It’s a widely held belief that monogamy comes more naturally to women than it does to men. A lot of people subscribe to a narrative that says the sexes are just “wired” differently, with women having evolved to be monogamous and men to be promiscuous.
There’s just one problem with this line of thinking—it’s not true, according to author Wednesday Martin’s latest book. In UNTRUE: Why Nearly Everything We Believe About Women, Lust, and Infidelity is Wrong and How the New Science Can Set Us Free , Martin offers a provocative read based on the latest research studies and interviews with experts in human sexuality that challenges us to think differently about women and sex. She sets the record straight on a number of false beliefs about female sexuality in particular, including when and why women cheat.
I recently spoke to Martin about what inspired her to write this book and the most surprising things she learned along the way.
UNTRUE is largely about female infidelity. Why did you decide to write a book on this subject?
I've described myself as a disaster at monogamy in my 20s. Once I was married—very happily, I will add—I found myself wondering: Is monogamy going to suit me and my husband forever? How do other couples handle this? What's the evolutionary prehistory of pair-bonding—and specifically of female sexuality—and what can it tell me about my conundrums now? So there was a personal aspect to this. Also, in my work, I have always been drawn to women our culture loves to hate. "The adulteress" is one of them, no question.
How common is infidelity among women in the United States? And how does it compare to the rate of infidelity among men?
The rates range a great deal, depending on how the question is posed and how comfortable the woman feels disclosing. We know that because there is still asymmetrical stigma about female infidelity—that is, there's still a double standard in which we think it's more "natural" for men to cheat—women are likely to underreport infidelity and to report preferences and behaviors that conform to social expectations. Some sources suggest that 13 percent of women have stepped out on a spouse. On the higher side, there are reported rates of 50 percent of women admitting they have had intercourse with someone other than their spouse while married. I was surprised to learn that, among people in their 20s, married women outpace married men when it comes to infidelity. Also, in several US studies, male and female rates of infidelity are much closer than we’d imagine.
In your book, you suggest that a lot of our beliefs about why women cheat are just plain wrong. One of them is the idea that, while men cheat for sex, women cheat for emotional connection. What’s the real story here?
In the US, we've embraced the notion that women step out because they want "emotional intimacy." But research by numerous experts including Alicia Walker suggests that many women are cheating for the same reason men are—they want great sex. The women I observed and spoke with at sex parties were certainly not seeking emotional connection. They told me, "I'm here for no-strings attached sex." We need to account for this reality in our thinking about female sexuality, and keep learning more about it.
Meanwhile, self-reporting about motivation is tricky, experts explained to me. Women who are told that women cheat for emotional connection will tend to report that they are seeking emotional connection in their extra-pair involvements. Similarly, men who are told that men cheat for sexual excitement will report they are seeking excitement. Peel back that language and what you are likely to see, as infidelity experts like Tammy Nelson tell us, is that male and female motivations are more similar than we've previously acknowledged.
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What are some other widely held beliefs about female infidelity that aren't true?
There's this sense that women won't "stray" if they are happily partnered. But more than a third of women who were stepping out in one study described their marriages as "happy" or "very happy." We think women are naturally more cozy and domestic and need that to thrive sexually. But Cynthia Graham and her colleagues found that twice as many women reported lack of interest in sex in a relationship after a year as men did. Rather than assuming this is because "women just like sex less," many experts are now considering that women need variety, novelty, and sexual adventure every bit as much as men do, and possibly more. And when they don’t get it, they shut down sexually.
Psychologist Marta Meana summarized it very succinctly when she told me, "Long-term relationships are particularly hard on female desire." We're so sure that it's men who are "wired to roam" and get bored with monogamy faster than women do. But women are the ones who struggle especially with the institutionalization of roles and domesticity dampening their desire, as experts including Esther Perel and Meana have found.
Some social scientists have argued that monogamy is more “natural” for women, or that monogamy is easier for women than it is for men. What’s your response to this?
We're not naturally any way when it comes to sex. And there's not one type of sex we evolved to prefer. We evolved as highly flexible sexual and social strategists. It's one of the reasons Homo sapiens are still around.
When Darwin observed that females of many species were naturally coy and choosy and reticent, sexually speaking, and males were naturally competitive and randy, he set us on a course by distorting the lens through which we view behavior. What we know today thanks to mostly female primatologists, anthropologists, and sex researchers is that when the context is right, female sexuality is assertive, adventurous, and what we call "promiscuous."
The great anthropologist and comparativist Sarah Hrdy tells us that, across species, including among humans, the best mother for many eons was the one who was, under particular and far-from-rare ecological circumstances, promiscuous. By being so, she could hedge against male infertility, up her odds of a healthy pregnancy and robust offspring, and create a wider network of support by lining up two or three males who figured the offspring might be theirs.
In contemporary partible paternity cultures like the Bari in South America, people believe that a baby is created by the sperm of several men, and women who are monogamous may be considered stingy and bad mothers. And among the Himba of Namibia, Brooke Scelza tells us that female infidelity benefits women and their offspring. Ditto for the Pimbwe of Tanzania. When we look at female sexual behavior cross-culturally and among non-human primates, we have to question a lot of our comfortable and comforting assumptions about who and how women are.
In the course of writing and researching this book, was there anything that really stood out to you or surprised you?
Hotwifing blew my mind. I learned about it when somebody DMed me asking if I was a hotwife. I got in touch with experts David Ley and Mireille Miller-Young, both of whom have written extensively about this subculture and the subculture of swinging. Men who call themselves cucks celebrate and even engineer their wives' infidelity with "bulls" (the men these women, known as “hotwives,” have sex with, often in front of their husbands). Miller-Young writes about the racialized aspects of hotwifing and the cuckold lifestyle. Ley writes about how these "cucks" are bucking the traditional script that men have to control their wives, sexually and otherwise. It was a real education and is one of my favorite parts of UNTRUE.
Despite the fact that there’s a lot of data out there that challenges conventional “wisdom" about women and sex, we see people continue to get things wrong over and over. Why does this keep happening? What can we do about it?
Our preconceptions distort the way we see things, and limit what we are able to see. There's a shift in social science now toward understanding that our sexuality happens at the confluence of biology and context. Once we've really internalized that female sexuality happens at the intersection of clitoris and culture, we'll be more able to account for all the variety in its expression, rather than presuming female sexuality is "naturally" any one way or another. I think that's going to free a lot of women, men, and people who identify as neither from living out a script that's untrue.
Justin Lehmiller is a research fellow at The Kinsey Institute and author of the blog Sex and Psychology. His latest book is Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller.
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