#ReadWomen: Untrue by Wednesday Martin

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.

 

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

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.

 

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.

 

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