Within the context of increasing tolerance of diverse sexual practices in post-industrial societies, infidelity remains almost universally condemned in public understandings and media representations, with adultery shorthand for sleaziness and poor character. A public fascination with infidelity has been fuelled by media condemnation of high profile celebrity ‘cheaters’, and the 2015 hack of ‘married dating’ site Ashley Madison (tagline: ‘Life is short, have an affair’) where users’ personal details were leaked with often catastrophic personal consequences, including two reported suicides. In an age of increasing sexual tolerance, infidelity has become the lone area of adult sexual practice that remains unacceptable under any circumstances according to sexual attitude surveys (e.g. NATSAL-3). In fact, over the past twenty years, NATSAL data demonstrates a distinct hardening of attitudes towards cheating, at the same time that rates of infidelity in the UK are estimated at up to 70 per cent of women and 80 per cent of men, dependent on source.
In my paper An everyday affair: Deciphering the sociological significance of women's attitudes towards infidelity, I draw on qualitative interview material to examine the condemnation of infidelity in the context of it being part of the texture of everyday life. The visibility and apparent frequency of consensual non-monogamy, as well as more common secret experiences, would suggest a challenge to assumptions about the feasibility of lifelong monogamy, yet traditional constructions of sexuality remain dominant. I argue that the increasing hostility towards affairs is located in the discursive context of the ‘specialness’ of sex and the centrality of trust and communication to constructions of contemporary relationships. With the monogamous sexual couple at the centre of personal life, infidelity is viewed as a particular threat, revealing wider limitations to claims about the extent to which relationships have been detraditionalised.
My research findings suggest that monogamy is an assumed, rather than a negotiated practice in long-term relationships, which is inextricably tied to commitment, love and trust for participants. Covert affairs were condemned because of the deceit involved, suggesting a shift away from morality based on sexual practice. Communication and honesty are increasingly valued in our intimate relationships, and the existence of secret affairs undermines these qualities. Smart writes of the ‘modern cultural distaste for secrets’, which contributes to the increasing intolerance of infidelity, however the equation of trust with openness is problematic. This ‘will to truth’ relies on intimate knowledge of all of our partner’s thoughts and actions, rather than trusting that secrets are important to relationships in order for individuals to maintain a distinct sense of identity. Within this context, affairs are particularly threatening as they are seen to withdraw intimacy from the couple, without the knowledge of the other partner in the primary relationship. At the same time, the pervasive cultural message that all of our emotional and sexual needs should be met in our pair relationships limits opportunities for participants to consider or negotiate polyamorous or open relationships.
Research on infidelity can be used as a lens to examine shifts in intimate relationships more widely, with the hardening of attitudes towards affairs reflecting the entrenched centrality of the sexual couple to constructions of personal life. Undoubtedly a major part of the condemnation and disapproval of infidelity is the deceit involved, as trust and communication are prized elements of late modern intimate relationships. However, as negotiated non-monogamy is rarely an option within long-term heterosexual partnerships, there is an inevitability about the continuation of this type of deception within relationships. Rather than the liberalisation of sexual practices, strict rules about the ‘normal’ expression of sexual desire and the role of the traditional couple in personal life are revealed in our attitudes towards non-monogamy.
A research focus on the mundane – long-term relationships and the ubiquitous, if covert infidelities that accompany them; sex after marriage rather than before it – can reveal much about the lived realities of relationships and the often conflicting ideals and practices by which we conduct them. Recognising that intimacy exists beyond the monogamous couple may give us a more authentic, if messier, version of personal life.
Jenny van Hooff is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at Manchester Metropolitan University. She tweets at @jennyhvh.