For centuries, men have asked themselves: What do women want? While you’d think we should have come up with an answer to this question by 2018, we clearly haven’t, if the immense volume of Google searches for “how to give woman orgasm” or “where is the clitoris” is any indication.
But author Wednesday Martin believes that this isn’t men’s fault. The problem is that everything guys have been taught about male and female sexuality has been wrong from the very beginning.
In her new book Untrue: Why Nearly Everything We Believe About Women, Lust, and Infidelity Is Wrong and How the New Science Can Set Us Free, Martin deconstructs the basic building blocks of everything we have ever learned about sex and gender, from the idea that men have higher sex drives than women to the belief that men are more likely to cheat.
“We have inherited this cultural script,” Martin told MensHealth.com. “We have been taught that men are more naturally sexual, that they have stronger libidos, that monogamy is harder for men, and men crave novelty and variety of sexual experience more than women do. We have been taught that this is ‘science.’ And what I learned when I talked to experts is that this very pat narrative began to fall apart.”
A sociologist by training, Martin has built a career on writing “about people we love to hate, about things that make people very upset,” she says. In 2015, she published Primates of Park Avenue, which was marketed as a anthropological account of the lives of Upper East Side housewives; although Martin was later accused of shoddy research and fabrication, the book was a bestseller.
Untrue aims to make a similarly big splash by upending all of our expectations about sex, gender, and monogamy. Here’s what Martin learned from her research — and how you can apply her findings to your own relationship.
Female infidelity may be on the rise.
Historically, researchers have believed that men are more likely to cheat than women. But this assumption is largely based on an old (and methodologically flawed) study by geneticist A.J. Bateman that assessed the mating patterns of male vs. female fruit flies, Martin says.
Emerging research is challenging that belief. A Jan. 2018 study found that more women between the ages of 18 and 29 said they had cheated on a partner than men in that same age bracket, and 2013 data from the National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey found that married women were 40% more likely to cheat in 2010 than they were in 1990. In fact, Martin says that if researchers control for factors like number of lifetime sexual partners, “there’s no really big statistically significant infidelity gap until men and women hit their 50s.”
Women may have evolved to be promiscuous.
Generally speaking, monogamy is a relatively new historical construct, Martin argues. “There’s now a pretty broad consensus that we evolved as cooperative breeders, and in our evolutionary history, we did not live in monogamous [pairings],” Martin says. “We lived in loose, rangy bands of people and we had multiple sex partners. We bred cooperatively and raised our offspring cooperatively. And there’s growing consensus among anthropologists that’s why homo sapiens thrived. Monogamy is new. We are equipped for polyamory.”
But Martin doesn’t just argue that humans aren’t equipped for monogamy — she goes so far as to argue that women specifically evolved to be promiscuous, citing the research of primatologists like Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, who studied the mating habits of female langur monkeys in India.
LITTLE, BROWN AND COMPANY
“It might be evolutionarily beneficial for women to be promiscuous because we get more variety of sperm, we’re hedging against male infertility, it might be a great strategy to get more men to think the offspring is theirs. We might have all those appetites for all those evolved reasons,” Martin says.
Long-term relationships might be tougher for women than they are for men.
In her book, Martin cites the work of researcher Marta Meana, who studies low sexual desire in long-term relationships. Contrary to the belief that men get bored easily, Meana found that “in the aggregate, men will be pretty happy in a long-term relationship if they are having sex regularly with their partner, whereas women, in the aggregate, are more likely to report sexual dissatisfaction and relationship dissatisfaction, even if they are having sex with their long-term partners,” Martin says.
While many would speculate that this is due to women inherently having lower desire than men, Meana found after talking to her female subjects that this was not the case. “It’s not that women don’t want to have sex. It’s that they get bored more quickly from sex with a long-term partner,” Martin explains. “So monogamy is likely a tighter fit for women than it is for men.”
Many women are turned on by other women…
“Women may have a wider sexual menu than men do, in terms of sexual fluidity and who they’re attracted to,” says Martin. According to a study by researcher Meredith Chivers, which analyzed men’s vs. women’s sexual response patterns, heterosexual men’s bodies responded to porn that aligned with their sexual orientation, such as images of women with women or men with women. Women who identified as heterosexual, however, responded not only to heterosexual porn, but also to images of women and women having sex, images of men and men having sex, and even images of bonobos having sex.
Martin speculates that women’s desire for variety and novelty may bolster the findings of Meana’s research and help explain “why some women have trouble with hetero relationships.”
…and they’re also turned on by themselves.
“Marta Meana did a fun study where she asked men and women if they would have sex with themselves. The men said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ and the women said, ‘Hell yes,'” Martin says. “So that might be interesting for men to know: women are turned on by their own bodies during sex, and our sexual satisfaction is linked to our perception of ourselves even more than men’s. Women aren’t just looking for an emotional connection or intimacy. They’re also turned on by their own hot body parts, or actually watching themselves have sex.”
Martin’s suggestion for couples looking to add some novelty into their sex lives? “Literalize the data,” she says. “Ask your partner if she’d like a mirror. Lingerie can also be really great. It helps women see themselves as sexy and having the power to turn men on, and that turns them on, too.”
Women get erections.
“Most people think that clitoris is just that little button that you can see with your eyes,” says Martin. “But we see from imaging that the clitoris is hundreds of times longer. There’s erectile tissue around your urethra, and you have a sponge near your anus called your perineal sponge. All that stuff extending beyond your labia — all erectile tissue, all exciting. People, especially men, don’t have this information. But women have this expensive organ designed for sexual pleasure.”
And they get morning wood, too.
“Women wake up with a hard-on every morning,” Martin says. (For the record, it’s called nocturnal clitoral tumescence, and yes, it’s a thing.) “Most male partners don’t know that their female partners wake up with an erection, or have every bit of erectile tissue as they do, but we have this narrative that men wake up with hard-ons and require release, and we need to have a parallel one.”
All couples should talk to each other about how they define monogamy.
Untrue was inspired in part by Martin’s own struggles with monogamy within her marriage. “Like a lot of women in long-term satisfying relationships, I nevertheless found myself curious about what it would be like to have sex with other people,” Martin says. “I thought that must mean there was something wrong with my marriage, even though I was very happy. So that was the spark that lit the fire.”
Martin won’t reveal whether she and her husband ultimately chose to open up their marriage. Nonetheless, she says, “the book started a conversation I had been hesitant to have about sexual exclusivity and monogamy. It really changed my willingness to think through everything that I had assumed was the best way to be in a marriage.”
While Martin interviews couples who are polyamorous or have opened up their relationships to a third party, she says couples don’t necessarily have to do that if they want to keep their relationship exciting.
“Read something sexy together, or watch porn together, or talk about what you might do in a third,” she urges. Data also shows that “if couples do a new activity together — if they learn to scuba dive, for instance — they get a rush of chemicals, or a puppy love hormonal rush, and come to see each other anew.”
By EJ Dickson