Equal-opportunity adultery

When it comes to lying, cheating and whoring around, women are closing the gap.

Published October 28, 2008 8:20PM (EDT)

One of the most dismal and depressing parts of "Mad Men" (besides the fact that it ended Sunday) was watching the members of the young suburban wives club, presided over and epitomized by Betty Draper, as they slowly came to realize their husbands weren't necessarily having their nightcaps with the guys and their hubbies' late nights in a city pied-à-terre were often far from lonely.

But while we ladies may still have a few more laps to go before we can declare victory on, say, equal wages for equal work, an article in today's New York Times reveals that when it comes to the wages of marital sin, we may be making some progress: "Notably, women appear to be closing the adultery gap: younger women appear to be cheating on their spouses nearly as often as men." Let's hear it for equal-opportunity lying, cheating and whoring around!

Lying is pretty much included in the definition of adultery -- otherwise it's a relationship better known as "open marriage" or "polyamory" -- so it can be tough to figure out if the same people who are lying to their spouses about their behavior are lying to researchers as well. But several new studies seem to show significant demographic shifts: "Researchers have found that the lifetime rate of infidelity for men over 60 increased to 28 percent in 2006, up from 20 percent in 1991. For women over 60, the increase is more striking: to 15 percent, up from 5 percent in 1991." Also: "About 20 percent of men and 15 percent of women under 35 say they have ever been unfaithful, up from about 15 and 12 percent respectively."

Seniors may be having more illicit sex just because, thanks to medical advances -- including Viagra, estrogen therapy and "better hip replacements" -- they can have more sex, period. But researchers are most interested in what's up with the women -- and here at Broadsheet we are, too.

Upon closer examination, the thing that may take most explaining is why there was such a huge fidelity gap between American men and women in the first place. In those infamous "hunting and gathering societies" -- the ones that come up each and every time we talk about cultural vs. hard-wired differences in gender -- women are no more likely than men to be faithful, anthropologist Helen E. Fisher told the Times. Thus, any differences are likely to be cultural. Do we even have to say it? OK, fine: "Men with multiple partners typically are viewed as virile, while women are considered promiscuous."

But does the stud vs. slut conundrum mean that women were actually less likely to commit adultery, or just less likely to admit it? Asks Fisher: "Is it that men are bragging about it and women are lying to everybody including themselves?" Or did women of yore just not have enough time and dependable child care to work a little extracurricular action into the daily schedule? "Historically," Fisher points out, "women have been isolated on farms or at home with children, giving them fewer opportunities to be unfaithful." But these days, wives, too, can have a little "late night at the office" or last-minute "business trip."

Whether lifelong monogamy is an ideal worth achieving is something way too personal to get into here. But I dare say it's the kind of contract that works best with equal expectations -- of virtue and villainy, love and lust. I'm pretty sure that "Mad Men's" Don Draper might have been more likely to skip his round of gimlets had he suspected his wife might have been around the corner enjoying one of her own.

By Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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