Back when I was in college, there were rules for the female students. We had to wear skirts to meals. Curfew was strict, broken under threat of expulsion — or worse. Naturally, boys were not allowed into our rooms. These maxims were designed to “protect” us women — we who were so easily taken advantage of, so at risk of being romantically duped — not to mention reinforce the idea that we were expected to act in a certain way.
Which was fine. In those days, many girls, and their parents, thought of college as a means to a husband. (So many of my contemporaries who achieved that end are now divorced, some more than once.) Now, although finding a mate at college is still common — and there are certainly Ivy League graduates who decide to make their lives as mothers and homemakers — it’s no longer what secondary education is about. Away at college, young people live in dorms in which male and female students share common areas, bathrooms, and even, at times, sleeping rooms. Sex is not necessarily part of the equation. And when it is? Well, we are, after all, talking about adults. But the bigger shift is one of perception: If there is any sort of expectation of “propriety,” it is imposed on the guys as much as on the girls.
After years of raising boys to think more like women and women to think more like men, we are now witnessing a generation of adults who fall less into traditional gender roles than ever before. Today’s young men, as a whole, are more sensitive than their fathers were. The women are more independent than their mothers. There’s been a trickle-up effect: The older generations are witnessing these changes, these freedoms, as they show up in their children and grandchildren, causing a culture-wide shift that transcends age.
Research supports this: According to a study conducted earlier this year by biological anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher for the dating site Match.com, women are getting less traditional about relationships. Men, interestingly, are getting more so. Men want marriage, babies, and stability; women want personal space and regular nights out with friends. More poignantly, women view their sexuality based on notions of what they want to do, versus what they’re told they should do.
In my work and in my life, I had been hearing more from women who were both having extramarital affairs and actively seeking them out. While they weren’t necessarily proud of their actions, neither were they ashamed. Unlike men, whose cheating often follows an impulse, these women had considered their affairs. They had reasons for them. Like Samantha, who was married to — and co-owner of a thriving business with — her high school sweetheart. Twelve years into the marriage, she felt as if she’d wed her brother. Heavy with responsibility for work and kids, she embarked on an affair with a married friend. She had no intention of leaving her spouse, to whom she felt extremely attached, and knew the fling would never leave his wife, either. But Samantha saw the sex as a way to reconnect with herself after a mastectomy and breast reconstruction, and find the attention she craved after long days of kowtowing to clients, making sure her husband’s shirts came back from the cleaners, and ministering to her kids’ needs.
And there were others: The 30-something model-turned-soccer mom whose sex life with her provider husband was mediocre at best, nonexistent at worse. Out of the bedroom, they were exceedingly compatible: Both loved to ski and travel, and shared similar core values on religion and raising children. But because he refused to talk about the issue, she was left feeling marginal and deprived. And lonely. When we last spoke, she was looking for a satisfying sexual partner, though didn’t know how to go about meeting him. Or the 28-year-old rising ad executive whose husband longed for a family while she was still eagerly working 80-hour weeks. Sex was no less important to her. But her reasons for wanting it were different than his. When she ended up engaging in an affair with an unmarried and similarly career-driven co-worker ten years her senior, she barely surprised herself.
Interestingly, studies corroborated what I was seeing. In a study published last year in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, researchers at the Kinsey Institute found that it’s no longer true that men cheat far more often than women do. In fact, they found that women and men cheat at about the same rate — though, yes, for different reasons. Women tended to cheat because they were unhappy in a relationship or felt their partner didn’t hold similar sexual beliefs. For men, the biggest factor was sexual excitement. That is, women are far choosier about why, and with whom, they cheat.
A different study, this one conducted by AARP, found that divorce among couples married for a long time is up — at a time when divorce in general is down. The bigger surprise: Wives are now more likely to initiate the split than husbands. In two out of every three marriages longer than 20 years, it’s the woman who leaves the man. This particular study did not look at third party involvement. But the takeaway is the same: Women have more choices, and they are acting on them.
That’s not to say the rise of the adulterous woman signals a victory in the battle between the sexes, and that men have replaced women as the faithful, as it were, underdogs. It’s not a contest, and there’s no winner. What’s ‘good’ for women needn’t be ‘bad’ for men. The media have been inclined to point out shifts between the sexes, as they arise, in a gender competitive way: Women Are the New Men, The End of Men, and so forth. But what really is happening is that we’re finally seeing — through the last incontrovertible boundary, at least for women, that of the marriage bond — a society that is more equal than ever before. Women are becoming more confident about making choices. Sexual exploration — and, yes, at times infidelity — is just one example.
Is this a good thing? It sure is. For these women, marriage is important, but it doesn’t define them. If it doesn’t last, they won’t be destroyed. For a woman, the ability to realize that she’s not happy — and she’s going to do something about it, rather than be passive and accept whatever comes — is empowering. She is claiming her right to feel fulfilled in relationships and sex, regardless of what society may expect of her.
When I was growing up, my mother talked to me about marriage and fidelity as something absolute and inviolable. Back then, a woman who cheated truly was an outcast; whatever reasons she might have had mattered not at all. But the far more common scenario back then was that of the unsatisfied wife being left behind as her husband moved on sexually or emotionally, or both.
I am not advocating for being unfaithful. Good sex is important but so is being in a solid, trusting relationship. Choices can’t be impulsive or made haphazardly; they need to come out of who you are and what you desire and how you aim to conduct your life.
But, of course, women these days already know this.