When a woman cheats, she’s looking for more than satisfying another man

June 16, 2011

“What Makes Powerful Men Act Like Pigs,” declared the cover of the May 30 issue of Time magazine. “What’s the Matter With Men?” asked the conservative-leaning Independent Women’s Forum on May 19. “Why Men Cheat,” teased a story on the Huffington Post last week.

Those looking for explanations to these questions should stop reading now. I don’t have the answers, nor am I interested in doing the difficult, ultimately fruitless and arbitrary work of providing any. For one thing, I’m not sure it really matters. The reasons behind Arnold Schwarzenegger’s decision to carry on a years-long affair with his housekeeper are specific and unknowable, probably even to him. (Reckless adulterers are not exactly renowned for their self-awareness.) Ditto for Rep. Anthony Weiner, whose social-media-enabled sexting scandal led to his resignation Thursday. The psychological motivations of men who fool around are varied. The only thing to be said is that a man who commits adultery or sends topless photos while engaged in a committed, monogamous relationship is pathetic and wrong and should grow up already.

I feel somewhat differently with regard to women. At least, I used to.

About seven years ago, a friend I’ve known since college confessed that she’d been carrying on a torrid affair with a male colleague for years. She appeared simultaneously horrified by and delighted with her behavior. I was, too. While I tsk-tsk’d audibly and threw her a disapproving look, inside I cheered.

It wasn’t that my friend’s husband deserved to be cheated on, or even that, in the abstract, I approved of her assignations. It’s not that gender parity is achieved when women can do everything men can do, up to and including breaking marriage vows. But I felt a perverse sort of triumph in her betrayal, a celebration that this vibrant, brilliant, often careful young woman — who, like me, had been bruised and buffeted by the disposability and inconstancy of male affections for so many years — was boldly asserting control over her sexual and emotional desires. In that sense, her duplicity felt not only rebellious but subversive. She’d always been such a “good” girl. Writer Erica Jong, whose seminal 1973 novel “Fear of Flying” caused a firestorm with its frank depiction of an unhappily married woman indulging in casual sex with strangers, agrees with me on this point, saying that female infidelity feels “revolutionary,” adding that, “the context in which we find ourselves is that men still have the power, and so a woman who can say, ‘I take what I want,’ is a revelation.”

That power imbalance is reflected in and reinforced by the messages communicated to women — single and partnered — every day of our lives. Taking what we want, especially with regard to our erotic lives, is considered taboo, a reflection of a society that has long been distrustful of empowered female sexuality. Even supposedly enlightened women’s media outlets push the message that male satisfaction should be our primary objective. Just take a look at the latest issue of Cosmopolitan: The massively popular women’s magazine, which takes the phrase “Fun, Fearless, Female” as its rallying cry, devotes no fewer than three of its seven cover lines to the pursuit of male gratification. (“His 6 Secret Sex Spots,” blares one headline. “What Men Crave in July,” promises another.) The care and feeding of men, we are told, is paramount. (“How do you keep your man from cheating on you?” asked one CNN anchor on May 21. This month, a group of Malaysian women launched the Obedient Wife Club, which purports to teach women how to be more dutiful to their husbands and therefore prevent male adultery.) Women should feel lucky to get what they can, and while they can get it.

This isn’t to say that women cheat solely for sex. I may have cheered on my friend’s infidelity because of the way in which she threw caution and expensive lingerie to the wind, but deep down, she, like many other women, decided to stray because she was looking to feel empowered. Her dishonesty was, in many ways, a rejection of domestic expectations, a pushback against what novelist Jennifer Weiner (no relation to Anthony) calls the “huge shift that occurs in a relationship after marriage and childbirth.” (It’s no accident that Sandy, the dutiful housewife of Judy Blume’s controversial 1978 novel “Wifey,” decides to start sleeping around on her husband after her kids take off for summer camp.) Kaui Hart Hemmings, who wrote the 2008 book “The Descendants” — soon to be a feature film starring George Clooney — says the character Joanie, who cheats on her handsome, privileged husband, is motivated by “the need to negate herself as a mother and wife.”

These stories remind me in many ways of actress Ingrid Bergman, whose first husband, physician Petter Lindstrom, was said to consider himself “the undisputed head of the family.” (Undisputed — despite Bergman’s arguably more successful career, bigger bank account and skillful juggling of the professional and private.) A 1943 profile in Life magazine noted that Bergman’s second-class status, even within her family, was an idea the actress “accepts cheerfully.”

We all know what happened with Bergman. In the late 1940s, she met and began an affair with Italian film director Roberto Rossellini; the resulting pregnancy (and divorce from Lindstrom) caused a huge scandal and Bergman moved back to Europe. (She lost custody of Pia, her daughter with Lindstrom, until 1957.) Bergman was blackballed by influential talk-show host Ed Sullivan and other Hollywood power players. On March 14, 1950, a Democratic senator from Colorado went so far as to denounce the actress on the Senate floor, calling her “a powerful influence for evil.”

Obviously, times have changed, at least in the United States. Women who carry on affairs or cheat on their husbands are not commonly driven from our borders or publicly mocked by elected officials. They don’t necessarily lose custody of their kids. Unlike their more famous fictional counterparts Emma Bovary and Hester Prynne, women who cheat don’t tend to meet grim ends. (Nor are they under the state-sanctioned threat of assault or death, as is the case with female adulterers in countries like Iran.) But the fact remains that the contemporary Western narratives around female infidelity remain rooted in fear (she’s a powerful influence for evil) and ignorance (it just doesn’t happen that often). On that last point: Those narratives are wrong. Experts suggest that female infidelity is not only alive and kicking, but on the rise. And, according to a recent study published in the journal Psychological Science, powerful women are just as likely to cheat as men. Call it equal opportunity impropriety.

So why don’t we hear more about it? A few reasons. For one thing, the culture spends so much energy trying to discern the motivations behind male dissatisfaction that there’s hardly any room left to focus on women. (Sound familiar?) Secondly, cheating women don’t seem to get caught — at least famously and publicly — as much as men do. (Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is up for others to decide.) Perhaps most important, we just don’t talk about it enough. Even Jong’s latest book, “Sugar in My Bowl: Real Women Write About Real Sex,” released this week, skirts the issue. Of the book’s 29 essays and short stories about female sex, only one — Jennifer Weiner’s “Everything Must Go” — concerns a woman’s infidelity. Weiner’s protagonist, a married mother of two who learns she has an aggressive form breast cancer, ends up discreetly meeting up with a former boyfriend. In Weiner’s imagining, the woman’s tryst is as much about her being seen and appreciated emotionally as sexually.

“I think the fantasy for women isn’t about ‘the best sex I’ve ever had,’ it’s that this guy understood me better than anyone else,” says Weiner. As Nation columnist Katha Pollitt pointed out to me, part of this discrepancy is due to the fact that there’s an entire multibillion-dollar sex industry willing and eager to cater to male desire. Part of it is risk management: As the New York Times explained last week, women don’t get caught up in as many sex scandals as men, in part because high-profile females have a hard enough time being taken seriously as it is. Lastly, there are significant differences in when women and men decide to cheat. Experts say that female infidelity is considered more damaging to a relationship because, by the time women stray, for them, the marriage is effectively already over.

Which brings me back to my friend. I’m happy to report that she’s still married, and is now the mother of two children with a successful, blossoming career. She’s also ashamed of the affair, and has worked hard in the years since to understand and atone for her treachery. I think she’s a better person because of it. “I felt it was something of a feminist act, which is, in retrospect, ridiculous,” she says. “It’s not progress to sink to [males’] level. I was lucky to be forgiven for what I’d done.” Indeed.

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