As a woman who has looked for casual sex online, I’m no stranger to getting propositioned by married men. The excuses were all over the place, though the conversation rarely went far. I had little interest in cheaters; I’ve got a strong sense of sisterhood, and I would never want to cause another woman the emotional pain that cheating does. But that didn’t stop them from trying. I had plenty of them try to convince me it was okay. Maybe for them, but for me? Not so much.
(True confession: twice when I was in my 30s I knowingly slept with a married man, and once stepped out on a college boyfriend during a time we were mostly broken up. Like everyone, I like to think that I’m capable of growth and change, and of learned to discern right from wrong. The last couple of times I found myself in the dating pool, I wasn’t interested in sleeping with cheaters. If that makes my opinions unworthy because I’m a cheating hypocrite, so be it.)
Still, on the occasions I did talk with men about it, I heard a lot of stories that weren’t quite as black and white as we’d like to believe cheating is. Plenty of guys are stuck in what I call monogabacy: they are in monogamous relationships that have turned celibate. Several of them talked about still loving and wanting to have sex with their wives, but continually getting the cold shoulder; others talked about their deep love for their children, and how their marriages were decent other than the sex part. Men who couldn’t leave their spouses for economic reasons (both their own and their partners), or guys whose wives had health problems. Many of them felt guilty for what they were doing, but figured sleeping with a woman they met online was less onerous than hiring a sex worker.
And yes, there were plenty of men who were horndogs who just wanted to fuck a bunch of different women, and made no bones about it.
I don’t know if other women typically slam the email door in cheaters’ faces, but I suspect they do. If the huge number of men looking for extra-marital sex in every corner of the internet is any indication, many of them are looking fruitlessly. It’s no wonder they got lured in by the promise of hot, available pussy on Ashley Madison. If the statistics are correct, and anywhere between 1 in 5 and 1 in 2 men have consummated an affair, then there are a lot of married men out there who are unhappy with their sex lives. And sexually dissatisfied men in marriages are usually partnered with sexually dissatisfied women.
Men have long enjoyed non-consensual non-monogamy. For thousands of years, men have visited prostitutes, kept mistresses or married multiple women. While countless women have suffered because of this, there was little they could do: women had no choice but to stay with their husbands, because divorce wasn’t an option. (And let’s not forget that prior to the 20th century, sex often resulted in more children; perhaps it was a relief to have their husbands getting their needs met elsewhere so they didn’t find themselves pregnant again.) For women to cheat could meant death or being ostracized. I have no doubt that there were men who remained faithful to their wives, and couples who enjoyed passionate, erotic connections, but they were probably the exception, not the rule.
Let me clarify: I am by no means condoning cheating here. There are few things harder to bear than betrayal by someone to whom you’ve opened your heart and made yourself vulnerable. Cheating rarely ends well for any of the parties involved, and make things a whole lot harder and more complicated if/when it’s discovered. I don’t think cheating is the solution to the problems we collectively seem to have with marriage, monogamy and commitment, though, as stated above, it’s a solution men have chosen repeatedly throughout the ages.
I’ve had many female friends who have experienced cheating get triggered by the Ashley Madison leaks as they remembered the pain they experienced when they had discovered a cheating spouse, and they inevitably sided with the women who were about to find out that they too had been betrayed (although, to be fair, I’d wager to guess that not too many folks were actually hooking up through the website).
While I wasn’t interested in being a party to men cheating on their wives, I could certainly understand how they got to that point. I, too, had been an unwilling participant in monogabacy, with a husband who didn’t want to have sex with me, yet refused to tell me what kind of sex he did want to have, or what needs were going unfulfilled and causing him to turn away from me. I spent many years being cranky and frustrated and patient and sad and angry and confused: I loved my husband, was crazy attracted to him, and wanted to have an intimate, erotic relationship with him.
Instead, I got years of, well, pretty much nothing. He wouldn’t even kiss me most of the time. Regardless, I remained faithful, until I thought it would be a good idea to fix our relationship with polyamory. I tried this route for a year (more on that in a bit), and finally decided to ask him for a divorce. Unlike many other folks in sexually dead marriages, there wasn’t enough else good in the relationship to make me want to give up on sex for good, especially when it had taken me many years to find a partner with whom to share it. I reasoned that if I was going to commit to being monogamous, the sex better be damn good.
While we gleefully moralize, shame and judge those poor bastards who wanted to get laid by someone other than their lawfully wedded wives, we seem to be unwilling to admit that people have sexual needs that are frequently not met in marriage. Life intervenes, and people change. Health concerns, children, aging and stressors with work or family cause our sex drives to ebb and flow. No one should be forced to dispense sex on demand if they aren’t interested in having it, but is it really right to expect that when we commit to another, it may mean giving up on sex altogether? Surely there must be a better solution, some sort of middle ground.
