UPDATE: After reading another of Wednesday Martin’s books on a topic with which I have more baseline familiarity, I’m inclined to believe the harsh criticism of Untrue levied by other reviewers whose science chops are far more extensive than mine (I stopped with AP Biology). As my original review indicates, Martin acknowledges that she cherry-picks certain studies that support her personal view. I found that style forgivable when I didn’t realize that her selectiveness skirts the boundaries of deceipt, and that Martin’s statements on social media extend the claims of the book beyond what even its text supports. One commenter told me “some basic points like women’s desires from self attraction to ‘foreplay’ are necessary but also made in countless other books; everything that makes this book unique is deeply flawed and misleading.” While that is seeming more and more likely to be true, I’m leaving my review up for the same reason I’d read the book again knowing what I now know: Many of the “basic” points mentioned below are only basic to some; others will still benefit from having them collected. That said, I highly recommend readers of the book also read the considerable body of negative commentary that accompanied its release.
Wednesday Martin, of Primates of Park Avenue fame, writes: “Relinquish your libido, or tame it, for stability. Somehow we presume this is a developmental imperative of sorts, the hallmark of maturity and health, and that it will be easier for women, that it comes ‘naturally’ to them.” This “deeply ingrained social script about female sexual reticence” among Americans is one of the reasons that when women cheat there’s an “asymmetrical, searing stigma.” But female infidelity is “far from uncommon,” Martin demonstrates, and it provides a useful lens through which to examine all of female sexuality.
What she concludes is that much of what we presume to be biological truth is instead the result of factors like cultural context, social control, and even ecology. Martin harnesses significant research to argue that “when it comes to our sexual selves, women have been sold a bill of goods. In matters of sex, women are not the tamer, more demure, or reticent sex. We are not the sex that longs for or is more easily resigned to partnership, to sameness, to familiarity.”
Though Untrue can get repetitive, with Martin often devising several lovely ways to phrase the same thought, she strikes a good balance overall, producing something that’s plenty readable while still packed with research. And, perhaps thanks to the Primates controversy, she does a good job issuing the necessary caveat: “This book is not an exhaustive review of the literature …. I am only your guide to my view—informed by the social science and science to which I was drawn.”
With that in mind, she points to one eye-opening fact after another. Take “responsive desire,” for example. The term “describes a tendency to feel sexually excited after erotic stimulation, versus in anticipation of it (that’s called ‘spontaneous desire,’ based on an experience that sexual desire is an appetite like hunger that just comes upon us),” and it’s apparently more common among women. It means “what [many] women want and need during sex [is] to see themselves as sexy and desired,” and Martin reasons that “crude initiations” (i.e., “a husband or partner who doesn’t bother trying to be seductive”) plus exhaustion “from mothering and ‘wife-ing’” have led to women essentially going on strike from the type of sex on offer to them. “They’re saying, ‘I’m not doing this.’ Not because they don’t like sex, or because they don’t love or care for their partners, but because the same old sex with the same old person isn’t working for them.” In other words, the “I’m too tired, honey” phenomenon is actually the reverse of how it’s portrayed in sitcoms: women want sex, good sex, and they won’t accept anything less.
That’s just one thread among many Martin pulls: the impact of plough agriculture; what being raised to sit with one’s legs crossed means; a trend of purchasing medically retrofitted virginity; the sexual practices of Himba women; Skirt Club; the need to rethink the Darwinian paradigm of the demure, chaste female and sexually assertive, prolific male; fruit flies and bonobos monkeys; OMGYes; the “cuckold lifestyle” or “hotwifing” and “clean-up” and “silky seconds”; race and porn.
The following passages provide a feel for her style:
Couples therapy itself was not really even a “thing” until recently (there were only three thousand family and marital therapists in the US in 1970, whereas by May 2017, the official figure was nearly forty-three thousand).
In her book The Technology of Orgasm, Dr. Rachel Maines tells us that from the 1850s to the early twentieth century, women with various nervous disorders and complaints visited doctors who palpated and massaged them below the waist in order to cure their “nervous conditions” with a “release of nervous energy”—an orgasm. After this physician-administered “hysterical paroxysm,” which doctors considered “a medical duty like breaking a fever,” in Maines’s words, many women found themselves temporarily cured of exhaustion, melancholy, and nervousness. The process could take up to an hour, however, and left doctors longing for a quicker, less labor-intensive way to do it for their female patients. The vibrator was born.
Yet even just the part of the clit we can see, the glans—think of it as the tip of the iceberg, or perhaps better, the mouth of a simmering volcano—has more than eight thousand nerve endings, meaning it has fourteen times the density of nerve receptor cells as the most sensitive part of a man’s penis, also called the glans…. The entirety of what is now known as the “female erectile network” (FEN) or “internal clitoris” snakes back nearly to our anus on either side; extends along our labia, which swell with pleasure; and includes our urethral sponge (previously called the G-spot) and something called the perineal sponge too.
Other women are “untrue” because they have to be, are expected to be, or because it is practical. In many partible paternity cultures of South America, a monogamous woman may be considered both stingy and a bad mother. Closer to home, the anthropologist Arline Geronimus has demonstrated in her work and her article “What Teen Mothers Know” that in areas of the US where sex ratios are skewed against women—that is, where there are notably fewer men than women—delaying childbearing and monogamy are reproductive and social strategies women can ill afford. In neighborhoods where there are high rates of incarceration, for example, women and children may benefit from serial relationships and depending on extended family and other kin support to raise their children. Contrary to what social conservatives assert, this has less to do with morality and more to do with material circumstances and the kind of maternal strategizing and trade-offs in a sometimes hostile environment—in this instance, one ravaged by institutionalized racism—that helped Homo sapiens thrive.
“This book only scratches the surface of the history and evolutionary prehistory of female infidelity and female sexual autonomy, which are complex, surprising, and in many instances an upending of everything we have been taught about men and women,” Martin concludes, and after reading the information she gathered, I can’t argue with her.