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What Are Secondary Sexual Relationships Like?

Except for studies of commercial sex workers, secondary sex partners have not been much studied. U.S. researchers find that married, cohabiting, and dating persons choose secondary partners who are very much like their spouse, cohabiting partner, or usual date. There is only limited evidence that people are actually able to improve on their current partner by having a sexual affair. Compared to their usual partner, women's secondary sex partners are a bit more likely to be college graduates. Men's secondary partners are more likely than their primary partner to be enrolled in school, suggesting that they are perhaps younger.

If both types of sex partners are quite similar, it is because people find their sex partners—primary and secondary—in the social world they inhabit.

To be sure, married and cohabiting men are less likely to have met their secondary sex partner through friends and family members. They are more likely to have met at work and to have introduced themselves. The implication seems to be that men meet secondary sex partners outside the watchful eye of wife, family, and friends—a hardly surprising finding since adulterers usually go to great lengths to keep their affairs secret. The finding also points up that secondary sexual relationships lack the public commitment and stabilizing social networks of marriages and cohabiting unions.

Although a breach of fidelity may undermine a marriage, secondary sex partners do not usually displace primary ones. Some extramarital affairs are long lasting, but most secondary sexual relationships are casual and short-lived. Many people do not even expect to have sex with the secondary partner ever again. In fact, at least for women, the secondary relationship is not as satisfying sexually as the primary one.

This may reflect the fact that secondary sexual relationships are often short-term relationships: Men and women in short-term relationships say sex is less satisfying, emotionally and physically, than married and cohabiting people do. Of course, sexual practices differ between short-term and long-term relationships. Short-term sexual relationships are characterized by greater condom usage, more oral sex, and more alcohol use than is the case for long-term relationships, cohabitations, and marriages (Laumann et al. 1994). Secrecy and deceit also characterize sexual infidelity. Sexual affairs, for example, are apt to involve clandestine meetings in out of the way places and elaborate ruses to cover absences from home. Although some people find the intrigue exciting, others experience guilt and anxiety.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaRelationshipsInfidelity - Cross-cultural Perspectives, Studying Sexual Infidelity, How Common Is Infidelity?, What Are The Origins Of Infidelity?