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Stephanie Sandberg Headshot

What Do Men Want?

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As if I would know, but it was maddening trying to follow it in last week's New York magazine piece, "The Secret Lives of Married Men." Building on the dinner-party chestnut that men have a deep sexual need (a biological imperative!) to spread their seed and so shouldn't be expected to remain faithful within a marriage, the author wonders why the European husband-cheating model isn't as welcome in our society as, say, gay people are.

He compares two women in a committed relationship and their two children with a man in a heterosexual marriage who's been caught cheating and is in the dog house. Why is the man in the dog house and these women aren't, he asks? Society should welcome them equally as the evolutionary by-products of progressive thinking and living.

The author's homophobic aside is an offensive distraction from his larger argument: men just can't help themselves because of their hardwiring, which you could buy but you'd need to figure out first how so many men have affairs with so few women having affairs. You could reason that that's where prostitutes come in, but I doubt in enough quantity to satisfy all that restless wiring passed down from Early Man. And are the women just being talked into it based on a male need?

I used to think that there were simply a few women having an astonishing number of liaisons to hold up the female end of the affairs until I realized that in my own experience it's usually the women who cheat; turns out they have a need too. I had this conversation with my brother a few years ago -- which women were sleeping with all the men, if the men all had so many partners and the women so few? "Well," my brother started slowly, "take your friends in college as an example..." Dear reader, he slept with two of them. Two! I was torn in my shock between feeling betrayed by my friends -- how could they never have told me? -- and the fact that this older brother had been a chick magnet without my knowing it, but that's family business. The point is, I didn't hear from my friends about it, and neither of them was even cheating on anyone -- they just kept it to themselves, quietly filling a need. I'd hazard that it's women who are sleeping with all the men who are sleeping with women who aren't their wives, and plenty of those women likely have husbands too. (The rest are younger unmarrieds, no? With sexual and other needs to meet.)

And if you've ever seen the L Word, which is lesbian Hollywood at its finest, you'd know that the old stereotype of the devoted, monogamous female partner seems as outmoded in the gay community as the Pendleton shirt. Not that, as in heterosexual marriages, the model and aim shouldn't be to commit in a trusting relationship to one partner (and in fact most couples do - 80%, to use New York's statistics, splitting the difference between the 15% of married women it claims who cheat and 25% of married men) but just that we are equally human and flawed, we men and women, and make mistakes, and sometimes face difficult choices. And sometimes we act on our inappropriate-for-society needs but more often we make the decision, maybe with complication and sacrifice but also with reassurance and joy, to be with this one other person we found, if we were lucky enough to find a person who makes us feel that way most days; and we act carefully, to not let her go.