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The Future of Infidelity Is Female
Due to shifting social norms and economic leaps, women are now as likely as men to have affairs
Unlike most everything else she did in her life, Amanda, a 41-year-old executive at a Boston-area creative agency, began her affair without much thought. It was just drinks with an old friend. When drinks turned to dinner, and dinner turned to sleepovers four months in, she didn’t stop it. It wasn’t weakness at play, she thought, but something else.
“As awful as it was to my family, and I knew it was awful, I couldn’t resist the draw,” Amanda, whose name we have changed to protect her privacy, says today. She had a thriving career (and salary to match), plenty of friends and interests, a devoted husband, a beautiful home by the beach. And yet what she liked most, she says, besides the great sex, was the ability to be someone else for a while.
Once assumed to be the purview of powerful men — a notion #MeToo has done little to debunk — adultery has become something of an equal opportunity endeavor. Several studies, including research in progress at the University of Kentucky’s Sexual Health Promotion Lab, has found that women are now cheating at nearly the same rate as men, according to director Kristen Mark, PhD. Numbers from the National Opinion Research Center’s 2016 General Social Survey, meanwhile, show that although the percentage of men who admitted to infidelity has held steady over the past two decades, the percentage of wives who reported having affairs rose almost 40 percent — a trend that’s holding steady in 2018, says Tom Smith, director of the survey.
Experts think there are a few practical reasons for this shift. There’s the internet, of course, which has made finding a better or different partner — not to mention your high school boyfriend — easier than ever. There’s also economics. The increasing number of female breadwinners means more women are not financially reliant on men. Combine those factors with a cultural shift that has women increasingly willing to push up against prescribed gender norms — in this case, that men cheat for sex and pleasure while women cheat for love and attention — and you’ve got a recipe for change.
“The gender gap in adultery is closing, and it’s not just about opportunity and possibility… Women now are more inclined to demand to have all their needs met.”
The fact is that good old-fashioned lust appeals to plenty of women, too. In her new book, Untrue: Why Nearly Everything We Believe About Women, Lust, and Infidelity Is Wrong and How the New Science Can Set Us Free, author Wednesday Martin, PhD, points to research that says some women are genetically predisposed to “extra pair bonding.” Men — however they might argue otherwise — don’t have this gene. “Many experts now believe that women struggle as least as much as men and probably even more with monogamy,” Martin says, “and that they actually require variety and novelty of sexual experience more than men do.”
And as women have more agency regarding who they pair up with, they’re more willing and motivated to make a move when something’s not working. “The gender gap in adultery is closing and it’s not just about opportunity and possibility,” says Helen Fisher, Ph.D., author of Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray. “But it is about choice. Women now are more inclined to demand to have all their needs met.” Fewer women are marrying out of need, Fisher says; instead, they’re marrying to please themselves. But that also means when they’re dissatisfied with something, they can feel justified to go elsewhere.
That’s not to say they want to go so far as divorce — and, in fact, even as adultery is on the rise, divorce rates are falling. “Cheating can be a bit like using a bazooka for an ant problem, a reaction to existing issues,” says psychiatrist Laura Dabney. “But for many women who say they’re in ‘happy’ marriages, which is a lot of the women I see, there is an ‘I want it all’ part of it.”
Martin puts a more overtly feminist, or at least sex-positive spin on it: “Why would you get divorced just because you want to have sex with someone else? What is that equation? It makes no sense to lots of women, just like it makes no sense to lots of men.”
Amid the political spotlight on gender equality, there’s also not a little bit of earned rebellion going on, a backlash to the idea that if a woman cheats, she’s damaged and slutty, but if a man cheats, he’s, well, a man. Playing the role of the “good wife” — whether that means dutifully making dinner or, you know, not fucking the neighbor — is no longer desirable for most women.
“Sexual behavior happens at the confluence of clitoris and culture,” says Martin, who argues that tolerance of women who are not monogamous — which is still low but steadily rising — is the most useful measure we have of gender parity. “The ‘privilege’ of infidelity has historically belonged to men. But female infidelity is the most radical but also the most basic version of female autonomy. And in that sense, it’s very much about power.”
In Untrue, which was in part inspired by her own struggles to stay monogamous, Martin also challenges outdated gender-based notions for why women cheat — that is, for emotional pleasure, like love or intimacy or validation, in contrast to why men do, which is to say for sex. “Other than the fact that women encounter a lot more stigma for doing it, which is significant, there is no big difference in the female and male cheating experiences,” Martin says. “Men and women alike cheat when there’s no perception of ‘problems in their relationships.’ Plenty of women are in it for the sex.”
