Like something out of a guilty pleasure TV show (Hollywood, take note), a new story out of The Guardian focuses on female detectives in India hired to spy on cheating spouses.
It's a juicy read that taps into the changing nature of infidelity, with "Delhi's most famous private investigator," Bhavna Paliwal, claiming a rise in cheating as a result of Facebook, WhatsApp and other technology.
But to best read this story, it's important to understand the cultural and gender context in which its situated. Because—newsflash—when it comes to infidelity, it's easy to traffic in dangerous myths.
Myth 1: Every Country Views Adultery Like America
As an American, it's easy to read a story about cheating in another country and presume that country holds similar beliefs. Yet in reality, different countries approach sexual deception in very different ways.
In her excellent book Lust in Translation, Pamela Druckerman argues that Americans actually have a particularly fraught relationship with infidelity, treating it as an act of devastating deception rather than more forgivable primal lust. Even the terminology differs depending on where you live. Whereas Americans prefer the highly negative "cheating," in Nigeria, sex researchers have referred to it as "sexual networking." In France, it's been called "simultaneous multi-partnerships." And in Finland, it's been dubbed "parallel relationships." (As in, "Why are you jealous, honey? I was just having a parallel relationship!")
Recent Pew research backs this up. A study released this year found that Americans are less accepting of infidelity than those in 26 other countries. A full 84% of Americans agreed with the statement "married people having an affair is morally unacceptable." (For the record, France—but of course!—was revealed to be the most accepting of cheating, followed by Germany, Italy, Spain and South Africa.)
For its part, India—not accounted for in the Pew study—has fairly lax views on infidelity, which is important to consider when reading this sensational tale of private investigators on the trail of cheaters. A recent survey revealed that 76% of Indian women and 61% of men don't believe infidelity is a sin or immoral.
Moving on . . .
Myth 2: Women Don't Cheat As Much As Men
One of the most fascinating aspects of The Guardian story is that it focuses on men hiring investigators to sniff out their cheating wives—a fact that taps into the changing role of women in the act of infidelity.
Research suggests that cheating is more tied up in social forces surrounding gender than some innate gendered drive. Case in point: In America, as relationships have become more egalitarian, ladies have started to close the gap on cheating. According to the National Opinion Research Center's General Social Survey, the number of women who cheat in the U.S. has jumped 40% since 1990, to a rate of 14.7%. While 21% of men cheat, that number has held steady, so it may only be a matter of time before men and women are cheating at similar rates. (Interesting side note: The Kinsey Institute reports that women and men do stray for different reasons, with men more likely to cheat on impulse for the pleasure, and women only after thoughtful deliberation based on dissatisfaction with their partner.)
I'm not here to argue how infidelity should or shouldn't be viewed. But it's important to step back and assess our preconceptions when diving into any story involving cultural attitudes, sex and gender.
And seriously, Hollywood: A show about infidelity-busting female detectives is ratings gold.