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
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.
And yet. 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
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
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.
About the book:
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, 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 will change the way you think about women and sex forever.
About the author:
Wednesday Martin is the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Primates of Park Avenue, which has been optioned as a feature film by MGM, and Stepmonster. She has appeared on the Today Show, Good Morning America, Nightline, Dr. Oz, CNN, NPR, NBC News, BBC Newshour, and Fox News.