One woman thinks her equitable marriage probably made her less satisfied in the bedroom. “That’s the thing about playing fair,” she says. “It’s not all that sexy.”
Science confirms this, Martin says, pointing to the work of researchers Alicia Walker and Marta Meana, whose studies conclude that women’s sexual desire is no less strong than it is for men, and that, in fact, such desire could be stronger due to an evolutionary draw to increase one’s chances of healthy reproduction. Meana’s research also shows that women struggle more than men do with the institutionalization of relationships, overfamiliarity with partners, and desexualization of roles in long-term relationships, all of which has led to a certain set of female overachievers using infidelity as a “workaround” strategy. “They want to stay married, but they also want great sex they’re not getting from their marriages,” says Martin. “Women are pragmatic sexual strategists. We always have been, and that’s why Homo sapiens are here today.”
Couples counselor Rachel Zamore says that carrying on an affair requires an ability to compartmentalize—something that is also useful in business. The fact that Amanda is the family breadwinner didn’t factor into her affair, she says; she never considered the affair something to which she was entitled. At the same time, Amanda says that she thinks her equitable marriage probably made her less satisfied in the bedroom while her financial independence made her less fearful of the consequences. “That’s the thing about playing fair,” she says. “It’s not all that sexy.”
Lauren, 43, admits she wanted it all: “the best friend, the domestic partner, the professional equal, the lover,” she says. She had two out of four when, eight years and one baby into her marriage, she began sleeping with a co-worker. “A healthy attraction to a person does demand you have a little bit of intrigue and imbalance, which in male-female empowered relationships is not a priority,” says Lauren, whose name we changed to protect her privacy.
“Wanting some heteronormalcy isn’t something people want to talk about in that bourgie Brooklyn world I live in. A lot of women I know stick with it and suffer through it even as they have that fantasy of being with someone who is their equal, or even their superior.” She was a different person than when she began the relationship, she realized. He was not.
“For a certain kind of high-powered, hard-driving woman, what’s the creative expression of ambivalence?” says Sarah Gundle, PhD, a psychologist in Manhattan. “Working women, working moms don’t really allow for a lot of ambivalence. Maybe behind closed doors with our closest friends, we talk about how crazymaking parenting can be. But the part that is ambivalent about being a mother, wife, breadwinner… the expectations for high-achieving women to hold it all together are wildly high. They end up having affairs not because they’re unhappy in their marriage, but because the pressure of feeling they have to be perfect ends up being explosive.”
In fact, Gundle says, most women she sees don’t know why they’re having an affair, even as every last detail of the rest of their lives is planned out. “It puzzles them,” she says. “They’re thoughtful, reflective people who come to me and say, ‘I don’t know why I’m doing this.’ Because for the most part, [the affair partner] is not someone who fulfills their heart’s desire better than their husband.”
But while more women cheat, they don’t necessarily leave — and neither do their husbands. Part of that could be that as women gain more powerful roles in the homes, the men in their lives are necessarily more evolved. “Just as women are getting more power in relationships and holding more power as breadwinners, more men are claiming their emotional and relational selves,” Zamore says. “There’s a softening of those gender lines.” They could also be more afraid of the consequences, given the fact that although wives increasingly make as much if not more money as their husbands, the men still do far less of the domestic work, evolved partners or not. “I knew I wanted to stay together, because I still loved her, despite what she’d done,” says Bart*, a 47-year-old high school math teacher whose wife had an affair last year. “But I was also really scared to live alone.”
And, of course, there are still plenty of women who seek out affairs not because they feel powerful, but because they don’t. Susan, who asked that her name be changed to protect her family’s privacy, is married to a diplomat. Her kids are grown; she has plenty of money. But her husband travels often, and when he’s home, he drinks a lot. “I got lost in all that,” she says. So she started an affair with a friend—what did she have to lose? “At the time, I thought I was powerless,” Susan says. “By contrast, I felt so powerful in the affair, so alive and wanted.”
Eventually, Susan says, she realized she was confusing power with novelty. She called off her affair and talked to her husband instead. “I had made something happen for myself,” she says. “It was a way of claiming independence. But once I had that, I understood: People who are truly empowered don’t need to lie or betray trust.”