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.

Commentary Sexual Health

Parents, Educators Can Support Pediatricians in Providing Comprehensive Sexuality Education

Nicole Cushman

While medical systems will need to evolve to address the challenges preventing pediatricians from sharing medically accurate and age-appropriate information about sexuality with their patients, there are several things I recommend parents and educators do to reinforce AAP’s guidance.

Last week, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a clinical report outlining guidance for pediatricians on providing sexuality education to the children and adolescents in their care. As one of the most influential medical associations in the country, AAP brings, with this report, added weight to longstanding calls for comprehensive sex education.

The report offers guidance for clinicians on incorporating conversations about sexual and reproductive health into routine medical visits and summarizes the research supporting comprehensive sexuality education. It acknowledges the crucial role pediatricians play in supporting their patients’ healthy development, making them key stakeholders in the promotion of young people’s sexual health. Ultimately, the report could bolster efforts by parents and educators to increase access to comprehensive sexuality education and better equip young people to grow into sexually healthy adults.

But, while the guidance provides persuasive, evidence-backed encouragement for pediatricians to speak with parents and children and normalize sexual development, the report does not acknowledge some of the practical challenges to implementing such recommendations—for pediatricians as well as parents and school staff. Articulating these real-world challenges (and strategies for overcoming them) is essential to ensuring the report does not wind up yet another publication collecting proverbial dust on bookshelves.

The AAP report does lay the groundwork for pediatricians to initiate conversations including medically accurate and age-appropriate information about sexuality, and there is plenty in the guidelines to be enthusiastic about. Specifically, the report acknowledges something sexuality educators have long known—that a simple anatomy lesson is not sufficient. According to the AAP, sexuality education should address interpersonal relationships, body image, sexual orientation, gender identity, and reproductive rights as part of a comprehensive conversation about sexual health.

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The report further acknowledges that young people with disabilities, chronic health conditions, and other special needs also need age- and developmentally appropriate sex education, and it suggests resources for providing care to LGBTQ young people. Importantly, the AAP rejects abstinence-only approaches as ineffective and endorses comprehensive sexuality education.

It is clear that such guidance is sorely needed. Previous studies have shown that pediatricians have not been successful at having conversations with their patients about sexuality. One study found that one in three adolescents did not receive any information about sexuality from their pediatrician during health maintenance visits, and those conversations that did occur lasted less than 40 seconds, on average. Another analysis showed that, among sexually experienced adolescents, only a quarter of girls and one-fifth of boys had received information from a health-care provider about sexually transmitted infections or HIV in the last year. 

There are a number of factors at play preventing pediatricians from having these conversations. Beyond parental pushback and anti-choice resistance to comprehensive sex education, which Martha Kempner has covered in depth for Rewire, doctor visits are often limited in time and are not usually scheduled to allow for the kind of discussion needed to build a doctor-patient relationship that would be conducive to providing sexuality education. Doctors also may not get needed in-depth training to initiate and sustain these important, ongoing conversations with patients and their families.

The report notes that children and adolescents prefer a pediatrician who is nonjudgmental and comfortable discussing sexuality, answering questions and addressing concerns, but these interpersonal skills must be developed and honed through clinical training and practice. In order to fully implement the AAP’s recommendations, medical school curricula and residency training programs would need to devote time to building new doctors’ comfort with issues surrounding sexuality, interpersonal skills for navigating tough conversations, and knowledge and skills necessary for providing LGBTQ-friendly care.

As AAP explains in the report, sex education should come from many sources—schools, communities, medical offices, and homes. It lays out what can be a powerful partnership between parents, doctors, and educators in providing the age-appropriate and truly comprehensive sexuality education that young people need and deserve. While medical systems will need to evolve to address the challenges outlined above, there are several things I recommend parents and educators do to reinforce AAP’s guidance.

Parents and Caregivers: 

  • When selecting a pediatrician for your child, ask potential doctors about their approach to sexuality education. Make sure your doctor knows that you want your child to receive comprehensive, medically accurate information about a range of issues pertaining to sexuality and sexual health.
  • Talk with your child at home about sex and sexuality. Before a doctor’s visit, help your child prepare by encouraging them to think about any questions they may have for the doctor about their body, sexual feelings, or personal safety. After the visit, check in with your child to make sure their questions were answered.
  • Find out how your child’s school approaches sexuality education. Make sure school administrators, teachers, and school board members know that you support age-appropriate, comprehensive sex education that will complement the information provided by you and your child’s pediatrician.

School Staff and Educators: 

  • Maintain a referral list of pediatricians for parents to consult. When screening doctors for inclusion on the list, ask them how they approach sexuality education with patients and their families.
  • Involve supportive pediatricians in sex education curriculum review committees. Medical professionals can provide important perspective on what constitutes medically accurate, age- and developmentally-appropriate content when selecting or adapting curriculum materials for sex education classes.
  • Adopt sex-education policies and curricula that are comprehensive and inclusive of all young people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. Ensure that teachers receive the training and support they need to provide high-quality sex education to their students.

The AAP clinical report provides an important step toward ensuring that young people receive sexuality education that supports their healthy sexual development. If adopted widely by pediatricians—in partnership with parents and schools—the report’s recommendations could contribute to a sea change in providing young people with the care and support they need.

Culture & Conversation Media

A Q&A With ‘Never Too Real’ Author Carmen Rita Wong on Why #WeNeedDiverseBooks

Ilana Masad

Rewire had a chance to chat with Wong about her experience finding a place for the work she wanted to create, and what the media often gets wrong when portraying Latina women and other women of color.

Carmen Rita Wong says the characters in her new novel, Never Too Real, are largely invisible in media, which is why she chose to tell their stories. The fictional work is about Latina women who are both struggling and successful in their various fields. Wong says she’s treating this writing project as a mission, a way to tell the story of women like her: Latina women and other women of color who exist in ways other than the stereotypes so often portrayed on television and in films.

