In a study of 64,000 people, conducted by Chapman University, straight men were more likely than straight women to be most upset by sexual infidelity (54 percent of men vs. 35 percent of women) and less likely than straight women to be most upset by emotional infidelity (46 percent of men vs. 65 percent of women). From the write-up:
“Participants imagined what would upset them more: their partners having sex with someone else (but not falling in love with them) or their partners falling in love with someone else (but not having sex with them). Consistent with the evolutionary perspective, heterosexual men were more likely than heterosexual women to be upset by sexual infidelity and less likely than heterosexual women to be upset by emotional infidelity. Bisexual men and women did not differ significantly. Gay men and lesbian women also did not differ.”
This is the largest study to date on infidelity, so it’s worth considering, especially in light of contradictory perspectives that suggest there should be no difference between men and women. That theory intimates that men and women are the same and that our perspectives on jealousy and sex are only shaped by society. In fact, I’m in the middle of reading “Sex at Dawn,” which spends 300 pages suggesting that very thing – that we are historically polygnous like bonobos, and that men and women should have the same reactions to sex.
For most of our history (pre-agricultural revolution), people lived in groups of 150 and everyone had sex with everyone. That may be true, but even if we’re WIRED that way, our society isn’t set up that way any more.
This study directly challenges that worldview, noting that “men are socialized to be masculine, which includes having great sexual prowess. If a man’s partner commits sexual infidelity, this brings into question his sexual prowess and therefore threatens his masculinity, which leads him to react more negatively to his partner committing sexual rather than emotional infidelity. In contrast, women are taught to think relationally and to be the emotional nurturers in a relationship. If their partner commits emotional infidelity, this may threaten her sense of self more so than if her partner commits sexual infidelity.”
Personally, I don’t know how I feel about this. My allegiance isn’t to my biases but to the facts. Christopher Ryan, one of the authors of “Sex at Dawn,” makes a passionate case for why monogamy and jealousy isn’t natural; that, in fact, for most of our history (pre-agricultural revolution), people lived in groups of 150 and everyone had sex with everyone. In my opinion, that may be true, but even if we’re WIRED that way, our society isn’t set up that way any more. So instead of telling people that they SHOULDN’T be jealous or threatened by sex outside marriage, I look at studies like this that tell me – regardless of what our ancestors did – that both men and women are bothered by infidelity.
Ryan’s point is that people are not built to have sex with one person forever. Attraction towards others is normal. And it seems sad and unfortunate that we should repress a lifetime of continued erotic desires for others all for the sake of “marriage”. I actually agree with him. (And we’re both married.)
Open marriage sounds a lot better in theory than in practice, because it assumes no insecurity or jealousy.
I just don’t know a realistic alternative to marriage/monogamy, given that most of us are profoundly uncomfortable with our spouses sleeping around and potentially falling in love with someone else. Whether the root of this discomfort is biological or sociological doesn’t matter. Open marriage sounds a lot better in theory than in practice, because it assumes no insecurity or jealousy.
But seriously, how many people do you know who are not insecure or jealous of their partners having sex with someone else? That’s the only reason that I think monogamy – despite its flaws – is the best and most realistic option we have for successful long-term relationships. And if you don’t value stability – if you’re comfortable swapping out partners every two years when the chemistry dies down – then you should probably not get married.
Oh, and for more reading on this subject, check out:
Your thoughts, below, are appreciated.