What's With The Double-Standard When It Comes To Women Who Cheat?

Can a women who cheats on her husband ever be judged less harshly than a man?
Young woman using mobile phone and checking messages in bed while her husband is asleep
EmirMemedovski via Getty Images
Young woman using mobile phone and checking messages in bed while her husband is asleep

What’s worse than a husband who cheats on his wife? A wife that cheats on her husband.

As punchlines go it wouldn’t raise a laugh, but it would provoke the ire of the press, and society’s judgement. Why is it that we’re so quick to forgive a man who cheats, and so hasty to condemn a woman who does the same?

In the recent Channel 4 documentary, ‘Paula’, which explored the life and legacy of television presenter and writer Paula Yates. One of the most powerful aspects of the programme was the way in which the British press harassed, hounded and judged her for the choices she made in her private life.

When she had an affair with pop star Michael Hutchence, the press were quick to paint her as a home-wrecker and a harlot.

By comparison, when Tiger Woods’ affairs were exposed in 2009 many of the magazines and newspapers that covered the story treated his infidelity as an excuse for a pun: ‘Tiger Hides His Tale’ and ‘Tiger Admits: I’m a Cheetah’.

In 2012 actress Kristen Stewart’s affair with married director Rupert Sanders, while she was in a relationship with actor Robert Pattinson, became an international news story, causing so much furore and condemnation that Stewart had to issue a public apology.

In 2022 Tristan Thompson apologised on Instagram to Khloe Kardashian for an affair that lead to a woman become pregnant. This was three years after he’d cheated on Khloe with a friend of the family, and four years since he cheated on her when she was heavily pregnant with his child.

Whilst Thompson was condemned for his behaviour, much of the criticism on social media was aimed at Kardashian, for giving an unfaithful man multiple chances to change his ways.

It’s a strange and cruel world where a wronged woman can be criticised for the behaviour of the man that she loves.The women men cheat with can also expect to be judged.

Why did the world’s press focus on Monica Lewinsky’s behaviour rather than Bill Clinton’s? Rebecca Loos when she proclaimed an affair with David Beckham? Angelina Jolie, when Brad Pitt was the married man?

Can a women who cheats on her husband be forgiven? Can she ever be judged less harshly than a man?

When I wrote my novel, The Guilty Couple, I was faced with a dilemma: should Olivia, my main character, have an affair or not? I knew there was a risk I might alienate my readers. Could they still sympathise and relate to her?

Or would they think that Olivia deserved to be framed by her husband for a crime she didn’t commit? There was no way I could write the novel without the affair. It was a crucial element of the plot, without it the story would simply fall apart.

The solution, I decided, was to make Olivia’s husband Dominic so despicable, cold and uncaring, that readers would naturally side with my protagonist. Olivia’s affair was forgivable when her life was devoid of love.

But what of women who cheat on partners that aren’t cruel or abusive? Why are we so angry with them when they break up their family in pursuit of an affair?

Psychotherapist Paddy Magrane (MBACP) thinks that, ‘all too often, an affair is framed as a ‘blame’ narrative – a simplistic case of victim and perpetrator’ and that, ‘when women have affairs, that basic take can become heavily tainted with gender inequality and sexism.’

He looks to society, and the role we expect a woman to take – as a caregiver, nurturer and a stable presence in the home – as an explanation for this double standard saying that, ‘by having an affair, [women] have defied society’s ‘rules’, which can be very threatening to others.’

There’s also the issue of female sexuality, drive and desire and how that’s viewed by society. Freud coined the ‘Madonna-Whore Complex’ to explain the psychological complex in some men who see women either as virginal and pure, or sluts and prostitutes.

Whilst that’s black and white thinking, there’s no doubt that women are still judged for their sexual conquests, appetites and choices. As Paddy Magrane says, ‘By having an affair, [women have] also demonstrated that they’re still capable of experiencing desire, and for some, that’s an uncomfortable rejection of long-held assumptions(mostly stemming from dusty old male-led studies) about female libido.’

There’s no doubt that affairs wreck marriages, home and lives and, having been cheated on myself inthe past, I’m not siding with the cheaters, but I would like to see equality in the judgement we pass.

Cally Taylor is best known for her alias C.L. Taylor, a Sunday Times bestselling crime author. Her novel, The Guilty Couple, is out in paperback 27th April (Avon, Harper Collins).

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