's called the Coolidge Effect, and refers to the tendency in mammals to develop deadened sexual responses to their familiar mate while miraculously having no such problems with a novel mate. The name comes from a story about Calvin Coolidge and his wife touring a government farm. After hearing that a particular rooster spent a good part of each day mating, Mrs. Coolidge, in a moment of First Lady TMI, supposedly remarked, "Tell that to Mr. Coolidge when he comes by." When told, the president asked the farmer, "Same hen every time?" "No, sir," answered the farmer. "Tell that to Mrs. Coolidge," retorted the President, thus ensuring that no one in the Coolidge house would be doing any mating that evening.

In the Coolidge Effect, a male rat will mate with a receptive female (so made that way through chemical injections) until his libido dies out and he gives up and ignores her, doing whatever the male rat equivalent is of grabbing the remote. However, if a new receptive female enters, he jumps out of his stupor and begins banging her with a fresh vigor. The effect repeats--Mr. Rat rising to the occasion with each fresh female and giving them sweet, sweet rat love--until the dude is overwhelmed with exhaustion.   

I know this is science and all, but part of me wants to take the Creationist Approach to Science and just declare that, hey, I don't believe and/or like this idea, ergo, it's untrue. Despite all the testing, data, chemical analysis, carbon dating, friggin' dinosaur and early human bones littering the whole fucking globe...er, sorry, off topic.  

I mean, I get the whole fresh-excitement-with-new-mate part. Anyone who takes a look at the latest celeb pairing on US Magazine's cover can see that clearly enough, but the rest of it is so counter-intuitive. Having sex with your mate is...bad? And orgasms are especially bad because they make you want to leave your mate and move on? 

So where does this leave us? We live in a society that at least nominally supports families and lifetime pair-bonding. But our uncouth biological impulses are fighting us with every one of our well-intentioned, sanctioned-by-marriage thrusts.

It is a bit of a pickle and I don't have any great solutions for you yet. In the meantime, should you have sex with your mate? Hell, I don't fucking know. Play it by ear and we'll figure it out next time.


"Our senses crave novelty.  Any change alerts them, and they send a signal to the brain.  If there’s no change, no novelty, they doze and register little or nothing.  A constant state--even of excitement--in time becomes tedious, fades into the background because our senses have evolved to report changes, what’s new, something startling that needs to be appraised, a morsel to eat, a sudden danger.”  Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses


Anonymous said...

But... I think the proactive solution to that would be to have a temperate attitude towards sex. Rather than have sex as much as you want, save it for when something special happens. And though it might be aggravating at first, deferring small pleasure for later and greater pleasure might be the best thing to happen to a marriage. Your friend hasn't had sex with her partner in a while? Then if she actually waits for a time when she's horny, she'll have great sex and greater appreciation.

This study doesn't surprise me at all. I understand all biological processes in terms of food and water. If you've been starved for a week, and then are suddenly given your top 3 favorite meals, then of course you'll find pleasure and newfound appreciation for it. Of course, the starvation will make you want to eat more and more, and eventually you get sick of it. If consumption of the same thing is moderated then it won't be a problem.

Unknown said...

Wow, go president Coolidge for having a sexual dysfunction named after him.

I wonder what the "clinton effect" should be??

And I agree for another big reason. I don't think you should pressure your mate into sex. That doesn't fix the underlying problem of "where did the romance go?" or "is this a hormal imbalance?" Solve the bigger issues, and the sex could/should return.

Anonymous said...

That's the second time today that I've heard the term "limbic system". Earlier it was from a motivational speaker. I'm feeling a little freaked out right now. It's not really relevant to your post, but thought I would share.

Vapid Vixen said...

Hmmm....things are starting to come together for me now. It's allll making sense. Thanks for the revelation.

Annah said...

This seriously scared the shit out of me. It's the whole theory that marriage kills sex. If this is true, then why is it that all women hope and dream for (for the post part) is to get married?

Scary, indeed.

Annah said...

Also, your my XXX button holder for the week.

