It’s Not Cheating, It’s Just Sex

5d6d8-break-up2While chastising me for harboring fanciful ideas about sexually faithful men, a good friend once said to me, “There are only two kinds of men. Those who treat their wives and their mistresses well, and those who don’t. You decide which one turns you on, then you decide which role you want to play.”

“I don’t believe that,” I responded. “There are men who are devoted to their wives.”

“Miserable men who wish they had the balls not to be. Tell me, does your Prince Charming day dream about internet porn?”

“You’d prefer to be a mistress?”

“When I’m with a married man, I know two things, almost for certain. One, exactly who else he’s fucking. And two, that I’m the only thing he’s thinking about. A married man might spend time with his family, but he’s thinking about the next opportunity he’ll have to fuck me. All day, he thinks about the things he’ll do to me. And all night, even when he’s fucking his wife, he imagines all the things I’ll do to him. I’m his escape. I’m where he really wants to be. Single men don’t give me their undivided attention. And there are too many unknowns.”

“Why not just marry someone you want sexually?”

“Marriage kills sexual attraction, but it provides a sense of security. Most men value security above their sexual needs. They need a mommy to take care of them and their kids. Which is fine with me, because I get all the benefits without doing all the work.”

My dear friend is not alone in her assessment. Jokes abound about the drudgery of marriage. Oscar Wilde once said, “A man who marries his mistress leaves a vacancy in that position.” The Spanish word for “spouse,” esposas, also means “handcuffs.” Why are married women usually heavier? Because single women come home, see what’s in the fridge, and go to bed. Married women come home, see what’s in bed, and go to the fridge.

It is the sacrifice of the libido that makes possible the greater joys in life: family, connectedness, and a sense of purpose. Or so the story goes. But what man wants to sacrifice a biological imperative to be with the woman he loves? What wife wants to spend her life feeling unloved and apologizing for never being enough?

In 1988, the then governor of Colorado, Roy Romer, called an extraordinary press conference during which he admitted his wife of forty-five years had been aware of and accepted a long-running extra marital affair that had become publicly known.

“What is fidelity?” he asked the surprised reporters. “Fidelity is what kind of openness you have. What kind of trust you have, which is based on truth and openness…In my family, we’ve…tried to arrive at an understanding of what our feelings are, what our needs are, and work it out with that kind of fidelity.”

5d1da-frustrationIf there is a bigger point of contention than sexual fidelity in a significant relationship, it is yet to be discovered. A 2006 study showed that infidelity was the most cited cause for divorce in a survey of 150 cultures. Of course, people often lie about these things, disregarding the sanctity of the mighty survey (tsk, tsk), but the most consistent data on infidelity comes from the General Social Survey conducted by the National Science Foundation, which has tracked opinions about American social behavior since 1972. The data shows in any given year, about one out of ten married people say they have had sex outside of marriage. In most Western and European countries, 50-60% of males are estimated to have been unfaithful at least once, and in places like Sweden or France, the number rises to 70-80%. As a rule, these numbers are lower for women the world over, with the exception of France, where 87% of women have had sex outside of a current or past relationship.

 The prevailing assumption is if a partner steps outside of the relationship, there must be something essentially wrong with it. In opposition to this suggestion, Easton and Catherine Liszt, authors of THE ETHICAL SLUT, assert “It is cruel and insensitive to interpret an affair as a symptom of sickness in the relationship, as it leaves the ‘cheated-on’ partner–who may already feel insecure—to wonder what is wrong with him…Many people have sex outside their primary relationships for reasons that have nothing to do with any inadequacy in their partner or the relationship.”

 Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha, authors of SEX AT DAWN, point out couples with open marriages generally rate their over all satisfaction (with both their relationship and with life in general) as significantly higher than conventional couples do. They are able to recognize “additional relationships need not be taken as indictments of anyone.”

Proponents of monogamy argue these are fanciful ideas, which saw their rise and fall with the free love of the sixties and early seventies, resulting in detrimentally loose boundaries and communes rampant with sex abuse. It is also worth noting, perhaps the desire for extra marital sex has little to do with innate drives, and more to do with increased accessibility.

