How Common Is Infidelity?
The U.S. media perpetuates the belief that extramarital sex is widespread. Television programs, for example, are nearly as likely to feature extramarital sex as marital sex. Even serious newspapers report on extramarital affairs if they involve a breach of public trust or an instance of personal hypocrisy. In their own lives, most people in the United States know somebody who has had extramarital sex. This may explain why two-thirds of married people are prepared to believe that fidelity is more important in their own marriage than in the marriages of other people (Greeley 1991). Research on sexual behavior, however, does not sustain the impression that sexual infidelity is the behavioral norm in the United States. Most married people do not have sex outside marriage. Although sexual infidelity may be habitual behavior for some people, most married people who do have extramarital sex do not have it very often or with very many partners. Extramarital sex is atypical behavior.
Surveys find that between 1.5 and 3.6 percent of married people in the United States had multiple sex partners in the preceding year. Similar figures are reported in British surveys. Although few people are engaged in extramarital sex at any particular point in time, the numbers who have had sex outside marriage at some point while they were married are, of course, higher. Nonetheless, only a minority of men and women report ever having had other sex partners while they were married or cohabiting with a partner. Whether one considers older or younger generations, more than 90 percent of women and more than 75 percent of men say that they have always been faithful (Laumann et al. 1994). The low incidence of extramarital sex underscores the importance of sexual exclusivity as a condition of committed heterosexual relationships in the United States.
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