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Why Nearly Everything We Believe About Women, Lust, and Infidelity Is Wrong and How the New Science Can Set Us Free
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What do straight, married female revelers at an all-women’s sex club in LA have in common with nomadic pastoralists in Namibia who bear children by men not their husbands? Like women worldwide, they crave sexual variety, novelty, and excitement.
In ancient Greek tragedies, Netflix series, tabloids and pop songs, we’ve long portrayed such cheating women as dangerous and damaged. We love to hate women who are untrue. But who are they really? And why, in this age of female empowerment, do we continue to judge them so harshly?
In Untrue, feminist author and cultural critic Wednesday Martin takes us on a bold, fascinating journey to reveal the unexpected evolutionary legacy and social realities that drive female faithlessness, while laying bare our motivations to contain women who step out.
Blending accessible social science and interviews with sex researchers, anthropologists, and real women from all walks of life, Untrue challenges our deepest assumptions about ourselves, monogamy, and the women we think we know. From recent data suggesting women may struggle more than men with sexual exclusivity to the revolutionary idea that females of many species evolved to be “promiscuous” to Martin’s trenchant assertion that female sexual autonomy is the ultimate metric of gender equality, Untrue will change the way you think about women and sex forever.
We do not even in the least know the final cause of sexuality…The whole subject is as yet hidden in darkness.
—Charles Darwin, "On the Two Forms, or Dimorphic Condition, in the Species of Primula, and on Their Remarkable Sexual Relations," 1862
Our worldviews constrain our imaginations.
—Patricia Gowaty, distinguished professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, UCLA
Every sensible woman got a back door man.
—Sara Martin, "Strange Lovin' Blues," 1925
Meet the Adulteress
The word is charged. It scandalizes and titillates. The adult makes it sound grown up and serious, somehow, the territory of those with enough life experience and agency to know better than to do what they are doing. The ess is all crackle and hiss, the long, low whistle of femaleness and dishonesty rubbing against each other, a silk dress against a suit, creating a conceptual commotion. The adulteress has a noirish cast; she has stepped out of a 1950s divorce proceeding, perhaps. She wears seamed stockings. She is no kid, and no angel. And while we may judge her harshly, we have to admit she is anything but boring.
In contrast to adulteress and adultery, "monogamy" sounds…well, it literally sounds like monotony. Monogamy also has the ring of something cozy to sit on—"Come on over and join me on the monogamy"—which, after all, it is. Monogamy is our society's emotional, cultural, and sexual baseline, the place that comforts us. Sexual exclusivity is the turf, we tell ourselves, of the well-adjusted, healthy, and mature. Adultery and the adulteress are a wild swing away from this place we know, this reference point of security and safety. Seen this way, "adulteress" is not just sexy and interesting; it has a taxonomical, diagnostic ring to it, more than a tinge not only of the illicit and immoral but of illness. For good reason. Many psychologists, anthropologists, and scientists have virtually fetishized monogamy and the pair bond over the last several decades, insisting that it is "naturally" the purview of women, even going so far as to assert that the heterosexual dyad is the reason we humans came to rule, where other hominins bit the dust. From the notion promulgated by biologists that a woman's egg is costly and finicky while sperm are a randy dime a dozen; to primatologists' long unchallenged presumption (since Darwin) that males who benefit from having more than one partner compete for sexually passive females who seek one great guy; to mental health professionals and social scientists maintaining that human males and females are "wired" or destined or have evolved to do that very same gender-scripted dance—just about everything tells us that for women especially, infidelity is off the map and out of bounds.
Women lust and women cheat. And it sets us aflame. Shere Hite took a hit, received death threats, and eventually went into exile in Europe after suggesting that 70 percent of us do. Other statistics range from as low as 13 percent to as high as 50 percent of women admitting they have been unfaithful to a spouse or partner; many experts suggest the numbers might well be higher, given the asymmetrical, searing stigma attached to being a woman who admits it. Who, after all, wants to confess that she is untrue? What's clear is that several decades after the great second wave of feminism, with increased autonomy and earning power and opportunity, and now with all manner of digital connections possible, women are, as sociologists like to put it, closing the infidelity gap. We're just not talking about it.
At least not in a voice above a whisper.
"I don't think you really even want to talk to me, because I'm really—unusual…" most of the women I've spoken with begin by saying when we meet to talk. Why's that? I wonder.
