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Lithium In defense of the adulteress

Oct. 8, 2020
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The modern feminist zeitgeist has made great strides in destigmatizing female sexuality. 20 years ago, slut-shaming was a common facet of cultural discourse (look at any tabloid from the aughts as proof), but now it’s been so adamantly repelled by feminists that to slut-shame is to essentially reveal oneself as a regressive sexist. Hookup culture has emerged from this newfound acceptance of female lasciviousness––girls are now able to have sex as casually as men without almost any fear of malignant social backlash. Still, even with this emergent sex positivity, there remains the underlying traditional narrative that women should settle down eventually. They should find their partner, and the two of them should be together in a rapturous union.  

While what this partnership should look like has evolved—the suffocating heterosexual nuclear family of the ‘50s no longer holds universal appeal—to include gay relationships, nomadic lifestyles, and contemporary spins on romantic relations, it’s still expected that both men and women will eventually outgrow their liberal, undiscriminating libidos and opt for a much more tame and singular sex life. The person they choose to have a life with is expected to be the person with whom they practice a sustained physical relationship without impermissibly straying. The cultural expectation of fidelity is one that applies to both men and women. 

However, as evidenced by the exhaustive amount of tweets condemning cheating, people are still performing these unimaginable, immoral transgressions. But when men cheat, they are more readily forgiven because of their “uncontrollable” libidos. Even though we all like to believe that we’ve overcome the myth of omnipotent male sexuality, there is still a subtle, resilient belief in it. I think this belief is best shown by the persistence in the idea of “blue balls”: men’s horniness is so powerful that it literally pains them when left unattended. So when men transgress the sanctimony of exclusive relationships, they are reprimanded, but their infidelity is begrudgingly tolerated because they are victims of a domineering sexuality to which they’re incapable of standing up. Meanwhile, sexual treachery perpetrated by women is seen as anomalous to the social expectation of who a cheater is. After all, the other side of that latent belief in men’s domineering sexuality is the idea that women are pious creatures who are not libidinously driven. Thus, when a woman betrays someone she’s romantically involved with, she is, to some degree, seen as a licentious deviant with no regard for the sanctity of an exclusive relationship. 

This implicit bias is expressed throughout most of pop culture. A popular example would be the consistent scrutiny of Insecure’s protagonist, Issa, when she cheats on Lawrence, her unemployed, lazy boyfriend of five years, with Daniel, a rap producer with propitious talent who happens to be her ex-fling. The disproportionately intense criticism that was inspired by this event is reflective of society’s inability to completely process female infidelity, even if it occurs after years of supporting an indolent, financially unsupportive beau. (If anyone cares, I not only give Issa props for snagging Daniel, but also for giving a proverbial and literal “fuck you” to Lawrence.) Though the relationship was actually more of a burden than a romance, Issa is still made out to be the villain for violating an archaic, unforgiving moral code. Another example of this incommensurate response to female infidelity could be found in Big Little Lies. Much of season two consists of Ed, the affable albeit bland husband of controlling, uptight Madeline, consistently shaming his wife for her extramarital hookup with Joseph, the local theater director. Meanwhile, there is insinuated flirting between Ed and Bonnie, an easygoing, beautiful frenemy of Madeline’s, as well as palpable sexual chemistry between him and Joseph’s wife. I understand the difference between Ed and Madeline is that Madeline actually acted on her feelings (though, again, can you blame her? Joseph is kind of hot), and there are debatable technicalities between emotional betrayals and physical ones, but the point is that not even Ed is exempt from these straying thoughts. He’s just better at controlling them than Madeline. Their situation inverts the trope of men succumbing to a domineering libido, and I believe that’s why fans are so unforgiving of her. 

