Bed­room force Putting women’s sex lives first. Plus, Séa­mas O’Reilly

The Observer Magazine - - News - Words JOANNA MOOR­HEAD

What do you know about fe­male sex­u­al­ity? What­ever it is, chances are, says Wed­nes­day Martin (pic­tured), it’s all wrong. “Most of what we’ve been taught by sci­ence about fe­male sex­u­al­ity is un­true,” she says. “Start­ing with two ba­sic as­ser­tions: that men have a stronger li­bido than women, and that men strug­gle with monogamy more than women do.”

Martin pulls no punches. Her best­selling mem­oir Pri­mates of Park Av­enue cast her as an an­thro­pol­o­gist ob­serv­ing the habits of her Up­per East Side neigh­bours. She claimed among other shock­ers that priv­i­leged stay-at-home moth­ers were some­times given a fi­nan­cial “wife bonus” based on their do­mes­tic and so­cial per­for­mance. The book caused a furore, and is cur­rently be­ing devel­oped as a TV se­ries, with Martin as exec pro­ducer. Her new book, out this week, should be equally provoca­tive. En­ti­tled Un­true , it ques­tions much that we thought we knew about women’s sex­u­al­ity.

Her start­ing-point is that re­search into hu­man sex­u­al­ity has been, his­tor­i­cally, over­whelm­ingly male-cen­tric; “no­table sex­ol­o­gists”, start­ing with

Carl Friedrich Otto West­phal (1833-1890) are mostly male. You have to scroll through an­other 25, in­clud­ing Sig­mund Freud and Al­fred Kin­sey, be­fore you ar­rive at a fe­male name: Mary Calderone (1904-1998), who cham­pi­oned sex ed­u­ca­tion. And even in the sub­se­quent 30 names there are only five women, in­clud­ing both Vir­ginia John­son (part­ner of the fa­mous, and male, Wil­liam Masters), and Shere Hite.

All these men made cer­tain as­sump­tions about women’s sex­u­al­ity. It’s no sur­prise that it was Hite who rev­o­lu­tionised think­ing on fe­male or­gasm, ar­gu­ing that it was not “dys­func­tional” to fail to cli­max dur­ing in­ter­course. Cru­cial, too, says Martin, has been the work of Rose­mary Bas­son, who re­alised that spon­ta­neous de­sire, the kind sex­ol­o­gists had mea­sured for years, was only one type of rel­e­vant de­sire, and that re­spon­sive or trig­gered sex­ual re­sponse is much more im­por­tant for women. Mea­sured on that scale it turns out that women are, in fact, ev­ery bit as sex­u­ally arous­able as men.

New find­ings showed that women re­ported sim­i­lar in­ten­si­ties of de­sire and arousal to men, and “a real shift in think­ing” about fe­males and monogamy. “We were taught that men were the ones who needed va­ri­ety, but the ex­act op­po­site turns out to be the case,” says Martin. “Over­fa­mil­iari­sa­tion with a part­ner and de­sex­u­al­i­sa­tion kills women’s li­bido. We used to think it’s only men who be­came sex­u­ally bored af­ter mar­riage; turns out that’s not true. It’s when women get mar­ried that it’s detri­men­tal to their li­bido.”

Martin isn’t here to talk about her own re­la­tion­ship, but for the record she’s 53, has been mar­ried for 18 years, still lives in New York, and has two sons aged 17 and 10 who are, pre­dictably enough, “mor­ti­fied” at what their mother writes about. She hopes her work will help val­i­date the feel­ings of the next gen­er­a­tion of young women: “It’s not about giv­ing them per­mis­sion to ‘cheat’, not even giv­ing them per­mis­sion to refuse monogamy, but I hope it does give them per­mis­sion to feel nor­mal if they don’t like monogamy,” she says. Be­cause that’s the cen­tral fal­lacy: the be­lief that monogamy is harder for men than for women. In fact, ar­gues Martin, the ex­act op­po­site is the case. “Women crave nov­elty and va­ri­ety and ad­ven­ture at least as much as men, and maybe more.” She talks me through what she says is the clas­sic path­way for women when they marry or com­mit to one het­ero­sex­ual part­ner long-term (the re­search has so far con­cen­trated on het­ero­sex­ual cou­ples; more work is needed on gay women’s sex lives). “A cou­ple live to­gether, their li­bidos are matched, and they have a lot of sex. But af­ter a year, two years, maybe three years, what tends to hap­pen is that the woman’s de­sire drops more quickly than the man’s. At that point the woman thinks, ‘I don’t like sex any more.’ But what, in fact, is hap­pen­ing is that she is hav­ing a hard time with monogamy; be­cause women get bored with one part­ner more quickly than men do.”

So women are so­cialised to be­lieve that they’ve gone off sex, when in fact they’re crav­ing va­ri­ety. In­stead of be­ing the brake on pas­sion, says Martin, the fe­male half of the long-term part­ner­ship is the key to a more ad­ven­tur­ous and ex­cit­ing sex life. What it’s all about, she ex­plains, is the ex­is­tence of the only en­tirely plea­sure­seek­ing or­gan in the hu­man reper­toire, the cli­toris. For her por­trait, she wears a neck­lace shaped like one. “Women evolved to seek out plea­sure, women are mul­ti­ply or­gas­mic, women’s bi­ol­ogy sets them up to seek out plea­sure,” says Martin. “The cli­toris has a very im­por­tant back story about fe­male hu­man sex which is that our sex evolved for the pur­pose of ad­ven­ture.”

An­other el­e­ment in the mix, she says, was the find­ing that a third of women who are hav­ing an ex­tra­mar­i­tal re­la­tion­ship say their mar­riage or longterm part­ner­ship is happy or very happy. “So we need to un­der­stand that women aren’t just seek­ing va­ri­ety be­cause they’re un­happy, they’re seek­ing it

‘Women crave va­ri­ety at least as much as men’

Pho­to­graph CHRISTO­PHER LANE

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