Lust In Our Hearts
Xing hardly fits the stereotype of the cold-hearted adulteress. The petite 31-year old student from China is warm, intelligent, at times even a little shy, and prone to fits of giggling. Yet when she speaks of the two men in her life, her voice is calm and measured. There is no trace of coyness, self-doubt, or guilt. "Why should I feel bad about it?" she shrugs.
Every Sunday, Xing slips away for a few hours to spend time with her lover Scott, a dot-com executive whom she met at a party. Until recently, the two-year affair was almost purely sexual. "I told him maybe we should talk some more. Something more romantic, you know?" she laughs. While she has not explicitly told her husband Don about her affair, she describes her relationship with her sixty-two year old husband more as a friendship than a traditional marriage.
She doesn't expect to stay with Don forever, nor does she want to leave him for Scott. Though Xing plans on having a more "normal" (as she puts it) marriage one day, she does not exclude the possibility of having an affair. Xing does not see herself as a sexual adventurer, but rather as a woman who takes life as it comes. "I wouldn't go looking for it. But if it happens... " she trails off with a smile.
Xing's nonchalant attitude towards her relationships flies in the face of received wisdom on female infidelity. The traditional view of female philandering favors blaming the wife. In the classics, the fate of straying women -- even sympathetic characters like Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary -- was death. "Bad" wives seeking sexual thrills were portrayed as shallow, bitter hussies a la Mrs. Robinson.
Though vestiges of this just-say-no ethos are still with us, certain types of affairs are now condoned -- but only when the husband or the relationship is less than worthy. In this revised version, the straying wife is an unhappy woman looking for love. Take, for example, the overwrought and wildly sentimental movies like "The Bridges of Madison County" or "The English Patient." Big screen movies will allow the hero to dally with a woman married to an unsatisfactory mate. These days an adulteress is no longer the villain but she must always be a victim. It is the modern reworking of the Cinderella story with the husband playing the evil stepmother.
The Ideal Affair
The inner princess imprisoned by marriage who finds her release in infidelity is an image that recurs ad nauseam even in feminist books on female infidelity, except they tout self-fulfillment rather than love as the holy grail of female sexuality. Many feminists recast extra-marital affairs as a quest for sexual emancipation, self-discovery, or understanding. Infidelity becomes a symbolic blow against the tyranny of gender roles.
Feminists have a done a great job of reclaiming women's bodies when it comes to reproductive rights and premarital sex. But the standard feminist critique of adultery remains deeply flawed and even reactionary in effect if not intent. It has taken two basic tacks: challenge male philandering; justify female infidelity. But how can we do both without opening ourselves up to accusations of reverse-bias?
The feminist solution has been to argue that women simply cheat for the "right" reasons -- be it sexual or emotional freedom. This in turn implies that the most widely acknowledged cause for male adultery -- the desire for variety -- is simply "wrong." And by making some affairs okay and others not, this woman-as-victim discourse reinforces the very mechanisms of guilt it claims to challenge. We end up pinning women to a higher standard than men, insisting that we offer the right kind of excuses to validate our indiscretions. Oddly enough, we now have to offer "good" enough reasons to be "bad."
My friend Gabby is a good example of the so-called ideal adulteress. She is currently infatuated with Mark, a graduate student. Gabby has had two other affairs during the course of her 10-year relationship with James, which started going south when they moved to the United States in 1999. Stuck at home without a work visa, she became entirely dependent on him for financial support. Over the years, he has become increasingly aggressive and demanding, using money as his weapon of choice. The affairs have made life with James somewhat bearable. And in each case, she was in love, or at least thought she was.
Shrinks would describe Gabby's transgressions as "affairs of fulfillment," where the straying partner is looking to fill an emotional vacuum in her life. It's a condition common to both men and women who find themselves stuck in the wrong relationship. But this is the only type of affair allowed to a woman in our culture. Fulfillment affairs are "safe" because they do not threaten our ideas about what women want. And we want love, of course. Conventional wisdom insists that married women jumping from one bed to another are really looking for the one true lover who could fulfill both their physical and emotional needs. Gabby's affairs dovetail neatly with the assigned narrative of women's lives: the search for Mr. Right.
