Recently I interviewed Sociologist Alicia Walker, whose book The Secret Life of the Cheating Wife: Power, Pragmatism, and Pleasure in Women’s Infidelity (Lexington Books) will be released on November 15, 2017. She is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Missouri State University. In her book, she reports on the results of interviews with 46 heterosexual married or partnered women who used the website Ashley Madison to intentionally seek out and form affairs with other men. The book develops a sociology of infidelity, examining issues related to the meaning of marriage, power, social norms in affairs, and why women have them.
AK: You found that the women in your book often had affairs because they were trying to preserve their marriage. How could an affair help preserve a marriage?
AW: For the women of the study, these outside partnerships served as a release valve for the resentment, hurt feelings, and deprivation they experienced in their primary partnerships (marriages, or pre-existing long-term relationships). The women talked about being able to better to overlook the challenges in their relationships, as well as the daily irritants of shared living quarters because they had this secret source of pleasure in their lives. Additionally, for women whose primary partnerships were sexless and/or orgasmless, these outside partnerships function as a space of sexual freedom and sexual pleasure, which is sorely missing in their “real lives.” These women reported that without the relief these outside partnerships provide, they would be forced to exit their primary partnerships. For most of the women I interviewed, remaining in their primary partnerships was a chief goal. Thus, the relief provided by these outside partnerships proved crucial for these women to stay in primary partnerships, where their own sexual pleasure and needs were not being addressed.
AK: One of the things I find fascinating about the book is how social norms (informal social rules) are completely upended in affairs compared to other romantic or sexual relationships. Women avoided forming emotional ties with their partners, and were not seeking to form long-term romantic partnerships, which counteracts narratives we normally hear about gender and relationships. What were some of the ways you found the norms about affairs differ from other relationships?
AW: What is really fascinating about these outside partnerships is that there are no established expectations for how the women are supposed to behave. As a result, women could step out of typical expectations of gender around dating and sex. Even in traditional online dating, we take those expectations with us online. Without established norms and procedures, the participants in these outside partnerships make them up as they go along.
The women of this sample reported an extensive vetting process designed to protect themselves–and their families by extension–and to find a suitable partner without wasting a lot of time and energy. The amount of care and calculation applied stood out as different from partnering initiated face-to-face, where we often walk blindly into relationships under the magical influence of chemistry.
The freedom the women felt to set boundaries struck me as interesting as well. Frank discussions of preferred sexual acts, stamina, and scheduling take place as soon as the initial exchange. If those details do not match up, the conversation does not continue. There is none of the “oh, we have so much in common, I should overlook the other stuff” because these women don’t get that far with men who don’t fill the bill. The women had the freedom to create outside partnerships where the sole focus was their own pleasure. That’s very different than the other relationships in their lives. Overall, the amount of power and freedom the women exercise in their outside partnerships is much more than what we often see them employ in their marriages.
AK: Your sample – women who used Ashley Madison – allowed you to explore some behaviors that may be common to any sexual relationship formed with partners met online. What are some of the things women in your study did specifically because they met their partners through an online website? How might this experience differ from people who have affairs but don’t actively seek them out on the internet?
AW: Women specifically vetted for sexual preferences and skills, which we do not typically do in relationships initiated face-to-face. We rarely see this among folks who meet at work, through friends, or social settings. We do not habitually ask new suitors about their genital size before we have invested a lot of time in the relationship. We simply find out in the moment, at which point we may already be so invested in that relationships that we are unwilling to walk away.
But these women dismissed any potential partners whose sexual desires, stamina, scheduling, or physical traits did not mesh with the women’s preferences. Compatibility in all areas drove the associations.
While an outside partnership formed with a coworker, neighbor, or family friend may be heady and exciting to the point that we set aside our good sense, outside partnerships formed online override the exhilaration of flirtation to make decisions based solely on the man’s potential to bring the pleasure the women sought.
Alicia Walker is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Missouri State University, and author of The Secret Life of the Cheating Wife: Power, Pragmatism, and Pleasure in Women’s Infidelity. Arielle Kuperberg is an Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies in Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Follow her on twitter at @ATKuperberg.