Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Sex, Lies, and (Heterosexual) Marriage

From I Can Has Cheezburger?

Riffing off my last post: One of the crazy thing about straight people's monopoly on marriage is how often we make a hash of it. Exhibit A: Tara Parker-Pope's interesting article on infidelity in yesterday's New York Times:
The most consistent data on infidelity come from the General Social Survey, sponsored by the National Science Foundation and based at the University of Chicago, which has used a national representative sample to track the opinions and social behaviors of Americans since 1972. The survey data show that in any given year, about 10 percent of married people — 12 percent of men and 7 percent of women — say they have had sex outside their marriage.

But detailed analysis of the data from 1991 to 2006, to be presented next month by Dr. Atkins at the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies conference in Orlando, show some surprising shifts. University of Washington 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.

The researchers also see big changes in relatively new marriages. 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.
Anyone still want to defend Prop 8 to me? Because I'm pretty sure that even Pat Robertson couldn't pin straight people's infidelity stats on gays and lesbians! (He might try, though.)

To my mind, the most puzzling finding that Parker-Pope reports is the discrepancy between men's and women's reported rates of infidelity:
It is not entirely clear if the historical gap between men and women is real or if women have just been more likely to lie about it.

“Is it that men are bragging about it and women are lying to everybody including themselves?” Dr. Fisher [Helen E. Fisher, research professor of anthropology at Rutgers] asked. “Men want to think women don’t cheat, and women want men to think they don’t cheat, and therefore the sexes have been playing a little psychological game with each other.”

Dr. Fisher notes that infidelity is common across cultures, and that in hunting and gathering societies, there is no evidence that women are any less adulterous than men. The fidelity gap may be explained more by cultural pressures than any real difference in sex drives between men and women. Men with multiple partners typically are viewed as virile, while women are considered promiscuous. And historically, women have been isolated on farms or at home with children, giving them fewer opportunities to be unfaithful.

But today, married women are more likely to spend late hours at the office and travel on business. And even for women who stay home, cellphones, e-mail and instant messaging appear to be allowing them to form more intimate relationships, marriage therapists say. Dr. Frank Pittman, an Atlanta psychiatrist who specializes in family crisis and couples therapy, says he has noticed more women talking about affairs centered on “electronic” contact.
I vote for the theory that women have been more apt to lie about it. And here's why: All those married men have to be cheating with someone.

Who are these men's extramarital partners? Let's say that sex with prostitutes accounts for some of men's infidelity. Let's posit that some of it comes from affairs with single women. I'm skeptical that women in these two categories account for the entire 15 percentage point difference in the early nineties or the 13 point difference today. Logically, some of that difference must be due to their having married female partners who lied to the researchers.

Why would women be more likely to lie? It's not just that they're branded as promiscuous more readily than men. They've also traditionally been more economically dependent on their spouses, which means they had more to lose if word of an affair got out. This gave them a stronger incentive to cover their tracks - including on research questionnaires. Conversely, a woman who could support herself in a pinch might be more likely to reveal her secrets to a researcher. And there are more women in that position today than a generation ago.

Of course, economic power also correlates with likelihood to stray, period. Note that the anthropological data cited in the NYT suggest this, as well, since gathering is at least as crucial as hunting in susbsistence societies. For those of us here in the wealthy West, the narrowing of the gendered pay gap likely means that some of the increase in women's infidelity is real and not just a reflection of greater truth-telling.

The generational data lend further support to the hypothesis that more women than men have lied to the researchers. Young women trail young men in the infidelity sweepstakes by only five percentage points. The gap for the over-60 crowd is thirteen points. This discrepancy can be explained by women's relative chastity only if you assume that men of the older generation were much more likely than younger men to hire prostitutes or preferentially seek out affairs with single women. I can't see any reason why that would be true.

As Dr. Gregory House says: Everyone lies.

I'd add: Everyone lies about sex. Everyone lies even more about illicit sex. And "everyone" will tilt female as long as women still face greater social stigma and economic penalties than men who make similar sexual choices.


Smirking Cat said...

Men cheating is also viewed as condoned, or that his wife drove him to it, or something that wives are responsible for instead of him. I see red when I see those lame articles with idiotic titles like "Why do men cheat?"...on women's magazines. As if men don't need to face that question...or answer it honestly, with a dose of responsibility for their own behavior.

Sungold said...

Hi Smirking Cat!

Of course the corollary to such titles is again that women *don't* cheat. Or if they do, they are an anomaly in a way that cheating men are not.

Both partners do bear responsibility for the health of a relationship. (That ought to go without saying, except it's only *women's* magazines that make an issue out of relationships - when was the last time Maxim ran a question on "How to get your wife to open up emotionally"?)

But the person who decides to step outside the relationship bears full responsibility for their decision. I have way more respect for people who own their decisions than for those who blame them on their partners.

hesperia said...

By the time I was six years old, I was aware that a woman caught in adultery in Biblical times was likely to get stoned. Though none of us North American women are in any danger of that, I can't help but think that the juxtaposition of adultery and death by stoning likely doesn't encourage truth-telling either.

Sungold said...

Hesperia, it's great to "see" you again.

Wow, at age six I wasn't even aware of what stoning was! You raise the interesting issue of how much these historical accretions still affect our thinking.