Throughout her nearly decade-long marriage, *Fi, 38, has to varying degrees cheated on her husband. Everything from seemingly petty indiscretions (texting strangers) to the extreme end of the spectrum (attending sex parties with men and women).
“Before we were together, I was very sexually active. Going to BDSM clubs was really part of my identity,” she says. even. But my partner was not in [my more kinkier sexual preferences].”
She started finding people she could color with outside of marriage lines. “I think it’s unrealistic that we can get everything we need from just one partner,” says Fi. “And if the other partner isn’t up for an open relationship, that means the other person is making a sacrifice.”
Stories like this are always laced with a certain shock factor, but mostly because of a traditional lack of female perspectives on business, and even expansive sexual desire. The word is very clear about the multiple sexual needs of all genders in academic circles – and pop culture to some extent, after Fifty Shades of Grey. In social circles, there are now fewer taboos. Fi is far from being a single woman breaking free from monogamy.
Since 1990, the number of women who admit to having cheated has increased by 40%, according to researcher Esther Perel. In 2022, according to The Truth About Deception website, 67% of men and 53% of women had cheated at least once that year.
Recently, London has emerged as the business epicenter of the UK. A survey found that 168,322 of London’s eight million people admitted they were currently having affairs.
Illicit Encounters, known as the UK’s ‘first married dating website’, revealed this year alone that they have seen a 50% increase in women signing up to their dating services .
Netflix’s highly anticipated erotic thriller Obsession does its part to point out that women are just as willing to explore their sexuality as men, which means they’re capable of being unfaithful. The TV show follows famed surgeon William (Richard Armitage) who begins an affair with his son’s fiancee, Anna (Charlie Murphy). It’s based on Josephine Hart’s 1991 novel Damage, and although the book is told entirely from William’s point of view, this new adaptation puts Anna much more front and center.
What makes it so thrilling is the equal distribution of desire across the screen, the way Anna explores her power and control, which means the female gaze takes precedence over the male gaze. Writers Morgan Lloyd Malcolm and Benji Walters explore Anna’s motives behind the case just as much as William’s.
“[In the book] Anna is portrayed as some sort of vampire who walks into her family, blows everything up and then disappears,” Lloyd Malcolm said in a recent interview.
“Her main function is to serve the needs of the male protagonist. I said, ‘If I’m going to do this, I want to make sure I dig into Anna and why she behaves the way she does.’ Dark secrets unfold , but despite there being a destructive element to the plot, she’s a woman in charge of her own sexuality – she knows what she wants and pursues it with confidence. It’s refreshing to see that kind of balance. on screen, which actually mirrors what happens behind closed doors in real life.
“I think talking about women and sexuality is still taboo and shameful in our culture,” journalist Jo Piazza tells me. She recently started a podcast about female infidelity called She Wants More, after noticing dozens of women in her own social circle cheating on their partners. “We’ve established marriage as the ultimate goal for women for so long that the idea that a woman would do anything to compromise seems like the ultimate sin. Culturally, we have been led to believe that it is normal for men to wander off, to have sexual pleasure outside of marriage. It became a punchline. But we don’t allow women that kind of leeway.
Sociologist Dr Alicia Walker, who specializes in sexual behavior and has interviewed hundreds of men and women about their motivations for having affairs, argues that too often we position women as ruled by their emotions, as if they couldn’t have sex without love.
“All of the men (and only seven of the women) cheated for emotional reasons,” she says of her study. “[Most of the] women cheated for sexual fulfillment. They weren’t looking to fall in love, because they have that at home. The experts I spoke to, who have spent years studying and talking to those who have engaged in infidelity, unanimously agree that the most common misconception is that men have higher sex drives and a deeper desire to have casual sex as women seek to settle down.
New research, however, suggests that it’s actually women who tire more easily in monogamous relationships. Not necessarily because they are fed up with their partner themselves; it’s more to do with a need for more sexual variety.
Women are more likely to suggest open relationships, for example, according to openminded.com, a website community for those in open relationships. London-born dating app Feeld has seen a surge in users post-pandemic, with search terms for ‘ethical non-monogamy’ and ‘polyamory’ seeing an almost 400% increase among women in 2021.
The desire for sexual experimentation seems to be a huge driving force. “I was a serial cheater, it was always driven by sex and variety to experience that intimate side with lots of different people,” says Jo*, 30, from south London. “I think women and men cheat in equal amounts, but women are more detail-oriented and more thoughtful, so don’t get caught out as often.”
In Obsession, we see that Anna’s sex with William is different. He plays with power, swapping dominant roles, but always keeping her in check. It brings out a side of her that she is unwilling to bring into her primary relationship with Jay – William’s son – who is sweet, young and caring towards her.
Women and men cheat in equal amounts, but women are more detail-oriented and not discovered as often
Ultimately, we need to feel – in our relationships – comfortable and secure, but also deeply wanted. If we’ve been in a long-term relationship, it can sometimes be difficult to achieve both. “There’s this quote from Esther Perel where she says cheating on your partner isn’t about meeting another person and falling in love with them, it’s about meeting another version of yourself and falling in love with them,” explains Cara*, 32, from London, who has cheated in all her past relationships. “We can get tired of ourselves, can’t we, and meeting someone else can inject so much excitement. Women are more likely to have an affair to get back together,” adds Mig Bennett, who has worked as a couples counselor for over 25 years. “I think women [can at some point] losing their own sense of their sexual selves in a relationship. A business can be a new beginning. This does not necessarily mean the end of a relationship. Fifty percent of people [I work with] those who have business work there.
In other words, infidelity is not as black and white as is often claimed. It’s not always symptomatic of, say, a deeply unhappy, loveless relationship. When we view cheating through this narrow lens, we ignore the multi-faceted nature of female desire and sexuality. And while Obsession plays on the darker impact of what happens when we lean into certain desires, it shows how sexual gratification can often happen by getting different things, from different people, all at once.
*Names have been changed