Infidelity and Feminism: Can Cheating Be A Feminist Choice?

Mandy Van Deven

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?

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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
it.

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.

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