"Because I have a really strong libido. And—I don't think I'm cut out for monogamy," they tell me, haltingly, one after another. We chat over coffee, in person, or on the phone. They fear they are going to "throw the data" with their freakish singularity. They think they are outliers. They are foreign to the tribe of women, they suggest and believe. But when woman after woman in a committed relationship tells you she is unusual, sexually speaking—because she wants more sex than she's supposed to, because she feels compelled or tempted to stray—you can't shake the feeling that in matters of female desire, sexuality, and monogamy in particular, "unusual" is normal, and "normal" desperately needs to be redefined.
Untrue is a book with a point of view—namely that whatever else we may think of them, women who reject monogamy are brave, and their experiences and possible motivations are instructive. Not only because female infidelity is far from uncommon but also because the fact of it and our reactions to it are useful metrics of female autonomy, and of the price women continue to pay for seizing privileges that have historically belonged to men. This book is not an exhaustive review of the literature on infidelity, though it does reference the dozens of articles and books I read in a range of fields in an attempt to get my arms around the topic. But for the many studies I cite that suggest female "extra-pair" sexual behavior is a social and reproductive strategy that has served females in particular contexts well over the millennia, there are other studies that argue or suggest otherwise. I am only your guide to my view—informed by the social science and science to which I was drawn and to which I was referred by experts whom I believe are correcting bias in their fields—that what we today call female promiscuity is a behavior with a remarkably long tail, so to speak, a fascinating history and prehistory, and a no less intriguing future. And that it merits open-minded consideration from multiple perspectives. For too long we have handed our sexual problems and peccadillos exclusively to therapists and psychologists, presuming the issues to be personal, even pathological—rooted primarily in our emotional baggage, our families of origin, our "unique difficulties" with trust and commitment—and presuming they have solutions. But these ostensibly most personal matters—how and why we have sex, why we struggle with monogamy—have deep historic and prehistoric underpinnings as well. Biological factors, social control, cultural context, ecologies—female sexuality and our menu of options are shaped by all these factors and more. Rethinking topics as complex as female infidelity and our often heated responses to it arguably requires multiple lenses—sociology, evolutionary biology, primatology, and literary theory are just a few discourses that can enhance our understanding, reframing the adulteress in ways that facilitate greater empathy and understanding of her—and of ourselves.
This book, then, is a work of interdisciplinary cultural criticism. It distills and synthesizes the research of experts on female infidelity in a range of fields, melding it with my own opinions and interpretations of everything from articles in academic journals to studies by social scientists to pop culture songs and movies. I interviewed thirty experts in fields including primatology, cultural and biological anthropology, psychology, sex research, sociology, medicine, and "lifestyle choice advocacy and activism." I also wanted to include the perspectives of those who have experienced female infidelity firsthand. To that end there are anecdotes and longer stories from women and men I interviewed, who ranged in age from twenty to ninety-three, as well as insights and observations from those I spoke to more informally about infidelity (see the Author's Note for details). There was not a single dull conversation. Women who refuse to be sexually exclusive can't be pigeonholed—mostly they struck me as profoundly normal. But what they all have in common is that they dared to do something we have been told is immoral, antisocial, and a violation of our deepest notions of how women naturally are and "should be." As the sociologist Alicia Walker has suggested, in being untrue, women violate not just a social script but a cherished gender script as well.
The women I spoke to were obviously not a representative sample—that wasn't and isn't the point. They were storytellers—sometimes remorseful, often guilty or ambivalent, occasionally defiantly unrepentant and even enthused about what they'd done—who added vibrant color and detail to the realities of female infidelity I read about in academic studies and journals and learned about from experts. They were the flushed faces of statistics and the protagonists of their own narratives, as well as the larger narrative of our culture's ambivalence about women who cheat.
I come honestly to my interest in our culture's obsession with women who are untrue. In my twenties, I struggled, like a lot of young women, with monogamy and the specter of the adulteress. I moved to New York for the vibrant intellectual culture, the vivid nightlife, the like-minded people—and the large pool of potential romantic and sexual partners. Yes, New York seemed like a great place to find a boyfriend, or a few of them. And I did. I intended to date these guys one at a time, to break it off neatly with one before moving on to another, until I found The One I would marry, in the semi-accepted tradition of serial monogamy. That's what people did.
