Sarah, a 19-year-old student in London, is telling me about a time she cheated on her boyfriend with another woman. “It was a drunken night out when I was younger, and the girl was someone I’d liked for a while despite having a long-term boyfriend,” she says, adding that cheating was “not her proudest moment.” In the cold light of day, the guilt set in and she decided she needed to come clean, although she was nervous about how angry her boyfriend would be. “When I told him, he said he didn’t care and found it hot,” she continues. “Then he asked if we could have a threeway.”
Sarah’s boyfriend is far from alone in his relaxed attitude toward women cheating with other women. Marty, a 32-year-old event worker in Georgia, says that the idea of his wife being with another man is “innately terrifying” in a way that doesn’t hold for women. For him, it comes down to the potential for comparison. “He must have something I don’t have, like a better or stronger body, a bigger penis, more masculinity or more confidence,” he explains. “Cheating on me with a women, while still hurtful, presents a different, less scary prospect: I literally cannot give my wife the experience of being with a woman.” He says for her to go behind his back in that case “might almost be understandable.”
Reporting for this piece, I spoke to dozens of men who echo Marty’s sentiment: Being cheated on with a man feels like a direct threat to their ego and an indictment on their ability to provide satisfying sex, whereas being cheated on with a woman doesn’t feel as personal. As Thomas, a 54-year-old medical worker based on the East Coast, puts it, “She wouldn’t have gone for a better game, she would have gone for a different game, and therefore, there’s no failure on my part.”
It’s an idea that holds such intuitive appeal that it comes up time and again among these men, but it doesn’t hold up well under scrutiny. If you’re a lazy sexual partner who treats your girlfriend’s pleasure as unimportant, say, and she cheats on you with an attentive, generous lover, why would the gender of the third party exonerate you?
Consider the response of David, a 53-year-old project manager from London. “The feeling of having your long-term girlfriend sleep with another man is humiliating in ways I find hard to explain, but which are partly down to the whole performance anxiety thing,” he tells me. “Was he better, bigger, harder than me? Did he get her off in new and better ways?” When I ask him about women, on the other hand, he’s unperturbed. “The other girl doesn’t have a dick to compare with mine, and obviously, a girl would be able to give another girl great head in ways I couldn’t possibly compete with.” When I ask David about this glaring contradiction — believing that women could certainly give his girlfriend better head, but worrying only about the superior performance of men — he agrees it’s contradictory, but still feels that “the male competition is threatening, but not the female.”
Time and again, the source of this threat is the penis. “I have a man’s body, so I can’t offer my partner my persona in a female body without some serious work,” says Alex, a self-employed 30-year-old from L.A. “Cheating with a man feels like more of betrayal because they’re cheating with someone who is anatomically similar to you.” Michael, a 27-year-old student in the U.K., feels similarly, telling me it’s like the episode in Seinfeld where Elaine ‘converts’ the gay guy, but then he goes back to the other team because she “doesn’t have the same tools.” When I ask Alex and Michael how this logic would hold if their girlfriends cheated with trans men or women, both were stumped. “That’s a complicated thought to process,” Alex says. Michael responds in kind: “I’m not sure I know the answer to that one, sorry.”
Michael, Alex and several other men understand that referencing anatomical, biological differences between men and women is reductive, “unwoke” and even illogical, yet this is often how they articulate the threat of the other man. Charlie, a 50-year-old executive from North Carolina, explains that “men compete for partners biologically with other men,” and at least half a dozen men cite the inability of women to get their partners pregnant as a mitigating factor. “Men’s bodies are repellent things, and the only reason I can tolerate my own is because I’m so used to it,” says Eric, a 34-year-old designer from Atlanta. “Also, as a gender, we simply cannot be trusted to make responsible decisions when it comes to choice of sexual partners or consistent use of protection.”
Yet underneath Eric’s surface-level concerns about hygiene and bastard children lurks a deeper terror. “One undeniable factor is the fear that there’s a latent part of me that might awaken one day and be into men after all,” he says. “You have to wrap your head around what she sees in him.”
Interestingly, this fear of the sexually irresistible man also crops up for some queer women. Pam, a 31-year-old bisexual art dealer, tells me that she dreads her female partners leaving her for men. “It comes from the overwhelming weight I feel from society to commit to a straight relationship, and [I worry about] her ending up in one just to release some of the burden,” she says, adding that the pressure is especially intense in the “super conservative” Dominican Republic that is her home. “She wouldn’t have to jump the same 11,000 hoops to be with him, hence the likelihood of losing her for good feels much graver.”
However, Pam is relaxed and understanding about the prospect of being cheated on with another woman. “People catch feelings and honestly have the right to move around,” she says. “While cheating is never ‘okay,’ I guess I get it? Girls are cute and generally kinder, better people.” Sue, a 29-year-old bisexual and polyamorous trans woman based in Ohio, tells me something similar. She’s less concerned about her female partners treating her as a “sexual novelty” and “trusts [their] emotional capacity” more than she does her male partners, so she’s less worried about women getting sex elsewhere. With men, though, the idea makes her “nauseous.”
All of this had me perplexed. If, like several straight men told me, women are assumed to be more skillful (albeit dickless) lovers and better, more emotionally supportive partners — providing a level of care and understanding these men said they couldn’t hope to match — surely that would make them more threatening? Shouldn’t lazy, inattentive straight men be quaking in their boots at the prospect of queer women replacing them? On the flip side, why was Pam so blasé about the risk of the Other Woman, and why didn’t Sue cling more possessively to her superior female partners?
“Relationships are only worth what you put into them, right?” Sue retorts rhetorically. “With men I have to do more work, so there’s more ground to be lost.” She also says that, as a trans woman, it’s important for her to be seen as the girlfriend of men. “It’s more validating of my femininity to be on a masc person’s arm.”
For KB, a 26-year-old public servant in Ottawa, the answer is that men don’t take queer female sexuality seriously. “It’s super common for a lot of cishet men to think ‘it’s not cheating’ [to be with another woman], because deep down they think non-heterosexual relationships aren’t as valid as heterosexual ones,” she explains. “This holds even if they don’t consciously realize that’s where that bias comes from.”
Along those lines, many straight men do view the prospect of their girlfriends cheating with women through a pornographic lens that ultimately centers on them. As David, a 29-year-old student in New York, tells me, along with several other men, “There’s no way around it — cheating with a woman, while definitely a violation of trust, still makes part of my brain go, ‘Ooh, I wonder if we can have a threesome.’”
Other men, though, describe queer female sexuality in language that make it sound quaint, performative and benign. “Infidelity with another woman is fascinating and makes me curious,” Charlie says, while others describe it as “sensual,” “hot” and “kind of porno.” (Several express a keen desire to watch.) “It all comes down to the idea that sex requires and is defined by a penis,” Sue explains. “If a woman cheats with a man, it’s sex. If a woman cheats with a woman, it’s a lesser transgression — women can only ‘fool around’ with other women.”
She adds: “How I’ve internalized this as a woman with a penis who oftentimes dates women with penises is a fucking mystery.”