Which kind of cheating is worse? And why?

A lot of us have seen the statistic that men, on the whole, worry more about sexual infidelity in relationships while women worry more about emotional infidelity. (I’m writing this real quick-like in the middle of studying, so I can’t be bothered to look up a citation… perhaps some commenter can oblige, or I’ll edit it in later.) This statistic is usually explained by the evo-psych theory that men’s great reproductive danger was being duped into raising another man’s genetic offspring, while a women’s great reproductive danger was losing her mate’s financial support for herself and her children.

This theory irks me for a number of reasons: the most rational being that it assumes that basically modern gendered family roles were present in the environment men and women evolved in. It assumes monogamous pair-bonding with the female dependent on the males’ support; if you’re having trouble imagining any other possibility, consider a small, close tribal community where resources are shared fairly equally among the whole tribe, as opposed to won and hoarded by a particular nuclear family unit. Consider an economy based largely on foraging, where women’s childbearing role would not hamper them from obtaining resources nearly as much as in a more labor-intensive agricultural economy. The “men evolved to be sexually jealous to ensure their hard-won resources nourished their own offspring” idea makes little sense if human brains evolved in such communities, as does “women evolved to be emotionally jealous to ensure their mates’ continued provision.”

An alternative theory is based on our culture’s intense conditioning of males and females around sexuality and emotion. Men are taught from an early age that being highly emotional is unacceptable. While women are allowed to cuddle and form intimate emotional bonds in many kinds of relationships (with family, with friends, with children), men’s sole source of both affectionate touch and emotional intimacy is in the sex act. For this reason, I think it’s often misleading to make a distinction between men’s sexual and emotional needs: very often the two are conflated, because our culture deems non-sexual emotional needs as “unmanly.”

From the women’s side, we are socialized to view male sexuality as rampant and uncontrollable: that a man will have sex every chance he gets, and with as many women as he can, is often viewed as natural and inevitable. And from that standpoint, it is likely to be much more forgivable. Men’s sexuality, in our culture, is cheap: easy to gain access to, and thus less valuable and less jealously guarded. Men’s emotional commitment and intimacy, on the other hand, is rare and difficult to obtain (see the above paragraph). Therefore for a woman’s male partner to give emotional intimacy to someone else is a much higher violation than for him to give sexual intimacy. (I use the word “give” as opposed to “share” deliberately: the idea that intimacy of either kind is a commodity is fundamental to the very idea of infidelity, so it seems logical to use that language even though it’s contrary to my own philosophy.)

In my view, our cultural constructions of gender, and particularly the severe suppression and distortion of male’s emotional selves, is entirely sufficient to explain the “women are more worried about emotional infidelity, men are more worried about sexual infidelity” statistic. Problematic and possibly counterfactual evo-psych theories are, in this case, superfluous.

2 thoughts on “Which kind of cheating is worse? And why?

  1. Actually, evo- psych explanations of this are not all of one piece. Some suggest that it’s really protection more so than resources or a combination of both that an unfaithful female risks, others would merely point out that genes that select for more jealousy on the part of males would be selected more often and thus propogate more than genes that do not select for such traits.

    Whatever the reasons, men’s jealousy seems to be a universal cultural artifact in cultures in which paternity matters either in terms of responsibilities or in terms of rewards or both. Some matrilocal societies do away with it, but these societies don’t hold men responsible for the children they sire. Rationally, in those societies men don’t worry about their children, they have reason to believe their child (if they care) has been born and is alive and well, their responsibilities, such as they are, are to their sisters children.


    1. Your argument suggest strongly that male jealousy is primarily a cultural, rather than a genetic, phenomenon. If male jealousy is genetically determined, then it should exist across societies; if it varies based on male parental investment, that suggests to me that it is a cultural response, not an innate, genetically hardwired trait of all males.

      There could be a way around this: for example, if the argument is that men in matrifocal societies have evolved independently of men in patriarchal societies, and whatever genes determine jealousy are passed on to men in some cultures and not in others. But I’m not aware of any evidence that jealousy is even a heritable trait, which is necessary for the whole argument to stand. The cultural theory is far more parsimonious and is sufficient to account for the known facts.


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