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