According to truisms found in dusty tomes like the Old Testament and The Rules, women want stability, security, and emotional closeness with one special partner. Men, on the other hand, are hard-wired to spread their seed around.
Of course, we all know gender differences are a bit more complicated. A new book by cultural critic Wednesday Martin, Ph.D., presents the science to back that up. Untrue: Why Nearly Everything We Believe About Women, Lust, and Infidelity Is Wrong and How The New Science Can Set Us Free is a wide-ranging look at everything from primatology to pop culture and how these factors shape what we think of as (predominantly hetero) female sexuality. In 2008, four-fifths of Americans in a nationwide social survey said infidelity is “always wrong.” But as Martin points out, that same data finds that as many as 37.5 percent of us cheat anyway—and that number is likely higher because we’re too embarrassed to own up to stepping out.
“I’m trying to write a valentine,” Martin said to BUST, “to the work of women who dared to mess with our master narrative about who women really are and what women desire.” Here, she gets down to nitty gritty about how cultural expectations have had a stranglehold on female desire.
Untrue ties together decades of anthropological research illustrating how women are promiscuous all over the world. Why do you believe infidelity is so central to women’s sexual freedom?
Female infidelity is a cultural universal. It happens even in places where women die from it. What we find over and over when we look at the worldwide ethnographic data is that wherever ecological circumstances are right, and where they can, women will have multiple sexual partners. But if you’re dependent on someone financially, infidelity is a very high-risk strategy. Basically, if you want to disempower a woman and undermine her autonomy in every way—including our sexual autonomy—just take her away from her kin, isolate her with one man, and take away her ability to support herself. That’s it. You have completely disempowered women relative to men.
Infidelity often leads to divorce. Does that curtail women’s sexual behavior?
Women fare much worse than men in divorce. So fear of divorce can put women off from being sexually autonomous. Divorce really functions as a way to coerce women into monogamy because the price is so high.
Much of the research you cite highlights recent studies finally acknowledging that women—and female primates—enjoy sex, oftentimes with lots of partners.
No matter what you try to do to extinguish it, female infidelity keeps happening. Because, guess what? Women like sex as much as men do. It’s not like women evolved saying, “I want to have sex because I want to have a baby,” which is what science told us for so long. No! We have a massive internal clitoris, and we evolved to want sex because it feels good.
Untrue argues that women are leading the charge for opening up their sexual relationships—sometimes for novelty, sometimes to have their needs met.
The more traditional gender script [is] “men are randy and they want to step out” and “women are more hardwired for monogamy”—that’s simply inaccurate. Women are allowed to be, and tend to be, more sexually fluid than men. And promiscuity was a smart adaptive behavior for us for millennia. Polyamory isn’t a deviation from traditional values. It’s consistent with the evolutionary script of our sexuality. There is growing consensus now among anthropologists that we evolved as cooperative breeders, and that our breeding system was to have multiple sexual partners and to raise our offspring cooperatively. So, to all those who say that polyamory is unnatural or a deviation from tradition, it’s actually very traditional!
Young women in their 20s and 30s right now are continuing the conversation second-wave feminism started about sexual autonomy. We’re getting back to a point where women feel entitled to decide whether they want monogamy, rather than feeling like they have to be the anxious guardians of monogamy in their marriage.
Will addressing myths about women’s sexuality change marriage?
Marriage was originally an economic alliance. Then in the 1920s and 1930s, popular discourse emphasized that the couple should provide everybody with everything. We front-loaded marriage with the expectation that it would be everything. Now people are saying, “This is too much pressure.” As a result, the institution of marriage is just going to keep changing.
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