This article originally appeared on Broadly Germany.
Sexually charged texts, a secret rendezvous that fulfils all the wanton desires that you neglected over the years—for many people, an affair is a libidinous thrill and the epitome of forbidden fruit. But few people would openly admit to cheating on their partner for fear of the inevitable backlash. Unfaithful women are often considered egotistical or irresponsible home-wreckers, while men are often still granted a pardon.
Swiss author Michèle Binswanger wants to change this. In her new book, Cheating: A Handbook for Women, the journalist explains how affairs are linked to sexual liberation and feminism and speaks to women whose lives have changed fundamentally since their infidelity. We talked to her about everything from clandestine desire to the secret appeal of rape fantasies, and whether or not cheating qualifies as an emancipatory act.
BROADLY: Cheating is a topic most people avoid addressing. What about it fascinates you?
Michèle Binswanger: I've been in relationships for over 20 years now and sooner or later, the issue of an affair or cheating always seemed to come up, whether that's because someone cheated, was cheated on, or was wrestling with the notion of cheating. Especially in longer-term relationships—relationships on which a lot depends, such as a family—it often becomes a relevant topic. In my life, I noticed the couples around me with children were particularly preoccupied with the concept [of cheating], because their relationship was supposed to "work" for decades, but the notion of sleeping with the same person "until death do us part" was losing its appeal.
Five years ago, I wrote an article for Zeit [newspaper] called "Monogamy: The Big Lie." It's been the most successful article of my journalistic career. To this day, I still receive letters in response to my article, in which people thank me for writing so honestly. So I thought,This is a good topic, I'm going to dive deeper. My objective isn't to force everyone into polyamory—I also have an inherent desire for the loyalty and dependability that comes with a monogamous relationship. On the other hand, I can also acknowledge how difficult it is to maintain a monogamous ideal for a lifetime, which is why I think it's a topic worth discussing.
During your research, did you get the impression that women cheat differently compared to men?
Yes. This was also confirmed by the sexologists and couples therapists with whom I spoke. Women cheat less impulsively; rather, they plan prudently and are more skilful in their cover up. Women are also very attuned to interpersonal communication, so they're more likely to notice nuanced changes in their relationship with a cheating partner. However, warning signs of an affair aren't always overt, so it's more or less a gut feeling. Of course, it's blatant if a partner is suddenly attached to their cell, grinning at it, but then concealing their screen. A lot of women also told me that they dreamt that their husband was cheating on them, upon which they either addressed their suspicion directly or secretly snooped on his phone. Most the time, their fears were confirmed.
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In the book, your attention is often focused on the internal emotional state of the person who's cheating, and not so much the person on who's being cheated on. Was that a conscious decision, to ignore the other half of the couple? I was primarily interested in the emotional states of women who had the affairs [and their motives for having them]. Why do they do it? How does female sexuality work? Why do some women seek affairs? How do they judge their behavior, retroactively?
I wanted to tell the story of those women—who aren't and haven't been polyamorous—who surprised even themselves with their uncharacteristic behavior. Because the consequences are often dramatic: You get caught and often don't even have the opportunity to ask for support or understanding from your social network or friends and family. In a lot of cases, your friends and family aren't understanding at all. [Other] women, in particular, often have "preachy" and emotional reactions; a lot of them perceive a cheating wife as a sort of threat. Men, among each another, often have a more understanding and sympathetic reaction to news of cheating—though these days, with progressing gender equality, they no longer have carte blanche themselves.
In your book, cheating is often equated with sexual liberation. Would you consider infidelity an act of feminism? No, I wouldn't say it quite like that. Part of emancipation also has to do with standing up for your need and desires. If you're cheating in secret, you aren't standing up for anything. But feminism has changed the relationship of women towards their sexuality. Nowadays, women have higher standards of sexual fulfilment and romantic relationships, which they're able to express. Once they realize they aren't getting what they need from one relationship, they're more likely to look for it elsewhere. How exactly this decision ends up manifesting—whether it's through cheating or a different expression of unhappiness—is an individual choice. Of course it's easier to secretly [start] something than it is to go to your partner with your honest needs and desires and say, "Hey, can we discuss this?"
I think women are masters in lying to themselves about themselves as well as their sexual desires. As American sexologist Meredith Chivers observes, this has biological origins. What women desire on a physical level often isn't in accordance on a cognitive level. In other words: Women can become physically turned on while looking at pornographic images, but subjectively wouldn't experience any desire. Men don't experience that chasm. It's usually pretty clear to them whether or not they're turned on.
In the book, you talk about how one third to half the women surveyed are aroused by rape fantasies. That's a pretty shocking revelation.
This is a very delicate issue that has to be treated with appropriate care. Let's start with the term "rape." Of course, no woman actually wishes to undergo such a traumatic and abhorrent experience. There is a comparative study, conducted by the Journal of Sex Research, which points out the frequency of erotic rape fantasies. American sexologists Marta Meana and her colleague, Meredith Chivers, also confirm this, and there's different theories as to why this is [the case]. A fantasy takes place in a safe space in which the woman has absolute control. Therefore, when she imagines a scene in which she no longer has control, it's more of a submissive fantasy.
She becomes the ultimate object of desire and doesn't have to think about whether she is allowed to do something or if she should be ashamed of something. Obviously this is a very difficult topic in which it is of paramount importance to starkly distinguish between fantasy and reality. Perhaps the best parallel is BDSM: It's about submission in a clearly defined context in which you have the freedom to completely let yourself go—a staging in which both parties have given consent.
It sounds like the motivation behind all of this is to create an artificial context where you no longer have to feel ashamed of your desires because the decision, so to speak, is taken from you.
Right. It's a sort of projection. Meredith Chivers, the psychologist I mentioned earlier, also studied how women consume pornography. While men really only have their eyes on the woman, women look at the scene more comprehensively regardless of their sexual orientation, meaning they also closely watch the female pornographic actresses. They identify with the desired pornographic actress and, therefore, are turned on by the men showcasing their desire so openly.
So the turn on of erotic rape fantasies is, "He's so aroused by me that he can't help himself."
Exactly. Women want to be desired. This is also one of the main reasons why women go to couples therapy after being in a relationship for many years. She often says, "I don't feel desired anymore," or "we're not intimate anymore because he doesn't want me…" Somehow, under the stress and burdens of daily life, they lost the feeling of being coveted. Suddenly your family becomes a sort of LLC in which husband and wife are no more than business partners.
We spoke a lot about sexual liberation and the recognition of your own desires: In your opinion, what can we learn from women who have affairs?
Many women have told me that they completely rediscovered themselves and their sexuality [after having an affair]. This also has to do with the fact that they've developed certain aspects of their personality, developed a higher sense of self-esteem, and gained a better sense of who they are. Women have told me, "I thought I just wasn't as sexual as him." And then they met someone and suddenly realized that they are still very much a sexual being. If you're able, carrying over some of this experience from the affair into the current relationship can be gratifying for both partners. Situations do exist where couples have said, "Yes, we've grown stronger from this experience."
Would you personally agree that you've grown from your own experience of infidelity?
Well… In my case, I grew from it as one ultimately has to grow from any extreme experience. I learned a lot, but they weren't always positive things. But, in my case, the relationship was unsalvageable. My case—or rather, mine and other cases like it—was a little different.