A few months ago, I had the opportunity to write a piece for The Atlantic about how and why sexual monogamy is especially difficult on women's libidos. In it, I take a look at the science behind female sexual boredom—of which there is a lot! Check it out here.
Female pleasure isn’t a puzzle. But you could be forgiven for thinking it was based on most popular coverage of the topic. Every day articles proliferate introducing “new” sex positions that will guarantee orgasms or offering mold defying ways to channel female sexuality. But as smart sex writers have been pointing out, they distract us from an important reality: clitoral stimulation is a really reliable way for most women to orgasm. To acknowledge this reality would be to acknowledge that much of our conception of sex fails to center or even take seriously female pleasure. Instead we dissemble, suggesting that women just need to contort their bodies or arguing that the clitoris is difficult to find. UNTRUE. Thanks to educator Sheri Winston and others, we know know quite a bit about the "female erectile network." And all signs point to it being perfectly designed for its job. It turns out that women have as much erectile tissue as men! And that we wake up with wood, and get hard ons when we're turned on, not unlike men. What we have come to know as the clitoris is actually connected to a large system of inner structures or internal clitoris, which when fully stimulated “becomes like a snug and stretchy cuff of delightfully responsive equipment.” This contradicts the common understanding that women aren’t “built” for sexual pleasure. Hopefully, as more women (and men) become aware of this, we can begin to reconceptualize our ideas around sex and stop calling the things that get women off as “foreplay.” Some educators and entrepreneurs are already pointing the way forward, offering tools to increase our collective cliteracy. And why not, pleasure is serious business. As Cunni co-founder Alison Tan Ka-kei puts it “one of the greatest acts of sexual empowerment we could do as [women] is to not sleep with people who don’t care about our pleasure.” Seconded, it’s time to close the orgasm gap!
When I began writing Untrue: Why Nearly Everything We Believe About Women, Lust, and Infidelity Is Wrong and How the New Science Can Set Us Free, the focus was primarily on female infidelity and popular mis/representations of female sexuality. But in the course of doing research and discussing the project with friends, I came to realize that I also needed to explore another topic: polyamory. Many signs suggested that the practice was growing. And several experts had observed that anecdotal data indicated this growth was being driven primarily by women, making it a good subject to discuss in the book. One of the first people I reached out to in my effort to educate myself about the modern poly scene was Mischa Lin. Mischa is one of the cofounders of Open Love NY, a leading organization run for and by the polyamorous community. Over the course of a fascinating interview, she walked me through some of the history of modern polyamory, the current polyamorous landscape, and what the culture at large could learn from her community. As Mischa was quick to note, “nonmonogamy has been around since the beginning of time,” with examples throughout ancient societies like the Greeks. But what is new in modern polyamory is the introduction of ethics, agency, and consent norms in pursuing nonmonogamy that is “joyful and fulfilling” as monogamy. (Scholar Elisabeth Sheff places contemporary polyamory in the third wave of consensual nonmonogamy, which she traces back to 19th century transcendentalists.) People have found many different ways into this community. Mischa in our interview shared with me that she was in a monogamous marriage for many years prior to becoming polyamorous. The marriage ended after she made a gender transition and fell in love with another person who was married and living with an 'intentional family.' Mischa moved from Texas to New Jersey to be closer to them, although at the time they did not call it "polyamory”.
Names are important. They are used to address and lay claim, and often names become part of our identity and sense of self. And yet, when women marry, they are usually expected to cast all these considerations aside and change their surnames without a fuss. In the West, this legal and cultural norm can be traced back to the Norman conquest, when the practice of “coverture” was proliferated. Under coverture, a husband and wife become one entity in the eyes of the law and society, erasing a wife’s independent identity and rights. This historical foundation has been a powerful constraint for women’s sexual and professional autonomy. Just a few decades ago, as reporting from The Atlantic shows, this philosophy led to women being pulled from welfare for having extramarital sex and being excluded from many professions. And it remains uncommon for this dynamic to run in the opposite direction; it is still exceedingly rare for a man to take his wife’s name, which has much to do with cultural scripts. Or as singer Kylie Minogue once remarked, “Nobody wants to be Mr Minogue. It takes a very strong man to put themselves in that position and I fully appreciate that." In much of the world, the US very much included, a wife’s decision to keep her own name is seen as an emasculation of her husband. Thus a woman’s decision is framed in terms of its consequences for a man. Most can’t seem to muster any empathy for women’s suffering for relinquishing their names—identity erasure, bureaucratic hurdles, and professional penalties. (Worse, some data suggest half of Americans believe it should be legally required that a woman assume her husband’s last name!) Even in places where women do not typically take their husband’s name after marriage, there are still deeply rooted traditions that connect a woman’s value to attachment to a man; if not a husband, then a father. There are a handful of notable outlier nations like Greece and France, where it is actually illegal for a woman to assume her husband’s name (and some where they need not take a familial name at all), but even here regressive norms persist. Men are more likely than women to be known and addressed by their surnames, which often confers authority and respect and deepens gendered inequality. A recent New York Times report showed that at Wimbledon there continues to be a gendered practice of identifying female champions by their husband’s name (even in cases like Billie Jean King’s, where the couple has been long separated). Of a piece with this, earlier this week a mother and daughter were hassled at Dallas–Fort Worth International Airport due to a difference of surnames, with the mother being berated by a Customs and Border Patrol agent that she should have taken her husband’s name to confirm maternity. These recent cases highlight the enduring ways that marriage and naming practices are used to constrain and control women. We have a name for this: patriarchy.
