There’s a lot of research out there looking at how many people have cheated, their reasons for cheating, and what “counts” as cheating; however, surprisingly little work has looked at who people are actually having sex with when they commit infidelity. Is it usually with someone they know, or with a stranger? And does this differ for men and women? A new study published in the Journal of Family Psychology offers some answers.
In this study, researchers analyzed nine waves of data from the U.S. General Social Survey, a nationally representative survey that is conducted most years. In total, they looked at the responses of 13,030 Americans collected between the years 2000 and 2016. In each year of the survey, a question was given to those who were married and reported having engaged in extramarital sex that asked about the other person with whom they’d had sex. The response options included: (a) close personal friend; (b) neighbor, coworker, or long-term acquaintance; (c) casual date or pick-up; (d) person you paid or paid you for sex; and (e) other.
It turned out that most people reported extramarital sex with a close personal friend (53.5%), followed by the category of neighbor/friend/long-term acquaintance (29.4%). It was far less common for people to report cheating with a casual date or hook-up (21%) or to engage in some type of transactional sex (i.e., buying or selling sex; 7.9%). About 8% selected the “other” option. Note that these numbers add up to more than 100% because participants could select more than one choice, given that they didn’t necessarily only cheat with one other person.
Men and women did not differ when it came to the percentage of them who reported cheating with someone they knew well; however, they differed in their odds of having sex with a stranger. Specifically, whereas 24.3% of male cheaters had sex with a casual hook-up, the number of female cheaters who had done so was 15.5%. Likewise, whereas 7.2% of male cheaters engaged in transactional sex, just 1.3% of female cheaters did the same.
Put another way, men were more likely to cheat with a casual or paid partner than women, a finding that appears to reflect men’s greater willingness to engage in casual sex in general.
It’s important to highlight that these findings are limited to the context of extramarital sex and, more importantly, the survey didn’t distinguish between infidelity and open marriages, meaning both of these things got lumped together. As a result, some caution is warranted in generalizing these findings.
That said, these results tell us that when married people cheat, they seem disproportionately likely to do so with someone they know. Why is that? One possibility is that there are simply more opportunities for cheating to emerge with someone you see frequently. However, it could also reflect the fact that when people cheat, they’re often looking for more than just sex. Many people are also looking for intimacy and emotional connection—things that may be easier to obtain when you already have an existing friendship with someone.
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To learn more about this research, see: Labrecque, L.T., & Whisman, M.A. (2017). Attitudes toward and prevalence of extramarital sex and descriptions of extramarital partners in the 21st century. Journal of Family Psychology.
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