Kelly, a 30-year-old corporate recruiter living in L.A., describes herself as a habitual cheater. “I’ve cheated in all of my relationships except my current one, and I’ve only been caught once,” she tells me. “Even now, I do have pretty regular thoughts about wanting to be with other people.” She says a mix of thrill-seeking, a need for different kinds of intimacy with different people and “the way [she’s] wired” means she finds it difficult to stay faithful. “Generally speaking, with the exception of my current [partner], I’m most content when I’m dating two people,” she continues. “I grew up in Kansas City, and there’s no such thing as being poly there, so I’d just cheat.”
We often think of cheating as a primarily male pursuit, and on the whole, men do cheat more than women. Recent data from the General Social Survey reveals that 20 percent of men and 13 percent of women report having sex with someone other than their spouse while married, and trend data going back to the 1990s suggests that men have always been more likely than women to cheat. However, that same survey shows that young women have closed the cheating gender gap, with women aged 18 to 29 being slightly more likely to cheat than men in their cohort. In other words, young people are equal opportunity cheaters.
To look into some of the reasons for this generational shift, I spoke to 30 millennial women who have cheated — most habitually, some as a one-off — about what motivates them to stray. Unsurprisingly, the reasons vary, but dissatisfaction in their relationships and the presence of drugs and alcohol are commonly cited causes. For example, Sophie, a 31-year-old marketing manager from Australia, says she’s cheated on every boyfriend she’s had from the age of 18 to 27, and she chalks it up to “low impulse control, drugs and a deep-seated resentment” of her boyfriends. “I think it’s way more common than people think,” she says. “I have a friend in an eight-year relationship who hasn’t fucked her partner in four years and who cheats when she’s out of state.”
Joan, a 29-year-old writer based in Brooklyn, is also a serial cheater. “I’ve cheated, to some degree — if there are degrees — on every partner except my current one,” she explains. “It was boredom, mostly, and the search for a variety of feelings, and the satisfaction of holding a secret.” She adds that she was a heavy user of drugs and alcohol before getting sober last year. “I don’t blame substance abuse for my cheating, but it definitely made it easier.”
Of course, as Joan suggests, what constitutes cheating varies from relationship to relationship and often involves some gray area. Most of the women I spoke to confessed to sex outside their monogamous relationships, although for one, kissing was her only transgression; some had sustained affairs while others had one-night stands; a few had breached the terms of an open or poly relationship (Sophie once slept with a friend despite a “no friends” rule); and others identified their cheating as “emotional” rather than (or as well as) physical.
On the latter count, I contacted Elise Franklin, a psychotherapist based in L.A., to help explain this distinction. “I think of emotional cheating as reserving emotional connection and vulnerability for someone in place of your partner(s),” she tells me, adding that it often occurs when communication has become blocked in the relationship. “If a woman feels disconnected or taken for granted and there’s no movement toward resolving those feelings, she may become more receptive to others’ interest and getting her needs met.” Franklin says that, in her experience, people cheat and have continued affairs to introduce a sense of vitality into situations that may have become stale or predictable. “People who are cheating are reinvigorated with life and excitement,” she says. “They feel desirable in a way that they often haven’t felt in a long time.”
As Tracy Moore has reported for us previously, part of the reason young women are cheating more than men their age may come down to changing gender norms. Michèle Binswanger, a Swiss journalist and the author of Cheating: A Handbook for Women, told The Independent that social conditioning determines how likely people are to cheat. “Women are known to be more sensitive to social pressure than men, and there has always been more pressure on proper sexual behavior in women,” she said. “Also they traditionally had fewer opportunities because they were more likely to stay at home with the kids.” Basically, several decades of feminism have eroded some of the stigma surrounding women’s sexuality and given them more financial and social freedom, empowering them to behave like men — and sometimes like dirtbags.
The desire to be unconfined by traditional gender norms resonates with the women I speak to. Kelly tells me her mother is a “Bible Belt conservative who heavily moralizes monogamy,” and Joan says she was raised according to strict gender norms. “I grew up in the Philippines, a super conservative Catholic country, where cheating was a big no-no for women,” she explains. “You’re supposed to just accept your lot in life, but cheating in men is excused and often encouraged.” She can see a marked difference in the views of women her age compared to those her mother’s age. “Millennials are both way more jaded and way more chill than the previous generation,” she muses.
Traditional monogamous relationships are often cited as one of the many institutions and industries that millennials are killing, and studies do suggest that young people are less wedded to monogamy than previous generations, which may help explain the relaxed approach to infidelity. “Relationships in general are different [in our generation],” Joan continues. “There seems to be more of a spectrum in how people date, which leads to all sorts of gray areas and wiggle room.” While most of the women I speak to cheated while in ostensibly monogamous relationships — not a particularly noble challenge to institutional monogamy, they admit — some have now moved on to open or poly arrangements. Others have simply chosen better partners, leaving them less vulnerable to temptation.
The last point is important and came up again and again: Without fail, women told me that the men they cheated on were disappointing partners who weren’t meeting their relationship needs. That’s commonly understood as a reason men cheat — consider, as Sophie points out, the stereotype of the man who visits a sex worker because his wife no longer “puts out” — but it appears to motivate women at least as much. The difference for millennial women, though, is that they’re so acutely attuned to the failings of men (see: #MenAreTrash) that they didn’t feel particularly bad about their transgressions. “I never felt guilty,” Sophie says firmly. “All of my partners were people I took care of in the ways you always take care of men: emotionally, sometimes financially and dealing with untreated mental illness.”
Kelly was similarly unrepentant. “Part of me did it as a little bit of misandry,” she says. “Like, I can’t feel all that guilty because I didn’t really trust or respect men deeply enough anyway.”