Low fidelity sexology

Infidelity, believe it or not.

From Equality Myth comes a plea to debunk sexologist Ian Kerner’s latest CNN post. Starting with the premise that “female infidelity is often much more damaging to a marriage,” he asserts:

In recent years I’ve noticed a precipitous rise in the number of men who have been betrayed by adultery, and while there’s an overall consensus among professionals that female infidelity is on the rise, the trend doesn’t garner nearly as much attention as male infidelity. … While there aren’t any hard statistics on female infidelity, most experts agree that it’s on the rise, especially among women who have their own careers and a degree of financial independence.

He also claims, “cheating is an equal opportunity sport, one that women are just as likely as men to play.”

All I can say after a short search is that (a) men cheat more; (b) there is no evidence of increasing infidelity, among men or women, in the last 20 years; and, (c) there may be a small increase in infidelity among women with college degrees in the last 10 years, but if so it is quite slight. Here are the numbers I got, from the General Social Survey, which since 1991 has been asking, “Have you ever had sex with someone other than your husband or wife while you were married?” For the overall trend:

Infidelity has been, and remains, more common among men than women, and neither group shows a significant time trend. And for the claim that it has been increasing among professional women:

For this one I pooled two survey-years of data at each end of the decade to increase the sample size. Still, the increase among women with 16 years or more of education, from 11% to 14%, is not strong evidence of an increase, especially when you look at the year-to-year fluctuations in the first graph. Education is associated with less infidelity among men, but shows no significant difference among women. In short, his empirical claims don’t match the “hard statistics” that I can find. Granted, the GSS is relying on self-reported bad behavior, albeit anonymously, so this is not proof (not as reliable as, say, the second-hand claims wronged spouses make to their sex therapists!).

That doesn’t mean he’s not seeing an increase among the people he counsels in his practice, which seems to focus on sexual problems and presumably is pretty expensive. That’s a select group — so maybe he should have saved the observations for his patient newsletter instead of spreading them all over CNN.

Even further from the “hard statistics” are his “signs that a woman could be cheating or thinking about it.”

  • She shows less general interest in her partner’s comings and goings
  • She dresses up for work, but seems to care less about whether her partner finds her attractive
  • She has less interest in sex with her partner
  • She’s keeping an irregular schedule and spending more time at work
  • She seems happy, except when she’s around her partner
  • She shows less tolerance of her partner’s friends and family
  • There are unresolved issues in the relationship that have either been ignored or not resolved in a way that’s satisfying to her
  • She’s in a child-centric marriage that prioritizes parenting and neglects a couple’s relationship, with few opportunities for romance and alone time

I could imagine these patterns apply to lots of women who are unhappy in their relationships, whether they’re having affairs or not. So when he says, “Guys, think your wife would never cheat? Think again,” Kerner might just be adding gasoline to a lot of smoldering fires.

7 thoughts on “Low fidelity sexology

  1. Philip, as much as I appreciate this post, some of the most important aspects of this study have been left out.

    We can say, based on this data, that men are more likely to say “yes” to the question “Have you ever had sex with another person while married … etc.”

    But this doesn’t answer the question: How many of the men were lying? How many of the women were lying? How many of the men had PERMISSION from their wives to have sex with someone else? How many women were raped and didn’t “count” that as “having sex?” How many of the MEN were raped?

    Until these answers are summated in the paper, I’m afraid it doesn’t do much good to answer just how “faithful” the men have been.


    1. @Easily Enthused: So, I’m going to have to defend the writer here and say that most of your critique on this is way off:

      1) This data isn’t from research on marital infidelity. It’s from the General Social Survey. So, yeah, it’s not tailored to the topic. Did you skip the “quick search” part of the post? And the writer does acknowledge that self-report data is problematic. Again, did you skip the part that said “Granted, the GSS is relying on self-reported bad behavior, albeit anonymously, so this is not proof “?

      2) Yes, people can (and sometimes do) lie on surveys. However, what alternative data source would you suggest? There exists no more reliable source of data on this that I can imagine (short of hiring a mass of PI’s to tail your research subjects over long periods of time without their knowledge, which would be highly unethical). Yes, people may lie; but many also tell the truth (especially when we follow good methods to preserve anonymity, which GSS has been improving over the many decades they’ve been doing this!).

      In addition, the changes in what people are willing to report often DO reflect changes in behavior. As in, when a behavior becomes more socially acceptable, then numbers of people doing it and the numbers of people willing to say on a survey that they do it generally BOTH rise. So, the raw % on your survey may be off, but your number is often a good indication of relative change over time.

      3) Rape DOESN’T count as having sex in most scenarios, and CERTAINLY not when we’re talking about measuring infidelity. You can’t possibly be suggesting that married rape survivors should be counted among the unfaithful… can you???

      Yes, the numbers are not a perfect measure of infidelity (men’s or women’s). But they are fairly representative of the best data we’ve got (that is empirical, rather than anecdotal). And there is within them, nothing to suggest major changes in women’s or men’s infidelity.


      1. Maia,

        Great points.

        1) When I made this comment, for SOME reason the original link was giving me a 404 error. I don’t know if it was on the server side or my firewall from work, but I didn’t see the original source. When Philip said “some quick searching” made me think he was going out to some other unknown source for this data. I had seen “general social survey” when I read it the first time (didn’t notice the capital letters) and assumed the worst. I apologize to you and Philip especially for my poor reading comprehension. There is no excuse.

        2) You said “However, what alternative data source would you suggest?”
        In the book “Sex At Dawn” by Christopher Ryan, Ph.D. and Cacilda Jethá, M.D., a similar trial was conducted – with the explicit intention of finding out how many sexual partners men and women had. The method involved asking the same group of people the same sets of questions TWICE. They called them in once, asked them how many partners, then called them back and said that they had lost the original records and (because it was labeled as a student survey, even though it wasn’t, they were told that the professor wouldn’t accept the results unless there was a lie detector involved) so they retested the same subjects and found that when men thought they wouldn’t be caught on their lies, they generally INFLATED their number of partners by ~20% and when women thought they wouldn’t be caught they LOWERED their numbers by ~20%.
        No one was actually hooked up to a lie detector – the wires went into an empty room and weren’t hooked up to any machine during the second part of the test.

        I would suggest a testing situation closer to this, with a faux lie detector, sprung at the last minute during a second interview while guilt-tripping the original respondents into giving an opportunity to “be honest” the second time around. [PLEASE agree to this re-test with the lie detector, your answers will be kept completely anonymous – and if you refuse to take the test it will completely screw up my test!]
        It “makes sense” that women would downplay their infidelity (as “good wife” wouldn’t sleep around) and men would overplay their infidelity (as “real men” are constantly getting laid by various women).

        3) The question, as posed by the GSS didn’t ask “have you cheated” or something similar. It was, in essence, asking “has your penis gone into a vagina other than your wife’s” and “has a penis other than your husband’s gone into your vagina?”
        SEX is the act of penile penitration – consent is not a part of that definition, unfortunately.
        Hence, this wasn’t REALLY about “unfaithfulness” and this is a point I will not give one ounce of leeway with you or Philip. You ASSUMED that “sex with someone other than your spouse”=infidelity.
        This is 2011 – it’s not that simple.


    1. GSS data is available online to the public. You don’t have download the whole data set or use statistical software, you can do online analysis.

      See http://www.norc.org/GSS+Website/

      If you’re going to criticize someone else’s analysis, don’t ask them to re-do it your way, DO YOUR OWN!


Comments welcome (may be moderated)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s