But on the ground, things were somehow more complicated. I fell into a pattern: date a guy, have great sex, fall for him, get serious, get very serious, get bored. The next step was always to try to resuscitate a foundering, floundering thing, to convince my libido that we could and should make this work. What nice girl wouldn't? What kind of young woman would just get psychosexual ennui and move unsentimentally, unromantically on? "C'mon, he's a great guy," I would coach myself and my libido. But my desires were hard to convince and even harder to bargain with. They took no prisoners and had other plans. These were: notice another guy, feel a tug of mutual attraction, and act on it. There were invariably messy, painful scenes when I was discovered, or when I just came out with it. Which I quickly learned was not the solution I had hoped it would be. Being direct about my desires, it turned out—"I really love being with you, but I'd like to be able to see other people" or "I'm into you, but monogamy is not easy for me"—was something my gay male friends, who had advised it, could get away with (as experts who work with them have pointed out, many gay couples were "consensually non-monogamous" avant la lettre). But my beaus were hurt, as I might have been in their position. They would say or do something hurtful in retaliation—imply I was a slut or just walk away, wounded and upset, as I might have done. Still, I couldn't bear making them feel that way, any more than I could tolerate the sting of judgment, the feeling of having done something bad, of being bad. And while I felt the urge to play around on the side and couldn't sustain interest in one man for as long as I felt I should, I didn't want to be subjected to non-exclusivity myself. Hypocritically, I wanted to have affairs, but I didn't want my partner to. As one vivaciously beautiful and intelligent woman in her late thirties told me, "I don't want to be with a player, even though I want to be one." Of course she added, "What the hell is wrong with me?!" She also lamented finding herself single and childless, pinning it on her "inability to settle down," by which she meant "be monogamous." While she wasn't religious or politically conservative, she had her own catastrophic narrative about the Consequences of Female Infidelity. Don't we all?
Like her and a lot of women I interviewed, I learned to be indirect in these matters. I didn't ask and didn't tell. I tried to keep my pretexts straight. I had heart-pounding close calls. For a time, I decided to just stop being in a relationship, because trying to be true and allowing myself to be untrue were both so stressful. I was sure something was wrong with me. How come the more I knew a young man who was in theory and in reality so right for me, and the closer we got, the less I wanted him? Everybody knew women wanted intimacy and closeness. And commitment.
Meanwhile, not a few of my boyfriends cheated themselves, and it hurt me profoundly. But I didn't question the fact of their straying on any deep level. That was what men did, wasn't it?
Over the next decade or so, I worked, socialized, and had relationships and sex. I thought I would grow up and grow out of my "crazy" libido, that non-monogamy was perhaps a developmental stage for the twentysomething, and that once I was in my thirties, things would change. I would calm down and figure it all out, and life would get easier. It didn't. When I was in a long-term relationship, the sexual spark died within a year or two, and I felt defective that it had happened—and that I cared enough about it to move on or look for other excitement. When I wasn't in a relationship, I longed for sex and sought it out. This too made me feel like a freak, since everyone knows men want sex more than women.
But more and more, I was learning that my peers were struggling too. Older now, my girlfriends and I had more perspective and less apprehension about talking. Even those of us in sexually exclusive relationships were not exactly true, at least in our minds. We fantasized about other men, and some of us fantasized about women. And struggled with the fact that we did. Some of us stepped out. We were bored, all of us, with coupled sex after a year or two, but what could we do? Cheating was a lot of work, with a lot of stigma. But when we thought about or experienced the passion and excitement of being with someone new, or considered trying something we'd never tried before, it felt worth the risks. In fact, it felt urgently necessary sometimes.
Why? If only we had known. According to primatologist and evolutionary biologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, my girlfriends and I were facing some typical quandaries of the bipedal, semicontinuously sexually receptive, higher-order female primate living in the shadow of agriculture. Our age didn't matter so much; our gender did. Contrary to everything we had learned and been told, many of us craved variety and novelty of sexual experience and had a hard time with monogamy precisely because we were female. On the one hand, we had evolved appetites and urges that were once highly adaptive. Under particular, not uncommon ecological circumstances, promiscuity was a smart reproductive strategy, a way for a female early hominin or human to increase the likelihood of getting high-quality sperm and becoming pregnant while maximizing the chance that numerous males might be willing to support her during pregnancy and help provision her and her offspring once she gave birth. On the other hand, these very same deeply evolved predilections now put us in conflict with a culture that continued to tell us, even post-second-wave feminism, that women were naturally choosy and coy and sexually passive. And monogamous. Men wanted sex; women wanted to put on the brakes. Right?
It was a relief when, in my mid-thirties, I found someone I lusted for and loved and could imagine settling down with, someone with whom I could have children and a life. Someone to whom I could stay true. It calmed the sexual static in my brain for a time. I was soon pregnant, and then exhausted by the demands of caring for an infant, who became a toddler, who became a preschooler, and then the whole thing began again with a second child. But when the heaviest lifting phase of motherhood subsided, when the nursing and the late nights were over and I came back to myself, a grown-up in command of her own mind and body again, I discovered that, although I wore a wedding ring on my left hand, not much had changed. My husband and I were thankfully back to having sex—sex I enjoyed, and plenty of it. So why, in my mind, was I faithless? I had fantasies I did not want to share, daydreams that were more graphic than soft focus and romantic. I liked sexually explicit novels and movies as much as I had before, maybe even more so. And I entertained crushes on wholly inappropriate objects—men who were married, or too young for me, or too old for me. I had crushes on women too, even though I was pretty sure I wasn't gay or even bisexual. What kind of a wife and mother felt this way?
