It’s not something we want to have to face, talk about, or even consider. But the truth is that, even in the happiest marriages, affairs can happen. Maybe it’s a close relationship with a coworker that goes too far during a long night at the office. Or an unexpected dalliance on a vacation with friends. Or maybe, it’s a longer-running situation, with one or both parties turning to each other to fill a physical or emotional void left unfilled by their spouses. The fact of the matter is that infidelity is not surprising. What is surprising is, however, is who’s doing the cheating.
“We have this idea socially that men are cheaters, all men are susceptible to cheating, men are dogs, right?” says Alicia M. Walker, an associate professor of sociology at Missouri State University. “But the data tells a very different story”
Walker is the author of The Secret Life of the Cheating Wife: Power, Pragmatism, and Pleasure in Women’s Infidelity. She was inspired to write the book after coming across a number of stories on infidelity. “I saw a study that said some 90 percent of people who cheat never leave their spouse,” she says. “And I feel like, that’s not what we hear about. We hear about people cheating and then the marriage breaking up. Then I saw another study that some high 80 percent of folks never get caught cheating and that number is even higher if you’re a woman. So that really got me thinking like, ‘Something is going on here besides what I think is going on here.’ Because we sort of have this social idea that if you’re cheating you’re always going to get caught eventually.”
“Something that some of the women in my study brought up that I never thought about was that when they were searching for an affair partner, they were having these candid, frank discussions about sexual compatibility and sexual preferences.”
Then, after reading a study that said that most women are vulnerable to infidelity in their 40s, the idea became lodged in her mind. “Those three pieces of information together kind of got me thinking,” Walker says. “And, over the course of the next few months, it seemed like every movie I saw, every conversation I had, this topic just kept coming up. So, in looking to answer my own questions about this, I realized there was really not much research out there about infidelity. We just kind of act like it doesn’t happen.”
What she noticed from her work, is that women are cheating at at least the same rates as men. And, depending on the age group you’re looking at and the behavior that you’re looking at, sometimes they’re outpacing men.
“Way more women are cheating that we think,” she says. “We just don’t like to talk about it and we don’t like to think about it. You don’t want to think that your neighbor, your Sunday school teacher, or your friend is doing this. But the reality is, you know a woman who’s cheating, you just don’t know that she is.”
Now, Walker makes clear, there’s no one specific reason for infidelity. For some women it’s to avoid boredom; for others it’s because they feel neglected. Still, others say it’s because they fucking want to.
“A lot of the time the reasons are physical, sometimes they’re emotional, and, sometimes, as much as we don’t want to admit this or know this, sometimes it’s just a matter of somebody having an opportunity,” says Walker. “There’s a lot of data showing that a woman will have an affair with a coworker and are more likely to report that ‘My marriage is great and I’m super satisfied. I literally saw an opportunity and took advantage of it.’”
“You should really start looking at your own behavior in the bedroom and really make sure that you’re holding up your end of the table. Because, if you’re not, there’s somebody out there who’s more than willing to do that.”
The notion of women cheating is something that tends to be swept under the rug, per Walker, mostly because it goes against everything that we as a culture have been conditioned to think about women.
“We want to think of women as not particularly sexual unless they’re deeply in love or they’re married or in some monogamous relationship of some kind. We just don’t want to think that women are just as sexual and just as interested in having sex with multiple partners or a variety of partners or they get bored with marital sex.”
However, if we want things to change, it’s time to not only start thinking about the idea of female infidelity, but also to figure out what we can do to improve things. Walker says that begins with having honest conversations about sex, preferably before marriage.
“Something that some of the women in my study brought up that I never thought about was that when they were searching for an affair partner, they were having these candid, frank discussions about sexual compatibility and sexual preferences,” says Walker. “When I got married, I never had any of these conversations, and I started thinking, ‘You know, that’s true, we don’t have those conversations.’ We kind of wander into these romantic pairings and we fall in love and we kind of think that the sex is going to take care of itself. But, according to the data, that’s not true.”
Part of those frank discussions is being open to what your spouse is interested in. A lot of the women Walker interviewed said that, when they talked openly about their fantasies or desires to their husbands, they were met with disgust and made to feel ashamed.
“It was really pretty sobering, to be honest with you,” Walker says. “This is a person who’s pledged to love you for all time and you say to them, ‘Hey, I want to try role-playing,’ or whatever it is, and then think about having the person that you love and trust the most say, ‘That’s disgusting. What’s wrong with you?’ If you listen to that for years, and then in walks somebody who’s not only like, ‘That’s not disgusting,’ but they’re into it, you can see how attractive that would be.”
A lot of the women Walker interviewed said that, when they talked openly about their fantasies or desires to their husbands, they were met with disgust and made to feel ashamed.
In conducting her research, Walker was surprised to learn that a lot of the women that she interviewed were interested in the prospect of an open marriage.
“They don’t want to leave their husband, they love their husband, they’ve got a great life, but what they really want is a variety in their sexual partners,” she says. “It’s not just, ‘Oh I want my husband and I want this one affair.’ It’s, ‘I want my husband and I want to taste all the parts of the menu!'”
Additionally, she discovered that women who cheat see it as an exercise in power. The socially accepted norm when it comes to coupling is that the man asks the woman out, the man pays for dinner, the man proposes marriage. While the ideas behind these traditions may be chivalrous, Walker says that the women she spoke to eventually felt confined by them.
“They always felt like they had been chosen, rather than choosing themselves,” she says. “And then they go online to Ashley Madison, or any other site, and there’s all these men, and now they’re choosing rather than being chosen.”
In the end, attentiveness is the key. When you’re with your spouse, Walker says it’s vital to make sure you’re thinking of her needs as well as your own. “Any man who is concerned about this,” she says, “you should really start looking at your own behavior in the bedroom and really make sure that you’re holding up your end of the table. Because, if you’re not, there’s somebody out there who’s more than willing to do that.”