The ‘Untrue’ Woman

A new book makes the case for the primacy of the female libido, and for a societal reckoning with that reality.

Little, Brown Spark

A week after devouring Untrue, Wednesday Martin’s eminently readable treatise on the lies society has been fed about female sexuality, agency, and infidelity, I saw an ad for Brooklinen sheets on the New York City subway. Three sets of socked feet were sticking out from beneath these sheets—two male, one female. “For throuples,” it began. I squealed. I was immediately reminded of the eighth chapter of Martin’s book, “Loving the Woman Who’s Untrue,” in which she interviews Carrie Jenkins, a professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and the author of a book on the empirical basis for arithmetical knowledge. Lately, as Martin explains, Jenkins “is as likely to be called a whore, a slut, ‘a walking sexually transmitted infection,’ ‘everything that is wrong with women,’ ‘a selfish cunt’ ... as she is to be addressed with the honorific ‘professor.’ ”

Why? Because she dared to write—matter-of-factly, philosophically—about her own polyamorous living arrangement: a husband of six years and a boyfriend of five.

“Simply going public with her day-to-day life was threatening to the order of things,” writes Martin. It’s a claim that can easily be made, too, of Untrue, a book that may very well set off nuclear bombs in bedrooms, boardrooms, and advertising agencies—specifically, those that for decades have peddled the norms of the male libido, ad nauseam, in magazines, on billboards, and via Super Bowl ads. To wit: When New York magazine’s The Cut wrote about Jenkins’s living arrangement, it used a stock photo of a man and two women. In an article about a woman with two men. Which brings me back to the Brooklinen ad and my subway squeal. Finally!, I thought, the first normalization of the female fantasy of multiple partners I’ve ever seen that wasn’t on a porn site.

The television show Three’s Company premiered in 1977, portraying, albeit subtextually, the now seemingly mundane male fantasy of having multiple female partners on prime-time TV. Yes, Jack had to pretend to be a gay man for the living arrangement to be palatable to his landlord, Mr. Roper, and presumably to TV executives and the audience of that era, and the jokes were adolescent in the extreme. But the underlying sexual tension—never overtly expressed—was that of a one-male/two-female threesome.

Forty-one years later, here’s Martin’s book and an ad for bed linens, asking their audiences to accept, as normal, one woman with multiple men. Of course, it’s not as if literature on the topic—of women being as randy as men, if not more so—hadn’t existed prior. The novelist Erica Jong coined the term zipless fuck in 1973; three years later, Shere Hite, in The Hite Report: A Nationwide Study of Female Sexuality, provided a well-researched window into what women want in bed. Yet it’s important to note that it took until 2016 for science to provide an accurate 3-D model of the clitoris. And slut is still a slur hurled at women as a means of diminishing what should be seen as normal—female desire—by insinuating it to be both abnormal and morally reprehensible. “Along with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” writes Martin, “the sexual double standard is one of our country’s foundational concepts.”

Describing Untrue is tricky, so I’ll let Martin’s introduction provide a window into her well-executed goal: “Untrue,” she writes, “is a book with a point of view—namely that whatever else we may think of them, women who reject monogamy are brave, and their experiences and possible motivations are instructive.” Part manifesto, part cultural anthropology, part literary criticism, part memoir, Untrue veers in a number of directions in pursuit of proving Martin’s thesis, but never abruptly or in an order that feels jarring.

