Sex by Numbers: Modern Day Romance and Breeding

ColumnHow do you maintain passion and pleasure in a romantic partnership, while at the same time navigating the ins and outs of parenting?

As a weekly relationships columnist, I regularly receive love inquiries that range from the philosophical to the salacious. This week, my friend Rachel sent an intriguing letter, asking me to ruminate on baby-making and romance: “Is it possible to maintain passion and pleasure, while at the same time parenting with a long-term  partner?”

Rachel’s question prompted me to do some detective work, investigating the nature of sex, reproduction, and its manifold meanings. From mating monkeys to full-time daddies, I’ve gathered eight sociological and biological facts to help shed some light on the confounding roles of intimacy, breeding, and the creation of culture.

1. Historically, coupledom has been an economic and societal compact; the partner’s personal needs, such as emotional well-being, sexual satisfaction, and intellectual stimulation, have long come second place. In days of yore, the survival of the marriage contract trumped an individual’s quality of life. In some ways, a miserable marriage was a good marriage, so long as it stayed intact. Modern relationships couldn’t be more different – people seek partners who challenge and excite them and they’re searching for romance that’s mutually enriching.

2. Sexless marriage, anyone? On average, married women and men who are more than 30-years-old have sex only 58 times per year. That’s about a shag a week. For the under-30 set, the number doubles, coming in at 111 times a year. For some spouses, it’s much harder, with estimates pegging 15% of married couples as sexless for as much as one year.

3. In all the animal kingdom, seahorses are the only genus in which the male gets pregnant – the female injects eggs into her lover’s pouch, and it’s here where the eggs are fertilized and nurtured until delivery. In no small feat, the male can deliver up to 1,000 babies in one go. Seahorses also happen to be traditional romantics, with many species faithful to their filly for life, (not even a tank full of available seahorse singles will tempt a loyal pair). When they mate, the couple link tails; for the duration of their love-making, the seahorses are inseparable, engaging in a whirling dervish dance amongst the sea grass and coral reefs.

4. In the past few years, the tides have turned in the U.S. For the first time ever, married couples comprise less than half of all American households. Belonging to a loving, supportive relationship is now widely regarded as healthier than being in a bleak, agonizing marriage. In the modern, cosmopolitan consciousness, love, commitment, and companionship carry more weight than a legal document. The real fun lies in the adventure.

5. We humans aren’t all that special, sharing between 95-99% functional DNA with our close cousin the Bonobo. If you think people can be merciless when it comes to harnessing sex as a tool for manipulation, why don’t you go visit your evolutionary kin for the day? For Bonobos, sexual contact is used for everything from same-sex conflict-resolution to calming infants. They have sex to release tension, sex to leaven antagonism, and sex to have fun and socialize. A promiscuous bunch, Bonobos have multiple partners, and because the women are sleeping around, the males aren’t sure which children belong to them. Obscure paternity goes a long way toward the prevention of infanticide. Doesn’t it all smack of a Shakespearean tragedy?

6. Men who are dominant in work and relationships have trouble accurately “reading” emotions when looking at pictures of people’s faces. In short, powerful men can have trouble measuring and responding to the needs of others. Studies of group behavior indicate that people tend to choose the most outspoken, arrogant individual as the leader of a group. And, once at the top, the man’s experience of dominance only reinforces his self-centeredness.

7. In Sweden, 85% of the fathers take paternal leave from their jobs and if they don’t, they face scrutiny from their friends and colleagues. Could the Swedish model signal an emergent “new masculinity?” Since the paternity-leave policy was implemented, divorce and separation rates have dropped; it’s possible that when men engage in the day-to-day requirements of parenting, they understand better the challenges of being at home with a child. The idea supporting this Swedish policy is that society mirrors the family – in order to achieve equality in society, equality must first be achieved in the home.

8. Why humans make babies isn’t mysterious. We do so because evolution and biology trigger sexual desire, sexual desire results in children and children result in the perpetuation of our species. But when considering the lived experience of actual individuals, baby-making is anathema to our quality of life. A host of academic papers demonstrate that parents are usually less happy than their childless peers; it turns out that raising children, across the board, reduces marital satisfaction. In Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman’s oft-cited study of working women, he found that childcare ranked almost last in pleasurability out of 19 activities. These women preferred many things to childcare, including exercising, shopping, and housework.

Images: Stacey Hedman Photography, cscott2006, Tela Chhe, Auswandern Malaysia, tab2_dawa, emilio labrador, chapmankj75, pulguita, mikebaird, the Italian voice