Sex is irrevocably reflective of one’s true emotions—it’s (usually) emotionally barren during meaningless hookups, but once it’s being performed within the confines of an exclusive relationship it’s suddenly emotionally charged. This idea of sex being the ultimate channel through which two people express their love for each other can definitely be true, but it’s too sentimental of a notion to be universally applied. People are able to separate their sexual feelings from their romantic ones, which I think is often overlooked in the discourse surrounding cheating. Not everyone who cheats does so out of malice or hatred, but the idea that sexual attraction indicates someone’s true feelings overshadows the reality of the situation. And this idea is weaponized against transgressors, like the two female characters I mentioned above. When women have an affair, they are seen as anomalies defying their emotional instincts. Subsequently, they’re more thoroughly crucified than men, who have traditionally been stereotyped as the less emotionally driven gender. 

According to Wednesday Adams in her book Untrue, the expected fidelity of women is directly linked to men’s insecurity in regard to reproduction. After the Agricultural Revolution, people forwent their itinerant lifestyles and settled on plots of land; as time went on and tools like the plow were popularized, women were expected to stay home and care for their family while men worked the land. Not only did this arrangement allow men to better control their wives, but it also allowed them to lay claim to the property. This sense of land ownership and private property contributed to men’s paranoia regarding their wives’ infidelity—if a wife wasn’t loyal to her husband, there was the fear that she’d give birth to an illegitimate son who would later inherit the husband’s property. Essentially, men were afraid of giving their property to a son with whom they shared no genetic relationship. Though women today largely have access to birth control and abortions, the remnants of this patrilineal paranoia still arguably influence our modern ideas surrounding adultery. These ideas may not as patently revolve around reproductive disputes, but they’re still prevalent in the hostile cultural attitude surrounding cheating. 

Obviously, cheating is a betrayal of trust and it’s always better to communicate with your partner instead of sneaking around behind their back. But cheating is natural—while people may still love their romantic partners, they’re going to get tired of the same body over and over again, and the corollary is that they will be curious about new ones. The bravest people who act on these curiosities and actually seek out illicit affairs of their own are the adulteresses; these women choose to exercise their sexual autonomy, even if it isn’t socially acceptable and can result in a fierce social backlash. 

To me, adulteresses and seductresses represent the total subversion of the traditional sexual narrative forced upon women. They’re supposed to settle down, be faithful, and not ask for more within the sexual realm because of how much has been achieved in the social one. But these categories of women reject that. They’re recalcitrant to let any narrative, no matter how contemporaneously adapted it may be, direct them. Though it might scare her, the adulteress is determined to step outside of the traditional limitations of exclusive relationships. She may or may not still have an emotional attachment to her romantic partner, but she’s willing to risk it for a taste of sexual sedition. Her willingness to desecrate a relationship in which she finds emotional fulfillment contradicts the aforementioned belief that sex and emotions are inextricably entangled. The possibility that people can have meaningless sex while in a committed relationship confronts the dominant, inflexible narrative that says people cheat because they no longer love their partner. 

Meanwhile, the seductress luxuriates in her sexuality and isn’t afraid of utilizing it for her own benefit. She has no plans of slowing down or settling, which is why, even within the sex-positive movement, she’s usually feared (especially as she grows older). Her wild deviance is even more emphasized if she weaponizes her sexuality solely for her own pleasure rather than her financial gain: overt sexuality has become much more acceptable if used for capitalist gain (re: OnlyFans). Both the adulteress and the seductress scare people because they’re proof of women’s sexual insatiability, which the sex-positive movement has largely failed to acknowledge outside of a capitalist framework. 

These types of women are proof that women can be just as libidinally charged and motivated as we have always accepted men to be; women are just as capable of acting on their own sexually treacherous inclinations or forgoing conventional relationships altogether if they choose. None of this is new information, but the incommensurate reactions to the manifest displays of it represent how unforgiving society still is of female salaciousness. While women are shamed under the guise of sexually tolerant rhetoric, those who transgress the limitations of sex positivity are confusing and unknown—despite male transgressors (or bachelors) being forgiven for their reticence to settle down. For the sex-positive movement to truly embody what it says it stands for, it needs to expand the discourse surrounding infidelity and libidinally driven women. Women can’t be sexually liberated if people are still inflexible over what sex means in an exclusive relationship, or if their sexual liberation is only accepted when they are fiscally exploiting men. The adulteress and the seductress are pioneers of this sexual expansion, and it’s time we start following their lead.