Infidelity is not gender-dependent
Jane has another great letter of opinion over at Dear Author, this time about infidelity in romance novels. She doesn’t like reading about infidelity, but in the hands of a good author, the storyline can work for her, even though she concludes that “in retrospect, the infidelity stories cause me more pain than joy.” The comments section is lively and very interesting, with most commenters avoiding infidelity stories as much as possible. There is a poll embedded in the column (go and register your opinion!), and as I am writing this the results are running strongly against infidelity storylines.
I’m not at all surprised by this outcome, because past columns on related topics have elicited similar responses. One thread that arose in the comments, perhaps sparked by one of the examples in the column, was whether infidelity with someone of a different gender was more acceptable, i.e., if a woman has a sexual relationship with another woman while she’s in a relationship with a man, does that constitute cheating?
Like a number of commenters on the thread, I think it does. Jill Sorenson, LVLM Leah, and Lazaraspaste all make terrific points about the implications of treating same-sex cheating as different, including heteronormative bias, the implication that same-sex relationships are less emotionally meaningful, and the assumption that they are just so different they’re not comparable or in the same ballpark. Go read the whole thing, as they say, it’s well worth it.
I’ve seen the argument that having a same-sex encounter if you’re in a het relationship (or an opposite-sex partner if you’re in a gay/lesbian relationship) is not really cheating. I agree that there are a number of circumstances in which it’s not (more on that in a moment), and at first glance it kind of makes sense. You’re getting something from that other person that your partner can’t provide. But that’s a spurious justification, because it’s true in a whole range of cases in which the person is unfulfilled in the main relationship.
How is it different for me to have a relationship with a woman because my husband doesn’t have girl parts than for me to have a relationship with an alpha man because my husband is a beta? Or for my husband to find someone who makes him feel economically powerful rather than economically egalitarian in our relationship? How is having a physical attribute you can’t change all that different from a psychological or socially-constructed attribute you theoretically can?
When you enter into a committed relationship with someone, you’re accepting a package. You never get everything you want in that package. Valuing what you are receiving and accepting the limitations inherent in any person you choose is part of what makes you a mature participant in a relationship. If you go outside that relationship for emotional or sexual fulfillment, whether it’s with a different-sex person, same-sex person, vampire, or the cat next door, you’re being unfaithful.
The only time that this doesn’t count as infidelity, in my book, is when you have the informed consent of your partner. If the partner sincerely agrees to your relationship, or series of meaningless one-night stands, or whatever, with someone else (of whatever gender), then it’s not infidelity, because the concept of faithfulness and all that it entails doesn’t apply to your relationship (for this particular behavior; it may still be relevant for other behavior). The partner doesn’t have to be over the moon about it, s/he just has to be willing to accept it and stick to that position. In real life, there are many instances of such agreements and relationships which have them both survive and thrive. In the romance genre, however, these types of agreements contradict one of the fundamental assumptions, which is that a two-person, monogamous romance is at the heart of the story.
There is, however, area of romance in which unfaithfulness in a relationship doesn’t always work the same way as in mainstream romance, and that is in m/m romance. It’s not because gay men are assumed to be horndogs who don’t understand or care about romantic monogamy (although some stroke novels come close to saying that). But I do think we have a socially constructed conventional wisdom, which may or may not be accurate, that regardless of sexual orientation, all men on average are sincerely able to treat specific instances of sex as meaningless more often than women, i.e., truly meaningless sex is rarer for women than for men (again, on average). If that is true, then a relationship between two men should, other things being equal, offer opportunities meaningless or non-consequential sex more often than m/f relationships, and it should less often be a deal-breaker because the harmed party is more likely to accept the “it didn’t mean anything” argument. And because of the conventional wisdom about men and meaningless sex, the reader is going to consent to this construction.
In saying this, I in no way mean to suggest that there can never be relationships in which infidelity is a deal-breaker, because the whole concept of meaningless sex implies that there is such a thing as meaningful sex. The role sex plays depends on the individuals involved (or more precisely, since we’re talking about fictional characters, it depends on the way the author has written the characters). If the characters are in a monogamous romantic relationship and one partner breaches that agreement, there are going to be consequences. The consequences may be exactly the same as in a heterosexual relationship, or they may be different.
As I was reading Jane’s column and the comments, I was thinking about Josh Lanyon’s Adrien English series. Tumperkin just finished an omnibus read of all five books and she found them utterly romantic and satisfying. She felt this way (and many other readers do too, including me) in spite of the ups and downs of Jake and Adrien’s romantic journey. Jake isn’t merely unfaithful to Adrien by engaging in meaningless sex with others. He marries a woman and has a BDSM relationship with another man. Nevertheless, judging from comments on the series, readers are satisfied with the way Jake and Adrien’s romance is finally resolved. The most vocal dissenter, whose argument I find disturbingly convincing (because I want to believe in their HEA, dammit), bases his dissatisfaction on an entirely different issue. I don’t believe for a minute that a heterosexual, mainstream romance with this story arc would find the same level of reader consent.