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Home of Dr. Christine B. Whelan

Myth: Most Married Americans Cheat

MSNBC.com has a story about Ashley Madison, a website devoted to pairing up married men and women with other similarly marrieds … who are not their spouses. I saw the ad in Times Square a year or so ago that said “Life is Short, Have an Affair” and when Ashley Madison was banned from an advertising slot during the Super Bowl, the small adultery website got even more press. Today, MSNBC.com pulled together all the media buzz here: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/29350847/

Let’s leave aside the lying, betrayal and moral issues — those are just too obvious. What gets me is that articles like this perpetuate the media myth that most married Americans cheat. And it’s just not true.

Yes, sex sells. Movies and TV shows are much more interesting when there’s infidelity added into the mix. But journalists have a responsibility to add the “to be sure” graf, the “on the other hand” caveat to articles about sites like Ashley Madison.

Here are the sociological facts about cheating:

  • 94% of American women and 89% of American men say they believe extramarital sex–cheating on your spouse–is wrong.
  • Fewer than a quarter of married men and 10% of married women have had sex with someone other than their spouse during their marriage.
  • The percentage of men and women who say they believe extramarital sex is “always wrong” has increased dramatically in the last 30 years. We’re getting LESS tolerant, not more tolerant about extramarital sex as premarital sex rates increase. (The logic would be “get it out of your system and then commit.” Whether or not that works is another story.)
  • Faithful people may be happier people: According to one interpretation of General Social Survey data, if you think extramarital sex is “always wrong” you’re also more likely to report greater happiness levels.

So who would be more likely to have an affair? Here’s some data from a roundup on extramarital sex research:

Gender. Men are slightly more approving of extramarital relations than are women.

Age. Younger men and women are slightly more tolerant of extramarital sex than are older people.

Education. The better educated are slightly more tolerant.

Religiosity. Extremely religious people tend to disapprove of extramarital relations slightly more than do others.

Attitudes

Premarital sexual permissiveness. Those who approve of premarital sex are more tolerant of extramarital experimentation as well.

Gender equality. People who believe that men and women are of equal worth are slightly more permissive.

Political liberality. Conservatives disapprove of extramarital relations slightly more than do liberals.

Marital Happiness. Happily married men and women are more likely to disapprove of extramarital sex. Only 13% of happily married men and women accept the idea of extramarital sex, while 43% of unhappily married people do (Sponaugle, 1976).

Articles about cheating websites are sexy, sure — but let’s remember that we’re not talking about the behavior of most American couples.

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March 3, 2009 - Posted by | Academic Musings

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