Gabby could keep the feminists happy as well. James fits the classic profile of the sexist jerk who expects his girlfriend to sing for her supper. In choosing her lovers, Gabby has gravitated towards kinder, more sensitive men who treat her with respect and affection. Feminists often argue that women escape the power-laden scripts of marriage to rediscover their authentic selves in illicit, more "egalitarian" relationships. The affair becomes a way to maintain sanity and the less-than-happy relationship. Gabby fits the stereotype touted by the "victim" theory of infidelity -- stuck with an emotionally abusive partner, she preserves her self-worth and sexuality through other relationships.
The Old Double Standard
In stark contrast to the notions of why women stray, when men cheat, the problem is seen as poor impulse control -- in other words, the inability to control their inherent desire for variety. Tune into a talk show or check out the psychobiology section of your local library, and you will find some so-called expert pontificating about a man's biological urge to spread his semen far and wide. While they can control themselves through social and emotional restraints, it is considered "normal" for men to desire a number of women.
Nothing illustrates this view better than "The Mind of the Married Man." This annoyingly inane HBO series follows three men, each apparently designed to represent a male archetype, as they spend their time incessantly discussing sex. The "Jerk" hires call girls, sneaks quickies in his office, all the while declaring his "respect" for his wife. He prides himself on his "big dick mentality." The other extreme is the "Nice Guy" who gives his wife foot-rubs and devotedly watches intimacy tapes (corny videos dispensing a New-Agey version of couple therapy). The man in the middle, "Mr. Regular Guy" and the show's narrator, is reluctant to screw around on his wife but constantly thinks about it -- finally succumbing to a sexual encounter with a masseuse.
Quite apart from the unintended anti-male subtext of "Mind of the Married Man," it is a great example of what extremes of male philandering are tolerated as part of our culture's "boys will be boys" attitude. And it reveals the popular view of male infidelity: that it is "normal" and for the most part, inevitable. Marriage may alter a man's sexual behavior, but no one expects him to change his nature.
It is no coincidence that the primary object of Mr. Regular Guy's lust is his very sexy, very single assistant. Male infidelity relies on the age-old Wife/Wench separation of female identity. The man can comfortably position himself in the middle of a marital triangle, tagging one woman as maternal and the other as sexual. In the Mind of the Married Man, the wives are boring domesticated nags, while the single women are lusty wenches who love licking men's balls.
Mr. Regular Guy's wife does demand sex from her husband, but there is no indication that she desires any other man; her sexuality is entirely circumscribed by her marriage. In a sense, her dogged devotion enables her husband's wanderings. He fantasizes about wild sexual encounters, while she keeps the home fires burning. The idea that wild single women magically turn into domestic goddesses at the altar serves the interests of men -- who can then lust after all those gorgeous single women while their wives are tucked away safely at home.
We may have dramatically changed the sexual scripts for single women, but married women are still held to a reengineered version of the Carol Brady standard. "Sex and the City" -- a show ostensibly devoted to liberated sexual women -- focuses almost exclusively on singles. Carrie and co. sow their wild oats like men. One-night stands, sexual experimentation, and juggling multiple partners are all par for the course. Marriages, engagements, and other couplings do not last long. The sex life of a married woman is considered only slightly more interesting than that of a nun. Today we accept the idea of a free-wheeling single woman with varied sexual desires. But once she settles down, we expect her sexuality to be magically transformed; that her need to desire and be desired will be satisfied by a single love object, her partner.
A woman's desire to stray is threatening and so has to be tagged as an abnormal state -- a symptom of a crisis. When a happily married woman strays, all hell is likely to break loose. In two sitcoms centering on domestic bliss, "Mad About You" and "Dharma and Greg," the wife finds herself kissing another man. A single kiss nearly destroys their idyllic marriages, what with both husbands threatening divorce in self-righteous indignation. A similar reaction from a woman would seem petulant and childish in a "stand by your man" culture where wives accept far more serious indiscretions. But a cuckolded husband has no socially assigned role. A man who loses control of his wife's sexuality cedes his masculinity.
Female infidelity evokes rage, not forgiveness. In some Middle Eastern countries, adultery is still considered a legal defense for killing your wife. Even in this country, the penalties for straying are considerable. A wife's confessed affair is more likely than a husband's to lead to divorce, which in most cases means loss of social status and income for the woman and her children. And it seems we still consider female infidelity a good enough reason to kill -- not the wife but her lover. Richard Gere, for example, murders his wife's (Diane Lane) French lover in Adrian Lyne's latest sexploitation flick "Unfaithful."
