Looking improbably dainty in a white summer frock, Wednesday Martin stepped to the front of a glass-enclosed room in Sag Harbor, New York, wielding a mandrake-like piece of pink plastic. “This is your clitoris,” she told her mostly female listeners.
In a childlike singsong, she went on to inform them that the seat of female pleasure is not the size of a button, as has long been supposed, but closer to a full-grown zucchini.
Her audience, women in publishing, wellness entrepreneurs and stay-at-home moms in their 40s and 50s, had convened in this high-ceilinged waterfront house of a friend to gossip over margaritas and discuss their sexual appetites.
Legs crossed, arms self-protectively pressed to their chests, they were rapt as Martin, chirpily reassuring, sought to address that eternal, and eternally vexing, question: Just what is it women want?
It’s not intimacy, she suggested. Wasn’t it time, after all, to ditch that hoary, male-perpetuated chestnut about women deriving sexual pleasure from gazing moistly into their partners’ eyes? Is not the female libido equal to, if not more robust, than the male’s?
This is the case she seeks to make in “Untrue,” her new book about the nature of women’s sexuality, the title a simultaneous reference to an archaic word for “faithless” and the much-debated doctrine that women by nature are inclined to be “true.”
It also could be read as an unconscious — or defiant — allusion to the tempest surrounding her last book, the New York Times best seller “The Primates of Park Avenue,” which contained factual errors that occasioned amendments from its publisher, Simon & Schuster.
Aware that her scholarly reputation is in question, Martin, 52, this time around carefully cites a roster of prominent social anthropologists and female primatologists to bolster her argument that women are not and never have been naturally monogamous.
Hot news? Not exactly, as the author well knows. Her premise has been intensively probed in the past by, among others, Shere Hite, the golden-haired German sex educator, a household name in the 1970s, whom Martin reverently invokes in the book’s introduction.
Martin is also aware that her book, even with science undergirding the racy personal musings, will be subject to intense scrutiny and skepticism — if it’s taken seriously at all.
It was three years ago that she set her uptown neighbors’ eyes rolling with “Primates.” Initially marketed as an exposé, the book aimed to pick apart the customs and mores of Upper East Side mothers. Martin, who had lived briefly among them, framed her observations as fieldwork, portraying herself as a hapless outsider determined to document her neighbors’ venal, rapaciously competitive ways.
“Primates,” critics charged, had been misrepresented by marketers, and by the author herself. “Instead of a tell-all it is a conventional memoir with a gimmick,” wrote Janet Maslin, a critic for The Times.
Martin’s research was shoddy, others maintained. In a blog post for Elle, a longtime Upper East Side resident writing under the pseudonym Blair Schmaldorf observed, “In over 30 years, the only place I’ve ever encountered the audacious, extreme women Dr. Martin writes about is in fiction.” (Indeed a scripted television series with Lionsgate is in development, with Martin as a writer and executive producer.)
In The New York Post, Isabel Vincent and Melissa Klein accused Martin of having fabricated key elements of her biography, not least that she had lived on the Upper East Side for three years, not six, as she had claimed.
As to the “wife bonus,” described by Martin, a yearly sum bestowed by husbands for domestic services rendered, “it doesn’t exist,” scoffed Lisa Birnbach, an uptown native and the editor of “The Official Preppy Handbook.”
Martin believes she was skewered “not because I missed a fact or two but because I dared to follow through on my particular interests,” she said over herbal tea, hummus and celery sticks in her book-lined, blush and platinum tawny co-op on the Upper West Side. “My goal is and always has been to pursue my interest in topics that inflame people.”
After receiving a doctorate from Yale in comparative literature and cultural studies, she began her career as a popular author two decades ago with a biography of Marlene Dietrich. “I was fascinated by just how ballsy she was about her open marriage, her affairs with women and men,” Martin said. “She never denied them. She bent Hollywood to her Weimar attitudes.”
A stepmother to two daughters from her husband’s previous marriage (they also now have two sons of their own, 17 and 10), Martin in 1995 published “Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel, and Act the Way We Do.”
“I want to uncover the motivations behind the hostility and resentment, the resistance really, against certain women who are cultural signifiers: the adulteress; the stepmother; the indolent, hollow wealthy housewife,” she said. “Which is not, by the way, how I saw the women in ‘Primates.’”
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Martin makes no secret of her own abiding devotion to fashion, dedicating an entire chapter in that book to her pursuit of a Birkin bag, bought for her by her husband, Joel Moser, a banker.
Sorry, not sorry, she signaled with a shrug, showing off her home office, its walls awash in a splashy Warhol floral print, then her bedroom with tier upon tier of pumps and sandals obsessively arranged by color and fabric. “I don’t actually wear these,” she said with a laugh. “I think of them as a sort of installation.”
The author insists she is not a gadabout, though after the release of “Primates” she was snapped at any number of benefit galas. She attended those, she said the other day, “to crack the cultural codes of the Upper East Side.”
Lately she has expanded her social network to authors, film producers and publishing notables, entertaining them at home a couple of times a year. “I call them my girl-on-girl writers’ salon,” she said. “We have cocktails and get temporary tattoos.”
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In the new book, she devotes a full chapter to a “Skirt Party” she attended, watching the guests, all women, writhe and moan lustily in their uninhibited pursuit of mutual gratification.
But that scene is offset by copiously footnoted research. “She was extremely careful on this book,” said Tracy Behar, Martin’s editor at Little, Brown. “I think she was nervous about how she would be perceived after what happened on her last book.”
There is plenty of froth in “Untrue,” Behar acknowledged. “She wants people to read the book, after all. But she also wants to be taken really seriously and not have people assume, ‘Oh, there is not going to be any substance here.’”
Martin conducted more than 30 interviews with eminent social scientists, psychologists and primatologists. She cites, among others, the primatologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, who studied female langurs mating sequentially with as many males as possible to ensure the safety of their offspring.
The sociologist Alicia Walker also makes an appearance, arguing that many women deliberately pursue extramarital affairs; so does Lisa Diamond, who has written about female sexual fluidity; and Amy Parish, known for her studies of bonobos, a hypersexual, female-dominant species closely related to chimpanzees.
Even buttressed by such academic bona fides, Martin allowed a flicker of uncertainty about how “Untrue” will be received when it is released Tuesday.
“People assume that if you’re writing about female infidelity, that there’s something wrong,” she said. “They hang on to this idea that women who write about sex are doing it for attention. That they are exhibitionists, that they’re pathological, that they must have questionable motives.”