In Year 10, my English teacher loaned me one of her favourite novels, Fortune’s Rocks. This was not the first novel she’d given me but it was the first novel to ever turn me on. Fortune’s Rocks is a 1999 romance novel that details an ardent affair between a 15-year-old girl and her married 40-year-old professor. It was the first time I’d read explicit sex scenes and I was hooked.
I read it like a secret: under the covers at night, in the bathroom, at the back of the bus. It gave me that tingly feeling I’d later recognise as a desire for sex or masturbation—both of which I hadn’t experienced yet. It wasn’t just the bits about sex in this novel that got me excited; it was the imagination of it all; the longing; the unspoken desire; the knowledge of something “wrong” being wanted so shamelessly.
I’m not sure why this “taboo” dynamic flicked a switch somewhere inside me, or why it became the catalyst for so many of my early-adult sexual experiences.
A few years after my 18th birthday, I met my first boyfriend, who was with someone else at the time. Him and her had fallen in love overseas, and she was still living there. The day I met him, he walked into my friend’s kitchen and my knees almost gave way. I’d never felt anything like it and we stayed together for over a year.
Occasionally I’d see lovey messages pop up on his phone from her, so I knew they were still together, but I never had the courage to bring it up with him. I was afraid he’d feel guilty and have to make a choice and wouldn’t choose me. He was my first love, my first orgasm, the first person who I wanted to hold my hand in public. It was painful to know he also loved someone else, but for the most part, it didn’t overshadow our love. When we broke up, they stayed together and are together still.
A year later, I had my first relationship with a married man. I was 19 and he was someone who’d supported me through a difficult time, by giving me a job and lots of wine. I was young and he was fresh out of a Country Road catalogue with a turtleneck, patchouli, and a fuzz of neat stubble. I was attracted to him before I’d even accepted my new job, so naturally when he started to casually flirt with me at work, I was all in. Other people saw the sparks and warned me he was married. I didn’t know much about him and his wife’s relationship, but I’d heard them screeching at each other in the car park countless times and knew that they were living separately.
One lunch shift, he came into work with bruises and bites all over his body. I could tell he’d been crying. I hugged him and he cried some more, then kissed me. It felt like an impulsive, emotional reaction, but it gave me an excited feeling in my belly. That was the starting point of an on-and-off relationship that lasted almost a year.
Throughout this relationship, I often wondered if I was a bad person for sleeping with him and not feeling guilty about it. Every now and again his wife would drop him off to work, or I’d see her a picture on social media—but I never got the pang of self-reproach I was supposed to.
The main reason was I just didn’t feel as though his choices were my responsibility. There was certainly a part of me that didn’t approve of his dishonesty; I don’t think dishonestly is ever a productive way to deal with any problem. But having said that, I just felt as though I was facilitating something he needed for himself, which I didn’t feel bad about.
Of course, it was only a matter of time until she found out, which happened the day she barged into his flat to find us cuddling naked on the couch. He froze, clutching me, as she eyed us both and a heavy feeling descended on the room, like they’d both simultaneously realised it was over. Finally, after what felt like minutes, she left without saying a word.
I half-expected her to reach out to me after that. I’m not sure what I thought she’d say. Maybe that she needed to let her pain out on someone, or maybe that she wanted to talk and make sense of it all. But I actually never saw her again, which made me think that their relationship ended in her mind that day.
He’d told me he loved me but I never believed him, and I think I was right not to. I felt equally attracted to and bad for him, but the way he needed me somehow turned me on. Part of me felt incapable of making him feel better, but the stronger part of me wanted to try. His neediness translated into our sex in an intense and passionate way that I’d never experienced before—a way that taught me sex could be therapeutic. It was the first empowering sexual environment I’d ever been in.
Things ended between us because his wife found out she was pregnant. We went our separate ways and they amicably divorced a year later.
Since then I’ve been “the other woman” more than once. They haven’t all been serious relationships and they haven’t all been with married men. Some of them have been in long-term relationships, some in short-term relationships, some on a “break”, others in the midst of a break-up. They haven’t always been honest with me about their relationship status either, which isn’t shocking—but often I don’t ask unless my emotions truly get involved.
I don’t see my experiences as something to brag about, but I also don’t feel they’re something to be ashamed of. They’re relationships that stand in their own right; they have their own motives and purposes and emotions all wrapped up in them.
I do think infidelity is something that needs to be talked about. Historically, the other woman is not someone who is supported in her relationship choices—not by her family, her friends and often not even her lover—so it makes sense that there is a scarce amount of supportive literature out there. Women often recount their stories wishing they had “seen the signs,” talking about how they really “never trusted him” and how it “rarely works out”.
As Belgian psychotherapist Esther Perel says in her book The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, the other woman is often brushed aside—if not outright ignored—by therapists, counsellors, and critics. Meanwhile, the world at large calls her names and writes her off as a selfish and calculating figure, rather than a person with complexities, desires and emotions of her own. We villainize her, as though she is the sole reason for the demise of a relationship; as though she acted with purpose; as though someone else’s desire was her responsibility.
From my experience, infidelity is less about dishonesty and more about self-discovery. We should all be held accountable for our own relationships and our own choices, and I’ve never felt it my duty to deny a person’s desires based on their relationship status. People stray from committed relationships for myriad reasons, not all of them justifiable but often with some instinct they have to follow.
Take the man I met from New York. He was engaged to be married to an older woman whom I only discovered months later via Instagram. He’d come back to Australia to visit his family for Christmas and for some reason, his fiancee wasn’t with him. I’d served him at the bar where I worked one extremely hungover Sunday, and ran into him on the street a week later. We both did a double take, re-introduced ourselves and joined parties. Fast-forward a few hours and we were skinny-dipping in his pool with bottles of champagne.
For me it was a summer fling; for him, an affair. He often told me he was afraid of ageing, of becoming his parents, of being the person everyone expected him to be. He felt stuck in his job, in his identity and his prospects. Me, being 20 years younger, really didn’t have much life advice under my belt to give, but I must’ve provided some kind of solace via distraction. A person with whom he could make-believe.
It wasn’t an emotionally meaningful relationship for me, but I was sad when he went back to New York and confused when he blocked me on social media. I later found out why. I haven’t spoken to him since, but heard from a mutual acquaintance that he called off the engagement shortly after his return.
Right now, I’m in love with someone who is only in one relationship—ours. It’s my first time and it’s fucking lovely. The more I experienced being in the centre of infidelity, the less attractive it became. People’s lies began to weigh on me in a way that became exhausting, not sexy. I was ready to be in love with someone who had the capacity to love me freely and with ease.
I’m not sure this means that being the other woman has lost its thrill for me. I think forbidden romances will always be something I can lust over in novels and films, as well as my imagination—and maybe the occasional porn video.
Reflecting on all of this recently led me to buy myself a copy of Fortune’s Rocks. No book stores stock it anymore, so I settled for a second-hand copy from eBay. All these years later, I wonder if my own experiences as the other woman will have taken some of the frisson out of the story, making it less exciting and less sexual to read.
Then again, maybe not. Even now a familiar tingle runs through my body as I open the package that just arrived in the mail.
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