Adria said...

I can see this, especially if you read the book "Sex at Dawn", but then you must balance it against the theory from Desmond Morris who has said it is the addiction (if you will) to the consistent endorphin release that our long term mate produces in us which keeps us coming back to him/her. Because our mate makes us feel good, we are more apt to want to repeat that. Frankly, I've been monogamous for almost 29 years and our sex is better than ever. I think there is far more to all of this than tends to meet the eye. I don't for one moment believe that we are *only* controlled by our hormones/limbic system, biological responses. Yes, these influence us, but we are the determiners of how we act.

To answer Annah's question: Most women look for protection and security and THAT is why we tend to marry (especially when we are young).

Unknown said...

This blog post makes me wanna cry.

Anonymous said...

I can't decide if I agree with Tricia and I want to cry or if I'm relieved because this helps explain why I'm so damn horny and never really have problems moving on. Of course I also must confess that I don't think I've met the right guy yet. And I do think he's out there (hopefully). And maybe if/when I do I'll finally be able to settle down. Hmmmmm...

Jack Juste said...

I read that German study and their conclusion was less conclusive and more open ended than Marnia Robinson's article implies. [read especially the final paragraphs of the study & compare to Robinson's definitive article] The study's authors found that there was a large social adaptation component (instrumental use of sex) among females to male motivation. They also observed that other cultures males use sex as instrumental adaptations to female libido. Their conclusion was that more study is needed to achieve a more definitive result and that social constructs may well shift and change the results found in the study's female subjects. Robinson's conclusion suggests something similar but uses the study much in the way she uses studies surrounding the pornography issue, to suit her advocacy against the latter. Her credibility just went down in my book. The German study however, is actually great stuff.

Anonymous said...

"To answer Annah's question: Most women look for protection and security and THAT is why we tend to marry (especially when we are young)"

I wanted to answer that with, "I want to marry because I love the man." Isn't that enough nowadays? Or does it have to be something else to marriage than love?

biglou said...

I think there is also a point to be made that in things where there is a large cultural component (and anyone who claims there is no cultural component to sex or relationships is full of crap), we shouldn't just take studies of rats and say "oh yeah, definitely exactly the same in humans." As you note, everyone can understand the "novelty is exciting" aspect, but my personal experience, and that of talking to other people suggests that having sex with your partner, WHEN BOTH OF YOU WANT IT (this is important), has the opposite effect, i.e. it makes the partners want each other more, not less.

Your Biology Geek In Residence said...

The biologist/nerd scientist in me feels compelled to poke (no pun intended) at this hypothesis a bit.
The study you describe looks at male rat behavior, but not female rat behavior. It actually makes a lot of sense for male mammals to share their sperm with any willing female, since it does not "cost" them much, biologically speaking. Eggs, on the other hand, are biologically expensive, as it pregnancy and weaning. It makes sense for females to be more selective. All the hoops females make males jump through like dinner, movie, foreplay, build me a nest with pretty shiny stuff before mating is an attempt to make sex more "expensive" for the male. So, does this study find the same wayward inclination for female rats? I have a sneaking suspicion not. But, if I ever had a guy tell me that he cheated because it was in his evolutionary interest to do so, I'd slap him. I only dated one biology major, and that's exactly why. Like college guys need any more encouragement to sleep around.

You may enjoy this book, if you have not already read it "Sex Advice for All Creation" by Olivia Judson. If you like Mary Roach, you'll like her work.

--your biology geek in residence

Anonymous said...

Well, if lack of sex boosts monogamy, my kids are doing everything in their power to strengthen my marriage to Sweet Babou!

Doug Cheese Stephens said...

Got to love those crazy Coolidges!

biglou said...

I will second "Biology Geek in Residence"'s recommendation, Olivia Judson's book is a fun and informative read.

Jill Hamilton said...

Okay, first I must tell you that you have all made it to my shortlist.

Leila--I think your lube winnings are making you all smart and stuff. Yay!