Of course, at this point in our evolution, we have set ourselves up to fail. Despite the fact that the ball of wax that is love, sex and intimacy is the most important part of our lives, we have almost no education about these things. While culturally we worship porn on one end of the spectrum and romance on the other, we aren’t taught how to be present and close to another, how our bodies work, what turns us on, how to deal with conflict and a host of other skills that might prepare us for navigating the uncharted territory that lies between two people. Toss in a healthy dose of shame around our bodies, and make people obsess about their appearance. Teach one sex to be passive about their desires, and ask the other to suppress their emotions. Tell young folks to ignore the hormones surging through their bodies and save themselves for their one true love, and then throw a pair of ‘em together with zero experience, mismatched libidos and an expectation that they will stay committed to each other for fifty years.
What could possibly go wrong?
One of the things I see bandied about constantly in discussions about infidelity is that people shouldn’t commit to monogamy and marriage unless they are ready to commit. The current iteration of what marriage means, and what it’s for, is pretty new. Never in the history of partnering have we put so many hopes and expectations onto the romantic coupling between two people. Our significant other is supposed to be a best friend, a mirror for personal growth, a partner in adventure, a roommate, a support system, a parent to children and – above all – a faithful lover who fulfills all our needs for love, sex and intimacy.
Tear people’s attention away from their soulmate with the obligations of work, friends, daily chores, self-care, family and creative pursuits, and we are putting a lot of strain onto one institution. It’s little wonder it’s not working out so well. Because our society is oriented toward individuality and success, and downplays the importance of interdependence and relationships, few of us have the time and resources to create a successful partnership we aspire to in marriage. A therapist I know often tells her clients that a relationship is like a part-time job. How many people treat it that way?
I’m curious, too, what this type of honesty makes the dating landscape look like, especially for the many women who seem to be making the strident demands for monogamous marriage and commitment; from what I hear from the dating trenches, there’s already a dearth of such men out there. If we’re insistent that men be more honest about their sexual desires, we can’t be surprised when they tell us that maybe monogamy isn’t for them. Think most of them will choose monogamy? Fair maidens, get thee to the closest gay bar, talk to one of your favorite gay friends, or put a profile up on Grindr and feast thine eyes on male sexuality that doesn’t take women into the equation. It can be pretty damn promiscuous, but most men don’t mind because, well, they’re men. Many gay men in committed relationships don’t equate love with fidelity, and it works out just fine for them.
Of course this gives women a choice about whether or not they are involved with someone who wants/needs multiple partners, but it also leaves them with many fewer partner choices in the pool of available candidates. It’s clear that many men aren’t being open about their desires, but if the number of cheaters is high, like 1 in 2, then that essentially cuts the pool in half.
The desire for monogamy is largely female-driven, though not entirely, and has been linked to biology. (My partner is much more inclined toward monogamy than I am. Good thing I chose a guy who fulfills my sexual needs beautifully.) If women don’t appreciate being forced into anal sex and threesomes by their male partners, men shouldn’t be forced into monogamy by women. Why should women’s emotional desires prevail over men’s sexual needs, especially since the current setup doesn’t seem to be making either gender happy and sexually satisfied? Perhaps the women who feel that modern life leaves them too stressed and distracted to have and enjoy sex, and just seek companionship and a life partner, are better off partnering with other women (and keeping their Hitachi Magic Wands close by).
I’ve also heard a lot of people say that in addition to being honest, if married folks want to seek extra-marital sex they should just be open about it. From personal experience and watching many others, polyamory is not only a poor option for fixing a relationship, it exacerbates existing problems in horrible ways. When my husband and I tried it at my request during the last year of my marriage, I thought it would be a good solution. I was a perfect candidate: I worked part time, was child-free, had a good sense of boundaries and am not overly jealous. We were in good shape financially. I had plenty of friends who were practicing consensual non-monogamy, and had spent a ton of time studying alternative relationship styles.
Instead of getting my sexual, emotional and intellectual needs met, I found myself going on lots of dates but not clicking with anyone. (Plenty of guys want to get laid, but not many want to be in a relationship with a married women, even if her husband says he’s on board with it.) Meanwhile, my husband got into a serious relationship with another woman immediately.
I ended up spending a lot of time managing his schedule and supporting him in being successful with her, adding yet one more item to my to-do list. It did nothing to address the problems we were having between the two of us – I felt increasingly isolated and frustrated and lonely. And because he was getting his emotional needs met elsewhere with someone who was still new and fresh, he neglected to put any work into our relationship. The month before I decided to leave, I asked him to stop seeing her and focus on what was going on between us, putting her in a painful position as well. (He immediately went back to dating her after we split up, and continued to date her for a few years.)
Consensual non-monogamy is a lot of work, and for women who are already carrying a heavy emotional load with partners and children, it’s probably not a viable option. I have friends who manage to pull it off successfully, but they are few and far between. If people don’t have the time and bandwidth to deal with the relationship issues they already have, adding more people and complexity usually just makes it worse.
And let’s talk about honesty for a minute. While being honest throughout your relationship is a good thing, the honesty needs to be there from the beginning. Actually, the honesty needs to be there long before we get involved with anybody. People who don’t want to be monogamous must be honest about those needs with themselves first. If our libidos are low, we long to be tied up, or we’re attracted to several genders, we owe it to our partners to come clean about our desires, even if it reduces the number of potential partners.
Sex certainly isn’t the only part of a relationship, but it can consume so much of our lives when it’s out of whack. And if we hold the expectation that our life partner is going to fulfill all our sexual needs, then maybe we need to prioritize finding the person who delights us in bed. Of course there are many factors that go into evaluating a potential life mate, but sexual compatibility needs to be much higher on our list, even – and especially – if that compatibility means sex is something we want only once a month.
Recently I met a woman in her mid-20s who had hooked up with a guy who told her that he liked his ass played with during sex. She was squicked about it and didn’t want to see him again. He had done both of them a favor by being honest about his desires. Doesn’t it make sense for him to meet a woman who says, “awesome! Let me grab my strap-on!” and for her to not to waste her time dating a guy whose desires are a turn-off?
Instead, women will oftentimes think to themselves, “well, he makes great money, and I bet he would be a great dad, so I will keep seeing him and he’ll just have to forego the finger in his ass while we’re making love because I don’t like it.” Because that shit happens ALL THE TIME. Are there sexual compromises in relationships? Yep. But doesn’t it make sense to find someone who is as sexually compatible with you as possible?
Honesty also means getting real about the fact that our sexual needs are not static, and that we may go through periods where our partners can’t or won’t be able to perform. My man and I have these conversations frequently: I’m in perimenopause, and he has some pretty substantial health problems, so we know there is a high chance we will experience a physical disconnect at some point. Since our sexual relationship is vital, and vitally important to both of us, we absolutely need to be able to bring our concerns to each other and know that said concerns will be heard without judgment or guilt. I have no idea what a workaround in this area might look like for us, but being able to acknowledge it and be prepared for it long before it becomes a problem is a relief, especially after being with someone who responded to sexual issues by shutting down communication.
Maybe if we spent more time planning our marriages instead of our weddings, we’d be more successful at making them work.
Perhaps most importantly, we need to become better acquainted with our sexual and intimate selves long before we involve another person. What does a good sex life look like? (Hint: “good sex” usually means something completely different to each of us.) What sort of touch makes your body sing? Can you be vulnerable, in and out of the bedroom? Can you ask for what you need? What are the top 10 fantasies on your sexual bucket list? How do you handle conflict, and what did your family of origin teach you about love and sex? What does an ideal partnership look like, and what does marriage mean? Is it something I actually want? (And yes, I realize that this sort of introspection is more available to those who can afford it. Privilege definitely extends into our bedrooms.) Maybe if we spent more time planning our marriages instead of our weddings, we’d be more successful at making them work.
And since we’ve opened Pandora’s box of what marriage is about, maybe it’s time to admit that it’s unrealistic to expect one person to fulfill all our needs, not just for sex but also for intimacy, emotional support, childrearing, leisure activities, care-giving and day-to-day living. The nuclear family unit has been largely isolating and burdensome for many, especially for women. Perhaps if we extend our definitions of what relationships mean, and our networks of people we can go to when we need something, we can take better care of ourselves and our loved ones and spread out our support systems instead of putting it all at the feet of our one true love.
If we are unwilling and unable to do this, we have two choices: the first is to continue as we are, having expectations based on our ideal relationship fantasies, and being blindsided when our partners and their needs change, and the dissolution of said relationships tear apart our families, both economically and emotionally.
The second is to make sure that when we do choose a partner, we choose someone whose goals and desires match our own and make sure it’s a good match before we commit. I know I didn’t meet the person who rocks my world in and out of bed until I was nearly 50 and had being involved in several long and short relationships. He drives me crazy, and challenges me in many ways (and vice versa), but I have a lot less to “settle for” because I had gotten clear about my own desires, especially sexually. Whether we’re doing some sort of role play and fantasy, having a drawn-out romantic seduction or saying, “hey, let’s have sex,” go in the bedroom, unceremoniously get naked and fuck, the sex we have is deeply satisfying. Monogamy – and continuing to be turned on and horny – hasn’t been hard to do because we fit each other so well sexually.
Of course the second way is risky, and means that we may end up alone because we are being a lot choosier, but that seems to be happening anyhow – look at all the single people out there who don’t have any sort of relationship at all. Even more telling, look at the people who are married and see how few of them seem to be having sexually satisfying marriages.
We have been given an unprecedented opportunity to have some serious conversations as a society about the future of marriage, monogamy, families and faithfulness. Perhaps going forward we can spend a little time considering what it is we need from our partnerships instead of blindly going into them without forethought and having our hearts broken when expectations and reality don’t line up. Is it less romantic to write relationship contracts than to be swept off of our feet? Absolutely. But we have a much better shot at monogamy and marriage if we can define what they mean to us, and can find someone who shares our desires.