Do Men Really ‘Need’ To Cheat?

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What does the fact that 30-plus million men were on the Ashley Madison website mean, whether they actually had an affair or not? If you ask Eric Anderson, an American sociologist and professor of masculinity, sexuality and sport at England’s University of Winchester and author of the provocative book, The Monogamy Gap: Men, Love, and the Reality of Cheating (Oxford University), he would say monogamy is failing men.

Not only is it failing them, but it’s a “socially compelled sexual incarceration” that can lead to a life of anger and contempt.

Is monogamy working well? In study after study, Americans by huge margins say they are against infidelity — more now than even in the 1970s. Yet, infidelity continues to happen — yes, by men and women — and most likely by many of the very same people who say they’re against it. We say we believe in monogamy and we enter marriage/relationships expecting it, but our behavior proves otherwise, and that is part of what I found intriguing (and disturbing) in Anderson’s book.

The young men (and he details why he chose undergrads, which I will not get into here but it makes sense) who were cheating saw themselves as monogamous. Well, if you have yourself cheated or know someone who has (and most of us know plenty of cheaters or those cheated upon), you know that people who are having sex on the side have lots of justifications and rationalizations to make it work for them, especially if they believe that they truly love their partner and don’t want to hurt him or her.

Another thing that I found upsetting in his book is how the young men thought it was OK for them to cheat but not their girlfriends. But, of course, that is human behavior — I can trust myself to have recreational sex on the side without getting emotionally involved, but I don’t trust that my partner can do that. Sorry, that’s not going to fly with me. Either you have an agreed-upon open relationship or you don’t. It is that black or white for me.

Anderson was kind enough to give me lengthy answers to my (lengthy) questions. Here’s what he had to say:

Your study includes just 120 undergraduate men, straight and gay; isn’t that too small a sample to really know what’s going on for men?

If I were attempting to determine what percent of men cheat, then yes it would be far too small a sample to make a definitive statement. But we already know that answer: large scale surveys show us that cheating remains the norm for men (women are not much better). Thus, my aim with this research was to understand why so many men cheat. I wanted to examine the very notion of monogamy, not morally, but rationally. I wanted to know why men want monogamy but nonetheless cheat. 120 men was more than I needed, because most men said the same thing.

You write that men want to be emotionally monogamous, but their “body craves sex with other people somatically.” People crave food, drugs, booze, sometimes to disastrous results as far as health and mortality. We can’t have everything we want. If there can be self-control with other cravings, why can’t men control their body urges?

But do we really control these other bodily urges? Humans are largely lousy at controlling our bodies’ desires. This is why despite the fact that most everybody wants to be slim, 70% of Americans are overweight. Judging people who indulge in (booze, food, or sex) as immoral has very little practical value. Stigma doesn’t work well in controlling these behaviors. We say we don’t want to eat that Snickers bar, but we also really do want to eat it. We eat it, we feel guilty about it, and afterwards we promise ourselves not to eat one again; but we nonetheless do. It is this same phenomenon, only with cheating, that I explore in the book. I wanted to understand why this phenomena of wanting but not wanting to cheat exists.

The men in your study experienced a sharp decrease in the frequency and enjoyment of sex after two monogamous years. But since no one can sustain the kind of thrilling sex couples have in the beginning of a relationship — when the chemical changes in our brain literally make us sick — isn’t it a healthy thing that it decreases?

I wish young men got two years of good sex before it dropped off! It’s a lot less than that! It may, however, be good that the sexual desire for one’s partner weans; it means that we end up staying with our long term partners for the socio-emotional connection and not for the sex. If a couple is going to raise a family, it is the emotional connection that counts, not the sexual.

But it is also important to recognize that our physical desires don’t die; they just change from our partner to people other than him/her. We, as a society, are fairly unaware of this. We falsely believe that when the sex dies, the relationship has also died. The reality is the opposite, when the sex dies the relationship has just begun.

Sure, sex with the same person can get boring no matter how much you spice it up. But, what about the idea that long-term relationships makes sex become deeper, more intimate and more meaningful?

I wish more people understood your first sentence. I want people to understand that, as you say, the sex will decrease, both in intensity and frequency. Many marriages will end up sexless. But the diminution of sex is simultaneous to one’s emotional bonds growing stronger.

Long term partners may have more intimate sex (most just have very little) but when men see a guy or girl who turns them on, it’s not intimate and meaningful sex they are craving. I argue that we can have both that hot carnal sex with strangers, and the intimate, even if boring, sex with our long term partners. Open relationships (which generally grow out of monogamous relationships) facilitate both.

Honesty is a huge part of a relationship, yet you argue that cheating is less risky for men as far relationship stability (than telling them they want sex with others?). How good a relationship can one have when there’s deception, especially since you say after men cheat spontaneously, they are more likely to plan cheating?

Honesty is good sometimes, yes, and horrible at other times, “Yes, honey, you have gotten fat” isn’t necessarily a good form of honesty. There are good reasons to lie; it is an essential skill for keeping community and relationship peace. The reason men lie about cheating, however, is mostly because they know that if they ask for permission to have recreational sex: 1) they will be denied 2) (after they are denied) they will be subject to scrutiny and increased relationship policing; 3) they will be stigmatized as immoral, and most likely broken up with. Thus, honesty doesn’t meet their desires of having both a long term partner and recreational sex with others.

