Who cheats more, men or women? Well, men tend to cheat more than women, but there’s evidence the infidelity gap closing. This isn’t due to the fact that having fewer affairs, but that women are having more. Before you react, there are some questions about this data, which is largely self-reported. Do respondents to the surveys used by social scientists lie? Do the numbers on who gets caught cheating align with the numbers of cheating? According Tammy Nelson, a couples therapist and author of When You’re The One Who Cheats, there’s a reason to suspect that women may be not only cheating more, but also getting away with it a lot more often.
“We don’t know if more men or more women are caught cheating, on average. But it would make sense that women are better at hiding their affairs. Traditionally women have faced harsher punishment for cheating,” said Nelson. “They have lost their financial support, risked the loss of their children, and in some countries even risked the loss of their lives.”
Twenty percent of men cheat compared to 13 percent of women, according to the U.S. General Social Survey. Why do men cheat? Men are more prone to casual and opportunistic cheating, which plays a big part in why they get caught. Infidelity, for many men, is evidence of recklessness. For women, cheating may be evidence of a more thought-out plan to address perceived needs. The potential costs of being sexually reckless is otherwise too high. Intimate partner violence, which one out of three women experiences at some point, is often triggered by infidelity.
Sex therapist Candice Cooper-Lovett agrees with Nelson that women’s ability to hide infidelity is at least somewhat adaptive. “A lot of women in my practice have shared that cheating was something that you take to the grave with you because men can’t handle cheating in the way that women do, or are expected to,” she explains.
It’s important to note that emerging data suggests this dynamic might change. One ongoing online survey conducted by the academic blog Truth About Deception, currently includes 61,901 women and 31,238 men (results are ongoing and updated daily). A total of 67.3 percent of male cheaters reported cheating on their spouses more than once, compared to 53.5 percent of women. Of those, 21.5 percent of men were suspected of cheating, compared to 40.1 percent of women. Finally, 39.2 percent of male cheaters said they eventually got caught, compared to 48 percent of women.
But that’s survey data that hasn’t been subjected to scientific controls. It’s enough that Nelson acknowledges men may be getting better at sneaking around. But it’s a grudging acknowledgment.
“What we know is that men are better at compartmentalizing their affairs than women. They seem to be better at keeping their extramarital relationships separate from their primary partnerships than women, they can hide their outside behaviors and seem to be less disturbed by maintaining multiple lives,” Nelson says. “How long they can keep the compartmentalization going is not clear.”
It’s also possible that more women are getting caught cheating for the same reasons that more women are either admitting to infidelity and committing it in the first place — because it’s not as dangerous as it used to be. Since intimate partner violence remains a real problem, a less idealistic conclusion to draw may be that gender is not a good lens through which to look at the issue of infidelity. Nelson and Cooper-Lovett both say that the one thing most people who get caught cheating have in common is that they want to get caught — either on a conscious or subconscious level.
“Those who don’t want to be caught take actions to ensure their affair goes undiscovered, says Nelson. “It seems to be working.”