Our understandings of women’s sexuality is focused on love. We embrace the idea that women have sex when they’re in love, and when they are not in love they are disinterested in sexual activity. For women, the claim that they love someone validates their sexual behavior.
The women I spoke to while doing research for my recent book on women’s infidelity challenge this notion. These women approached cheating and their sex lives with pragmatism rather than sentimentality. The women spoke of vetting potential affair partners specifically to avoid emotional entanglements on the spectrum of “love.” They opted instead to seek out partners whose interest in an affair was purely sexual. Doing so permitted them to maintain appropriate boundaries that enabled them to keep their priorities aligned.
These women weren’t cheating to find a Prince Charming or a Mr. Right. They weren’t mate shopping, or looking for a love affair. They were looking for Mr. Now and Then. They were cheating to stay married. So, their entire approach to vetting partners and designing their affairs was geared toward preserving their marriages and families.
Most of the women in the study–all of whom used the website Ashley Madison to seek out affairs–reported sexless marriages, or marriages in which the sex was orgasmless—at least for them. After enduring years of living in a sexual desert, the women made the decision to put up a profile online and seek out a like-minded partner. Many spoke of it as akin to finding a subcontractor, outsourcing a task to a temporary party. And that’s how they approached it. They weren’t looking for a permanent fixture in their lives. They were happy with their marriages with the exception of their sex lives. So, why replace the whole relationship when you can simply outsource the sex to someone whose sole purpose in your life is to provide sexual pleasure?
The appeal of Ashley Madison for these women was obvious. It is a site specifically for married people to find other married people for affairs. For a woman for whom the preservation of their marriage is their primary concern, a site like Ashley Madison is just another practical decision in her pragmatic approach to cheating. Rather than getting involved with someone in her social circle–a situation ripe for discovery–meeting someone online provided a level of protection for her “real life.” If she gets involved with a neighbor, for example, there are ample opportunities for shared social contacts to observe them interacting and pick up on subtle body language that could reveal their intimacy. But a partner met online is removed from her life. There is no risk of a casual neighborhood barbeque resulting in the upending of her marriage. Additionally, when the sexual relationship ends, the partner met online disappears from her life. No mess, no fuss. By contrast, the ending of a sexual affair with a neighbor means that man is still in her life, an ever-present threat of detection.
The vetting process involved frank and graphic discussions of compatibility. Rather than getting to know someone as a person before discovering their sexual preferences, skills, availability, size, or stamina was not well-matched, and then having to make a tough decision, the women opted to establish compatibility first. As one woman pointed out, “He can be a nice guy all day, but that doesn’t bring me to orgasm.” Thus, their process lacked sentimentality, and instead focused on skills and availability. The concept of their affair partners as subcontractors is evident here as well. When you are outsourcing a job, you hire solely based on how well the candidate can meet your job demands, and not based upon how much you like them. These women employed the same strategy.
With that same mindset, many women reported maintaining multiple affair partners simultaneously. As they pointed out, they had already learned from marriage that relying on one person to meet all of your needs was a recipe to be let down. So, they kept multiple affairs going at once to ensure their satisfaction was never dependent upon a single partner. They spoke of this candidly, referring to those men as a “roster,” “herd,” or “team.” They described their practice as “keeping the candy jar full.” There was nothing sentimental or sappy in their perceptions of their practices with regard to their participation in affairs.
Matter-of-factness punctuated these women’s affairs. Avoiding “love” in their affairs, partnering with men detached from their “real” lives, and matching only with compatible partners, these women focused solely on their mission, which was to have satisfying sex. These women’s experiences challenge our commonsense understandings of women’s sexuality and women’s infidelity. Perhaps it’s time to reconsider our ideas about how women regard sex, how they partner, and how they manage sexual relationships that don’t meet their expectations.
Alicia M. Walker is an assistant professor of sociology at Missouri State University, and the author of The Secret Life of the Cheating Wife: Power, Pragmatism, and Pleasure in Women’s Infidelity. Follow her on Twitter at @AliciaMWalker1