Idaho and Doug--I know, it's difficult to imagine Mr. and Mrs. Coolidge even having sex. And don't think I haven't tried.

Annah--I am BEYOND flattered to be your XXX button for the week. P.S. don't you think it's touching how other commenters are rushing to comfort you?

Anonymous--Motivation speaker, eh? You must share what you did, or did not learn...

Jill Hamilton said...

Vixen, I hope it was a good realization and not a bad one.

Enid, keep him hot. That's why we like to read your stuff.

Tricia, um sorry. (Note: Tricia is newly engaged and in the giddy phase. My post was sort of equivalent to showing up to her wedding, getting drunk, then yelling out randomly, "Yeah? Just wait a few years."

Anonymous 2, I'd say go with the non-crying route, if only b/c it sounds more enjoyable.

Jack, Biology Geek and biglous--I am beyond impressed with your scientific insights, especially the parts I could actually understand. I am definitely going to read the Judson book. And I am honored and thrilled to have so many Geeks in Residence, unless that sounds too braggy of me.

And Betty, grown-ups doing "it" is gross. your kids are just performing their kidly duty.

The Barreness said...


*gestures wildly*

*sighs again*

*feels smug*

*lights cigarette*

*fingers little black ((contacts button on iphone)) affectionately*

Bored senses? Pfftt.

Brent H. said...

One of the other posters, Biology Geek, brought up one of the points that I wondered about when reading about Marnia Robinson's Psychology Today article: is the response to sexual satisfaction described in the article, the purported desire to seek novelty and a new partner, the same in females as in males? That seems to me to be a rather important point.

I came across a book a while back that may be relevant to this topic:
Douglas Brown - Just Do It: How One Couple Turned Off Their TV and Turned on Their Sex Lives for 101 Days (No Excuses!)


If memory serves, the couple described in the memoir decided to make it a point of having sex every day for three months or thereabouts. And I believe the point of the memoir was to discuss the salutary effects of the sex on their relationship more generally.

Anonymous said...

As a minor biology geek, a minor monogamy / non-mono geek, and a minor human behavior geek, I am happy to say that sex supplies us with a veritable smorgasbord of hormones with competing interests!
Here's a different nibble from the table:
The latest findings suggest that oxytocin, which floods the body in response to orgasm...may act more subtly in humans than has been widely understood.

...[R]esearch suggests that boosting oxytocin in the human brain will indiscriminately promote trusting, friendly behavior. …Accordingly, researchers examining oxytocin's effects on people — including the authors of the latest study — assumed that men under its influence would draw closer to women…. [That men in stable monogamous relationships] stood *further* from attractive women, “… was quite surprising," said Dr. Rene Hurlemann, a psychiatrist at the University of Bonn in Germany, who led the study.

At the same time, the new findings make evolutionary sense, Hurlemann added: “As human societies evolved to give men an increasing role in safeguarding and supporting their mates and offspring, it appears that oxytocin may have taken on a more discriminating role in human interaction by favoring staying over straying behavior among men who've already found a mate.” --L.A. Times

Let's say that the game is still young in terms of biology-vs-socialization and I am looking forward to seeing how it plays out!


Can't keep anything to myself said...

Warning: Evolution/behavior lecture
The variety of mating systems among species and making cross species comparisons:
Is/are the species generally monogamous (many birds) or generally polygamous (most mammals)? There is also social and genetic monogamy. Social monogamy is defined by two parents raising young together. However, there may be "extra pair copulations" (very common in birds) that result in males raising young that are not their own. Genetically monogamous species mate only with their partners. Genetically monogamous species are few and fair between.
There are also polyandry and polygyny mating systems in some species.
Basically, mating systems lie on a spectrum. They are not black and white.
They also depend on environmental factors. For example, in birds, species tend to be both socially and genetically monogamous when environmental conditions make raising young successfully difficult. If one adult can't successfully raise chicks, then you will likely find monogamy because both parents are needed to ensure chick survival. If chick raising success rates are high with little parental care, then the species will probably be somewhat polygamous.
From an evolutionary perspective, reproduction is about maximizing output and quality of offspring in order to ensure the survival of your genes.
Therefore in many species, males can/will mate with as many females as they can.
As Biology Geek said above, females typically invest more into raising young and therefore they tend to be the choosier sex. They are choosier because they are limited by how often they can reproduce and raise their young. While a female might take a few months to fertilize eggs, lay and incubate them, and then raise young, a male may mate with a hundred females in this time.
Different species of females select males for different reasons. In some, males are selected for genes. In others, for their resources (usually food or nesting sites). And others select for parental care (probably a male with lower testosterone, since males with higher testosterone tend to spend more time mating and less time raising young - in some birds at least).
As Sex at Dawn concludes, humans are to some extent polygamous creatures, evolutionarily speaking.

