In a recent piece on The Good Men Project about the double standard regarding adultery, Tom Matlack asks, “When was the last time a woman got dragged through the mud for cheating?”
I offer a slightly different question: When was the last time a woman was exposed for cheating—and the story wasn’t crafted around a narrative of love?
It’s true that the conspicuous distinction between Tiger Woods, Charlie Sheen, and Jesse James on the one hand and Elizabeth Gilbert, Tori Spelling, and LeAnn Rimes on the other is that the former are all men and the latter are all women. But a more significant distinction is that the adulterers in the first group all sought extra-marital sex, seemingly, for its own sake. But the adulterers in the second group were all portrayed as having fallen in love. In fact, in all of the examples Macklack provided of infamous female adulterers, the women ended up leaving their husbands to form serious relationships with the other men.
The lesson here is that our culture is intolerant of adultery when it seems to flow purely from libido. But when adultery is bound up in story of love, well, we’re willing to look the other way. When Brad Pitt fell in love with Angelina Jolie and left his wife for her, his reputation didn’t suffer. But if ever we should discover a female celebrity with an otherwise solid marriage who is caught serially cheating with dozens of random men, we would see outrage akin to that leveled at Tiger Woods.
It’s a peculiar feature of American culture that we tolerate adultery in the name of love but abhor cheating when it’s fueled by libido. After all, a full-blown love affair is much more likely to end a marriage than a one-night stand. If our condemnation of adultery were primarily about maintaining marital stability, we would cast a much harsher eye on a spouse who allows himself to fall in love than we do on one who merely allows himself to get hot and bothered. But instead, an adulterer only needs to declare his hopeless love and, ideally, marry the person he cheated with, and all is forgiven.
This peculiarity can be explained by our culture’s deeply romantic view of marriage. In the United States, being “in love” with one’s spouse is not only considered fundamental to a good marriage, but is often the sole criterion on which a marriage may be considered legitimate. A marriage might be otherwise functional in a financial, emotional, and practical way, but if one or the other partners is no longer “in love,” the marriage is declared broken and a sham. There is no other culture in the world that emphasizes the primacy of romantic love within marriage to this extent.
And due to this romantic perspective, there is more sympathy for cheaters who we think did it for love. The thinking goes something like this: if the cheater fell in love with someone else, then they must not have been truly in love with their spouse. And if they weren’t truly in love with their spouse, then it wasn’t a good marriage anyway. By leaving their spouse for their true love, the cheater is actually doing their spouse a favor by letting them find true love elsewhere.
But for cheaters who do it just for the sex? Well, they’re scumbags.
The double standard comes into play when our culture’s romantic view of marriage is mixed up with our misconceptions about male and female sexual desire. Here, the conventional wisdom is best summed up with one tiresome cliché: men use love to obtain sex and women use sex to obtain love.
Amazingly, there are people who still believe—despite glaring evidence to the contrary—that women’s libidos are tied strictly to their desire to obtain a long-term commitment from a man. This mythology conceives of female sexual desire as weak and barely worthy of notice, a mere device intended to serve a woman’s true heart’s desire: landing a husband. Therefore, if a woman already has a husband and she cheats on him, there must be a good reason! To wit:
The romantic ideal says: Adultery is forgivable when it involves falling in love rather than sex for its own sake.
The myth of female sexuality says: Women never have sex for its own sake.
Therefore: A woman adulterer must have done it for love, and can be forgiven.
This myth persists even though the rates of male and female cheating are quickly achieving parity. I personally know of more women who have cheated than men. And conventional wisdom notwithstanding, their motivations sure look a lot like those of men.
Leaving aside the minority of men who exhibit Charlie Sheen-like compulsive sexual behavior, most people seem to cheat for the same reason: because monogamy can be difficult and boring, and taboo sex with a new partner can be incredibly hot and enticing. Most men acknowledge this depressing but obvious fact. But many women won’t admit it, even to themselves.
Instead, women develop complex narratives to explain their cheating by pointing to problems in the marriage: her husband was neglectful or didn’t make her feel attractive, they weren’t connecting emotionally, they weren’t having enough sex.
The plain and simple reason for their affairs—the failure to resist an overwhelming sexual attraction to a new guy—doesn’t even cross these women’s minds because it violates the myth of female sexuality.
But I’m not convinced that the beginning of an affair feels much different for a man or a woman. Imagine a married person who meets someone at work and feels instant chemistry: conversations flow, smiles sparkle, and the attraction is palpable. The married person is tormented by dreams about their co-worker. They think about their coworker while they’re having sex with their spouse. Their heart races and their pupils dilate around their coworker. And eventually, on a business trip together, they end up having sex.
Now if the married person were a man, how would he interpret these feelings? He’d likely say to himself that he was very attracted to his coworker and finally gave in to his sexual desire. Simple.
But how would a woman interpret the exact same feelings? She’d probably begin by analyzing all the things that might be wrong with her marriage, and wonder about all the ways that her coworker might be better for her, and maybe even consider that she’s destined to be with this new person. She couldn’t possibly believe that she did it for pure sexual desire because she’s been taught that women don’t do such things—in fact, women are constitutionally unsuited for such behavior. So there must be a problem with her underlying relationship! She just needs to figure out what it is!
Just as women have been socialized to emphasize an emotional narrative surrounding their sex lives, men have been socialized to focus solely on the physical, to the exclusion of any larger emotional context. But everything humans do involves emotion, and a man’s sex life is no exception. Perhaps if cheating men began using the language of emotions to describe their indiscretions, the public would allow them more leeway. Mark Sanford used this strategy and seemed to garner more sympathy than is usually afforded to politicians.
The truth is, adultery is never truly about “just sex.” Every act of cheating involves some mixture of emotions, which range from bare appreciation of beauty or desire for validation to deep longing. The Greeks had a word for this: Eros.
But in English, we’re stuck with two wholly inadequate words: lust, which is defined as debased and transitory, or love, with all its connotations of permanence, commitment, and obligation. And until our culture stops polarizing male and female sexuality by insisting that men only lust and women only love, the adultery double standard will prevail.
If one day we can admit that women desire sexual novelty and the passion of a new lover just like men do, maybe we’ll start blaming women for cheating. Until then, we’ll invent justifications and back stories that absolve women adulterers of guilt.
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