THE glass ceiling has all-but disappeared. A new generation of women competes as equals, and they’re having just as many affairs as men.
Ask Noel Biderman. The site which he founded is called Ashleymadison.com, and its trademarked tagline is ‘Life is short. Have an affair’. The aim is to provide a meeting ground for people to do so.
The site has 21m members worldwide, 84,700 of whom are in Ireland, a figure up 158% on last year.
Most of the site’s members are married and want extra-marital sex.
Membership is two thirds men, one third women, but if you look at those aged under 30 that gender gap disappears.
“This is an era where Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton reign in popularity,” says Biderman, “and, really, all they’ve ever done in their lives is have sex tapes. If those are the inspirational women, is it any wonder that you’re going to deal with a much more promiscuous generation? One that’s going to be way less tolerant of being discontent in a marriage.”
Society no longer punishes unfaithful women as once it did, and women are now equal economic and social partners in the workplace.
“Once they inhabit a universe similar to men, they think the same way. They don’t want to be in a passionless marriage, and yet they have children, they have a domestic situation, and they don’t necessarily want to leave it. Therefore, if an opportunity [to cheat] presents itself, they will pursue it. That is the world that we are inhabiting,” Biderman says.
Nor is Biderman being provocative for publicity’s sake. International studies suggest the infidelity gap is narrowing.
Data from the National Opinion Research Centre’s General Society Survey, in the US, says that the percentage of wives having affairs has risen by 40% in the last 20 years, to 14.7%, while the number of men having extramarital affairs didn’t stir, from 21%. A 2011 Indiana University study puts the male infidelity rate just four percentage points higher than the female; 23% versus 19%.
But that’s the US. No sociologist has established the relative faithfulness of Irish married couples, and there was no question in Census 2011 about infidelity.
There were 3,500 applications for divorce in Ireland last year, a 4% increase on 2011, and just under 1,300 applications for judicial separation, a 6% decrease. These failure rates don’t say much about infidelity, and nor do they appear to have an impact on marriage rates: 21,245 couples said ‘I do’ last year, a substantial increase on 2011.
Family therapist, David Kavanagh, has also seen increasing incidence of female infidelity.
He, too, makes the point that rising equality has seen increasing numbers of women act just as men have done for generations. “Cheating isn’t a gender issue, it’s not something men do because they’re men. It’s more people do it, because they’re people,” Kavanagh says.
What’s going on? Why have we become more likely to wander? Is it there a hint of evolutionary inevitability? Is our long-term reliance on monogamy coming apart because humans just aren’t built for it?
Or is it because of our sex-charged society?
There’s a world of free porn two clicks away. The day before yesterday, Miley Cyrus was Disney’s wholesome poster child. Today, she’s riding a wrecking ball, naked. We hear, constantly, about the hook-up culture and the impact promiscuity is having on the sexual health of young people. Does this pervasiveness breed entitlement?
It’s there, everyone else is at it, so I might as well take my share.
Kavanagh says that the language society builds around sex is important. “I think we ‘language’ sex in such a way that it’s almost removed from ourselves, it’s removed from the essence of who we are as human beings, and, to a certain extent, it’s almost like a hunger or an appetite that we can justify having to satisfy… And the individualistic kind of culture we live in is all about you — ‘What do you want? Make yourself happy and don’t worry about the consequences for anybody else’.”
The implication is that being in a hotel room on a Tuesday night, with Dave from accounts, or Jane from human resources, is just another advantage of modern living, like smartphones or personal trainers.
Meanwhile, a steady stream of experts and media types are lining up to throw stones at the vast edifice of monogamy. BBC Radio 4 recently aired a documentary that featured polyamorous couples — couples who share more than one partner — living not on some mountain commune, but openly in suburbia. The programme featured ‘experts’ who said this way of life may become the norm in 30 years’ time.
In his book, The Monogamy Gap: Men, Love and the Reality of Cheating, sociologist Eric Anderson says that monogamy is a denial of human biology and that monogamous relationships are exceptionally rare among higher-order mammals.
