Cheating on a partner is not something many people readily admit to, so it’s near-impossible to put any exact figures on the issue.
One study might definitively say it happens in 70 percent of all marriages, while an independent expert could suggest it happens in anywhere from 20 to 60 percent of relationships. However, while (again) the percentages vary wildly, there is one common theme running through all of these statistics: men tend to cheat more than women.
Professor Alicia M Walker studies intimate relationships, sexuality and infidelity, and in 2017 authored the book The Secret Life of the Cheating Wife, the result of a year-long study into women’s affairs. Today, she releases her new book, Chasing Masculinity: Men, Validation and Infidelity, which is based on interviews with 46 men who used the extramarital dating site Ashley Madison to cheat on their partners.
I spoke to her about her work.
VICE: Were you surprised by the men's willingness to speak to you, given that they were doing something so secretive?
Professor Alicia M Walker: My takeaway is that when you're participating in something that is so closeted, you're going to welcome the opportunity to get to speak to someone who's just a completely unbiased outsider. At some point in the interview, every participant I've had will share with me who they are, their social media, their jobs and things like that. Everybody wants to be seen, I think.
You talk about people pulling out of the interview half-way through. Did you have any other responses that surprised you?
I had a very enthusiastic participant. We had completely finished the interview, and maybe two, three weeks after that he sent me an email to tell me in very great detail about this afternoon he’d spent with this woman. He went into all this description about how unattractive he thought she was. His framing of the story is: “I'm doing this very charitable thing by having sex with this woman that no one would want to have sex with.” He was sort of prodding me to say what a great guy he was, and I didn't respond like that. He got really angry with me, and pretty abusive, and said, “I wish I had never spoken with you.” I said, “That's fine, I'll remove all of your data from the study.”
What did you think of the condemnation of the men who used Ashley Madison and were victims of the hack in 2015? What did the suicides associated with the breach tell us?
I thought it was really terrible that folks were being blackmailed. That's just a needless and terrible loss of life. People will say, “Those people got what they deserved.” But did they? Why is that OK for someone to breach folks' privacy? Folks are always quicker to condemn the person who's nude in the photos than they are to condemn the person who stole the photos – which I think just speaks to our inherent discomfort with sex and the human body. Ashley Madison's a multi-million-dollar company. It provides a much-needed service for lots of folks. It would be so much more productive to say, “What might we adjust or address that might lessen the rates of folks feeling like this is something they have to do?”
Have you gained any sympathy for the men who cheat? How do you square that with sympathy for the partners?
I'm not an infidelity apologist by any yardstick. I'm fully aware of the fact that any discovery of being cheated upon is devastating. But we like to have everything in black and white. When you talk to folks who are participating in affairs, you very quickly come to realise that's not the reality. Many folks are cheating because of some unmet need; they have something that they just cannot keep going without, and they don't want to break up an otherwise happy, loving relationship.
That sounds really selfish, but what I mostly think is, ‘What a sad situation for everyone involved.’ If we're going to try and understand the dynamics that lead to infidelity, we're gonna have to try to come into it with the least amount of bias and judgment that we can.
How has the literature on cheating evolved?
A lot of the existing measurements were taken from the General Social Survey, which is a very large undertaking – however, it is collected in person, very often with the members of your household. So we assume that the rates of infidelity reported from that data are low. As we've moved to online surveys and things like that, we feel like we're maybe getting a little closer to the incidence. In general, we just assume that it's under-reported. It's only been in pretty recent history that we've started looking more at women's participation. But all the reasons that could cause an increase in women's participation could also cause an increase in reporting.
In your previous book you discovered that women cheat largely for sexual pleasure. In this book, you say that men cheat mainly for emotional reasons. Is our stereotype of cheating therefore the wrong way around?
I have to assume that there are differences between someone who logs on to a site like Ashley Madison and creates a profile and someone who sparks up with a co-worker – cheating in the wild, as I like to call it. But of the folks I spoke to on Ashley Madison, yes, it does appear that the vast majority of women were cheating specifically for sexual pleasure. They were extremely pragmatic about that.
The men told a very different story, not only about their motivations, but also the dynamics of their primary partnerships. They love their wives; however, they really felt that they were functioning in relationships that were very absent in emotional intimacy. So in the beginning, it looked like a gender divide, but seven of the women described dynamics at home that are identical to the dynamics that these men talked about. Those seven men were just like these men.
Did you find that researching and writing the book persuaded you monogamy isn't necessarily all it's cracked up to be?
You really can't do this work and not have that thought. Half of the women I talked to [for the previous book] said, “I really wish I could open my marriage; I think everybody would just be happier.” The men were not at all interested in that. The women talked about the fact that, when they were forming these affairs, they were having these really specific, graphic conversations about what their expectations were. They all said, “I never had conversations like this before I got married, and I really wish that I had.” The big takeaway, I think, is we need to have a host of conversations before we enter relationships, but once we're in them, we have to keep talking – even when it's hard.
A lot of people will say that someone cheating in a relationship should leave, rather than lead a double life.
It's really easy to tell men to suck it up, but you know, that's all we seem to do? That's obviously not working. Folks are cheating in very large numbers. Instead of sending in judgment of folks, we should try a new approach and we should really try to understand: what are the dynamics at work? A lot of people find it very difficult to leave someone that they love, even if there are things within that relationship that are untenable. At the end of the day, for these men the big thing was, they love their wives. They adore them. What I heard in every narrative was, “This is boosting my self-esteem and I feel better about myself and I'm getting my needs met, but gosh I really wish I was getting this from my wife.” They're staying because they have hope; hope that on some level things are going to change at home.
Chasing Masculinity: Men, Validation and Identity (Palgrave Macmillan) is out on the 14th of January 2021.