Professor Douglas Kenrick at Arizona State University found that men who were shown images of sexually attractive women, rated their own real-life partners as less attractive and more dissatisfied with them, then with men who were shown images of average-looking women. Those who saw the more attractive photos also described themselves as less committed, less serious, less satisfied, and less close to their partners. Even the men whose partners were considered very attractive were still less satisfied with them after seeing the pictures of the sexually attractive women. In short, ignorance is bliss.

fe2a9-onlinedating1This is significant when you consider both our distorted standard of beauty, and the increased accessibility to that standard through social media and the internet, especially internet porn, which has been identified as the root cause of increasing instances of impotence and sexual dysfunction in men ages 18-30. For more, check out Gary Wilson’s presentation, “The Great Porn Experiment,” in which he describes the detrimental effects of unending novelty.   Gary states, “Internet porn is killing young men’s sexual performance…the problem isn’t psychological, its physical changes in the brain. Their brains have become numb and are sending weaker signals…leading to a drop in libido…in the end, making it impossible to get an erection. It’s a classic addiction process: gradual desensitization.” But men in their twenties aren’t recovering their sexual function after quitting internet porn as well as older men, because older men were already developed sexually before the invention of high speed Internet.

 Novelty is at the root of it all, at least for men. A man might claim he is in love with one woman, but he needs sexual variety. And not the kind a girlfriend can simulate by buying a remote vibrator or investing in black leather. No. A woman can do a lot of things, but she can never be the one thing a man truly desires: a different woman. Not necessarily a better-looking one. Not one that is funnier or smarter. Not even one that is better in bed. Merely different. Not only does a man’s testosterone rise significantly after only a few moments of talking to a new attractive woman, but there is a release of dopamine (the pleasure chemical) with novel stimulation. In fact, according to Williams Masters and Virginia Johnson, with Dr. Kinsey’s agreement, adding a newer, younger partner can reverse a man’s waning sexual interest in his long-term partner.

Women’s motivations for cheating are various and infinitely more complex. A poll taken of divorce lawyers in the United Kingdom in 2008 showed the top ten answers women gave when asked why they’d had an affair were:

  1. Loneliness
  2. Unable to communicate with their partner about problems
  3. Not made to feel desirable enough
  4. Lack of appreciation by husband
  5. Husband too self absorbed and full of hang ups
  6. Lack of romance and excitement in bed
  7. Need to escape the routine in their life
  8. Wanting to feel as powerful in their personal life as at work
  9. Bored with the routine
  10. Opportunity was offered at the right time

Of course, an affair doesn’t necessarily mean anything significant in terms of a woman’s emotional commitment, or where a man intends to invest his resources. It’s “just sex” after all. It doesn’t mean the “cheating” partner is dissatisfied with the sex in the relationship (though this is more likely for women). Just because one partner’s needs might be less popular than the other’s, doesn’t make them any less important, if both parties are to feel recognized and honored in the relationship, free from feelings of shame and guilt.

2e1c3-polyamoryWhile the “prevailing script” for mature adult behavior is for the wronged party to pick up and leave at the slightest indiscretion, there is a wealth of literature out there suggesting couples try giving “flexible sexual boundaries” the good old college try, before throwing away what is otherwise a healthy and loving partnership. Ryan and Jetha beg the question, “Is abandonment of one’s family the ‘adult’ option for dealing with the inherent conflict between socially sanctioned romantic ideals and the inconvenient truths of sexual passion?”

If you happen to find yourself asking the same question, you might keep in mind, love is located in different areas of the brain, depending on gender. So unless you plan on falling in love with the same sex the next time around, or think the issue of sexual fidelity is unique to your relationship and will never come up with a “better” partner in the future, think again.

 Scans taken of over 3,000 “madly in love” college students reveal gender differences in brain activity. When asked to look at a picture of their lover, women showed greater activity in the parts of the brain related to memory, emotion, and attention, as well as in the septum—also called “the pleasure center.” Men showed greater activity in the visual cortex, including one area responsible for sexual arousal (Fischer & Brown, 2004).

