Unlike most everything else she did in her life, Amanda, a 41-year-old executive at a Boston-area creative agency, began her affair without much thought. It was just drinks with an old friend. When drinks turned to dinner, and dinner turned to sleepovers four months in, she didn’t stop it. It wasn’t weakness at play, she thought, but something else.
“As awful as it was to my family, and I knew it was awful, I couldn’t resist the draw,” Amanda, whose name we have changed to protect her privacy, says today. She had a thriving career (and salary to match), plenty of friends and interests, a devoted husband, a beautiful home by the beach. And yet what she liked most, she says, besides the great sex, was the ability to be someone else for a while.
Once assumed to be the purview of powerful men — a notion #MeToo has done little to debunk — adultery has become something of an equal opportunity endeavor. Several studies, including research in progress at the University of Kentucky’s Sexual Health Promotion Lab, has found that women are now cheating at nearly the same rate as men, according to director Kristen Mark, PhD. Numbers from the National Opinion Research Center’s 2016 General Social Survey, meanwhile, show that although the percentage of men who admitted to infidelity has held steady over the past two decades, the percentage of wives who reported having affairs rose almost 40 percent — a trend that’s holding steady in 2018, says Tom Smith, director of the survey.
Experts think there are a few practical reasons for this shift. There’s the internet, of course, which has made finding a better or different partner — not to mention your high school boyfriend — easier than ever. There’s also economics. The increasing number of female breadwinners means more women are not financially reliant on men. Combine those factors with a cultural shift that has women increasingly willing to push up against prescribed gender norms — in this case, that men cheat for sex and pleasure while women cheat for love and attention — and you’ve got a recipe for change.
“The gender gap in adultery is closing, and it’s not just about opportunity and possibility… Women now are more inclined to demand to have all their needs met.”
The fact is that good old-fashioned lust appeals to plenty of women, too. In her new book, Untrue: Why Nearly Everything We Believe About Women, Lust, and Infidelity Is Wrong and How the New Science Can Set Us Free, author Wednesday Martin, PhD, points to research that says some women are genetically predisposed to “extra pair bonding.” Men — however they might argue otherwise — don’t have this gene. “Many experts now believe that women struggle as least as much as men and probably even more with monogamy,” Martin says, “and that they actually require variety and novelty of sexual experience more than men do.”
And as women have more agency regarding who they pair up with, they’re more willing and motivated to make a move when something’s not working. “The gender gap in adultery is closing and it’s not just about opportunity and possibility,” says Helen Fisher, Ph.D., author of Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray. “But it is about choice. Women now are more inclined to demand to have all their needs met.” Fewer women are marrying out of need, Fisher says; instead, they’re marrying to please themselves. But that also means when they’re dissatisfied with something, they can feel justified to go elsewhere.
That’s not to say they want to go so far as divorce — and, in fact, even as adultery is on the rise, divorce rates are falling. “Cheating can be a bit like using a bazooka for an ant problem, a reaction to existing issues,” says psychiatrist Laura Dabney. “But for many women who say they’re in ‘happy’ marriages, which is a lot of the women I see, there is an ‘I want it all’ part of it.”
Martin puts a more overtly feminist, or at least sex-positive spin on it: “Why would you get divorced just because you want to have sex with someone else? What is that equation? It makes no sense to lots of women, just like it makes no sense to lots of men.”