Can't keep anything to myself said...

Part 2:

Do I have a point? Not really, I've come to realize...
Essentially I wanted to emphasize that Robinson's article should be taken with a grain of salt. I don't doubt that sex with the same person can result in a kind of boredom and eventually discontent. However, she seems to be drawing broad conclusions from lots of small, species-specific studies. Despite her credentials, she seems to be writing like a journalist, who takes conclusions from studies and slightly exaggerates/interprets the results, in order to sell the article since pure science is evidently not as interesting or easy to understand. I think human marriage is more complicated then, sex is bad for your marriage. She failed to point out the negative effects that may come from not having sex with your partner. One should consider that organisms do not evolve to reach “perfection,” they evolve based on a cost:benefit ratio that maximizes benefit, while minimizing cost. Take testosterone levels, for example. Testosterone is a sex hormone associated with mating and aggression in most species. In some bird species, males with higher testosterone levels tend to obtain more matings, so why wouldn’t this species evolve so that all males have increased testosterone levels? Because testosterone is also a poison. It has costs, such as increased immune suppression and decreased parental care, and these costs prevent males with really high testosterone levels from being more successful and having an advantage over males with regular levels.
So yes, looking at sex behaviors through an evolutionary viewpoint is helpful in determining how certain behaviors may have evolved, but I think organisms are too complex and there is still too much that is not understood about animals and how their brains work, to be able to come to the kinds of conclusions Robinson did in her article. It’s not that it’s a bad article. It’s just that she only provides a few pieces of a very large puzzle.

Anyways, sorry my little rant is very unorganized and long. I enjoyed your post, Jill (as always), and I’m sorry couldn’t help but criticize/rant about Robinson’s article. It’s very interesting to read this again because I have learned so much about evolution and behavior since the first time I read it (I also don’t think I read Robinson’s article the first time around).

William Quincy Belle said...

I have to echo Jack Juste. I have a lot of questions about Marina Robinson and her husband Gary Wilson. I can't help feeling they have a personal agenda and have set out to specifically prove that agenda instead of doing a double blind study with a university sanctioned analytic methodology of a statistically significant cross-section of society. I worry that their sometimes pseudo-scientific analysis of the facts obscures the real truth.

Adria makes an important point: it is the addiction (if you will) to the consistent endorphin release that our long term mate produces in us which keeps us coming back to him/her. Because our mate makes us feel good, we are more apt to want to repeat that.

Yes there is biology but I can't help feeling that if our mate makes us feel good, we are not going to look elsewhere. A satisfied partner isn't looking for satisfaction, they already have it.

Ho hum sex? Maybe spice things up a bit? Change of pace? As I said in my 2 cents about Coolidge, a change of hen isn't necessary but a change of feather would be nice.

Good article. I'm reading -wb :-)

John U said...

Where it leaves us is adopting relationship styles that allow us to keep one or more life partners while also allowing other sexual relationships of varying complexity. Search on polyamory, swinging, open relationships, ethical non-monogamy, and relationship anarchy. Because everyone in these relationships knows about each other and is comfortable with all the relationships, they are not cheating or worse. There are millions of people doing this now.

Does it work? My life partner and I have been doing it since 1967 and know many others with good multiple partner relationships.