I was older now, and my work as a writer afforded me some autonomy in my intellectual and professional pursuits. I queried therapists and open-minded mommy friends and experts, and turned again to anthropology and primatology, particularly the writing of feminist anthropologists, and the new, game-changing sex research being done by women. What was sexually normal for women? Why was it so hard to be true?
My list of questions was long. I wanted to know: Who is the woman who steps out? And why does she do it? Are her motivations different from a man's? What separates the woman who actually cheats from those who merely think about it? How do women who stray experience their infidelity, and live with it? And why do we as a society feel the way we do about these women—riveted, triggered, convinced that they must be contained, corrected, and punished, that something must be done about them? Finally, I wondered, what larger lessons can the adulteress teach us—about female longing and lust, about our fixation on women we deem "deceptive," and about the past, present, and future of partnership and commitment?
I also wanted to know how things had changed for young women since I had been one. And how those changes were impacting the lives of women across a range of ages, socioeconomic groups, and identities. Even as I write these words, the ground is changing beneath our feet. #MeToo and the backlash against it dramatize, in real time, how much is at stake in narratives about female sexual autonomy. The media, at this writing, continues to frame #MeToo by reducing its human players into two neat categories: women as victims and accusers (they are) and men as either villains (some are) or potentially falsely accused victims themselves. But this simplistic framing leaves out what I understand to be perhaps the most important aspect of what women are saying with their #MeToo stories: men are not allowed to tell women anymore, in words or with deeds, that sex is for men alone to choose to have. Men like Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, and Charlie Rose curated ecologies where men were entitled to women who were decorative, as a way to disempower those women and empower themselves. Meanwhile, men who do not abide by or who trivialize affirmative consent assert a worldview in which female permission is extra or an obstacle to find a way around. In this mindset, female desire is mere icing on the cake of the real thing: what men want. The practices of these men effectively quash female sexual agency. #MeToo doesn't. It responds, "I am not an extension of your sexual desires." Now comes the next wave: women who say, "Sexually harassing me, sexually assaulting me, and not operating within the rules of affirmative consent are no longer options because I refuse to accept what you tell me when you do those things—that sex is not mine to want but yours. I have my own sexual desires and sexual agenda." As of this writing, saying so may feel at once too dangerous and too complicated—what would happen to women who challenge our facile and reductive media categories and the thinking that subtends them with this defiant assertion? Better, for now, to take cover behind the hulking, protective, and familiar notion that women don't want It; men do.
There has been much hand-wringing about #MeToo turning women into "victims" who need "fainting couches." And complaining that consent is unromantic and will be the death of flirtation. And that #MeToo is somehow robbing women of desire and agency. I see it doing precisely the opposite. Its logical horizon is that we start thinking about female-centered sex and sexuality, focusing on women's desire, women's pleasure and privilege. Perhaps in the coming months and years #MeToo and #TimesUp will open the cultural space for a new reality: female sexual entitlement. Could women come to see ourselves as just as inherently deserving of and equally driven to seek the thrill, exhilaration, and pleasure of sexual exploration as men? And if we did, what else might change? How might this new view of female sexuality—"naturally" autonomous, assertive, and adventurous—alter the larger Order of Things? What might it mean to close the "sexual entitlement gap"? In many ways, the adulteress has been waiting for us all to catch up with her. For better or for worse, women who cheat often do so because they feel a sense of bold entitlement—for connection, understanding, and, make no mistake about it, sex.
A shift—not toward all women cheating but toward women writing our own sexual destinies and being the protagonists of our own sexual stories—might eventually be abetted in part by social media and tech, everything from selfies to apps like female-friendly Bumble and Pure, which helps you find a sex partner within minutes of your location. (Pure's tagline is "Problems are for therapists, Pure is for fun" and its splash page suggests, "Pretend like you're strangers afterwards—no calls, no texts, no approaching in public." Sex tech expert Bryony Cole told me a surprising number of users are women.) "My whole life changed when I got an iPhone," one woman in her twenties told me. "And I didn't have to have a text blazing across the front of my phone. Or a comment on my Facebook that everybody could see, or a tweet my boyfriend could look at and say, 'Who's this guy liking your tweets?' I could use apps—Snapchat, DMs on IG or wherever else—to reconnect with people I hadn't seen in a long time, and to set up my hookups." These technologies are changing the sexual ecology women live in. For example, this young woman lives in a tight-knit Dominican community where neighborhood men "keep watch" over women; apps make that harder to do. They also demand that we revisit the question of what counts as cheating in the digital age. Sexts? Flirty texts? Intimate emails without physical contact? A bit further into the future, will there be sex robots for women as well as men? What will we want from them? Will using them make us cheaters?
