On Motherhood, Marriage, and Women’s Sexuality – A Conversation with Wednesday Martin

2019, for Little Years

It is my honor to talk with Wednesday Martin – anthropologist, author, and mother of two boys (18 and 11). Her memoir and #1 New York Times bestseller Primates of Park Avenue (Die Primaten von der Park Avenue) reflects on her experiences raising her kids among the ultra-rich on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. In her most recent work, Untrue, she claims that nearly everything we believe about women, lust, and infidelity is wrong and that the new science can set us free. 

FJ: Wednesday, you depict life on the Upper East Side as extreme –  hardcore helicoptering, excessive spending on afterschool activities, competitive moms with body image issues, the pressure to look impeccable 24/7, the hunt for designer fashion before it hits the stores. This sounds exhausting! 

WM: It IS exhausting! If you think money can buy these women happiness, think again. I noted there were remarkable rates of anxiety among the women I spent time mothering alongside on the UES. They live in a body display culture, so the pressure to be fit and thin is unrelenting. Calorie restriction and fasting are ways of life, and these have been known to exacerbate anxiety. Many of the women I knew hated their bodies or at least considered them the enemy and in need of lots of “work”–whether punitive exercise, calorie restriction, or treatments and “enhancements.” There was not a lot of pleasure taken in one’s beautiful body, alas. Finally most of the mommies I studied were economically dependent on their husbands owing to the woeful state of childcare in the US, and the ideology of intensive motherhood, which holds that the best mother is the one who constantly enriches her child’s life on every measure, and asserts that motherhood should be exhausting and draining. Being stressed and unhappy were ways of life among the privileged mommies I studied.

FJ: At the same time, you can draw parallels to neighborhoods in European cities, including Prenzlauer Berg in Berlin. I believe that what mothers on the Upper East Side and Prenzlauer Berg have in common, even if their budgets are different, is the goal of the perfect child. Would you say that children become business projects? 

WM: Back to the ideology of intensive motherhood, as discussed by the feminist sociologist Sharon Hayes…it’s not these women are consciously choosing to treat their children as business projects. It’s that the ideology of intensive motherhood and the lack of good childcare intersect to create a tremendous sense of guilt, shame, and obligation to give your children “everything.” We tend to blame mothers for this, but that’s incorrect and short sighted. Wherever we see intensive motherhood, we see lack of gender parity and  mothers doing their job largely in isolation, and their mothering is at once culturally lauded and denigrated. 

FJ: We at Little Years have been dedicated to discussing gender equality and equal opportunities between the mother and father. We even started a series which presented couples who share the load of childcare and household 50/50, but Isabel shares her frustrations here because it seemed nearly impossible to find more than a few parental couples that live truly equally. In addition, the concepts of “mental load” and “invisible labor” have united exhausted moms everywhere. Against this backdrop of modern parenting, it is hard to imagine that the moms in your book feel happy and fulfilled. What’s your insight?

WM: Pretty sure I answered this above ; ) I will note that over the six years of fieldwork I did on the Upper East Side, which I have described as a glittering backwater of antediluvian sex and gender politics, there was a shift. Fathers started to be more involved, arranging playdates, bringing their young children to school and picking them up after. 

FJ: After years on the Upper East Side, you moved to the other side of Manhattan, the Upper West Side, where life seems more laid back. What parenting lessons did you take with you? Can life on the Upper East Side really produce the perfect child? 

WM: It can produce a child who goes to the “right” schools perhaps. But anywhere with high rates of intrasexual competition between women like the Upper East Side means it’s hard to find a community for women and children alike. In the group of women I spent time with, many women basically considered other women the enemy. And other children as competition for their children. I do not miss it at all. I did not bring any parenting lessons with me across the park. The East Side schools my children attended were brimming with pathology.

FJ: No matter the income bracket, motherhood is raw, and money cannot shield you from pain. Women of all classes experience the pain that comes with losing a child. What makes such a loss even more traumatizing, in my opinion, is the stigma we as a society attach to it. And this is why, several years ago I decided that I was no longer going to keep quiet about my experiences of miscarriage and abortion for that matter. Interestingly, I have found that the more I open up, the more women come forward with their own stories. In Primates on Park Avenue you relive the loss of your daughter. Would you mind sharing with us why you decided to include this chapter of your life in your otherwise rather lighthearted narrative? Why is it still so difficult for women to be this outspoken?

