Some 60 years ago, Alfred Kinsey delivered a shock to mid-century sexual sensibilities when he reported that at some point in their marriages, half of the men and a quarter of the women in the U.S. had an extramarital affair. No one puts much stock Dr. Kinsey’s high numbers any more—his sampling methods suffered from a raging case of selection bias —but he was clearly in line with decades-long assumption: men are significantly more likely to cheat than women.
Drawing the interest of researchers and media lately is the possibility that the percentage of wandering wives is catching up with that of unfaithful husbands.
Among the most reputable and consistent studies on this issue is the General Social Survey, sponsored by the National Science Foundation since 1972.
But the survey, conducted every two years, found that the 20% to 22% of men have cheated at least once, versus 15% for women.
Dr. David Atkins at the University of Washington examined data from 1992 to 2006. He found gainers were both younger couples – where everything from social media to previous cohabitation has been suggested as a cause –and both men and women over 60 – where medical science is apparently providing a new lease on lust.
His research found: rates among older women tripled from 5% in 1991 to 15% in 2006. For men, it was from 20% to 28%. About 20% of younger men and 15% of younger women say they cheated. That is up from about 15% for men and 12%, for women in 1991
A 2011 Indiana University-Kinsey Institute-University of Guelph study puts the female percentage higher: 23% for men and 19% for women, virtually erasing the gender gap, along with the assumption that significantly more men than women cheat.
A big and enduring problem for researchers – even those who sample with meticulous care – is that people lie, even to themselves. Generally, men add to their real number of affairs; women subtract. For either gender, there is always the question of why someone would share a potentially marriage-breaking secret to a stranger, or even an anonymous survey.
While by no means unanimous, there is trending opinion that women are catching up to men in their extramarital behavior.
In my own work as a psychologist and in my social circle, there is no doubt that I see more women not only having affairs but actively seeking them out. Their reasons are familiar: validation of their attractiveness, emotional connection, appreciation, ego – not to mention the thrill of a shiny new relationship, unburdened by the long slog through the realities of coupledom.
Researchers also point to other factors that might be leading women to stray more often.
One is what you might call “infidelity overload.” Scan the plot lines on any given week in television, and there seems to be more extramarital sex than marital sex. Would “Mad Men” be any fun if everybody stayed home? With women portrayed as eager participants and aggressive instigators, there may be a feeling that everybody is having fun but me.
And then there is opportunity – more travel, more late nights on the job and more interaction with men means the chances and temptations to stray have multiplied for the new generation of working women.
A study at Tilburg University, published in a 2011 article in Psychological Science, argues infidelity is also a matter of power – which creates both confidence and personal leverage for both genders. Women now can use their power in the extracurricular ways that men have used theirs.
A broader cultural shift may also be at work. According to a Match.com study conducted earlier this year by the biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, women are getting less traditional about relationships. Men, interestingly, may be going the other direction. For example, 77% of women in a committed relationship say they need personal space, as opposed to 58% of men. While 35% of women want regular nights out with friends, only 23% of men do.
Social networks are clearly another factor – if only to expand the pool of possibility. Emotional friendships that turn physical are the traditional point of entry for female affairs. Now, it’s very easy for those friendships to take root online. Some argue that social networks are merely an expediter; and that cheaters will always find a way. Still, if you’ve never quite gotten over your prom date, chances are you can find him.
Or we could just blame it all on hormones.
A University of Texas study published in 2009 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London: Biology Letters found that women with high levels of estradiol (an ovarian hormone that produces physical characteristics desired by men) are more likely to cheat. The researchers concluded that high-hormone women see themselves as more attractive than other women, and hold men to high physical, economic and other standards – which are difficult for one man to meet over time. They aren’t more prone to casual sex; rather: “opportunistic serial monogamy.”
Cheating is not epidemic or inevitable – for either sex. Surveys find that by far the majority of respondents value monogamy and believe infidelity is harmful. And if you believe the Social Survey’s finding that 15% are cheating, keep in mind that 85% aren’t.
Do women account for more of the total? Probably. But in a society that has been preaching, legislating and celebrating gender equality for decades, sexual equality is just part of the package.
Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and the children they produce. Follow Peggy on Twitter and Facebook and learn more about Peggy at www.peggydrexler.com