Or do we? Well, CNN claims we do. Ian Kerner writes:
Female infidelity is often much more damaging to a marriage. Don’t get me wrong: Male cheating is definitely harmful. But when a woman fools around, it’s often the death knell to a couple’s relationship. It’s often said that men cheat for sex, while women cheat for love, the theory being that men can more easily compartmentalize sex and emotion, while women typically need to experience an emotional connection to a person before feeling sexual desire.
This seems to imply that women are incapable of feeling lust towards someone without loving them, which is… batshit crazy.
But! Let’s ignore that fundamentally faulty premise for a second, and just focus on why women might be judged more harshly for having an affair than their male counterparts, and why a woman cheating is a “death knell”. Because I do think that’s probably true.
Certainly, that’s the premise for Adam’s Rib, the 1949 classic starring Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. It revolves around a woman who shoots her husband’s lover when he’s in the midst of an affair. Katherine Hepburn is a lawyer who defends the woman because she feels that if the woman were a man he’d be seen as “defending his family.” There’s a good scene at the begining where – I’m paraphrasing because I can’t find it online – Katherine Hepburn asks her secretary what she thinks of a woman who has an affair and the secretary replies “oh, something awful.”
“What about a man?” Katherine asks.
The secretary pauses for a moment and replies “oh, well, not very nice, but…”
But, of course, you could say that happened in a different, Mad Men era, where male infidelity was just accepted as awesome. Except… Mad Men is on TV right now and Don Draper is an icon to many men, a lust object of many women.
Meanwhile, I’m really hard pressed to think of a movie or piece of literature where a woman cheats on her partner without disastrous consequences. Unfaithful ends in murder. Madame Bovary – which is a movie as well as a book and I’m going to spoil both of them in a second – ends in suicide. Ditto, Anna Karenina. A Perfect Murder? Not surprisingly, ends in murder.
Why do female adulterers all have to die or be emotionally destroyed, while men – from Don Draper to Tony on Skins – come off as pretty cool and roguish?
I don’t think that indicates that men have different character than women who cheat. It’s not like “women have to be awful and destructive and evil before they cheat, and men don’t.” I don’t think people who cheat are necessarily bad. I do think they’re greedy. Adulterers want a relationship at home, and they want fun on the side, and they want it all without any repercussions or inconvenience. That’s not nice, or respectful to your partner, but it’s understandable. It’s just greed.
But perhaps it’s assumed that women are supposed to have a superior character to men’s. I think greed itself is a much less permissible emotion in women than it is in men. You can see Michael Douglas onscreen in Wall Street proclaiming “Greed Is Good!” and it became a rallying cry for bankers everywhere. I have a much harder time imagining a woman in the same role.
Because women, for all our advances, are still supposed to be nurturing and selfless. We’re still regarded as the center of family life – even as the number of stay at home dads rises. It’s interesting that Mildred Pierce, another period drama that we are perhaps watching because Mad Men is just never going to be back on , revolves entirely around a woman who sacrifices so many of her personal desires for the sake of her daughter. We can’t really imagine Don Draper sacrificing a roll on the couch with a sexy secretary for the sake of his kids, can we?
But, even if we view women as the center of family life – and it’s easy to see how selflessness is an important aspect of child-rearing – marriages are just as likely to end when the man commits adultery.
So, I’m stumped. In 60 years, how are we still regarding male adultery as “not very nice” and female adultery as “something awful?”