WM: Well, I commend you and admire you for speaking up and helping destigmatize the types of loss that have been impacting mothers forever. Abortion is a privilege and still a right in enlightened places, thank god, though that right, like the rights of women more generally, is under assault in my coutnry. Miscarriage and stillbirth are part of the lexicon of motherhood, remarkably and tragically common. I hope more women will feel freed to speak of and normalize it.

FJ: In my own search for authenticity as a wife and mother, I have come across your book Untrue – a groundbreaking study that fills an important gap in our knowledge of female sexuality. Your work challenges our understanding of women’s sexual needs and even suggests that monogamy is a social construct rather than a natural inclination. What sparked your interest in these topics?

WM: Like a lot of us, I struggled with monogamy as a young woman. No matter how much I loved a partner, after about a year, my sexual desire for him would plummet, and I would find my eye wandering. I thought there was something wrong with me! Eventually, thanks to my background in social science, I discovered there was a lot of new data about female sexuality that the layperson didn’t have access to; there were all kinds of game-changing insights that explained the dilemmas my girlfriends and I were experiencing, but most hadn’t made it into the mainstream. While it was a relief to learn that I was perfectly normal in my troubles with monogamy, it was extremely frustrating knowing that other women who didn’t have access to the groundbreaking research that I did who felt like aberrations. My aim with all my work has always been to help women understand themselves. Sex is one part of that mission. It’s so personal, so political, and so important. Can we imagine a girl growing up to be President or Prime Minister if she is convinced there is something wrong with her sexuality or something repulsive about her desires and her body? These things are connected.

FJ: I have followed you for a while now on social media, and I have seen the raving reviews from women from all over the world. What makes Untrue so universal? What do you think resonates most with these women?

WM: Teaching women that they are not alone is a powerful force. Men have been narrating the story of women’s sexuality and desire for centuries; when a woman addresses women’s concerns with respect and—even more importantly—empathy, it can be revolutionary. It’s hard to say what resonates the most with women, there are so many myths that are accepted as conventional wisdom—that women are programmed for monogamy, that women only cheat for emotional reasons, that women are less visually stimulated than men. The list goes on and on.

FJ: Would you say that the institution of marriage as we know it is becoming obsolete?

WM: I don’t know about “obsolete,” but I think marriage is evolving. Many people are experimenting with non monogamy, or even including “thirds” in their marriages. People will probably always get married, but what we’re learning is that there’s no one way to be married. The more economic and political power women have, the more we will see marriage changing as an institution.

FJ: World-renown psychotherapist Esther Perel once said: “Women can have sex and feel absolutely nothing. They’ve done it for centuries.” What’s your reaction to such a statement? 

WM:What a depressing quote! What Perel may be referring to is what I call “service sex.” Service sex goes beyond a maintenance shag every now and again. This is the sex that (generally) straight women “give” to their partners despite not being in the mood  for sex—and it doesn’t feel good to give or get. Service sex is the end result of women who have grown bored with the sex they have available to them, but misinterpret that boredom as a low libido. It is a real shame, because women have the capacity for such a wide range of sexual pleasure. We know from ample data that in the aggregate women need more variety, novelty, and adventure sexually in order to not get bored than men do. Service sex happens when there isn’t enough creativity or adventure for a woman and she thinks, “Right, I’ll have sex just to please him, it’s only fair and it’s my duty.” She’s not gone off sex. She’s gone off sex with the same person in the same way over and over. There are things to do to change that. Passion and pleasure are fundamental female rights.

FJ: For your research you really immersed yourself in everything sex-related. For example, you attended conferences on polyamory as well as women’s sex parties. Were you surprised to find what’s out there? 

WM:    Yes! I knew from studies and data that the female libido in many species, including humans, is much stronger and more assertive than we’ve been lead to believe. And that women are often the relationship revolutionaries, pushing for creative solutions to their monogamy conundrums.For example, at an all-women’s sex party called Skirt Club I learned that  while many of Skirt Club’s members identify as gay or bisexual, there were also many women who attend Skirt Club parties who consider themselves heterosexual, and are married or in long term relationships with men. These women crave sexual experiences with other women, and Skirt Club is a place for them to feel totally uninhibited or constrained by their sexual histories, stigma, and the presence of men who want a piece of the action themselves.

