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.”
Anna Holmes is a contributing columnist for the Style section. She is the founder of Jezebel.com.
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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.