Lately, the media is filled with stories of cheating husbands. But a bigger story is in the rising numbers of female infidelity. Every day, more women are having sex with men other than their husband. Younger women, under 25, and women over the age of 60 are cheating more than ever before. Male infidelity, estimated at between 50-60% of all males across a lifetime, has remained relatively steady. But female infidelity has progressively increased, to the point where current estimates put it between 45-55% for lifetime risk of infidelity by a woman, and some researchers suggest that female infidelity may one day rival male cheating. So why have we seen such a dramatic increase in such a relatively short period of time?
First, I'm not sure that the rates of actual female infidelity are increasing as much as we think. What might be increasing is our awareness of it. For thousands of years, women have suffered horrific social punishments when caught in infidelity. Unfaithful women were raped, prostituted, beaten, mutilated, ostracized and killed by brutal means, from strangulation to stoning. Even in the past hundred years of increasing sexuality research and knowledge, infidelity has remained a very secretive behavior, especially for women. Estimates of infidelity are still widely regarded as suppressed estimates, due to the fear and shame people have about acknowledging past unfaithful sexual behavior.
In recent years, more people view infidelity as common, understandable, even normal and expected. In a survey by the AARP, only around 22% of respondents felt that infidelity was wrong, compared with a rate of 41% when this question was assessed in 1999. So, it may simply be that we are hearing more about infidelity, not because it's happening more, but because it is safer to talk about.
It is safe to that female infidelity was not actually as rare as we are often told. In the book Wanton Wenches and Wayward Wives, by G. R. Quaife, the author describes the high degree of female infidelity that he found reflected in legal records of 17th century England. In my own book, Insatiable Wives, I describe the many women through history who used power, privilege and wealth to pursue infidelity in situations where they did not have to fear social consequences for being unfaithful. But, historically, women simply did not have the freedom to be openly unfaithful.
When the strict laws and social prohibitions against female infidelity developed, many things were different. Differences abounded in society, in the relationships between men and women, in sexuality, reproduction, economics and in law. In the next issues of this blog, I will explore some of the major reasons that I believe female infidelity is increasing, even beyond the secret levels that have always existed. We'll discuss the many changes that contribute to women rivaling males for how often they stray outside their marriages.