True stories from married women -- ''The Erotic Silence of the American Wife'' compiles research on female sexuality

Here’s the conventional wisdom on fooling around: Men do, but women don’t. And here’s what Dalma Heyn, author of the newly published The Erotic Silence of the American Wife, has to say about it: ”That’s what we’re conditioned to believe. But who do we think men have been having these affairs with all these years? The same five tired, tawdry single women?”

Heyn, a 20-year veteran of women’s magazines (she currently contributes a column to Mademoiselle), decided to write a book when she realized that what married women were telling her about their affairs didn’t jibe with existing research on female sexuality. ”But most of these studies were restrictive in some way — conducted by male interviewers, written by male authorities,” she points out. Her own book, as she makes clear in the first chapter, does not purport to be scientific: ”It’s simply the result of what I have been hearing from talking to hundreds of women.”

And those women — mostly white, mostly well-to-do — were all saying the same thing: ”I’ve got everything I want, I’ve got the perfect family, I’ve got great kids, I’ve got a gorgeous house, so why don’t I feel good?” According to Heyn — herself recently married — ”they had what they’d been told they wanted but it wasn’t what they really wanted. They all felt muted and stifled by their marriages. They felt they had left their sexuality at the altar. All too often marriage is a place where their sexuality dies. Nobody ever says, ‘Honey, are you getting your needs met?”’ For most of the women in Heyn’s book, adultery is an uplifting, liberating experience, one that can even save a marriage. None of them seems concerned about disease, and few worry aloud about the effects of adultery on their children. ”No one asks the men, ‘What about the children?”’ Heyn notes. ”It’s a way of thinking that basically says women aren’t entitled to their pleasure because they’re going to abandon their children. But children are a consideration. Many of these women were terrified that they’d be caught and lose their children.”

If the early response is any indication, Heyn has tapped into something big. Letters are flooding in, as are bookings on TV and radio shows. When the producers of Oprah — who featured her recently with a small group of wandering wives — advertised for married women with extramarital experience, the responses, which numbered in the hundreds, were overwhelming. Nevertheless, as Heyn reports, ”Oprah was a difficult experience for the wives because the audience was quite hostile. Particularly the women.” Heyn herself is braced for trouble. ”I think I’ll be attacked for whatever threatened people want to attack me for,” she says. ”My response is, this is what I heard. This is what women are telling me.”