Recently I heard an episode of This American Life detailing Jerry Springer, who almost resigned his position as a city council member after he was found to have used the services of a prostitute. This of course is not an entirely rare event – I was instantly reminded of Elliot Spitzer, who resigned from his position as Governor of New York after a similar occurrence; and Hollywood heart-throb Hugh Grant busted in a car. All three were at the time involved in committed relationships. Why would these powerful and/or unnaturally attractive men resort to these hook-ups? And why don’t we hear about women involved in similar situations?
We could turn to a socialization approach and say clearly there is a discrepancy in the social allowance of male v. female infidelity, and this may well be. Perhaps women are judged more harshly for stepping out, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t in fact stepping out. In a 1940s study of sexual habits in the U.S., blood tests revealed that almost 10% of the babies examined were conceived from extramarital affairs (as cited by Diamond, 1992). In other words, the husbands were not the fathers in almost 1 in 10 cases! Since not all sexual encounters result in pregnancy, one could presume the rates of infidelity to be higher among these women. Women are having affairs, even if we are being socialized with a “double standard”.
Maybe we can turn to a dominance-based explanation. These cheating men were in positions of power; perhaps power lends itself to more frequent sexual liaisons. Those who can, will, right? Historically, men have held such positions in Western cultures. However, women today hold positions of power, and even still it is Elliot Spitzer and not Hilary Clinton who got exposed for using the services of a prostitute. Since the establishment of the Women’s Rights movement in the U.S., women have shown that in the proper environments, they can be just as aggressive as men (e.g. female boxers); hold positions of power traditionally held by men (e.g. political office); and be the primary breadwinners in families (creating a small group of stay-at-home dads). If dominance is the explanation, as women continue to attain powerful positions, shouldn’t too we be hearing about increases in their high-profile infidelities?
Turning to some mating strategies research from an evolutionary perspective might lend some insight. Far from the misunderstanding that men are supposed to “sow their oats” while women maintain their virginal status until marriage, Schmitt and colleagues (2003) found that both men and women are designed to adopt short-term mating strategies, even if involved simultaneously in a long-term strategy*. However, what each sex looks for in a short-term mate differs. In line with parental investment theory, men, as the least compulsory investing sex (e.g. they don’t bear or nurse offspring), use short-term mating strategies to get a variety of mates (which doesn’t always mean the most desirable). Women, as the most compulsory investing sex, seek short-terming mating opportunities to find a high quality mate (which doesn’t always mean a good long-term investor).
At the risk of sounding like an NPR nerd, I think a quote from All Things Considered (March 11, 2008) sums up what we know from evolutionary psychology, at least in terms of men’s short-term strategies – “They are seeking greater variety, something simple, no commitment.” While high profile men who cheat might be seeking out easy-to-acquire extra mates, high profile women who cheat are likely to continue seeking out high quality mates, who judging by media stories seem to be more discrete in their dealings than prostitutes.
*That these approaches have worked in our ancient past doesn’t mean they are either in line with our current morals OR unchangeable in our current environments. Check out the naturalistic fallacy for more.
Diamond, J. (1992). The third chimpanzee: The evolution and future of the human animal. New York: Harper Perennial.
Schmitt, D. P., & 118 members of the International Sexuality Description Project (2003). Universal sex differences in the desire for sexual variety: Tests from 52 nations, 6 continents, and 13 islands. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85(1), 85-104.