Are women biologically adapted for infidelity?

Whatever else we think of them, women who reject monogamy are brave.

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The best moment in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton almost goes to an adulteress. After the song “Helpless” has shown the meeting between Hamilton and his wife-to-be Elizabeth Schuyler, the score flips into reverse along with the dancers, and we go back to view the meeting again through the eyes of Angelica, Elizabeth’s older sister. Angelica met him first, loved him first, but knows she can’t have a poor man like Hamilton and so gives way to her sister. But, the quick-fire lyrics of “Satisfied” make clear, Angelica is achingly aware of what she’s giving up. “When you said ‘Hi,’ I forgot my dang name,” she sings to an unknowing Hamilton. “Set my heart aflame, ev’ry part aflame.”

There’s controversy about how intimate the Hamilton/Angelica connection truly was, but a legal relationship between the two was always out of the question, since by the time they met, Angelica was married to John Barker Church. But not in the musical – and in a narrative that sticks remarkably close to the history, it’s a notable deviation. Why this change? “It’s stronger dramatically if societally she can’t marry you,” Miranda has explained. Still, that can’t be the whole of it: Angelica already being married is just as sure a societal bar to her getting together with Hamilton.

It’s curious, though, to imagine how differently audiences might feel about a married Angelica. Public tolerance for the adulteress runs very low indeed. Hamilton can have his affair with Maria Reynolds in the second half and keep our sympathy, but another man’s wife with her parts aflame for this young and hungry upstart? That would be pushing it. Wednesday Martin, though, is here for the adulteresses. “Untrue is a book with a point of view – namely that whatever else we think of them, women who reject monogamy are brave,” she writes.

If this seems bizarrely grandiose, consider that women are killed by their current or former male partners at a rate of about 1.2 a week in the UK, with infidelity (real or perceived) frequently presented as the trigger for male violence. Where women are seen as men’s property, and that possession is enforced by lethal means, stepping out is a daring act. Social sanctions can be almost as brutal a deterrent. We may no longer mark adulteresses with a scarlet letter, but they bear a stigma surely enough. And just as powerful as the external voices are the internal ones, with women condemning themselves as oversexed freaks for so much as looking elsewhere.

Nonsense, says Martin. Not only is female infidelity well within the range of normal human behaviour (something we can palpably observe to be true, because it happens), it may even be that women are adapted for unfaithfulness. It’s routinely assumed that women are the ones who seek to settle down, and yet (as psychologist Marta Meana explains to Martin) women seem to be the ones who have least fun in long-term relationships, being more likely to have low libido and more likely to initiate divorce. What if it’s not women who are dysfunctional, but monogamy?

To underline this argument, Martin draws on anthropology, primatology and feminist interrogations of Darwin’s theory of sexual selection. It’s here that the book’s cover claim to be based on “surprising new science” comes unstuck. The central argument draws on Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s groundbreaking 1981 book The Woman that Never Evolved, which established that Darwin’s choosy, chaste female was a figure of wishful thinking: female sexuality in primates is active, strategic and rewarded by our extraordinary pleasure-organ, the clitoris. (Very roughly, the more mates a female primate has, the more males there are who will feel a stake in her infant’s survival, or at least not try to kill it.)

Even if you don’t know Hrdy’s work directly, some of the material at this point in the book may begin to feel a little familiar. Angus Bateman’s fruit fly experiments – which since the mid-20th century have propagated a belief in male promiscuity and female selectivity, but proved unreplicable – have been picked over recently by both Cordelia Fine (in Testosterone Rex) and Angela Saini (in Inferior). Martin’s long digression into secondary material is even more frustrating when her primary sources are so interesting: her interviews with the women who cheat are vivid and humane, and a better version of this book would have made those the spine, and subtly dispersed the supporting science.

Another odd structural decision is the one that puts black female sexuality in a chapter of its own, called “Significant Otherness”. This feels like an example of the way efforts at intersectionality can miss their own point: hiving off the analysis of racism inadvertently implies that “female sexuality” is white by default. But then, stereotypes about black women don’t fit Martin’s thesis that women are oppressed by a failure to recognise their sexual natures. Black women are routinely presented not as chaste but as hypersexual. Unsurprisingly, being shown as unrapable in porn and pop culture has not had a liberating effect.

Martin fundamentally misses how flexible patriarchy can be. She’s strangely placid about prostitution and pornography, both of which she inexplicably treats as a source of insight about female sexuality when what they actually offer is male sexuality given free commercial rein over women’s bodies. The fact that women are pathologised in one way is no guarantee that the opposite claim will free us, and a belief in women’s natural fidelity has always coexisted with a belief that we are sche-ming slutbags.

In the 15th century, Christine de Pizan was protesting against the fact that “many authors have advised men to be wise and not to marry at all, on the grounds that there are no women – or hardly any – who are faithful to their spouses”. A reader of Malory’s Morte d’Arthur would have no issue with Martin’s claim that women have raging libidos, only with her conclusion that this is morally neutral: better to lock your wife up before, like faithless Guinevere, she taints the whole body politic. The question of what women “really” are is worth asking for its own sake, but only the naive can expect the truth to set us free without an understanding of power. 

Untrue
Wednesday Martin
Scribe, 320pp, £14.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article appears in the 18 January 2019 issue of the New Statesman, How Brexit trapped Britain