Judith Krantz, the prolific author and novelist whose salacious stories of sex and excess defined the 1980s, died on June 22, 2019. She was 91 years old. Scorned by “serious” writers and readers for her books that were widely considered Harlequin-esque pablum, she was also partly responsible for mainstreaming one of the crucial messages of second-wave feminism: that female sexuality, desire, and satisfaction matter.
Earlier this month, I went to the Society for Sex Therapy and Research (SSTAR) conference in Toronto to learn about the newest developments in the science of sex—with a focus on female sexual pleasure. Over four days, professionals attend this annual get together to present their findings and stay on the cutting edge of sex research. The theme of this year’s conference was “Complexities of Connection in Sex and Relationships: From Technology to Touch.” I wrote about my weekend of learning for Refinery29—but the thing about writing for a publication is that sometimes your favorite moments from a piece are cut for length. So consider this the director’s cut!
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.
The April showers are out and the taxes are in, which can only mean one thing: Spring is finally here. With the (moderately) warmer weather comes steamier preoccupations. After all, birds do it, bees do it… Let’s take a brief look at women and sex in TV this Spring.
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!
Scholarship and research might sound boring, but they’re very dynamic and alive— always changing. The presumptions that undergird entire disciplines have shifted over the last few decades due to who is conducting research. For example, because female primatologists have brought new forms of empathy, curiosity, and identification to their studies, the science in this field has improved markedly. We now know much more about the social and sexual behaviors of non-human female primates. We have learned that maternal and sexual strategizing were huge selection pressures in evolution! Female monkeys and apes aren’t just passive players in the game of sex, “being mounted” by males—they’re soliciting copulations, building support networks, evading male control, and much more.
I began researching and writing Untrue: Why Nearly Everything We Believe About Women, Lust, and Infidelity Is Wrong and How the New Science Can Set Us Free nearly three years ago. I didn't quite know what I was getting myself into. Infidelity holds a unique force as a taboo in our culture. It’s not discussed very often and, when it is, it usually happens under a cloud of scandal or in hushed tones, with moralizing language. But as I worked on this project, I got to hear stories of women who confounded all the clichés—they sought out sex, not emotional connection; they were sexually adventurous to an extent that we don't usually associate with women; they had libidos that were strong; or they were wilting in monogamous relationships and looking for a solution. I found myself exploring topics like polyamory and hotwifing and Skirt Club and more, all of which afford a glimpse into larger tectonic shifts in our sexual beliefs. In the wake of the #MeToo movement and other global activism, more stories from women’s own perspectives are finding their way into the public square. When we decouple female sexuality from male desire, we begin to see that female sexuality is more surprising, weird, and powerful than we've imagined. And now, on Untrue's publication day (!!!), it is clearer than ever that we are overdue for a revolution in how we approach infidelity and female sexuality. New research from Dr. Alicia Walker shows yet more evidence that infidelity, contrary to conventional wisdom, can increase desire between spouses and improve overall contentment (even after the affair has ended). Another heartening sign: Kristen Stewart, who was embroiled in hysterical scandal after an affair, is experiencing a renaissance. In fact, she is not only staging a comeback but taking new thrills in asserting the importance of female sexuality and autonomy in her public comments. Meredith Chivers continues to challenge the notion that women are the less sexed sex, with plenty of strong data from her lab. These developments make Untrue seem as timely as could be. All of which is to say, I am excited to share this book with readers and start building a world where women have total sexual autonomy and receive the pleasure we all deserve. And where monogamy really is your choice, rather than something foisted upon you. I hope you'll grab a copy and join me in this revolution!
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”.
People pay for sex. This has been true for as long as we have had money. But until recently, the people paying for sex were rarely women. This was due to stereotypes about women’s libidos and sexual adventurousness that women internalized, as well as the lack of agency that many women had over their lives in and out of the bedroom. Women have historically paid a very high price in certain contexts, including the US, for exercising sexual autonomy. And there is still widely held stigma against women who pay to play. Nonetheless, recent research suggests that there has been a marked increase in women paying for sexual services as they have gained more economic independence and social mores have begun to change. This can be seen not only in women seeking out prostitutes and escorts but also in the rise of erotic massages and sex parties that cater predominantly or exclusively to female clientele. As striking as the numerical rise in these sexual practices is, the reasons why women seek them out are even more interesting. Some of these include: