Monogamy Is So Boring

Why men and women both cheat (and why that's OK).

A few days ago, Vicki Larson interviewed sociologist Eric Anderson for the Divorce section of the Huffington Post about his new book, The Monogamy Gap: Men, Love, and the Reality of Cheating. While its title might sound like it’d earn him a guest spot on Dr. Phil, the book is actually a scholarly work. Anderson, a professor at England’s University of Winchester, has written eight books prior to this one, including In the Game: Gay Athletes and the Cult of Masculinity and Inclusive Masculinity: The Changing Nature of Masculinities. Safe to say Anderson knows men.

And what he knows about them, in part through research he did for this book, is that they don’t cheat on their partners because they don’t love them; they cheat because they have a physical desire for sex with someone new. It’s not complicated or especially malicious, and Anderson thinks it’s a shame that marriages break up after one incident of infidelity. After all, even if the sexual excitement has ebbed, a couple may still have a strong emotional bond, a meaningful life together, a family network—and may still delight in each other’s company. You’re going to walk away from the richness of all that just because he screwed someone at a business function in Dallas after an extra margarita?

And yet people do. Just a few weeks ago in Italy, a couple in their 90s divorced when one of them found evidence of an affair … from 60 years ago. Seventy-seven years of marriage and togetherness invalidated by—Anderson might say—the tyranny of monogamy.

Anderson advocates a society that endorses “multiple forms of acceptable sexual relationship types—including sexually open relationships—that coexist without hierarchy or hegemony.” I completely agree, which is to say I prefer there be no bullshit from the start. Let’s admit we’re going to be attracted to other people and we’re going to be tempted to do something about it. Let’s admit that sometimes we’ll be more than tempted because—as Anderson points out— “humans are largely lousy at controlling our bodies’ desires.” Let’s admit that things do not always go as planned. Let’s conclude, then, that being monogamous isn’t very realistic. Relationships are complicated and infernally nuanced. Yet here comes absolutist monogamy to make the rules—how can that possibly work?

But what about Anderson’s title, which suggests that the core issue is men? Larson paraphrases Anderson’s point of view when she writes, “[Addressing the monogamy issue is] especially important for today’s young men, for whom monogamous sex seems more boring than in generations past because of easy premarital sex and pornography.”

Breaking news alert: Women also know about that easy premarital sex of which you speak—because we’re the ones you were doing it with. We watch porn too. “Today’s young men” aren’t the only ones thinking there might be something more out there. And here’s the big reveal: We cheat—women cheat. I know that’s not how it works in the self-help section but that’s how it works in real life.

I’m not sure why the cultural conversation always revolves in the other direction. It’s as though all the women—virgins, of course—are sitting at home in attractive La Perla bustiers waiting for our men to arrive because that’s what would turn us on more than anything: sex with the same guy we’ve had sex with for five years already. Why are women always cast in this passive role? We want new sex too, we have the same urges. So we step out.

I’m not coming at this from a moral high ground, mind you—more like a low ground. But at least it’s a place of knowledge. Until I discovered the secret of stable relationships—which for me means recasting, à la Anderson, the traditional notion of fidelity—I was a cheater myself. And I wasn’t alone. Tell one female friend you’ve cheated, and your other friends will open up, because it’s not a gendered behavior; it’s a human one.

Anderson concedes as much when he says to Larson:

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.

In this case, Anderson is a scholar of contemporary masculinity, hence his focus on men. But his book will be interpreted by the popular press as more evidence that cheating is a male problem and monogamy presents a challenge for men in particular. If we want to have an honest conversation about modern sexuality and partnership, we have to do better at seeing both men and women as human beings with physical desires, even if it doesn’t flatter. As long as we assume it’s men who do the cheating (apparently with single women exclusively), we’re not really saying anything new. Oh, we’re saying that things are tougher for a new generation of men, but it’s always about men, just the same. A conversation about human sexual behavior that wasn’t gender-bound—that would be radical.