A new book says men are naturally unfaithful, but how true is it?
In The Monogamy Gap: Men, Love and the Reality of Cheating, American sociologist Eric Anderson claims that modern Western culture goes against the grain of innate male sexual behaviour.
Left to their own devices, men would become sexually bored with new partners after a maximum of two years, and would seek new sexual experiences throughout their lives. Social convention and religion stop many of us doing what comes naturally.
Anderson concludes that men's need for sexual novelty should be accepted, and that open marriages are the best solution for all concerned.
So does Anderson have it right? Are men unfaithful by nature? NZ MEN takes a look at the evidence.
What we already know about cheating
The first thing to note is that Anderson's book has put new flesh on some pretty old bones. It's long been received opinion that men cheat more than women, for pretty straightforward biological reasons. Men want to spread their seed as widely as possible, while women want a man around to help raise children.
It's certainly true, as new studies show, that men tend to yearn for sex more than women. According to Roy Baumeister, a social psychologist at Florida State University, "men want sex more often than women at the start of a relationship, in the middle of it, and after many years of it."
Baumeister also notes that there are far more female prostitutes and sex workers, and that research has found that nuns are far better at maintaining their vows of chastity than priests.
All of which suggests that men need more sex, more often, than women, and common sense dictates that it's this never-scratched-itch that leads so many men into compromising situations.
Women's Lifestyle editor Zoe Zahra says "My worry with this kind of research is that it could lead some men to believe that it is hard-programmed in them to cheat and therefore give them some sort of excuse for their philandering ways.
"The fact is whether you are a man or a woman you need to work at your relationship. We all crave new, fun things but if you find ways to spice up your current relationship boredom and complacency will hopefully not set in."
Women cheat too
But a closer look at the evidence suggests it's a bit more nuanced than all that. In fact, recent research indicates that, though men do still cheat more than women, the gap is narrowing fast.
Some recent research has found that, while around 20 per cent of men cheat, 15 per cent of women do too. Last year, a Dutch study of over a 1,000 men and women put the numbers even closer, with 22 per cent of men admitting to infidelity and 19 per cent of women.
So more men cheat, but not many more. And another study published last year in the journal Psychological Science may suggest a reason for the narrowing gap. It found that, among powerful individuals, gender made no difference to the number who had cheated in the past or had a desire to cheat in the future.
If you're in a position of power you probably have both people willing to cheat with you and opportunities (business trips away, for instance) to cheat. In the study, when these factors were equal, the genders were unfaithful at roughly equal rates.
"As more and more women are in greater positions of power and are considered equal to men, then familiar assumptions about their behaviour may also change," said psychologist Joris Lammers of Tilburg University, who lead the study.
Could cheating be connected to genes?
Nevertheless, among the general population (rather than just those in positions of power) some studies hint that certain men may be genetically predisposed to infidelity.
Hasse Walum, a biologist at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, studied 552 sets of twins and found that men who carried a particular gene variant were much more likely to have experienced a serious relationship crisis in the past year than those who didn't.
That doesn't necessarily mean they were unfaithful, but genetics may make cheating more likely. It stands to reason that a less stable marriage is likely to be more vulnerable to infidelity.
Other research has found that women are more wary of threats to their relationships.
In a complex study at the University of Montreal, men and women who had been asked to imagine a flirtatious encounter were then told to complete a word puzzle, which unbeknown to them was a psychological test designed to reveal their subconscious feelings. The women were far more likely than the men to enter words in the puzzle like 'loyal' and 'threat', suggesting their imagined flirtation had sparked worries about their relationships.
In other words, women might possess an early warning system that senses threats to their relationships. Without such a system men may be more likely to grasp an opportunity for infidelity without considering the consequences of their actions.
Why the majority of men don't cheat on their partners
Still, the fact remains that if 20 per cent of men cheat, 80 per cent remain faithful. Is that just down to social convention, or is something else going on?
Further research has discovered that men may cheat more than women, but only if they possess certain characteristics. For example, a counter-intuitive finding of one recent study was that men who worry about their sexual performance are more likely to stray.
"People might seek out high-risk situations to help them become aroused, or they might choose to have sex with a partner outside of their regular relationship because they feel they have an 'out' if the encounter doesn't go well they don't have to see them again," said one of the researchers.
Another study found that men who were financially dependent on their partners were more likely to cheat, perhaps because sexual encounters made up for feelings of financial inadequacy.
So in certain circumstances, some men may be predisposed to infidelity. But the majority don't give in to extra-marital temptation, so what might their secret be?
Good relationships make for monogamous relationships
The available research says that it isn't much of a secret at all. Men in good relationships cheat less. The same is true for women. It could be that men cheat less if the sexual component of a relationship is good, and women cheat less if they feel they have the emotional support they need.
But relationships are also about fun and self-improvement. When one researcher made couples do a fun but challenging task together and then asked them about their relationship, they reported a significantly increased sense of love and happiness.
In other words, doing fun, satisfying things together helps to make relationships rewarding, and neither party is likely to cheat when they feel their relationship is good.
So are men hardwired for adultery? It may be that, in certain circumstances, our defences against infidelity are easier to override, and some men may have a genetic predisposition to the sort of relationship problems that can lead to extra-marital affairs. But for most men, most of the time, a good relationship is all it takes to make staying faithful seem like the best option of all.
What do you think?
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