Infidelity and Feminism: Can Cheating Be A Feminist Choice?

Article by Mandy Van Deven /
Rewire /
October 26, 2009 /
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In Cheating on the Sisterhood: Infidelity and Feminism, Lauren Rosewarne’s details her own personal struggles as a willing participant in an illicit relationship that resulted in another woman’s devastation, as well as her own. It is a political look at the motivations that fuel situations of betrayal and the justifications one provides oneself from the inside.

Written by a feminist academic who had the (dis)pleasure of deliberately being “the other woman” in an ongoing affair, Cheating on the Sisterhood: Infidelity and Feminism explores Lauren Rosewarne’s personal struggles as a willing participant in an illicit relationship that resulted in another woman’s devastation, as well as her own. It is a political look at the motivations that fuel situations of betrayal and the justifications one provides oneself from the inside.

Since Rosewarne uses her own life as a jumping off point, the book is tinged with melodrama and a lack of adequate distance for dispassionate observation, which certainly makes Cheating on the Sisterhood a more interesting read. Researchers are often told to strive for objectivity in their work; however, Rosewarne tossed convention aside in an attempt to engage the reader in her meanderings on depictions of infidelity in popular culture, the ways women hurt and compete with other women, feminist rationalizations that allow for denial of culpability, how the role of “the other woman” reinforces traditional gender roles, the impact of consumer culture on relationships, and why infidelity is an exercise in sadism, masochism, and misogyny.

How did you come to write this book, personally and professionally?

In 2007, I was presenting at a conference near where the man I discuss in the book lived. I knew seeing him would be emotionally difficult (he was still living with his partner at that time) and I knew saying goodbye to him would be worse, so I travelled to see him with the idea that I would write about my experiences, that when things were bad, I would have ‘work’ to fall back on. By nature I am an organizer and I like to—where possible—put in place infrastructure which minimizes experiences I can predict will provide horrendously emotional. So I was travelling with books to do preliminary research and the writing of the book became a strategy (albeit a largely unsuccessful one!) of distracting me from the emotional torment of being in a relationship with a man I could never truly be with. I researched and wrote and edited right through to the end of the relationship.

Professionally the case is much simpler. I am an academic. Publish or perish is our mantra!

Was it difficult to divulge personal information that could inculcate negative judgments about your character or politics?

An assumption I made during the writing of the book—and an assumption that was only validated, repeatedly, afterwards—was that my experience was very common. While I expected to experience criticism (which I received in spades!) the most common response I received from women was that they had near identical experiences. At books talks and at conferences and through emails, women have told me about how they felt exactly the same set of conflicted emotions and faced the same challenges when attempting to manage their politics.

I’m not ashamed about any of my experiences. I think they’re common experiences and experiences that are worth talking about. I not only own those experiences, but I own up to them, and if this gets people talking about topics like sexual politics and feminism, then I happy to take the negative judgments on the chin.

You write this book from a markedly third wave feminist perspective and challenge feminisms that are especially dogmatic, yet you do not always hold third wave feminist ideology in high esteem. What do you see as useful about a third wave approach to infidelity?

On a very cursory level, supporting women’s choices on how to use their bodies has united each of the branches of feminisms. Yet, while there might be much agreement on reproductive rights, sexual rights are more complicated. This is demonstrated by second wave critiques of prostitution, for example. Third wave feminism has clutched onto choice really, really tightly—and I like this. I want choice in everything. I want the choice to make both good and bad decisions. But, as evident in my book, choice on its own is not enough. If we’re going to make our own choices we need to take ownership of those choices, and we need to understand the consequences. In order for a feminist to do this with any sense of academic legitimacy, understanding the consequences of our choices needs to be examined by utilizing all that has been offered by earlier waves of feminism.

You write that infidelity is a topic that tends to be cast aside or ignored by the feminist academy. Why is it necessary to have an explicitly feminist critique of infidelity?

The ‘personal is political’ catch cry of feminism reminds us that the goings on in each of our bedrooms makes for important, and ongoing, political discussion. We need a feminist critique of infidelity, but of all sexual practices more broadly. I wrote about infidelity because it was something I was experiencing and was something that hadn’t previously been examined from a feminist perspective.

What are some of the most important feminist issues involved in the examination of infidelity?

I think the most important issues a feminist examination of infidelity raises are the inherent power disparities evident in heterosexual unions and which ones are exploited in affairs; that the competition between women—notably for the affections of men—undermines gender equality; and that feminism adds an additional layer of complication to affairs, which are by their very nature complicated, often painful, and confusing.

Can you talk about how feminism is used to justify infidelity?

A third wave feminist take on infidelity focuses on the individual woman and her rights to sexual pleasure. For this woman, prioritizing her individual pleasure provides an ability to rationalize her participation in infidelity as being about the supreme importance of her own sexual pleasure and her shaking off the shackles of feeling a need to protect the marriage. I am sure there are cases where feminism has been used to shirk personal responsibility. Personally, I’ve used feminism as a way to analyze my behavior, and also as a way to rationalize

Despite the title of your book, you talk about there not being a true sisterhood to betray and that, as a result, feminist consciousness will not prevent single women from engaging in sexual relationships with partnered men or cause them to feel guilty about it. Can you explain why this is the case?

If no macro sisterhood exists, individual women are not going to feel loyalties to women who they have no other connection to other than that they both possess vaginas. When I discussed my own guilt in the book, that guilt stemmed from knowing that infidelity wasn’t a good thing for feminism. As things progressed I would later feel guilt towards a woman who I was getting to know (albeit not personally) through being surrounded by her possessions. In that case, she had an identity, and it’s harder to betray someone when you begin to know them. I don’t think a concept of ‘sisterhood’ is going to prevent women from acting in their own best interest when everything else in society works to remind us that there actually isn’t a sisterhood.

You write that feminists should condemn infidelity, yet you remain convinced that you made the right decision to be involved with a married man. How do you reconcile that?

Ideally, of course, it is in the best interest of feminism for single women not to get involved with married men—but idealism is a very different thing from reality. While we can, of course, choose whether we act on our emotions, individuals make decisions for a suite of reasons, not just politics. In my case, I made a selfish decision that exploited my own priorities at that time in my life. Evidently my feminism proved lower down on that list than some other priorities, like being in an intimate relationship.