Interviewing both experts in the field and ordinary women living outside the alleged norms of monogamy, Martin takes her readers on a winding path from divorce to adultery, from Darwin to fruit flies, from the sexism that came about after the invention of the plough to the sexual liberation of the Himba, a Namibian tribe in which, according to one sample cited by Martin, nearly 32 percent of mothers give birth to babies fathered through extramarital affairs. (In another sample, it was 17 percent, still above the norm of 1 to 10 percent in the U.S. and the industrialized West.) Martin watches bonobos mating willy-nilly in a zoo with the same interest and critical distance she employs watching cisgender women take a break from married life (with men) to have scantily clad sex with one another in a penthouse, although the latter, unlike the bonobos, keep urging her to join in. She also references the writer Deesha Philyaw’s short story “Eula,” which follows two heterosexual schoolteachers, best friends for life, as they meet, over the course of a decade, to enjoy what Martin refers to as “once-a-year, caution-to-the-wind drunk sex that they afterward pretend never happened”: in other words, female sexuality—with all of its messiness, omnivorousness, and differences—as it actually exists rather than as society says it should.

With each chapter, Martin builds a case for the primacy of female infidelity and for a societal reckoning with that truth. Step by step, she shows that she’s thought deeply about her subject, and that all of these seemingly disparate intellectual threads are related and worthy of having been braided together. Despite all-too-common portrayals as “the passive, comparatively disinterested sex,” she writes, women carry with them “a tale of passionate, voluptuous pleasures and sometimes of tremendous risk-taking in the pursuit of sexual satisfaction.”

The sui generis quality of Untrue is the author’s forte. Martin’s blockbuster best seller, Primates of Park Avenue, upset both denizens of the Upper East Side, for what they felt was unfair skewering, as well as some book critics and readers, for blurring the lines between memoir, anthropological study, and fiction. Yet one gets the feeling, reading Primates today, that Martin’s chief aim with the book was to incite, to ignite, and to make readers think outside narrow boxes of categorization.

Untrue feels similar in its aims, but with more academic focus and less memoir. The latter is unfortunate, particularly in a book that so forthrightly limns the sex lives of her subjects. And yet, Martin’s omission of her own sexual history is deliberate. “My own path,” she writes, “is not relevant to other women’s situations, and I haven’t shared it on the chance that my choices might somehow be misconstrued as a recommendation or imply some ‘best choice.’” The omission is also understandable within the context of Untrue, which frequently describes the double standards with which society views a woman who is honest about her own lusts and desires. Having been publicly shamed and labeled a slut myself when I published my first memoir, I get it. If anything, what Martin doesn’t tell us about herself might ironically prove the need for her book to help combat norms that have kept women from telling the truth about who they are, not just as wives, mothers, daughters, and sisters, but also as sexual beings with avid libidos.

And lest you think it’s only men, society, and Madison Avenue policing women’s sexuality, Martin reminds readers that women can sometimes be their own worst enemies. As she writes, “In addition to all the threats and roadblocks women … are up against when they decide monogamy is not for them and choose to be open about it, or when they decide to be non-monogamous without disclosing it … they mirror and intensify society’s contempt for the woman who is untrue, doubling it back onto themselves. Subjected to slut-shaming, many women join in and pile on themselves.”

The acknowledgment of such self-policing, along with the uncovering of untruths women have been force-fed their entire lives about their own tendencies toward being sexually untrue—that women are prone to fidelity, that the woman who steps out is both tramp and anomaly—lends these pages, under the banner of a deliberate double-entendre title, a seething undercurrent of revolutionary fervor akin to what many may have felt marching in the streets wearing pussy hats the day after Trump’s inauguration. No wonder one hears the echo of Yeats in the book’s final lines: “Women are just as likely to step out as men are. Our dearest held binary cannot hold.”

No, it cannot hold. “There can be no autonomy,” Martin writes, “without the autonomy to choose, without coercion or constraint, or in spite of it, who our lovers will be.” That women’s long slouch toward a sexually liberated Bethlehem, started by pioneers such as Jong and Hite, has arrived at a simple, achievable hope for its future feels both miraculous and overdue. The psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing once warned that such a world, in which women are truly sexually liberated, would transform into a brothel, making marriage and family impossible. Martin upends this apocalyptic vision, revealing a world that looks less like Sodom and Gomorrah and more like, well, that Brooklinen ad: a woman in bed with two men, having a lovely morning.