Wednesday Martin continues to break the conventions of bland, milquetoast social science with 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. The book’s peep hole jacket and bright neon cover announce the boldness of Martin’s eagerly awaited follow-up to her #1 New York Times bestseller, Primates of Park Avenue (Simon & Schuster, 2015) (now in development as a TV series). She delivers on the anticipation by offering a sharp, fascinating peek at why antiquated concepts of monogamy are so mismatched with the biochemical bases of women’s sexuality. “If monogamy is so hard and we’re so bad at it, why do we keep doing it?” Martin asks.
Armed with a Yale Ph.D. and a witty narrative voice, Martin does what I wish more social scientists did. She takes on the risk of research that seems risqué (she received hate email calling her a “decadent, pathetic woman”), but that matters deeply to everyday people and not just tweedy tenure committees. Martin deploys research findings from the social sciences, evolutionary biology, and primatology to illustrate how the choice of consensual non-monogamy can be a liberating way to build successful intimate relationships.
A big part of a sociologist’s job is to denaturalize the social world: to show that our norms, values, and customs are not “the way things are supposed to be.” They are social constructions that have changed throughout history. When it comes to sexual norms, Martin points to broad changes “in which female independence and self-determination—economic, personal, sexual—was transformed into subservience, permission seeking, and dependence,” largely via the rise of plough agriculture. Via chapter sections titled “Ho Politics” and “Promiscuity, Thy Name Is Woman”, Untrue launches a loud, passionate assault on stale Darwinian notions of women’s restrained sexual desire. Martin is not a detached voyeur, however. The reader will also hear about the personal reasons that pushed her, a married mother of two, to ask these questions about sex and fidelity.
Untrue combines Martin’s own field work and conversations with experts like sexologist Meredith Chivers, who points out that one day non-monogamy could become normalized just as kinks like spanking and handcuffs entered mainstream sex practices. Indeed, I’m often surprised by the number of students and friends who casually report being in open or polyamorous relationships today. Perhaps the great irony of Untrue is that a book considered “decadent” now will be conventional and easily accepted in a few decades.
In Untrue you’ll read about female sexual fluidity, polyamory advocates, cuckolds and hotwives, the biblical Jezebel, and the semi nomadic Himba of Namibia—a tribe that is open about accepting infidelity, or what Martin describes as “extra-pair involvements”. You will learn about bonobos—primates with whom, Martin writes, humans share nearly 99 percent of our DNA. She observed them at the San Diego Zoo: “Basically, they seem to have sex constantly throughout the day, with just about anybody,” in various positions and including same-sex encounters. As a nightlife writer, I especially enjoyed Martin’s section about the Skirt Club sex party for women. The Los Angeles iteration that Martin visited was equipped with a cage, a suspension machine, and plenty of both candles and naked women in their 20s freely enjoying intimacy with each other.
To be clear, this is no breezy book of agonizing sob stories or soft science. Untrue is a tightly written defense of women’s autonomy grounded in research findings. Its message is as serious as it is timely. Martin links her historical excavations and field work to our ongoing reckoning with entrenched patriarchy: “[Hillary Clinton] and all of us learned a lesson about incurring the wrath of the greater male coalition, including that masculine privilege is often mercilessly enforced by other women in settings where it is a better strategy to align oneself with those who have so long been victors. Fifty-two or -three percent of white female voters saw it thus in 2016.”
During today’s much needed #MeToo and #TimesUp moment, plenty of people on social media enjoy being performatively “woke”, eager to show how “with it” they are. But we need meaningful learning and understanding to back up the online posturing. Untrue‘s wealth of insights helps us do that. As a single gay man with zero interest in marriage or children as I approach 40, Untrue‘s intended audience is definitely not me and that’s just fine. The long road to true sexual freedom for everyone means that we all need to risk asking tough questions and accepting even tougher answers.