Wong herself is a master of media: She’s written for countless outlets, been the host of her own TV show, written books on finance, and now, she’s turned to fiction.

Rewire had a chance to chat with Wong about her experience finding a place for the work she wanted to create, and what the media often gets wrong when portraying Latina women and other women of color.

Rewire: How did this novel come about?

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Carmen Rita Wong: My a-ha! moment came with my daughter; we were walking together and passed a bus stop with [a poster for] a show and she said, “Mom, that poster, all those women look like you. But why are they maids?”

My daughter’s frame of reference is very different from mine: She’s growing up more privileged and with a Black president, surrounded by family where she happens to be a blonde Latina while her cousins are Black Latinas. I waited tables alongside my mom to put myself through college, so I have a deep respect for every form of work. But it was definitely one of those things where you only see yourself reflected in one way—and that’s how I grew up, seeing Latinas being shown in one way; but this is not how I live, and not how my daughter lives, now.

That same month I was having a party, celebrating my wonderful, successful girlfriends. We all came up together, we’ve all supported each other, and we’re all women of color, mostly Latina. I looked around and wondered, how come nobody knows we exist?

So I thought, all right, you know what? Now’s the time. This has just got to get done. I’m in a position to do this, I need to do it. It was very much a mission; I didn’t approach it as a side project.

Rewire: Kirkus Reviews, a book review site, called Never Too Real a “multicultural edition of Sex and the City.” How would you characterize the book? Would you call it that?

CRW: I think that superficially that’s a nice, easy elevator pitch because there are four of these women, they’re glamorous, and they’re in New York City. I think that’s where the similarities pretty much end. The book goes a lot deeper than that. If you had to categorize it TV-wise, it’s a “dramedy”: There’s some lightheartedness, there’s some playfulness, some glamor, but it is really about real issues in your life as you try to do well, if you try to be the first generation to do better than the previous. I think that’s one of the uniting factors of these four women—they’re all … first [in their families] to be born in the United States, and grow up and finish college. And that’s an important bonding issue that makes it very different [from] Sex in the City.

Rewire: Diversity in literature is a widely-discussed issue in the literary community these days, with hashtags like #WeNeedDiverseBooks. Was it hard for you to find a place for your book, to publish it?

CRW: I don’t know—hard for some people is not hard for others. Let’s just say—my agent’s probably going to kill me—but my favorite rejection from a major publisher, which actually confirmed to me that I was on the right track, was (and I have it memorized): “We are not looking for aspirational in this market at this time.”

Rewire: They called it aspirational?

CRW: Exactly. So it was mildly crushing, and then I realized—I’m on it, I am so on it. Because these publishers, who are they, and what have they published? Books by white men. Yes, those publishers are powerful, and yes, they’re rich, but they don’t get it. They don’t see it. They don’t know we exist. What is “this market,” and what is “aspirational?”

When I was coming up in media, in publishing and magazines, I would hear from people, “Carmen, we know you want to get ahead, but we just don’t know what to do with you.” And that’s code. What it really means is, “Carmen, you’re a brown girl, and we can promote this white guy or girl, but we can’t promote you. We just don’t know what to do with you.” But they would never say that to a white male. They would never say, “You know what, Bob? We just don’t know what to do with you.” So to me that rejection letter was just like that.

I remember back in the ’90s, there was a really great push of [books] like Waiting to Exhale or Joy Luck Club. There was just a lot more in fiction about successful, multigenerational, multicultural families. It just was normal and it was not considered crazy. I think there was a trend, and it just became a different trend. And then there was a push for powerful stories, but stories of only one note, for a long time in Latino fiction. I can’t read that stuff, because I lived it already. I want to read stories that make me escape or make me inspired or make me feel heard.

Rewire: In the book, you introduce women who come from all walks of life and economic backgrounds, but they’re all upper-middle-class at the time of the narrative. Going back to your daughter seeing the poster of Latina women portrayed as maids, do you find that economic diversity is what’s often missing in popular and literary culture?

CRW: My book wasn’t as calculated as that, because this is my life, and these are my friends and the people I surround myself with. I think what I saw missing in these cultures was that niche [of successful Latina women].

Latinos in popular culture … I’ve watched it be a very hard process. For example, when I was in magazines, they tried to push me to the Spanish-language property, and I’d say that I don’t primarily speak in Spanish. Why can’t I be used in the English-dominant space? Why? Give me a reason why! And they’d have to say, “Well, because you’re Latina.” So? Latinos speak English! We’re Americans! If you were Black or Latina you’d have to be in that particular space and you weren’t allowed to exist in the general market. And as we’ve seen, and as we see now, that has changed a lot.

Rewire: How so?

CRW: We have huge growth in numbers, but also too, if you look at, for example, ShondaLand, [the production company] on ABC—it’s an example of an openness to seeing and consuming media from all cultures, whether it’s music or TV. I definitely feel that things have changed, there’s a big shift and a huge push now toward inclusion.

I think with social media too, you see the pressure of people saying, for example, #OscarsSoWhite. I grew up in a time when media was controlled by a small group of people and I’ve watched it change, morph, and transform. Fifteen years ago, when I was co-chair of the Hispanic Affinity Group at Time Inc., I was saying we’re here, we consume stuff in English, and you need to pay attention to us. When the census came out [proving what I had been saying], I said, the census, look at the census!

And still the dollars didn’t come in; but when social media happened, that’s when the money started coming in. And finally people started saying, “Oh, they’re, they’re quite vocal, they exist.” [Laughs.] But our ethnicity or color shouldn’t be our only draw. We’re here and have been here. What they’re seeing shouldn’t come as such a shock.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.