Why Women Can't Cheat (and Men Can)

Why Women Can't Cheat (and Men Can)
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Why is it that we so often hear about high profile men cheating, but we rarely hear about women doing so? Perhaps it's because societal structure combined with differing motivations for infidelity mean it's simply easier for men to cheat.

John Edwards was supposed to be one of the good guys – he seemed like the kind of husband who'd clean up around the house and take his wife to chemo. But it turns out he was yet another married man lying about an affair (with Rielle Hunter, a woman who produced his campaign videos) and he only came clean after being cornered by the media. His wife, Elizabeth Edwards, already knew about his mistress when the news broke and she has stuck by his side throughout the scandal. Why is it that we so often hear about high profile men cheating, but we rarely hear about women doing so? Perhaps it's because societal structure combined with differing motivations for infidelity mean it's simply easier for men to cheat.

Despite knowing that men stray, not to mention the oft-repeated statistic that most marriages end in divorce, women still put time and energy into making relationships work, especially when compared with men. There's no doubt that dudes today are more invested in their relationships than they were in cavemen times, but their commitment doesn't create mega-hits like Sex and the City, a show about four women talking about men, or reading articles like "The Secret Girlfriend Weapon," which details psychological tricks to improve your couple bond, or "How To Emerge From a Fight More in Love," actual articles from Cosmopolitan.com, whose print version is the top-seller on newsstands. By putting so much of their time and energy into the fairy-tale idea that relationships can be perfect, women set themselves up to be disappointed--or to at least look like big losers--when their man has an affair.

Luckily, the statistics show that we aren't as naïve as all that. Women are only seven percent less likely to cheat than men, according to a study released this week from the University of New Hampshire. All the unmarried twenty-something women I interviewed for this piece turned out to be cheaters who'd rarely been cheated on. Lauren S., 25, has fooled around in three of her serious relationships. With one guy, she says, "I was uncomfortable with him physically, and I felt smothered. He didn't let me be my full self. So when he went out of town for a few weeks I went to a party and ended up crashing in a bed with some other guy, and cheated." While she felt guilty, and her boyfriend forgave her, Lauren broke up with him a few months later for the same reasons that drove her to cheat in the first place. Cynthia, 28, has also strayed repeatedly. "But I do it at the end of relationship, when it's all but over anyway, and then I have to break up," she says.

In an MSN.com/iVillage survey of 70,000 people, taken last year, female respondents were twice as likely to use an affair to get out of a relationship. They also cheated to find a better emotional connection or to be with someone who made them feel sexy and wanted. Men, on the other hand, said they cheat for sex--more sex, better sex, variety of sex. Sex, sex, sex.

Women can cheat for sex too, but it's easier for men. Women don't have easy access to escort services like the Emperor's Club and happy-ending parlor massages (at least, not the way men do), and sex clubs and online cheaters sites are almost all marketed towards men. Even sites like Craigslist, which level the hookup playing field, can be a landmine of creeps for a woman looking for action. Moreover, women can't set up anonymous trysts the way men can; with the ever-present risk of physical assault it's prudent for a woman's to create a connection with a man before meeting him, to establish that he's safe and trustworthy.

For a married woman with kids, like Elizabeth Edwards (who has a nine-year-old and a seven-year-old), it's even harder to stray. According to Newsweek, women spend twice as much time taking care of kids and housework than men do, leaving them with less child or spouse-free moments to have a sexual tryst, let alone fulfilling, emotional relationship outside their marriage. And, despite the cougar trend, older women's sexuality is devalued in our culture, making it harder for a mature, married woman to find a partner in crime.

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In a Newsweek article that ran earlier this year, Tina Brown wrote, "in the relentless youth culture of the early 21st century, if you are 50 and female, the novel that's being written on your forehead every day is 'Invisible Woman.'" She was writing about Hillary Clinton's female supporters but her observation applies to any aging woman--even Christy Brinkley. At fifty-five, John Edwards is seen as an unmitigated hunk, while Brinkley, younger by a year (and the victim of a cheating husband), is a woman who looks really good for her age. (Seriously, Google "Christy Brinkley looks good for her age," then do the same for Edwards. There are no hits for the latter.)

Married women with kids are also less likely to cheat because they're invested in their children's lives and don't want to be the ones to tell the kids mommy and daddy are breaking up. As anthropologist Helen Fisher told Good Morning America, moms have "networks in the community, children, memories much more than the adultery." And, if they are a stay-at-home moms or have scaled back their career to benefit the couples' home life, being single again means entering a job market they've lost touch with. Silda Spitzer, for one, parked her high-powered lawyer career to help her husband's and to raise their children. Elizabeth Edwards is also "retired." So when she said, "when the door closes behind [John], he has his family waiting for him," what should have come next is –because I have no other options.

The fact that men tend to cheat for sex (or "ego" as Edwards put it) rather than relationship dissatisfaction, coupled with the extra time and access to cheaters resources makes it easy for men to cheat. Is this an excuse? No way. But as long as women spend more time at home and lose their sex appeal as they age they'll end up do a better job of keeping their pants on – even if they don't want to.