Anderson believes that not only is sexual fidelity not the same as love, but that young people have cottoned on to that fact. “People may not discuss it with their partners, but everyone knows that sexual frequency decreases greatly since the first time they started having sex. Everyone knows that. What I add to that particular discussion is that for today’s youth, that sexual habituation occurs considerably faster than it used to occur,” he says.
Anderson argues that the sexualisation of society has compacted what used to be a lifetime’s sexual experience into a much shorter timeframe.
“It used to be that people were not allowed to have sex until they got married. They finally got married, they had sex in the missionary position, then, slowly, over the years, they explored other, more taboo forms of sex.”
He says that the difference today is that people begin having sex in their middle teenage years. “They’re having a lot of sex by the time they get to university, they’ve seen every sexual position, every sexual possibility, so by the time they’re 18 years old they know it all and that increases the rate at which they habituate to their partners, and that makes monogamy more challenging for today’s youth,” Anderson says.
So what happens when this generation gets married and settles down?
For one thing, Anderson says, they don’t settle down. “Cheating seems to be the rational solution to the cultural gap that we’re in, between people wanting monogamy, but not doing it. With cheating being the rational solution, one of the things that I’m trying to say, in the book, is, therefore, we should be careful not to break up with a partner just because we’ve been cheated on.”
Despite what Anderson calls the “growing culture of hooking up and the increased availability of sex”, he also says that we are all still looking for emotional relationships. The marriage rate in Ireland, which has remained stable for the last 20 years, is witness to this need.
Voices like Anderson’s may be growing louder, but they remain far from mainstream. Talk to the people who deal with infidelity, and the fallout from it, and an altogether different narrative emerges, one which does not revolve around sex.
Kavanagh says that an affair usually indicates deeper problems within the relationship and is frequently not of itself the cause of those problems.
“If you combine feeling unloved, unappreciated, un-listened to for a lengthy period of time in your relationship, with persistent opportunity to be unfaithful, then the temptation can be quite hard to resist,” he says.
Kavanagh says this is not to justify infidelity. It wreaks havoc in relationships. “It can be absolutely devastating,” he says. “Not to be too simplistic about it, it destroys families.”
Ask Tiger Woods. His numerous, well-documented transgressions cost him millions, yes, but they also cost him his family.
“What I’m saying is that, sometimes, an affair is a symptom of a greater malaise in the relationship,” Kavanagh says.
Tony Moore, a counsellor with Relationships Ireland, says that while marital infidelity might appear to have a sexual issue at its core, when you look more closely, you’ll find that it’s not that simple.
“Lack of sex might be the presenting issue, but when you delve into the relationship, up come years of misery… A lot of people are desperately lonely and the loneliest place in the world is a marriage where there’s no love,” Moore says.
Women never found loneliness any easier to deal with than men did. What’s different today is that, increasingly, they’re looking beyond the marriage for the cure.
Family therapist, David Kavanagh, says that while the signs of infidelity are not that difficult to spot, acknowledging that there’s a problem is not easy.
“In some relationships, people close their eyes and don’t want to see that their partner is continually late at work, or that they’re talking too much about someone that they really shouldn’t be talking about.”
While he advises watching for the following signs, he warns suspicious partners to use their discretion. Not every late night indicates a steamy soiree with the new intern.
¦ Unexplained absences, or changes to his or her routine. Is she staying late at work, all of a sudden? Has he developed a new interest that suddenly takes all of his time?
¦ A sudden loss of interest in sex, which is unrelated to other factors, like stress, is a possible sign that she’s getting it elsewhere.
¦ What’s their demeanour when they come home from work? Are they giddy or aloof? These shifts in mood, taken with other evidence, may suggest an affair.
¦ Is he or she more interested in their appearance? Buying new clothes? Going to the hair salon more often? Has he started using moisturiser?
¦ While any of these signs may be entirely innocent, if your gut instinct tells you something is not right, trust it.