Notably, men might have fewer illuminated areas than women, but when viewed in color, those areas are more intensely active. This could account for the propensity for men to fall “in love at first sight,” more aptly described as “lust at first sight.” In general, these variations in brain activity across gender lines are supposed to aid humans in perpetuating the species. Men are better equipped to determine fertility by scouting an attractive hip-to-waist ratio, and women are more discerning of behavior and character, to determine if he would be a good father and provider.

d4bd3-lo2262Love and lust are also located in different areas of the brain, at least initially. A subsequent study in which individuals looked at erotic imagery while having their brains scanned, revealed none of the “in-love” brain activity. Activity was found in the hypothalamus and amygdala, part of the Limbic system of the brain involved with instinctual needs such as hunger, thirst, and arousal (Fischer & Brown, 2004). It is important to note the four phases of love when considering this information, however. Because once lust turns into love, our instinctual drives eventually arrive at a chemical crossroads, for both men and women.

According to neuroscientist and New York Times bestselling author, Dr. Amen, there are four phases of love—attraction, infatuation, commitment, and detachment—each phase with its own chemical trigger. Sometimes when the infatuation chemicals drop off, people mistake the lack of intensity and euphoria with falling out of love. Also, because they feel the withdrawal from infatuation chemicals, they seek other partners or stimulating substances to re-create that feeling.

Whether you are a monogamist or not, this cyclical pattern of relating can be destructive if left unexplored. When we fall in love with someone, eventually they will become imbedded in the Limbic part of our brains (their smell, the touch of their skin, the sound of their voice, the beat of their heart, etc.). When we cannot interact with our love object as we are used to, that part of the brain becomes inflamed, looking for him or her. This inflammation is associated with low serotonin levels which leads to depression, trouble sleeping, feeling obsessed, loss of appetite, and wanting to isolate ourselves. Additionally, a deficit in endorphins, which modulates pain and pleasure pathways in the brain, may be responsible for why we feel physical pain during a breakup. Your heart, quite literally, aches.

But before you go diving into Limbic depression because your hubby fell in lust and it must mean he doesn’t love you anymore, remember, men are better equipped to differentiate lust from love… Then again, they also use and perceive lust as an expression of love. Allan and Barbara Pease assert, “For men, love can be love, and sex can be just sex, and sometimes they happen together.” And if that isn’t confusing enough, “Men express themselves emotionally through sex” and perceive a woman’s lusty interest (or lack thereof) as a sign of love (or it’s absence).

If that’s the case, how is a woman supposed to know if it’s “just sex” versus an expression of love, if her partner is using the same act to express two different things (as most men are apt to do)? And why should a woman believe a special act when performed without meaning doesn’t degrade the value of the act when it’s performed with her? I thought women expected men to be mind readers. Oh, he who casts the first stone.

11353-ethical_slutThe authors of SEX AT DAWN and the ETHICAL SLUT would assert this perspective is derived from a “deprivation economy,” rising with the advent of agriculture and divvying up farmland, in which love is considered limited and must be cornered and defended. They would argue the “other encounter” doesn’t mean “nothing,” just something different. The more love you give, the more there is. And that doesn’t make it any less special between you and your partner; in the same way parents are supposed to love all their children, but still manage to play favorites. The authors also suggest long-term marriages develop into a bond much like that between brother and sister. And once that level of intimacy is achieved, an anti-incest mechanism kicks in, making us less in lust with our spouses, while more deeply in love. Ryan and Jetha state, “Like every other kind of hunger, sexual desire tends to be smothered by its satisfaction”(p. 301).

Perhaps the most important thing to consider before throwing your relationship under the bus of ‘socially sanctioned romantic ideals,’ is what you actually need out of a committed relationship. On the bright side, men and women tend to value the same things when considering a long-term commitment, though different glues hold them together.

 Allen and Barbara Pease assert, although men and women differ on short term dating goals (i.e. men have short term dating goals, while women have only long-term dating goals), when it comes to long-term commitment, men and women tend to see eye to eye.

