Imagine you learned your romantic partner was unfaithful to you. Would you be more upset if he or she had sex with someone else, or if they had fallen in love with someone else? Several studies have found that the answer to that question depends on the your gender. Women say they would be more upset if their partner was in love with someone else, but men say they would be more upset if their partner was having sex with someone else.
Why the difference? There are a couple explanations. One relies on natural selection: It’s important to men to know their genes are being passed on, so sexual infidelity is a bigger problem than romantic infidelity. Women, this explanation argues, are certain their children possess their genes, so they are more concerned that a man will use his resources to support the child of another woman. So sleeping with other women is not as bad as falling in love with them.
A second explanation suggests that there’s no practical difference between romantic and sexual infidelity. Women assume that if a man loves another woman, he’s also slept with her. Men assume that if a woman has slept with another man, she loves him. This was backed up by a 1996 study by Christine Harris and Nicholas Christenfeld. So what’s different for men and women is what’s implied by “sexual intercourse” and “love,” not their level of offense at their partner’s behavior. (Few of these explanations, by the way, account for same-sex relationships)
More recently, Monica Whitty and Laura-Lee Quigly wanted to see if similar principles held up cyberspace. Does cybersex and cyber-romance show the same gender difference? Whitty and Quigly surveyed 112 undergraduates with the same questions about sexual and emotional infidelity, but also asked cyber-versions of the same question. So respondents were given four choices to the question of what bothered them the most: A partner in love with someone else, having sex with someone else, in a cyber-romance with someone else, or having cybersex with someone else.
Then, for each possible relationship, they also asked whether love implied sex or vice-versa:
- Imagine you discover your partner is engaging in sexual intercourse with someone else. How likely do you think it is that your partner is in love with that person?
- Imagine you discover your partner has met someone else online and is engaging in cybersex with that person. How likely do you think it is that your partner is in love with that person?
- Imagine you discover your partner is in love with someone else. How likely do you think it is that your partner engaging in sexual intercourse with that person?
- Imagine you discover your partner is in love with someone else that they have met online, and have never met face-to-face. How likely do you think it is that your partner is engaging in cybersex with that person?
Perhaps not surprisingly, not one respondent said that cybersex or cyber-love was the worst type of infidelity. For physical sex and love, the responses broke down as follows:
These results matched the earlier studies: women are more bothered by their male partners’ romantic infidelity, and men are more bothered by their female partners’ sexual infidelity (all respondents said they were heterosexual).
But when they were asked whether love implies sex and vice versa, the responses differed from earlier studies:
In this study, men’s ratings of whether sex implied love were significantly higher than women’s ratings, but there was no gender difference in any of the other ratings. That’s a sharply different result from Harris and Christenfeld, who also found that women were more likely to say that love implied sex.
This finding could reveal a flaw in both possible explanations of the gender difference in attitudes toward infidelity. If attitudes toward infidelity are a product of evolution, why would they be different in the two studies? If gender differences in whether sex implies love and vice versa are behind the original result, then why would Whitty and Quigley find different results than Harris and Christenfeld?
The results for cyberspace again don’t tell us much. There’s no significant difference between male and female responses, and it’s clear that everyone believes physical infidelity, whether romantic or sexual, is much more serious than the online equivalent.
Whitty, M., & Quigley, L. (2008). Emotional and Sexual Infidelity Offline and in Cyberspace Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 34 (4), 461-468 DOI: 10.1111/j.1752-0606.2008.00088.x