An ethical double normal in conjugal infidelity

October 12, 2022

Women have long had a double standard when it comes to sex and sexuality. Research has shown that women who have multiple sexual partners are judged more critically than men who engage in the same type of activity.

A new survey from the Survey Center on American Life offers a new type of rating with a novel experiment that asked respondents to rate the morality of two sexual behaviors: marital infidelity and premarital sex. Half of the sample was asked to rate the morality of these behaviors when a man was engaging and an identical number of respondents when a woman was engaging in these acts.

Overall, there is no difference in how men and women judge the morality or immorality of men and women who engage in premarital sex. About the same number of Americans say it is always or often morally wrong for a young woman (33 percent) or a young man (35 percent) to have sex before marriage. The views of men and women are almost identical, regardless of whether it is a young man or a young woman.

However, when it comes to views on marital infidelity, men and women have very different answers. Polls have consistently found that most Americans find marital infidelity morally reprehensible. But the American attitude is more complex than it first appears. Public attitudes towards the morality of infidelity depend on whether it is committed by a man or a woman. About two-thirds (66 percent) of Americans say it’s always morally wrong for a man to have an affair. Fewer Americans (55 percent) say it’s always morally wrong for a woman to have an extramarital affair.

Both women and men show a double standard when assessing the morality of extramarital affairs, although this is slightly higher for women. Seventy percent of women say a married man having an affair is always morally wrong, while fewer (56 percent) say the same when married women have relationships outside of marriage. Gender plays a more modest role in assessing the morality of marital infidelity among men. 53 percent of men say it’s always morally wrong for a woman to have an affair, while 61 percent say the same for men.

The extent to which women judge the behavior of married women and men varies greatly by race. There is a massive divide in the views of Hispanic men and women. Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of Hispanic women believe that a man who has an affair is always wrong, while just over half (53 percent) of Hispanic men think so. Conversely, black women rate the morality of marital infidelity roughly the same whether it is committed by a man or a woman (65% vs. 63%).

There are also differences in the level of education. No group of women is more forgiving of marital infidelity than those with postgraduate degrees. Less than half (45 percent) of women with advanced degrees say it is always wrong when women commit adultery. In contrast, 61 percent of women with no more than a high school diploma say it’s morally wrong regardless of the circumstances.

There is also a notable age difference. Almost three-quarters (73 percent) of young women say it’s always morally wrong for a man to have an affair, while only about half (51 percent) say the same for a woman. With older women, the double standard isn’t nearly as great. 69 percent of older women say it’s always wrong for a married man to have an affair, while six in 10 say it’s always wrong for a woman to have an affair.

These findings do not contradict previous research that has found double standards in American society’s view of women’s sexuality, but they do suggest that our moral judgments are often conditioned in ways we may not always predict.

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