Variety, adventure, pragmatism: Dr. Wednesday Martin on female non-monogamy.

Wednesday Martin’s recently published book, Untrue, unpicks the notion that women are ‘naturally’ monogamous.  Our team caught up with Wednesday on her whirlwind tour of public appearances to question her research on current and long-standing global trends and prejudices, from the relative freedoms of black versus white Americans to be sluttish, to Hotwifing to the ‘Omoka’ children of the Himba tribe in Namibia.

The Demented Goddess (DG): Wednesday, in researching Untrue, to what extent did you discover how social shaming plays a role in women feeling it’s okay to have relationships beyond monogamy?

Social shaming, slut shaming, and gossip about a woman’s sex life and self presentation are effective coercive tactics and containment strategies that men (and sometimes women) use to control female sexuality.

Whether it’s a catcall on the street that asserts that a woman’s body exists to please men, or two women texting about their female coworker’s “slutty” outfit, women are reminded again and again that their sexual behavior is a matter of public interest and subject to social control.

Other strategies human males use to coerce women include rape, domestic violence, and homicide. In some contexts, including the US and India, women literally die for exercising sexual autonomy. How enlightened and free are we? Not nearly as much as we think. I like to say that a given society’s tolerance of female infidelity may be the best metric of their true attitudes towards gender equality. Women who refuse monogamy are seizing a privilege that has historically belonged to men just as blatantly as are women who run for political office or earn a living.

DG: What was the most joyous aspect of non-monogamous love that you uncovered?

Going to Skirt Club, a roving, members-only all-women’s “play party,” was a revelation.

Skirt Club.

Most of the women who attend identify as a 2 on the Kinsey Scale (“meaning they identify as predominantly heterosexual but more then incidentally homosexual”). At the parties I attended, more than half of the women were in long term, committed relationships with men. These women gathered to talk, drink, and have sex. It was fascinating to see it all happening away from men, who are never allowed. The women have a great time. As one woman told me, “Everyone is here for the same reason, to have sex.” There was a real sense of celebration that they could be who they wanted to be and do as they wished.

DG: For black women, the fear of being seen as sexually loose, partially inherited from slave culture, runs deep. Older hip-hop artists like Missy Eliot have tried to subvert this by showing themselves as being able to “steal your man” and fuck him better than a prostitute, while younger women like Azaelia Banks invert ‘Ho Theory’ by being sexually serviced by black men’s desirable girlfriends. But your chapter, ‘Ho Theory’ suggests it’s far from straightforward.  You reveal the predatory, domineering attempts of some black men to typecast black females as hypersexual (encouraging fellow black men to “turn a girl into a woman, turn a woman into a ho”), thereby casting black girls as sexual prey. Do American black women feel less free to be sluttish than their white counterparts?

Patricia Hill Collins and Tammi Winfrey Harris have written about the power of “controlling images”—stereotypes of black women like Welfare Queen, Mammy, and Ho to name just a few.

These controlling images do just that—keep black women in the US in a very narrow lane when it comes to expressing their sexuality. There is both internal and external pressure to be “respectable.” The legacy of slavery, in which black women were treated as sexual chattel, is not something that just goes away in a few generations. I really admire the artists from Cardi B to Beyonce to Issa Rae and intellectuals including Roxanne Gay and Tessie McMillan Cottom and Dream Hampton – to name a few – who are pushing for awareness and change.

DG: Brooke Scelza’s studies of the Himba women in Namibia reveals their practice of polygyny as being a complex choice of survival, not just pleasure. Can you tell us about ‘Omoka’ children? How do their tribe view these children and Himba wives who have Omoka children by men other than their husbands?

Before Brooke Scelza went to Namibia to study the Himba, anthropologists knew that they had a very different take on “infidelity” than many westernized cultures.

Mostly, it wasn’t considered taboo but rather a normal part of life. But when Scelza started doing kinship charts and asking women about their reproductive histories, she noticed they used the word “omoka” to describe some of their children. Eventually she pieced together that this word meant a child had been conceived by a married women with someone other than her husband. The Himba have the highest rate of extra-pair paternity of any small-scale society in the world.

Roughly one in three babies born to married Himba women are “omoka”—and no one thinks much of it. It’s a pragmatic arrangement that allows women to exercise choice—it’s a common strategy among women in arranged marriages, allowing them to make an end-run around their parents’ wishes. The Himba provide us with a great test case for the way female infidelity can be very pragmatic. If your husband is away at the cattle station, a lover can provide companionship, sexual pleasure, and a hedge against deprivation. He can take you to the clinic if needed, give you and your children water during a drought, and so on. Plus he’ll provide his own kids with food. This means it’s not just beneficial to wives but also to their husbands for these women to have a lover. So the husbands tolerate it. There’s much more on this topic in Untrue.

DG: We found it amusing that, when describing ‘Hotwife’ communities (where the wife, with her husband’s permission, has a number of lovers) you noted, en passant, how Hotwives slutshame women who ‘cheat’ by taking lovers without informing their husbands. In another story about ‘Michelle’, in love with another woman’s wife, you report the disloyalty Michelle felt, to the queer community at large, having an affair with a married woman. How can a married person who wants sex with someone other than their spouse but can’t tell them, behave ethically, in your opinion?

Social Media Hotwife meme.

Since consensual non monogamy (CNM) has come out of the closet of the last decade plus in the US, there’s been a lot of talk about ethical behavior, with most advocates and practitioners of CNM saying that transparency and honest disclosure are the best way. According to them, it’s not infidelity itself but the dishonesty that usually comes with an “affair” that is destructive.

Meanwhile, experts like the psychotherapist Michele Shenkman argue that in some contexts transparency can be extremely hurtful. She posits a model of relationships more common in Europe and South America, “the segmented model of marriage,” in which people enjoy what their marriage provides including companionship, love and raising kids, but don’t expect to get sexual excitement in their long-term partnerships or marriages. They step out and keep it private, believing that affairs are not ideal and can be hurtful but are part of the range of things that are more or less normal in a marriage and in adult experience.

Untrue doesn’t make prescriptions or give advice. There’s a range of ways women go about getting the sexual variety, novelty, and adventure that sex research shows we need.

 Wednesday Martin, Twitter @WednesdayMartin

Untrue is out now.

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