Another new wrinkle: the polyamory movement, which has emerged only in the last decade or so and is in large part driven and led by women, according to experts. Polyamory—being involved with more than one person at once, and being honest about it—is an option that, like open marriage and swinging before it, allows women new freedoms. But might it also recapitulate old roles and stereotypes, and open them to the same forms of stigma, slut-shaming, and interpersonal violence that have long plagued women who "step out of line"? A woman with access to resources and power or celebrity, such as Tilda Swinton—who at one point reportedly occasionally lived with both her ex-partner and her current partner but denied that she was in a "dual relationship" or "ménage à trois"—may be able to get away with having an intimate relationship with two men at once. But what about regular women with average incomes? What about women of color, whose sexual lives, longings, and predilections have long been subjected to extraordinary scrutiny and social control? Will polyamory change their lives too?
And what does "female infidelity" even mean in a context where, increasingly, millennials may identify as post-binary—rejecting the neat distinction between antinomies that previously defined our lives and created meaning, including heterosexuality and homosexuality, male and female, true and untrue? I was surprised to hear the phrase "I'm non-binary" from so many of the people in their twenties and thirties I spoke with, and impressed by the conviction with which so many people now live it.
Finally, the book looks at "female sexual fluidity," a term coined by the psychologist Lisa Diamond to describe both a tendency among many women to feel and sometimes act on attractions outside their orientation, and a growing social acceptance of that reality. When Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat Pray Love, left her husband for her female best friend, she was breaking the mold while also fitting a profile of women loving in ways that are more flexible than the categories we currently use to describe them. How is female sexual fluidity impacting our marriages, partnerships, affairs, and friendships? Is a woman who discovers she'd rather be with a woman than with her husband "cheating"?
Conversation by conversation, article by article, expert by expert, I learned things that enriched the picture of what it is to be female and sexually autonomous, and chipped away at my suspicion that my friends, my interview participants, and I were somehow pathological or extreme in our sexual desires, fantasies, and, in some cases, practices. The things I learned also challenged my deep and unexplored presumption that there was one right or best way to be part of a couple or a relationship. The experts and participants I interviewed for this book, the literature I reviewed, the fieldwork I did, the anecdotes others shared with me, gave me a wholly new sense of how and why women refuse sexual exclusivity, or just long to; how they live with it; and what it means to be true.
Free Your Mind
I wasn't sure what to wear to an all-day workshop on consensual non-monogamy.
It was a typically disappointing early spring morning in Manhattan, rainy and colder than you'd hope. The program I was attending was designed for mental health professionals but open to curious writers and everyday citizens like me who paid the $190 fee.
Maybe I was overthinking things as I stood in front of my cramped closet, considering my options. But this keenly felt need not only to find something appropriate to wear but to be appropriate, and at the same time a little rebellious, reminded me of all the bargaining we do with ourselves about monogamy. I stared at blouses and trousers and dresses and thought of the big concessions we make and the little ones, and of the greatest trade-off of all, in which we surrender complete, dizzying sexual autonomy and self-determination for the security of the dyad. This conundrum—I must extinguish the part of me that lusts for a universe of Others in exchange for the ability to raise kids, get work done, and sleep through the night without obsessing about what exactly You, my One and Only Other, are up to while we're not together—is the beating, bleating heart of Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents and much else written on the topic of coupling for life. Relinquish your libido, or tame it, for stability. Somehow we presume this is a developmental imperative of sorts, the hallmark of maturity and health, and that it will be easier for women, that it comes "naturally" to them.
- "[An] eminently readable treatise on the lies society has been fed about female sexuality, agency, and infidelity. With each chapter, Martin builds a case for the primacy of female infidelity and for a societal reckoning with that truth. Step by step, she shows that she's thought deeply about her subject, and that all of these seemingly disparate intellectual threads are related and worthy of having been braided together. The sui generis quality of Untrue is the author's forte."
—Deb Copaken, The Atlantic
- On Sale
- Sep 18, 2018
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Little Brown Spark