Among 18- to 29-year-olds, women commit infidelity more often than men do; several studies show no significant difference in male and female rates of fidelity into our forties. Many experts now believe that monogamy is a tighter fit for women, and that they actually require variety and novelty of sexual experience more than men do. Men’s rates of infidelity haven’t budged since 1990, while women’s have shot up 40 percent. Data suggest men and women alike have affairs even when there is no perception of dissatisfaction in their primary relationship.
These eye-opening facts, which fly in the face of most conventional wisdom regarding who “cheats” and why, are just some of the norm-shattering ideas put forth in Untrue: Why Nearly Everything We Believe About Women, Lust, and Infidelity Is Wrong and How the New Science Can Set Us Free (out this week from Little, Brown), in which cultural critic and social researcher Wednesday Martin delves into the increasingly female-dominated field of sex research, and comes up with some game-changing conclusions. Here’s a taste.
From “The ‘Infidelity Workaround’
Alicia Walker—an assistant professor of sociology at Missouri State University—does research that forces us to rethink not only female sexuality but our most cherished and basic beliefs about what women do and are, what they want and how they behave, and the role that context plays. In her extensive review of the sociological and psychological studies on female infidelity, and her own study of forty-six female users of the Ashley Madison website before its infamous hack and shutdown in 2015 (“Life is short. Have an affair,” the company’s tagline suggested), Walker explodes several of our most dearly held notions about fe- male infidelity: that women cheat only when they are unhappy in their marriages; that unlike men, they seek emotional connection, not sexual gratification, from affairs; and that like Diane Lane’s character in Unfaithful, who literally falls and skins her knee, thus attracting the attention of the man with whom she has tryst after hot tryst, women “just” stumble into affairs. For Walker’s cohort, this was no case of having one too many at the holiday party and then somehow sleeping with a coworker. “These women weren’t just falling into it or seeking out companionship,” Walker told me flatly when we spoke on the phone one morning after she had bustled her daughter off to school.
Walker, who has blonde hair, favors red lipstick, and speaks with a touch of a Southern drawl, is well aware that her findings demolish certain familiar stereotypes. She is also conscious of the profound discomfort this might cause and more than once told me she hoped that readers of the book she wrote based on her study of female infidelity, The Secret Life of the Cheating Wife, would not shoot the messenger as they took in just how different women who commit in- fidelity are from our comforting clichés about them. But her email signature includes a quote from the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, one she lives: “My goal is to contribute to preventing people from being able to utter all kinds of nonsense about the social world.” Walker wanted me to know that the women she interviewed were funny, smart, and insightful, and most of all, they struck her as very normal. They worked quiet jobs and enjoyed being mothers, having friendly conversations with neighbors, and, in some cases, going to church.
They were also dead set on having affairs.
“The women I studied went on the [Ashley Madison] site. Created a profile. Checked back in for responses. Vetted candidates. And then met them in person. Then they ‘auditioned’ them. This was a very intentional process,” Walker emphasized. They undertook it, they told Walker, because they wanted to find partners. For sex. Most of Walker’s study participants, who ranged in age from twenty-four to sixty-five, reported being in sexless or orgasm-less marriages and told Walker they simply wanted and needed what they couldn’t get at home. But perhaps most surprisingly, the majority of women in Walker’s sample reported that they were otherwise happily partnered or married, and that these affairs were a way for them to remain in their primary relationships. They were not looking for an exit strategy or a new husband. They did not seek emotional connection or companionship. They wanted a solution to a dilemma: they felt unable or were unwilling to end their sexless or sexually unsatisfying partnerships or marriages, but they also wanted great sex. After years of sexual deprivation and dissatisfaction and struggling to stay monogamous, the women, who described themselves as otherwise unremarkable, decided to do something about it. Erica (forty-six and married) said, “One day I had just had it. I really wish I could remember what exactly caused me to search online for ‘someone’ because that is not like me at all.” Regina, thirty-eight and also married, added, “I tried very hard to just ride it out. I held out as long as I could. Once I gave in, I wondered what took me so long.” “[A] lack of sex drove me crazy,” forty-seven-year-old Tiffany told Walker simply. “I finally decided [after many years of no sex] that I deserved to have my needs met,” fifty-three-year-old Georgie said…
Walker notes that these women were rather creatively inventing a space in which they could get their needs met while avoiding the stigma, inconvenience, financial strain, and emotional pain of divorce. She calls their strategy an “infidelity workaround,” a way to have your cake and eat it too. Of course the women of Walker’s sample were taking considerable risks. Should their husbands find out, the marriages they were trying to preserve would surely end (because women who used Ashley Madison were not required to provide as much information as male users were, they were not affected by the hack of 2015). They also knew they were likely to be shamed and shunned in their communities if they were caught. And on the site itself, they were often subjected to male rage and retaliation for ending a liaison, or even for not messaging back after an invitation to do so. “You’re a fat cow no one would fu*k anyway” one man wrote to a woman (who had not posted a photo) when she didn’t respond to his online overture. Men sometimes also left information on the “feedback” section of the women’s profiles, falsely suggesting they had slept with them and rating the experience unfavorably, as “payback” for the women not responding to them. Slut-shaming apparently exists even where men and women come together to cheat. Such consequences for simply being on the site and exercising the right not to connect with male users who desire it were common, the women told Walker.
But the participants in her study wanted sex badly enough that they willingly took these chances. They had run the calculus and considered the options: cheat for sexual satisfaction and accept the risk it entailed; don’t cheat and continue to live without satisfying sex, or any sex at all; be openly non-monogamous and risk almost certain stigma in their communities and blowback from their husbands, including, possibly, divorce; initiate divorce, thus, in the words of one woman, “dismantling my life and breaking my husband’s heart as well as my own.” Divorce could mean custody issues, financial hardship, and the loss of social and family support. In Walker’s formulation, “These women were unwilling to toss the dice a second time on marriage and risk ending up with a lesser hand than the one they currently held.” They efficiently pursued what they wanted and confounded our received script that women don’t care about or need sex the way men do, and that women who have affairs fall in love and inevitably “destroy their marriages” because “women who have affairs want emotional connection, not sex.” As Walker says, “These women enjoyed the time spent with outside partners but were not left pining for them to ride in on a white horse and sweep them away into the sunset.” Walker’s study subjects challenge just about all our received notions of female sexuality, fidelity, and motivation.
“Untrue: Why Nearly Everything We Believe About Women, Lust, and Infidelity Is Wrong and How the New Science Can Set Us Free” is available now.