FJ: So much has changed since our grandmothers’ generation, or has it? It seems that for many women, finding authenticity runs totally counter to societal expectations. How can women approach this dilemma? Is there a solution? 

WM:  Social expectations have been punitive to women and to female sexuality. For generations, women have been taught to view their sexualities through the lens of male sexuality: as products to be consumed. Women have been taught to only feel sexy when men tell them they’re sexy. I’ve been heartened, in interviewing women and hearing from them, to learn that they are beginning to prioritize their own pleasure. I have also really been encouraged by all the younger men out there who are curious about female pleasure, knowledgeable about the clitoris, and truly egalitarian. It’s like the work of the second wave of feminism is being continued. We have sex positive activists on social media to thank for that, I think.

FJ: You reference your marriage and that you were lucky to be able to reignite passion after having kids. Were you just lucky or do you have any practical advice for keeping the spark while taking care of baby? 

WM:    There are data suggesting that female sexual boredom sets in on average a year to four years into a long term monogamous partnership. Regardless of whether you have kids or not. But Marta Meana did an amazing survey to look at why women find monogamy so stifling, and she found that for many women, the institutionalization of roles—becoming a “wife” or a “mother”—is one of the biggest dampeners of desire. Having a baby crawl all over you can also make the idea of more touching just too much. Sleep deprivation is a terrible thing for our moods, minds, and libidos.. I would tell any woman who is thinking of becoming a mommy to take care to actively remember her bodily autonomy and that no matter “what” she is to anyone else, she’s always a woman to herself. Her body is for her pleasure, not just to service the needs of others.

FJ: Despite women’s radical evolution, at the same time, one might wonder if things move backwards. What is your reaction to the recent push in the United States to limit abortion rights? 

WM:    It’s really frightening to watch what’s happening in the US right now. In addition to the scaling back of abortion rights and access, we have in the highest office in the land a man who has made it abundantly clear he has zero respect for women’s bodily autonomy. But there’s hope. Women evolved as inspired social and sexual strategists, and the energy that we’re seeing among young feminist activists is really inspiring and right on the evolutionary script of cooperation. Movements like the Black Mamas Matter Alliance, which is focused on drawing attention to and rectifying the staggering problem of black maternal mortality in the US; Moms Demand Action/Everytown for Gun Safety…these movements are propelled by women who are not afraid to disturb the Greater Male Coalition. Trump is a blight on our country and we are seeing similar backlashes across the globe. We are living in the era of the Strongman, and we have to continue saying NO.

FJ: The more I have matured as a woman and connected with other women, the more I am in awe of women’s perseverance and strength. And as a mother to a daughter, I think about the lessons I need to teach her. What do you think is important for these young generations of women to understand about themselves and their place in society? 

WM: That they matter, and their bodies are a sovereign state. If you don’t have autonomy over your body, what autonomy do you have, really? It’s the most basic form of independence. I like the way my friend the activist and TED scholar in residence Sue Jaye Johnson talks about the radical act of teaching her daughters to know what they like. What forms of touch, which foods, which activities bring them pleasure. We need to teach girls to feel entitled to feel good. It’s a basic building block of self worth that can change the world.

Right now, I’m really invested in helping women feel entitled to pleasure—entitled to it, deserving of it, and willing to demand it. Just as my feminist foremothers before me have strived to break the glass ceiling, I’m devoted to shattering the “pleasure ceiling.” For too long, women have thought their sexuality only as a sort of refraction of male sexuality and male desire. This has to end. While this may not seem like the conversation a mother wants to have with her daughter, the earlier we can impress upon our girls that they don’t exist merely to be consumed (visually or otherwise) by men, the better chance our future society has for true equality. 

FJ: It has been my honor, Wednesday. I’m speaking for many, many women when I say thank you for your contribution to setting us free.

WM: Thanks so much for reading my books and helping me connect with your readers. This is what the Darwinian Feminist Dr. Amy Parish calls “the bonobo sisterhood”–women connecting to create a powerbase.

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