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Cheating and Masculinity

By Alicia Walker, author of Chasing Masculinity

I often get the question: What’s a nice girl like you doing studying a indelicate subject like infidelity? The inquiry always makes me laugh, but perhaps it is curious that I’ve spent years studying those who participate in infidelity. To me, the work is fascinating and important. But I understand the interest, since every research focus has an origin. My focus on infidelity started with my longstanding morning ritual of reading the news online. 

Many of the stories I read through social media focused on relationships, marriage, love, and yes, even cheating. Over the course of roughly six months, I read several stories about cheating that challenged the narratives I’d heard my whole life. These stories reported results of surveys conducted by websites which found that most folks who cheat fail to be caught and most intend to stay married. This got me thinking: if folks aren’t cheating to mate-shop and they aren’t cheating to exact revenge, then what is going on? 

That thought sparked my interest in looking at infidelity from a sociological lens. 

We tend to explain infidelity away as a personal failing. Looking at infidelity from a sociological standpoint instead places the behavior in the context of social structures. In other words, what is happening externally to the person cheating that helps shapes this behavior? 

The first struggle with any study is where to find your sample. After months of trying to figure out a recruitment plan, I remembered reading an article about Ashley Madison, a website designed for people seeking affair partners. I reached out and asked if they would share my recruitment call with their members. And with that, a study was born. 

I spent a year interviewing 46 men between the ages of 27 to 70 located across the United States who used the website Ashley Madison to find an affair partner. Men participated in sexual affairs yet explained that what they really wanted from those relationships had little to do with sex. 

Society often positions people who cheat as “bad people” or folks who are in bad marriages. But the reality is that many of us might know a man whom we regard as a “good guy” and whose marriage we observe with envy, who is also secretly cheating. When it comes to our theories on men’s infidelity, we’re woefully lacking in understanding. 

We tend to position men as simplistic creatures. How often do you hear the phrase “men are dogs” or “men only care about sex”? When people asked about my research, they dismissed the project with “I can tell you why men cheat!” We tend to reduce men’s motivations to sexual desires, and cheating is no exception. 

Our gendered ideas about infidelity prevent us from looking at the phenomenon with nuance. We think men cheat for sex and women cheat for love and attention. In my previous work, the vast majority of the women reported sexual gratification as their motivation for affairs. Their accounts lacked sentimentality, and they vetted partners to avoid “love” entanglements. In other words, they approached their affairs pragmatically and with a clear purpose: they sought to outsource the sexual aspect of their marriages. Conversely, the men with whom I spoke sought to outsource the emotional intimacy, emotional connection, and emotional support of their marriages. True, they reported sexual affairs, but they sought partners with whom they had emotional ties and even “love.”

Men wanted a romantic partner who praised them, showed interest in and enthusiasm about them, and made them feel more manly. They explained that they felt like a disappointment to their wives: both inside the bedroom and out. These feelings threatened their sense of themselves as masculine and “manly.” Ultimately, the men reported internalizing their perception that they exist as a disappointment to their wives as a statement of their unworthiness as a man. Whether they disappointed her by not doing their share of the household chores or by not provoking an orgasm during sex, they believed that her discontent with them signaled a failure of their masculinity.

Their affair partners provided praise, attention, and relational management. They showed interest in their feelings, the mundane details of their days, showed rapt attention to their stories, and helped them navigate upsetting feelings.

Thus, this work holds larger implications for how we study and talk about men, masculinity, and relationships. We must move away from the tendency to position men as emotionless sex machines. We tell men to “suck it up” and “be strong,” and what we really mean is “don’t express your emotions.” Men function in a society where they’re consistently asked to refrain from expressing their emotions, which is really limiting. Then, when they enter into a romantic relationship, we say, “be your partner’s best friend” and “open up to your partner” and “be emotionally supportive.” We socialize men their entire lives to tamp down their emotions, and then expect them to flip a switch within their romantic relationships.

Further, the demands of masculinity require men to rack up sexual partners, possess sexual prowess, and rely upon their romantic female partners to manage their emotional lives. So, for these men, when their marriages failed to validate their masculinity—through lackluster sexual encounters with disinterested spouses and wives who did not assist with managing their emotions—seeking an outside partner functioned as a workaround. Men sought from affair partners what they needed to validate their masculinity.

Alicia M. Walker is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Missouri State University. A microsociologist whose work focuses on sexual relationships and behavior, sexualities, sexual identity, and gender, Walker has particular interest in closeted behaviors and online initiation of sexual relationships. She is also the author of The Secret Life of the Cheating Wife: Power, Pragmatism, and Pleasure in Women's Infidelity (Lexington Books, 2017).