There is a school of thought that says if a woman cheats, it is more likely to signal an end to her primary relationship than if a man cheats. And this may in fact be the case, because men and women tend to think and feel differently about sex and relationships. For starters, men are usually able to separate and compartmentalize sex and intimate connections, while women typically cannot. For most men, sex is sex and relationships are relationships, and the two things do not necessarily overlap. Thus, a man who casually cheats can do so without feeling a significant degree of emotional connection, while a woman who cheats tends to see things differently. In the typical female mind, sex and emotional connection are intermingled in ways that make this type of compartmentalization difficult.
Stated another way, when women cheat there is usually an element of romance, intimacy, connection, and love. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to cheat to satisfy their sexual urges, with few or even no thoughts of intimacy. Sure, many men cheat because they feel love as well as sexual attraction, but many more don’t. And for them, infidelity can be an opportunistic, in-the-moment, primarily sexual action that, in their minds, does not affect their primary relationship. In fact, when asked, many such men will tell you they’re perfectly happy in their primary relationship, they love their significant other dearly, their sex life is great, and despite their cheating they have no intention of ending their primary relationship.
Women just don’t operate that way. For most women, feeling a sense of relational intimacy is every bit as important as the sex, and often more important. As such, women tend to not cheat unless they feel either unhappiness in their primary relationship or an intimate connection with their extracurricular sex partner. And either is could cause her to move on from her primary relationship.
For evidence of this male-female dichotomy, consider the results of a well-known study in which men and women were shown videos of two men having sex and two women having sex. Male test subjects’ responses were highly gender specific. Straight guys were turned on only by the videos of women, and gay guys were turned on only by the videos of men. Meanwhile, two-thirds of the women, regardless of their sexual orientation, were aroused by both male and female stimuli – in particular the videos that displayed or at least hinted at an emotional and psychological connection. And this research is hardly an outlier. Numerous other studies have produced similar results, confirming that, generally speaking, women are attracted to and turned on by emotional intimacy (especially in committed relationships), while men are turned on by sexual body parts and sex acts. So for women, emotional connection and sexual arousal tend to be deeply intertwined; for men, not so much.
Put another way, male sexual desire tends to be driven by physiological rather than psychological factors. This is why porn sites created for male users feature short scenarios focused on sexual body parts and overt sexual acts and not much else. In male oriented porn there is rarely a storyline, kissing, foreplay, or romantic interaction. For the unbridled male brain it’s just sex, body parts, and more sex. Even porn literature for men tends to focus more on body parts and sexual acts than relationships and feelings.
Not so for women. Open up a romance novel or tune in to True Blood, the Twilight movies, or any other female oriented romance/erotica and you’ll see this rather clearly. In these stories you find very little in the way of purely objectified, non-relational sex. Instead, you get a bunch of broad-chested, square-jawed, deep-voiced bad boys who melt when they spot the story’s heroine. This is true even with the more overtly sexual Fifty Shades of Grey books and movies, where a really bad boy meets a really nice girl who knows in her heart that she can find the good in him and make the relationship work. So while male-oriented porn focuses mostly on T&A, erotica for women focuses on who the man is, his emotional connection to the woman, and how they make each other feel.
One easy way to think about this involves OR vs. AND. For men, sexual arousal is a matter of OR. A guy sees a woman with great breasts OR a nice butt OR a really short skirt OR whatever – pretty much anything at all that seems even remotely sexual to him – and he gets turned on. Sure, men can be attracted by a nice personality as well, but more often they’re turned on by sexualized body parts. Thus, men typically do not need to be in love to enjoy sex. In fact, they don’t even need to be in like. They just have to be turned on.
Generally, it’s far more difficult to get a woman interested in sex because, for women, it’s not a matter of OR, it’s a matter of AND. Women want a deep voice AND big biceps AND a sense of humor AND a guy who listens AND a desire to have kids and fix up a house together AND a whole bunch of other stuff.
This difference is most likely the product of thousands of years of evolution. Researchers Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam describe this as well as anyone, writing in their book A Billion Wicked Thoughts:
When contemplating sex with a man, a woman has to consider the long-term. This consideration may not even by conscious, but rather is part of the unconscious software that has evolved to protect women over hundreds of thousands of years. Sex could commit a woman to a substantial, life-altering investment: pregnancy, nursing, and more than a decade of child-raising. These commitments require enormous time, resources, and energy. Sex with the wrong guy could lead to many unpleasant outcomes.
Ogas and Gaddam call this feminine need to thoroughly vet a potential partner’s physical and character traits before becoming both physically and psychologically turned on “Miss Marple,” referencing novelist Agatha’s Christie’s celebrated female detective. They note that this internal safety mechanism is not willing to give cognitive approval for sex until multiple conditions are met. A woman’s inner detective says, “Sure, he’s cute, but does he want to be with me beyond tonight? Will he be nice to me when sex isn’t on the agenda? Is he stable? Etc.” (Of note: women with histories of sexual trauma tend to not have this self-defense mechanism. As such, they are more likely to engage in casual cheating, and also more likely to be further victimized as adults.)
Men have less of a need to guard against the dangers of casual sex, so they have not developed this inner detective. Thus, they will sometimes cheat just for the sex, even when they are perfectly happy with their primary relationship. This is why a relationship damaged by a man’s infidelity might be more likely to survive (and potentially even thrive) after the infidelity is uncovered, as opposed to when a woman has cheated. Men can and do cheat on a good relationship, and good relationships are worth saving. Meanwhile, women are more likely to cheat (to seek emotional connection and fulfillment elsewhere) when their primary relationship is not going well. And that type of already troubled connection might not be worth the pain and effort that is required to rebuild relationship trust, emotional intimacy, and long-term harmony.
For more about the ingrained emotional and psychological differences between men and women, I recommend John Gray’s book, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. For specific information about overcoming infidelity and healing damaged relationships, I recommend my own book, Out of the Doghouse: A Step-by-Step Relationship-Saving Guide for Men Caught Cheating. For more on infidelity and sexual issues in general, check out my website.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is a digital-age intimacy and relationships expert specializing in infidelity and addictions. He is the author of several highly regarded books. Currently, he is Senior Vice President of National Clinical Development for Elements Behavioral Health, creating and overseeing addiction and mental health treatment programs for more than a dozen high-end treatment facilities. For more information please visit his website, robertweissmsw.com, or follow him on Twitter, @RobWeissMSW.