There's this oft-repeated myth that goes something like this: "All men cheat." Women say it to each other when our friend's boyfriends get caught red-handed and men say it to one another to comfort themselves, naturalizing their infidelities.
Evolutionary psychology types will tell us that men cheat because they have a biological drive to “spread their seed,” whereas women have a biological drive to avoid single motherhood. (Of course, this fear of single motherhood only really makes sense if we remain attached to both a nuclear family model and to a capitalist economy that makes it next to impossible for women to survive and feed their kids without a second income.) This theory also only makes sense if we separate individuals from the societies they live in.
I won’t deny that biology has a huge impact on our choices. I mean, would we choose to have sex with anyone if it wasn't for chemistry? But, if we were driven completely by our biological urges, then we would never get married (as marriage is a social and cultural practice, not a monkey one).
Monogamy is more about social norms than anything else. We are faithful to our partners because we make a commitment to do so and because we don’t want to hurt them. When relationships fall apart because of cheating, it’s because of betrayal and a breach of trust more than it is about the physical act of sex.
I’m unconvinced that monogamy is something “natural” or even “good,” nonetheless I am monogamous and expect my partners to be as well. Monogamy is a choice we make (or don’t make).
We know that both women and men can experience pleasure from sex. And now, new research shows that women are less inclined toward long-term, monogamous relationships than we had previously thought. It is within long-term, monogamous relationships that women, it seems, are likely to get bored and lose that lustful feeling towards their partner -– only to discover their lagging libido returns instantly with a new lover. The notion that women are somehow “naturally” monogamous, less desiring of sex, and “hard-wired” to need emotional connection in order to be turned on (unlike men who, presumably, only need visual stimuli or a warm body) is, apparently, untrue.
Yet no one says “all women cheat.” They say “all men cheat.” What gives?
I know men who’ve cheated and I know women who’ve cheated. Yet we hear “all men cheat” stated as though it were some kind of inarguable fact.
We talk about men as though they are “animalistic” in a way we don’t talk about women. This is nothing new. Since Victorian times, women have been viewed as the ones responsible for maintaining “morality” in society and keeping men in check. Men are viewed as penises with legs; incapable of rational thought once faced with the prospect of touching a boob.
When we say “all men cheat,” we do two things: We enable one another to stay in relationships with men who are sketchy, selfish liars, and we teach men that they aren’t accountable for their own behaviour. Aside from that, the notion that “all men cheat” is a lie.
You’ll notice, if you’ve ever been around men who cheat, that they surround themselves with other cheaters. They reinforce this behaviour as “normal,” “natural” male behaviour. They tell one another that infidelity is a biological imperative for men and make male bonding about acting like sleazebags. (See: bachelor parties that celebrate lifelong commitment with lapdances or paying women who aren’t the husband-to-be’s fiancée for sex). Male bonding, in these circles, seems to rest on secret “bad behaviour” -- their female partners, in turn, are forced into the “chump” role.
My male friends who don’t cheat are surrounded by other men who don't cheat.
Some men cheat and some women cheat. Statistics vary, but a recent study showed that approximately 30% of men admitted to cheating on their wives while about 20% of women said they had cheated on their husbands. Not only do statistics show that not all men cheat, but they show that not even most men cheat.
And while the number of men who cheat does outweigh the number of women who do, it isn’t by much. In a culture that normalizes and even encourages male infidelity, it’s unsurprising that a few more men cheat than women.
A recent study claims men cheat more than women "because they have stronger sexual impulses." Please. Everyone has “impulses.” “Impulses” never go away. The way we maintain relationships with other people and maintain a society that isn’t completely hedonistic, violent, and chaotic is by making choices about the way we behave and treat one another.
This isn’t to say people don’t mess up. Like, a lot. Certainly I've made some stupid and slutty mistakes in my day, but once in an officially monogamous relationship, I don’t find avoiding secret love affairs to be hugely challenging. And even though I have been cheated on (by men) I still don’t buy the “men-are-ruled-by-their-dicks” storyline.
What I do think, though, is that the repetition of the “all men cheat” line let’s men off the hook in terms of accountability for their own behaviour and reinforces untrue stereotypes about both female and male sexuality.
I don’t have any moral hang-ups around cheating. I have hang-ups around treating men as useless, stupid, selfish babies.