Long-Term Relationships Are Tough on Female Desire

Women need sexual variety to sustain a satisfying long-term heterosexual relationship.

(This title is taken from a slightly condensed quote from Wednesday Martin’s “The Bored Sex” published in The Atlantic on February 14th, 2019.)

I’ve started and stopped writing this article multiple times. Some of the feelings I can pinpoint as “irritation” or “annoyance” or “strong vehemence,” but really the most consistent feeling has been “confusion.”

This article, published on Valentine’s Day of this year, condenses research on the nature of female desire in long-term heterosexual relationships. The culmination of that research states:

“[For] women only, lack of interest in sex was higher among those in a relationship of over one year in duration,” and…“women living with a partner were more likely to lack interest in sex than those in other relationship categories.”

The reasons for this are not found to be solely biological, as in “women have a lower libido than men.” Instead, women often present as equally or more enthusiastic for sex as their male partners at the start of their relationships. But then their desire dwindles once they have been with the same partner for a year or more, much faster and much earlier than their male partners. This does not happen because these women enjoy sex any less than their male partners, but because they desire less “the same sex with the same person over and over.”

The findings reveal that women, just like men, require variety in their sexual experiences. For couples to remain in monogamous relationships where both participants are satisfied, they must introduce novelty.

The final paragraph of the article begins with, “Women cannot be pigeonholed; the glory of human sexuality is its variation and flexibility.”

My negative emotions associated with this article boiled down to the incessant interjections that ran through my head while I read: “Why is this a surprise? Why does it seem revolutionary that women need variety to stay sexually interested?”

I am a sexually active woman in my mid-30s. My longest sexual relationship lasted ten years. Adding sexual novelty was a no-brainer to me. I enjoy and enjoyed sex, and through a lot of personal work that started in healing some of my sexual trauma, I am very comfortable with and within my own body and doing what feels right and good for it. In having a sexual partner I feel able to be vulnerable with and openly communicate with, I have met my match in a way that is deeply satisfying.

As a “late-”millennial raised in a progressive area with liberal parents, I grew up differently than possibly most children here in the United States. Sex Ed at the public elementary school I attended involved having to label parts of the penis and the vagina on assessments.

Sex was discussed in a way that bordered on positive in my family. I say “bordered” because my mother was raised with a lot of shame-based views around sex because of her strict Catholic upbringing. Regardless, I was made aware of safe sex practices, placed on birth control early, and expected to be responsible, mindful, and present in my sexual experiences.

What this article and the research it cites indicates to me is a continuing and unhealthy silence around female sexuality that sets up women’s sexuality as somehow “different” and uses excuses like “women just have a lower libido” to explain away sexual problems that are actually normal and resolvable. This silence hurts both a heterosexual woman’s sexual relationship with herself, but also with her male partner.

The key to resolving this issue is in publishing articles like Wednesday Martin did in The Atlantic, in making public that women in fact need sexual variety to sustain a satisfying long-term relationship.


The impact of sexual novelty first began to be studied in 1963 in rats.

Scientists placed one male rat into a cage of twenty-five female rats in heat. The male rat would mate with every female until exhausted. But, when the scientists then introduced a twenty-sixth female rat in heat, the male rat’s sexual interest returned, and he mated with the twenty-sixth one.

A similar study was run on female hamsters in 1988. A female hamster mated to the point of sexual satisfaction with one male hamster. The male was removed and she was then introduced to a second male, whom she then mated with as well.

After the second male’s removal, she either was re-introduced to the original male or introduced to a third new male. The female hamsters introduced to the third new male mated for longer than those re-introduced to the original. Based on the lengthened duration of mating with the third new male, the scientists attributed this to heightened enjoyment.

Human studies have produced similar results, implying both men and women prefer sexual novelty.

In one study, the ejaculate of male subjects was measured after viewing the same pornographic film six different times vs. introducing a film with a new female porn star.

“…ejaculate volume and total motile sperm count significantly increased when males were exposed to a novel female. Time to ejaculation also decreased significantly…”

Sexual novelty for male members of a species likely has an evolutionary explanation: the more seeds you sow, the more progeny you might get. This would explain why the male rat somehow finds the energy to mate with the twenty-sixth female rat or why a man’s sperm might have more voluble ejaculate to better his chances of fertilizing a new female.

This may also explain other aspects of male sperm, which are still being researched, such as sperm allocation in the event of “sperm competition.” The theory is that if it is more likely for the sperm of two or more males to be present within one woman’s reproductive tract, a man’s adaptive response would be to inseminate with more sperm to ensure a greater chance of fertilization.

In another study that included both men and women, female and male subjects viewed a pornographic film daily for four days and then were exposed to either “(i) a film showing the same actors engaging in different sexual acts or (ii) one with different actors engaging in the same activities shown in the original film.”

After the participants viewed the “new” film, they then self-reported their sexual arousal. The male subjects became more aroused by the films containing different actors, while the females became more aroused by the same actors performing different acts.

For the female subjects, they were more aroused by the novelty of the different acts than the novelty of different people.

If a woman in a long-term relationship fails to have her desire for sexual variety met, she may stop having sex altogether or turn to an emotional or physical affair.

Whether it be in using sex toys and lubricants; watching pornography or reading erotica; spending a night in a hotel; giving each other massages; participating in role-playing, BDSM, or other fantasy-based behaviors; or opening up the relationship to new partners through polyamory or allowing for “monogamy gray zones” (such as strip clubs) etc., variety is important and necessary to sustaining the enjoyment for both partners in a heterosexual long-term relationship.

So when you start to notice the fire is dwindling, it’s time to talk about it and try something new.