Cheating Isn't Empowering
Each of us is a replaceable, upgradable good
This week I came across an article about why women are having more affairs than ever. Apparently, since 1990, the number of women who admit to cheating has risen by 40%. And Illicit Encounters—the UK’s “leading married dating website”—has seen a 50% increase in women signing up to their affair matchmaking services this year alone.
I had to write about this because of the way the article frames the rise in female infidelity, like it’s positive, progressive, some sort of activism or reparations. It talks about the “taboo” around female sexuality, and how women are “breaking free from monogamy.” Netflix’s new show Obsession—about a woman who has an affair with her fiancé’s father—is described as “doing its part” to show “equal distribution of desire on screen.” The article also features feminist Jo Piazza, who sees the rise in female infidelity as a way for women to reclaim “autonomy over their bodies”, break down gender myths and take back the “patriarchal restrictions that have been put on us.”
Piazza also believes that cheating can be “a feminist act of self-care.” After talking with dozens of unfaithful married women in her new podcast She Wants More, Piazza now sees affairs as part of “self-discovery”, a way for women to “find themselves” again and take better care of their bodies:
All of these women told me that having an affair improved their lives in so many ways. I have a very close friend who is currently exploring a sexual relationship outside of her marriage, and her husband doesn’t know, but she’s never been f*cking happier. She’s doing great at her job. Her marriage seems so much better. And she glows.
Okay, maybe Piazza is a little extreme. But she definitely isn’t alone. Cosmo gives women tips on what to do after cheating (number one: “don’t tell him”). Women’s Health reminds us why we shouldn’t regret an affair. The Times says it might put a spring in our step. Even the “feminist” podcast Call Her Daddy—which hits an average of 5 million views an episode—sells “CHEAT ON HIM” crop tops for young women (can you imagine if Andrew Tate sold Cheat On Her merch?)
Maybe, then, this is where feminism is heading. Because it makes logical sense. If the ethos of mainstream, marketable feminism is to always prioritise personal freedom, individual desires and sexual autonomy, then of course female infidelity can be seen as positive, even emancipatory. It’s right on track. And inevitable we would end up with some situations like this husband rationalising his wife sleeping with other men: “She wasn’t rejecting me, she was embracing herself. When I understood that, I finally became a feminist.”
Another thought: maybe this is the inevitable end-point of consumer culture. We live in a world where everything is commodified and sold as a product, including relationships and intimacy. On social media, we are all just another item in a catalogue of icons, avatars and personal brands. We scroll through and swipe past and filter out each other like products. We block and ghost and unfollow. People can dress rising infidelity up as feminism and personal empowerment all they like but to me it seems like a front for a much darker reality: apps like Instagram and Tinder taught us to see each other as disposable commodities and some of us can’t unsee it.
Because everything is a market now. The market came for our looks, our communities, our personalities, our relationships—and taught us that all of it can be optimised and interchanged. Slowly, with every ad and discount code and app selling us a million versions of the same thing, we’ve been wired to see everything as a transaction; each of us a replaceable, upgradable good. And now, hovering over the most human and intimate moments of our lives are these thoughts, intrusive like pop-up ads, that maybe we could maximise profit and upgrade our model and snag a better deal elsewhere! We could have more attention, more sex, more fun! It’s telling, I think, that Piazza describes marriages as “business partnerships.”
I also think young women are taught that seeing people as disposable is in some way desirable. I spoke recently about two conflicting messages in our culture: toxic masculinity is bad, but also, an empowered woman embodies stereotypically male traits. She’s disagreeable. Emotionally detached. Overtly sexual. Pretty much all the examples given of “toxic masculinity”, actually—promiscuity, sexual entitlement, hyper-independence—are traits now repackaged as feminist girl power.
What’s the message to girls, then? Every time you mimic the traits of bad men it’s empowering and forgivable because you are female—even cheating and lying? I’m so sick of all that. Of all the you’re perfect and everything you do is empowering! clichés created by corporate marketing teams and pushed by pop-feminism, wellness companies and women’s magazines, the stuff with no substance but sounds sexy and cool so it sells. Girls need something more real. Actual guidance. Like matriarchs: strong mothers, grandmothers, a lineage of women who know and love us, and female figures in our culture who are brave enough to stand up and say no this is not good behaviour. Not every hedonistic impulse or consumerist desire is defensible.
Of course, I understand that we are fearful of regressing back to an age when women were stripped of freedom and autonomy, and hesitate to tell women how to live their lives. But I don’t think the answer is championing every choice and sugar-coating whatever suffering it causes. Or encouraging young women to go through life thinking we can treat people like we treat old expired products and it’s somehow self-care or feminism. I don’t want a feminism like that. One that infantilises and sees me as inhuman, like I’m incapable of making bad decisions. One where society will shriek you go girl! even as I destroy my life.
Because the truth is no, not every choice a woman makes is a good one for her long-term wellbeing or the wellbeing of others, just the same as it is for men. For all of us. Sometimes humans are destructive. Sometimes we do the wrong thing. And I agree that it’s our right to choose. But I worry we can get so caught up on that we forget what is right to choose.
Thanks for reading this rant! Sorry it’s a similar theme to last week but these are the topics going around my mind lately. Next week something different!
Also — hello and thank you to my new subscribers who found me through Triggernometry! I was really nervous about going on because I’ve never done anything like that before, so the support means so much. Welcome to Girls and please join in the discussion!