Could ladies be as cheating-prone as their husbands? Could this be because of "gender equality"? There's some recent research indicating that "unfaithfulness among wives may be approaching that of husbands"—that, as Anna Breslaw writes in a post on Jezebel, more married ladies may be "Turning Into Unfaithful, Aloof Donna Drapers." This research, as reported in a piece over the weekend in the Wall Street Journal, is not as new or shocking as one might find it at first glance. Over the years, going as far back as 2009 (and probably further) there have been reports that women are cheating more than they used to, or that women have always cheated—they just, maybe, didn't admit it.
There's a bad habit among some people of blaming "gender equality" for things we don't like. Take a host of other scary reports about how women are doing things more like, supposedly, men (for instance, binge drinking, violence, thefts). Running alongside that are the reports that men aren't even behaving like men are supposed to anymore (see, for instance, Kay Hymowitz's concerns that men have been turned into boys.) We're all confused and kerfuffled about this gender equality thing, huh, and there is backlash from many when men and women appear to "switch places." But is that really what's happening? Let's look at the research. From the Journal, the cheating rates among married men and women in America:
Among the most reliable studies on this issue is the General Social Survey, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, which has been asking Americans the same questions since 1972. In the 2010 survey, 19% of men said that they had been unfaithful at some point during their marriages, down from 21% in 1991. Women who reported having an affair increased from 11% in 1991 to 14% in 2010.
A 2011 study conducted by Indiana University, the Kinsey Institute and the University of Guelph found much less of a divide: 23% for men and 19% for women. Such numbers suggest the disappearance of the infidelity gender gap, but some caution is in order.
Of course, as Peggy Drexler points out in that piece, if you can't trust a husband or wife not to cheat, perhaps you can't trust them to tell the truth in a survey, either, and researchers believe that both male and female cheating numbers are probably higher than the survey numbers indicate. At the same time, surveys also find that most married people value monogamy and eschew infidelity. The majority of both men and women are not cheating.
If, though, we take the numbers to be basically true—either more women are admitting to cheating or more of them actually are cheating than in times past—the question of why comes up pretty quickly afterward. Drexler, who is a psychologist, cites typical reasons that both men and women cheat: appreciation, ego, confirmation of attractiveness, emotional connections, and of course, marriage is hard, and new relationships (all that lust and magic and passion), even if difficult, are very exciting. Then there's pop culture to help either overload us with the idea that extramarital sex is mainstream, even, maybe acceptable, and social media to help us make an extra-marital dalliance that much easier. Opportunities abound. Women and men work, travel, have their own Facebook pages. And women are more empowered, meaning, women can have affairs, too. Men and women: They're just like all of us! Why wouldn't men and women be just about as likely to do about the same damaging things in relationships, then?
Drexler says if we're to expect gender equality, "equality in marital misdeeds might be expected too." If we were all confined to kitchens, living in Internet-free huts without television or movies, stuck washing the dishes and taking care of the kids, this would not happen. It's just the price of progress, then, except calling it a "price" seems odd. It's more that overwhelmingly certain long-held views about relationships (and marriage) are changing. It's easier to divorce. Growing numbers of people marry later, or not at all, and sometimes families coexist in entirely new types of arrangements. There's an overall shift in the way we view the lives, married or not, we want to lead, and we individually appear to prioritize the freedom to choose and create those lives for ourselves.
Breslaw writes, "a study conducted earlier this year by cultural anthropologist Helen Fisher for Match.com reflected a laissez-faire attitude about relationships and commitment from women: while 77% of women said they needed personal space, away from a partner, only 58% of men said the same. 35% of the ladies also requested nights off with friends, which 23% of men said they needed." But is that really a laissez-faire reaction to commitment, or simply a choice about personal habits and behaviors to make one more happy—and more committed—within a marriage? It's not that cheating is the thing, it's that choice is. And while choosing cheating may well be a terrible choice, we should all have the right to choose—knowing of course that we'll have to deal with the consequences of whatever it is we decide.
As sociologist Eric Klinenberg told me recently, contemporary marriages tend to be either very good or very problematic. If they're bad, people tend to divorce—and we could extrapolate, to cheat. As we've seen with other research, meanwhile, more educated people (who tend to form more gender equal arrangements) and often marry later tend to have the longest-sustaining marriages. Gender equality doesn't hurt marriages—people hurt marriages. And those people with the good marriages, you'd speculate, are not those who cheat.