Are Women and Men More Likely to "Punish" Male Cheaters?

New research suggests that people may be more forgiving of women who cheat.

Posted Oct 20, 2019

Rhys McKay/New Idea
Source: Rhys McKay/New Idea

Note: This guest post is authored by James McQuivey, Ph.D.

Nearly three out of four adults agree: Society is better off if couples are sexually faithful.

People say this even if they themselves are not interested in being faithful – among people, married or not, who say they are not always faithful to their sexual partners, 47 percent still agree that society overall benefits from sexual fidelity.

This preference for fidelity also motivates us to “punish” cheaters for their actions. For example, 46 percent of us agree with the statement that if an extramarital affair causes a marriage to end in divorce, the injured party should “get more benefits in the divorce.” This attitude is held by men and women equally.

Society has rules so that its members know what is expected of them. And if such social expectations were all that mattered, men and women wouldn’t necessarily differ in their attitudes toward someone who commits infidelity; everyone would agree about how it should be handled. However, social factors are not the only thing driving disapproval of infidelity; biology also plays a role. 

In many species there are sex-related differences in some sexual behaviors such as mate-seeking and mate-guarding. We see this in the insect world, among birds, and with mammals like us. Some differences in behavior among humans are plain: Men are more prone to pursue short-term mating strategies whereas women are more inclined to pursue longer-term mating strategies. This difference stems from the sexes’ differential investment in producing and raising offspring. 

Another key difference is in intrasexual competition – when men compete with other men and women compete with other women for mating opportunities.

This competition is the driver of sexual selection: The choices females make determine what traits males accumulate over millennia, just as peahen choices over centuries have resulted in the peacock’s splendid plumage. 

Add it all up and we should expect that men and women have differing attitudes toward mating stability – including cheating – and we should also expect that intrasexual competition would make men and women respond to cheating differently based on the sex of the cheater.

Which sets up the question: Do men and women feel differently about a cheater based on whether the individual is male or female? And if so, what does that tell us about sexual selection?

We explored this in our April 2019 US Adult Sexual Behaviors and Attitudes Study, in which we posed a straightforward scenario to 1,001 men and women ages 18 to 74:

     A 50-year old man has recently admitted to you that he has had an affair outside of his 20-year marriage. He feels bad about his actions and is asking you for advice on what to do next. He explains that his marriage hasn’t been very fulfilling for several years. His spouse is very critical of him and they have not had sex for over a year. He feels unloved.

However, for a random half of survey respondents, all the gender markers were changed to make the scenario about a woman, not a man: Same circumstances, just a different sex for the cheater. Participants were then asked how likely they were to give particular kinds of advice to the cheater. They were given a choice to choose between different kinds of responses.

For example, 49 percent of men and 53 percent of women said they would tell a male cheater, “You made a marriage commitment that you have broken and should feel sorry.” In contrast, only 39 percent of men and 37 percent of women would say this to a female cheater. The circumstances were identical, but men and women were both more likely to tell a male cheater he broke his commitment and should feel sorry. 

When given the chance, 55 percent of men and 62 percent of women said they would tell a male cheater that they "should have tried harder to fix your marriage" before they cheated. But when given the chance to offer the same reprimand to a woman who cheated, just 48 percent of men and 45 percent of women said that they would do so. Men and women are more likely to tell a man he should have tried harder. 

The lesson: Even though society has established a specific level of disapproval for cheating generally, we treat those guilty of infidelity differently. We appear to be less forgiving of cheating men and more likely to blame them for their infidelity, as compared with cheating women. 

This is likely both social and biological. Pushing us more toward biology is the fact that women judge men more harshly specifically for their lack of relationship investment. That is, if a man cheats, women are more likely to say he should, “[try] harder to fix [his] marriage.” He should have invested more. Because enough women hold this enforcing preference, men will respond by demonstrating a willingness to commit.

In fact, men are just as likely as women to tell researchers that they agree that cheating is harmful to society, despite being not only more likely to cheat themselves but also less punishing and more forgiving when it does happen.

Correspondingly, when a woman cheats under the same relationship circumstances as a man, other women feel less of an urge to punish them because it doesn’t exert sexual selection pressure in the same way; it doesn’t change male behavior.

But women do hold other women responsible when it comes to affairs. When given the chance to tell a cheater, “If this affair makes you happy, you should do what makes you happy," 27 percent of men agreed that they would offer this conciliatory advice, but just 18 percent of women did, regardless of whether the cheater was male or female, showing that women want other men and women to prioritize fidelity, even if they want to chastise men more aggressively for straying.

James L. McQuivey, Ph.D. has taught at Boston University and Syracuse University. He is a consumer behaviorist and analyst who is regularly sought for commentary by publications like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. His research into family studies focuses on human mating strategies and the role of parents in determining positive life outcomes. He is the author of the book Why We Need Dad. Follow him on Twitter @jmcquivey.

Facebook image: Motortion Films/Shutterstock

References

In April 2019, a survey of U.S. Adult Sexual Behaviors and Attitudes was fielded to a nationally representative sample of adults ranging in age from 18 to 74. The outgoing sample was balanced by sex, age cohort, and U.S. Census region. Sample sourced from and data collection provided by Dynata, a global leader in first-party data and data services. The respondents were weighted back to the outgoing sample parameters for sex, age, and region. Data were validated for internal consistency and compared for population representation to US Census data and GSS data for income, rates of marriage, and childbearing. The project was conceived, designed, executed, and paid for entirely by Dr. James McQuivey.