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.
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”.
As I have often said on this blog and elsewhere, our society is deeply uncomfortable with female autonomy, especially as expressed through sex. As a result, it has produced a number of narratives to control women and their sex lives. One of the oldest and most effective of these is the purity myth. That is, society’s obsession with female virginity and valuing women based on sexual constraint. In many religiously conservative communities, this is even enforced with pledges and paraphernalia like rings. However, this myth does not only root itself amongst the religiously conservative; its assumptions are shared by the culture at large. But women now more than ever are pushing back against its demands on their lives. A great example of this can be found in the work of Amber Rose. For years Rose has been bashed for her forthright sexuality and has been hounded by her ex Kanye West, who like a petulant teenager claimed he had to “take 30 showers” after their relationship before he could be with another woman. Rather than stoop to her misogynistic critics level, Rose has become an outspoken advocate for women embracing their sexuality, creating an annual SlutWalk that has drawn thousands into the streets to reject a society that shames women for engaging in sex. In pop culture, women who embrace their sexuality have often been cast as femme fatales, dangerous and not to be trusted. For many years, these characters were maligned and ignored, but we now are beginning to see new appreciation for their value as subversions of patriarchal norms. As film critic Abbey Bender recently noted in a viral tweet, these characters have also frequently been sheathed in white—the ultimate symbol of purity. By appropriating symbols of purity culture and mixing them with female ambition, rage, violence, and sexuality, these women rejigger our understandings of power and sex along lines of gender. And as I wrote in the wake of Harvey Weinstein revelations, our embrace of female sexuality is crucial to our healing of wounds caused by seeing women as objects. Screw purity, let women have their “perverse” desires freely and fully.
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.
Today commemorates the finalization of the Declaration of Independence, a document meant to enshrine America’s foundational values. In it, Thomas Jefferson enumerates three rights he considered necessary for future citizens to flourish. The second of these is “Liberty.” We now more often use the word freedom but the idea lives. Everyday someone claims ours is a nation of freedom(s) and freedom is used to explain most of our political actions at home and abroad. But for a nation founded nominally for the right to live freely, everybody but white men has and continues to struggle to exercise true autonomy. I prefer the word autonomy to freedom; it has weight and the ring of real power. We still live in a world where female autonomy is destabilizing and this is rooted in our history. When early colonists encountered native societies where women were empowered and sexually autonomous, they scoffed and sought to right an “unnatural order.” And this would later continue with family separation and the forced sterilization of native women. Similarly, rape and abuse of black women was central to the flourishing of slavery. During Reconstruction, black women like Maria Stewart, spurred by this legacy, fought vigorously to enshrine female autonomy in our nation’s laws. And more recently, the scholar Danielle McGuire has highlighted the pivotal role control and sexual abuse of black women played in shaping the civil rights movement. In the late 19th century, when agitators for women’s suffrage like Susan B. Anthony were arrested for their activism, the New York Times ran a single paragraph about the issue in its “Minor Topics” section. This history can be still be felt forcefully because it is not history at all. Just this past week the Times blamed its lack of coverage for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s successful primary campaign on the fact that her supporters were young women. And we cannot forget that one of the first actions of the Trump administration was to ban aid to NGOs that promote or perform abortions. The same administration that could now oversee the repeal of Roe v. Wade. Sex is the fulcrum around which much of female difficulty exercising autonomy turns. Women’s sexual autonomy is treated frequently with anger and violence, and we still know how to shame women who dare to be free like the Puritans before us. Now as in our past, our failed leadership on female autonomy not only undermines our founding principles but kills women. In this frame, invocations of independence and freedom ring hollow. Time is up for a nation that does not fully support female autonomy.
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.