'Nearly everything we believe about women and lust and infidelity is untrue'

Suzanne Harrington speaks to Wednesday Martin about her new book ‘Untrue’, which looks at women’s sexual drive and explains that our bedroom beliefs may not be true.

'Nearly everything we believe about women and lust and infidelity is untrue'

Suzanne Harrington speaks to Wednesday Martin about her new book ‘Untrue’, which looks at women’s sexual drive and explains that our bedroom beliefs may not be true.

WOMEN are monogamous, men are not. This is our heterosexual script, dating back 10,000 years, which tells us that when it comes to relationships, we are either swans or rabbits. Women are swans, mating for life, showing less interest in sex as time passes (“not tonight dear”). Men are rabbits, always keen to have as much sex as possible with as many partners as possible. This is because men like sex more than woman. Women bond with one man, and that’s it.

Nonsense, says Dr Wednesday Martin. Absolute piffle. Martin, a journalist with a Yale PhD in cultural anthropology, has just published Untrue, which delves into women’s sexual drivers and strategies and tells us “why nearly everything we believe about women and lust and infidelity is untrue”.

Bed death in long-term monogamous relationships? It’s not because women have lower libido — it’s because we have lower boredom thresholds. We crave novelty, variety, and adventure, but have been conditioned over millennia to believe the opposite, and to behave accordingly.

Since biblical times, female infidelity has been far more heavily sanctioned than male infidelity — but according to Martin, monogamy is not a natural state for everyone, and is especially hard on women. While men are content to have sex long term with the same person, she says it is women whose desire drops off from over familiarisation — the opposite of our cultural narrative.

Today, it is women who are at the forefront of the polyamory movement, the driving force behind intimate relationships involving more than one partner, where cheating and deception is replaced by openness and consent. Statistically, women are equally as likely as men to have secret affairs, but, among millennials particularly, there is a growing trend to explore beyond the traditional dyadic bond. Internet searches for “polyamory” have gone through the roof, as searches for “swingers” drop off.

“Plenty of poly people concede the couple works for others,” says Martin. “But as a compulsory reality, they say… it is predicated and promulgates limited, limiting old think; that women are the property of men, that we ‘evolved’ to be pair bonded; that refusing sexual exclusivity is sinful or bad for society.”

From Marlene Dietrich to Tilda Swinton, women have shown how it is possible to love more than one man at a time, without resorting to old strategies of deception the monogamy narrative has required of both men and women.

This feeds into why women — monogamous or otherwise — are the main instigators in ending relationships, that we are more willing to walk away than men. Yet while the idea persists that it is women who crave marriage and monogamy, it is men who fare best within long-term monogamous relationships. Men do not, says Martin, require as much sexual variety as women. Women have long been conditioned to suppress sexuality or face social sanctions — yet our true selves tend to be as horny as the next man. “In matters of female desire, sexuality, and monogamy, in particular, ‘unusual’ is normal and ‘normal’ desperately needs to be redefined,” says Martin.

Married women were 40% more likely to seek extra-relational sex in 2010 than in 1990. Men and women are neck and neck in seeking sex outside their primary relationships — YouGov research shows how 19% of women and 20% of men in long-term relationships have had affairs. Martin says we remain resistant to both statistics and science which confirm that for many women, monogamy equals monotony; that from an evolutionary perspective, Homo sapiens have favoured polygamy over monogamy as it increases offspring survival rates. It really does take a village to raise a child.

This is not our cultural script. Traditionally, women who seek sex outside of their primary relationships can expect everything from slut-shaming to stoning. Since we moved from the more sexually egalitarian hunter-gatherer era — basically since the invention of the plough — human society evolved from co-operative breeding to monogamous pair bonding. In more recent times, we have been led to believe that women crave emotional intimacy rather than sexual adventure and variety. We want nothing more than to gaze into a man’s eyes.

Martin, in challenging these assumptions, shares the research of anthropologists, primatologists, psychologists, sexologists, having interviewed 30-plus experts for Untrue.

SHE walks us through the female sex lives of our nearest non-human relative, the bonobo; she tells us how the Himba women of Namibia successfully manage multiple relationships; she attends a women-only Skirt Party, where women in straight monogamous relationships go for some women-only sexual activity.

She presents compelling food for thought on the very structures upon which our sexual identities are built, and the resistance from science itself that women, at their sexual core, may be more about rollicking adventure than romance and scented candles (although both can work, right?)

“One of my fave recent titbits from a recent Victoria Milan [a contacts site similar to the defunct Ashley Madison] survey was that of the countries surveyed, Irish women are quickest to have a parallel relationship or extra-pair sex after marriage, after 3.6 years of being married,” Martin tells me.

“I think these women are using online strategies to get what they want and need sexually — it’s a myth that women only have extra-pair sexual relationships for ‘emotional intimacy’ or only when something is wrong with the marriage; like men, plenty of women look outside marriage or long-term partnership for sexual variety, sexual novelty, and sexual adventure.

“Anthropologists call this a ‘dual mating strategy’ — in this case, one mate provides companionship/partnership, the other sexual excitement. As a third of married women who seek variety, novelty, and adventure outside their marriages report their marriages are either ‘happy’ or ‘very happy’, we have a lot of myth busting to do.”

Which brings us to bed death. “In the US, sex researcher Kristen Mark has done some studies on boredom in relationships. In one of her Good in Bed surveys of just over 1,400 men and 1,900 women, half of them married, twice as many women as men reported being bored in the first three years of the relationship. And 30% of women versus 21% of men said the boredom affected their sexual desire for their partner.

“[Clinical psychologist] Marta Meana similarly found that women are uniquely stifled sexually by the over-familiarisation with a partner and the institutionalisation of roles that happens in marriage or long-term partnership.

“Wouldn’t it be nice if we got to the point where we could accept that women need variety, adventure, and novelty at least as much if not more than men do? Bad science got us to this point of believing that randiness and thirst for sexual adventure is uniquely, naturally male.

“In fact among non-human female primates, the single most observable behavioural characteristic across species, according to anthropologist Meredith Small, is a craving for sexually novel males.”

One group of men who take pleasure from their partners’ pleasure are those into the “cuckhold lifestyle”, or “hotwifing” (like hot-desking but presumably more fun).

“Men who support their partners’ relationships with others find it as exciting as their wives. While such an idea may fill many couples with trepidation, perhaps we need to revisit the old narratives around men, women, sex, and what being true really means in the 21st century.”

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