Although Hollywood is selling Unfaithful as a brave exploration of the sexuality of married women, the movie's message is, in fact, dishearteningly conservative. Unlike Michael Douglas' character in "Fatal Attraction" (Lyne's 1987 thriller about a one-night stand gone terribly wrong), Lane is obsessed with her affair. She is erratic, over-emotional, and reckless -- willing to jeopardize the well-being of her family for the sake of her uncaring lover. In Lyne's universe, it is always the woman -- be it wife or mistress -- who wants more.
Even Happy Girls Cheat
Surveys of female infidelity in the United States vary widely, with results often ranging from 20 to 60 percent. And the numbers are usually lower than those reported for men -- a gap that experts seize upon as evidence of women's (relatively) monogamous nature. But it is a mistake to confine the sexuality of a married woman to actual instances of infidelity. Anecdotal evidence suggests that married women think, yearn, and fantasize just as much about love, lust, and all that good stuff as single women.
Many of my married/partnered women friends are involved in highly intense but non-sexual relationships. Some are just bored, yearning for the excitement of a fling; others are in the throes of a schoolgirl crush; and some are merely nostalgic for bygone days of sexual variety or romance. Lara, who has been happily married for more than three years, has fond memories of an ex-boyfriend who was particularly adept at performing oral sex. Maria, a thirty-something married for over a decade, is in lust with a sexy bartender, who provides plenty of fodder for sexual fantasies.
The truth is that the desire to stray is strong even in women in the happiest of relationships. A study published in February by the Journal of Sex Research showed that 80 percent of women (compared to 98 percent of men) have frequent fantasies involving persons other than their partner, and the gender gap narrows in longer-term relationships.
But sometimes even women who don't act on their desires cannot shake off the sneaking feeling of being bad or immoral. Joan, a writer in her 20s, confesses to having a huge crush on one of her partner's friends.
"It got so bad I was fantasizing about him when I was in bed with Sean," she says, looking sheepish. "My friends think I'm extreme but I think that even wanting someone so much is kind of cheating. I wouldn't want him doing that to me."
Joan is not alone. At least eight percent of female respondents in a survey on infidelity conducted by the English magazine Woman's Journal felt even lustful thoughts constituted cheating. It may be a minority opinion, but the numbers reveal our capacity for guilt. Men, however, consider lusting after other women as a natural part of their sexuality.
Ceding Higher Ground
If female sexuality is a mystery, it is because women have rarely been free to desire -- even in most feminist analyses. Perhaps we can never know whether women desire novelty and variety as much as men until we create a more egalitarian world. But social trends indicate that female infidelity has paralleled advances in women's rights. Given the lopsided world we live in, it is likely that women's predilection for monogamy has more to do with nurture than nature. It is more a function of a social milieu that actively encourages men to stray while punishing women, either through internal or external barriers, for their desires.
In a 1997 New York Times article titled "Adultery: The Double Standard," Katie Roiphe accused feminists of hypocrisy for celebrating female infidelity as liberation while condemning philandering men. She is partly right. When we claim women cheat for "better" reasons, we are being unfair, though less to men than to women. Beneath this celebratory rhetoric is an archaic and repressive vision of female sexuality. Implicit in this type of reasoning is the idea that married women have to provide worthy motives for straying -- be it emancipation or love.
In recent decades, the affair-as-escape discourse has found almost universal approval. But what about the rest of us? What about Xing who is not using her affairs to look for love or a more suitable mate, or flee domesticity? By placing the straying woman in the role of the victim, female infidelity has been transformed into the privilege of the weak -- a carte blanche issued to those who can provide due evidence of their misery. Books, movies, and magazines offer a mind-boggling range of excuses to justify female infidelity, but they rarely consider the obvious -- women may quite simply enjoy sexual variety.
When behavior and desires that are nothing more or less than basic human nature must be justified and labeled according to gender, women lose. Equality sometimes requires ceding the moral higher ground. It would be more liberating to acknowledge instead that women are capable of the same range of sexual behavior as men, and not all of it is excusable. Otherwise, we will end up reiterating that tired old cliche: For women, it's never about sex.
Lakshmi Chaudhry is a senior editor at Alternet. A version of this article first appeared in Bitch Magazine.