Joan Didion famously wrote that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” But our society also tells many stories in order to suppress and control, harm and abuse. This is particularly evident in our stories about women, which often have a simple, insidious throughline: that women who are autonomous and empowered are untrustworthy and dangerous. This fiction finds life in everything from the false but popular Madonna-Whore dichotomy—where only fathers or husbands can contain womens’ terrible force—or the constant, feckless chastizing of Maxine Waters by pundits and other politicans for daring to use her voice and platform. Earlier this week, Bloomberg ran a piece on the plight of single mothers in Japan that put the consequences of our societies’ stories about women in stark relief. The article highlights the countless ways in which single mothers and their children suffer materially, psychologically, and socially in one of the world’s wealthiest nations. Worse still, single mothers in Japan with jobs do worse on almost every metric than those who don’t work, and the article pointedly suggests this has as much to do with taboo as economics. In my new book, Untrue, I similarly relate the copious literature showing that women in the US fare substantially worse financially from a divorce than men do, and that the only meaningful recourse is remarriage. What these facts tell us is that women are most valued when attached to a man and that the penalties for existing outside attachment to a man are severe. Some prominent new voices in pop culture have been pushing back against these narratives, allowing women to carve out space on their own professionnal, sexual, and cultural terms. There is Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, Issa Rae’s Insecure, Roxane Gay’s Difficult Women, Hannah Gadsby’s astounding new comedy special Nanette, and so so many more. In all of these brilliant works, female creators are presenting stories where women can be unruly, angry, unsure, empowered, alone, or in community of their choosing. But the world around them is still playing catch up. A recent study from the National Bureau of Economic Research argues that across developed nations the cost of modern maternity is a consistent pattern of women failing to realize both their professional and reproductive aspirations. A gap that the study’s authors contend is unaffected by currently implemented policy prescriptions like extended maternity leave. The picture their study paints is of a world where we have raised women’s expectations for their lives without meaningfully changing the offices or homes they inhabit. (To be fair, this week the Supreme Court tried to bring women's expectations back down, ruling that so-called "crisis pregnancy centers" can lie about abortion and reproductive health.) We may be beginning to get better stories about women (thanks to listening to the ones they tell themselves), but we are still a long way from seeing these stories lead our politics and culture.
In recent years, there has been a growing awareness that one of the most powerful constraints on female ambition and autonomy is disproportionate and unequal punishment for behaviors men routinely get a pass for. This bias can be clearly seen in continuing gendered double standards around cheating. Take the recent example of Tatiana Akhmedova: she is the ex-wife of Azerbaijani-Russian oligarch Farkhad Akhmedov, who refuses to finalize their divorce and pay out a court-ordered settlement of $500 million (in the form of a mega yacht) because of his wife’s alleged infidelity. This despite the fact that there is strong reason to believe that Mr. Akhmedov himself stepped out of the marriage and sired a child with a paramour. Or we can look to the case of former Nashville Mayor Megan Barry (pictured above), who was abruptly forced to plead guilty to felony theft and resign in March due to an affair with her bodyguard. This contrasts sharply with the treatment of her male peers who have been untrue, like Mark Sanford, who had a cross-continental affair while Governor of South Carolina and lied about it, but was able to serve out his full term and then be elected as a congressman for that state two years later. These dynamics could also be seen at play in the 2016 Presidential Election, where Donald Trump’s serial philandering was brushed away with boys-will-be-boys logic while Hillary Clinton was castigated for her husband’s indiscretions. These disparities of treatment for infidelity along gendered lines show we still have a long way to go towards true equality; our current state of affairs looks little different from the days of Hawthorne’s scarlet A. If we want to move forward, a good first step would be learning to defy these truly outdated social scripts around those who cheat.
Anthropologists and primatologists tell us that environment and ecology are variables that really matter when it comes to how we lead our lives, including our sex lives. We evolved as flexible social and sexual strategists. In some contexts, for example, humans are polyandrous while in others, they're polygynous. Here's a piece on how one group of women "play" in one particular ecological niche, the Hamptons, in the summer...
August is the laziest month. Dog days of summer. Lemonade and corn on the cob and lobster rolls. Lingerie trunk sales (okay, only in the Hamptons — my friend Blair invited me). Hanging out by the pool. Or on the beach.