Men’s Long Term List

  1. Personality
  2. Attractiveness
  3. Brains
  4. Humor
  5. Good Body

Women’s Long-term List

  1. Personality
  2. Humor
  3. Sensitivity
  4. Brains
  5. Good Body

Importantly, “commitment” is not necessarily defined by sexual fidelity, though it is considered concurrent with feelings of love. For a man, it would appear feelings of love mean a willingness to commit his resources to one “primary” partner. In other words, he decides this woman has priority access to his time, money, emotional life, and could possibly bear his children. He’s willing to provide these things because she meets all the bullets on his Long Term List, but above all, he respects her. No, it’s not a lusty or very romantic word, which says a lot about how men view marriage.

Groom looking at his wifes wedding ring c 1949. In the past, traditional marriage afforded women social status and financial security; it would be foolish and imprudent to leave a good provider for a quiet indiscretion. But nowadays, women are hunting and gathering for themselves, with a third of women in the United States earning more money than their husbands. And while these high earners still prefer men with greater resources, those resources aren’t gonna keep her in line the way they used to, if she ain’t feeling the love.

Men view commitment with a sense of duty and respect (again, in their minds, neither of these concepts are defined by sexual fidelity). A woman might ask her husband, “Don’t you love me, baby?” And he’ll reply, “Of course, honey. It’s my job.” Women view commitment with a sense of romance and self worth. This might explain why women are typically the ones to end a marriage, regardless of who did the philandering.

A man might sleep with another woman, or his wife might sleep with another man, but if he doesn’t perceive either event as a threat to the status quo of their day-to-day activities, and it doesn’t diminish his respect for her as a person, he sees no reason to rock the boat. A woman, on the other hand, more often than not, sleeps with another man because she’s dissatisfied in the relationship (unless she’s among a certain thirty percent of women in their forties). And if her husband sleeps with another woman, it’s a direct assault upon her self worth. The love is gone. The relationship failed. In her view, the commitment is fractured and/or essentially flawed. Where did she go wrong?

German philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Geothe observed, “Love is an ideal thing, marriage a real thing. A confusion of the real with the ideal never goes unpunished.” Proponents of monogamy, Allan and Barbara Pease assert the problem is that a woman’s expectations of a man are unrealistic and often lead to disillusionment. Men might be susceptible to Internet porn, but women are equally vulnerable to unrealistic standards of masculinity on television, in social media, and in the highest selling genre the book publishing industry has to offer: Romance (i.e. porn for women). Ryan and Jetha point out, “Women who spend their time reading romance novels are the most dissatisfied with their lives, however studies show they experience more frequent orgasms.”

In conclusion, when it comes to the subject of sexual fidelity, women will struggle with a man’s ability to dissociate sex from emotional intimacy, and men will feel frustrated with a woman’s propensity to intertwine two obviously disparate things (except when they’re not). But perhaps with trust and honesty we can strive to accept what we do not understand. Determining your expectations for commitment and love, and communicating those things without judgment, is essential before entering into or ending a long-term partnership. In confronting the ‘inconvenient truths of sexual passion’ remember men and women express their sexuality in different ways, though both deserve equal consideration and sensitivity. Be sure to allow enough time for dopey brain chemicals to run their course before making any drastic moves. And above all, after all that, “to thine own self be true.”

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8 thoughts on “It’s Not Cheating, It’s Just Sex

  1. A thought-provoking exploration. Thank you. I have a specific question. You say: “A woman, on the other hand, more often than not, sleeps with another man because she’s dissatisfied in the relationship (unless she’s among a certain thirty percent of women in their forties).” Can you explain that “thirty percent of women in their forties” part?


    1. Dr. David Schmitt of Bradley University, Illinois collected data on the sexual habits of men and women from 48 countries across the world. The results showed about 30% of women had been unfaithful at least once when their partner wasn’t looking. Women in their 30s were more likely to cheat due to that ticking clock. In their 40s it is suggested women are already independently established enough financially not to worry about losing (or finding) a provider. Or, some are secure enough in their marriage, and the kids are on their way out of the nest, so having a little somethin’ on the side is mutually agreeable. Women enjoy novelty too, it just manifests differently. (I find its really hard for single people to fathom being married for more than seven years, and what it can do to one’s sex drive and romantic ideals)

      However, there are new studies that have some interesting results, and I think warrant a follow up blog post. Thanks for giving me the idea! And for commenting.


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