The way cheating men see it, it’s either cheat or don’t cheat, but telling their partners they want sex outside the relationship, or telling their partners that they actually cheated, is viewed as a sure fire way of achieving relationship termination. It’s very important to remember that when men cheat for recreational sex (I’m not talking about affairs here) they DO love their partners. If they didn’t love their partners, they would break up with them.

Rather than promoting nonmonogamy, which clearly would be upsetting to many people because of the deception, wouldn’t it be less harmful to relationships if we became serial monogamists — marrying two, three or four times as our sexual needs change as we age?

It seems to me you have this backwards, monogamy is dishonest and nonmonogamy honest. Where is the deception in two people agreeing to have sex with others? But just because cheating is not honest, does not mean that it is not rational. Cheating is rational, and it is logical. I show that men find cheating to be a way of keeping their partners and having some extra sex; that makes cheating practical, and that’s why most men do it.

But your question also misses this sensible middle ground. Rather than marrying 20 times or more in one’s life via serial monogamy, we can keep one emotional lover and just have casual, meaningless — and hot — sex with strangers (oftentimes in threesomes with their partner). This gives us the long term emotional stability we desire psychologically, alongside the hot, carnal sex we desire somatically. It makes much more sense than the lying and cheating of today’s relationships, or the difficulty of breaking up with a loved one simply because you want someone else’s body for an hour.

I’m sure feminists would be surprised to know that feminism has led to today’s young men wanting extradyadic sex more than men of previous generations. What role does feminism play, and wouldn’t feminists want the same for themselves?

No. It’s not feminism that has done this. It’s the increased availability of sex, the ability to have it earlier and more often; alongside the panoply of pornography available on one’s computer or cell phone that makes monogamous sex look boring compared to the way it was looked at in the 1950s.

Infidelity breaks up many marriages, as you note, but often it isn’t the act of sex that’s so upsetting — it’s the deception and lying, clearly problematic for the emotional intimacy you say men want. So cheating for sex may be “just about the sex” for him, but not for his partner.

Infidelity does not break marriages up; it is the unreasonable expectation that a marriage must restrict sex that breaks a marriage up. One of the reasons I wrote the book is that I’ve seen so many long term relationships broken up simply because one had sex outside the relationship. But feeling victimized isn’t a natural outcome of casual sex outside a relationship, it is a socialized victimhood. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating cheating, instead I’m advocating open and equitable sexual relationships. When both in the couple desire this, when both realize that extradyadic sex makes their partner happy, and they therefore want their partner to have that sex, a couple will have moved a long ways to ward facilitating emotional honesty, while simultaneously withering at jealousy scripts, which can be very damaging to a relationship. But if one can’t achieve this with a partner that’s hostile to the idea, cheating is the reasonable action.

Part of the problem with cheating is that it denies the other person the right to decide if he or she wants that kind of a relationship. Yet most of the men in your study were OK with sex on the side for them, but not their girlfriends. Not only isn’t that unfair, but it also seems incredibly selfish.

I argue that monogamy is culturally compelled, so the decision has been made for us. For example, how much of a chance would a man stand to have a second date if on the first date he said that he was interested in an open relationship? But equally as important, at the point men enter into relationships they too think they want monogamy. It’s only after being in a relationship for months or years that they badly want sex with others. But by this point, they don’t want to break up with their partners because they have long standing love. Instead of chancing that love by asking for extradyadic sex, they cheat. If they don’t get caught (and most don’t) it’s a rational choice.

But it is indeed selfish for men to want sex with others but not to want their partners to do the same. This however is not just a ‘man’ thing. Women also cheat; they also lie about it; and they also want to be able to cheat without their partners doing the same. Monogamy is a problem for all sexes; it builds in an ownership script regardless of gender.

I often ask my students what is more important to their relationships, their emotional or their physical connection. They unanimously agree upon the emotional. I then ask why they only police the physical. Why can a girl tell her girlfriends things she does not tell her boyfriend? Is this not emotional cheating? And is this not a worse violation than physical cheating? My point, of course, is that one person cannot meet all of your emotional or our physical needs. Maybe one person can for a shortwhile, but ultimately we need other people in our lives.

You write that love is a “long-standing sense of security and comfort.” So, wouldn’t open relationships potentially pose a threat to that security since, even if couples play by their own sexual rules, there’s always a chance one could end up preferring a new lover over one’s partner?

People in open relationships structure their engagements as to reduce emotional intimacy. But, yes, of course it can happen. What I find from those in open relationships however, is that once they have had sex with that person they fancied, they tend to get over them.

But if we really want to prevent our lovers from developing the lust of others, or worse, emotional intimacy with others; if we really want to prevent men and women from cheating, we would be best to sex-segregate our jobs, our classrooms and social arenas, too. Emotional intimacy is the real threat to a relationship, not a one-off hour with a stranger from Craigslist; and this can happen anywhere. Ultimately, there are no guarantees that one’s partner won’t find love elsewhere; this too is part of being human. But controlling one’s partner to prevent it only makes matters worse — it makes them want to leave you. A better strategy is to be open, emotionally and perhaps sexually, too.

Originally published at on January 7, 2012.

Award-winning journalist, coauthor of “The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels,” mom, changing the narrative about older women

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