By now, we’ve all lived under the wellness industrial complex long enough to have a go-to self-care routine. Maybe you like to relax by uncorking a bottle of red, getting a mani-pedi, or taking a hot girl walk. Or, as a new podcast suggests, maybe you text your lover to arrange a meet-up. In She Wants More, journalist, author, and podcast host Jo Piazza explores the hush-hush subject of female infidelity. She was inspired to interview dozens of women who have cheated on their partners after hearing about an uptick of affairs in her own social circle. “Going into this, I was a little bit judgmental,” she tells Bustle. But ultimately, she discovered a range of motivations for these secret dalliances and concluded that affairs can be a feminist act of self-care.
We don’t often hear about women stepping outside their relationships for sex and love. Off the top of my head, I can think of just three examples — Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate, Kristen Stewart in 2012 — and two of those are fictional. The stereotypical profile of a cheater is a man sneaking around his wife’s back, but that might be changing. Although it’s difficult to quantify the data, Piazza says experts believe female infidelity has been on the rise for the past five to ten years. (In 2018, one study found that millennial women cheat slightly more than men do.)
She Wants More explores why women pursue affairs and how their lives change as a result. Some of the women gave Piazza classic reasons: They weren’t happy or sexually satisfied by their spouses. However, she also found links to the pandemic and even the reversal of Roe v. Wade, among other factors. The series premieres on Feb. 14 on iHeartRadio, as well as other platforms, and the eight episodes will drop weekly on Tuesdays. Here, Piazza reveals why so many women believe infidelity boosted their confidence and even improved their relationships.
Why is having an affair a feminist act?
It’s a way for women to take back the patriarchal restrictions that have been put on us. A good wife is a faithful wife. That dates back to the creation of religious ideals in the Bible. Women carving out their own paths — not necessarily having an affair, but having the choice and the ability to have one — that is a very feminist act. It’s bucking against this huge stigma that having sex outside of marriage is one of the worst sins a woman could ever commit.
For men, I don’t think that stigma exists. It’s like, “Oh, he’s having a midlife crisis. He’s just having sex with a younger woman now.” In so many movies, we have a guy going out with his buddies and he’s just like, “Yeah, I slept with a stripper in Vegas.” It’s so ordinary. And yet any time we see a woman doing that, it’s a goddamn scandal. The world f*cking ends.
Is it pushing it too far to say that having an affair can be self-care?
No, not at all. We literally have a whole episode on whether or not having an affair is the new Goop. We talk to women who say it is. This is what they do for themselves. They don’t get a massage, they don’t do yoga — they have an affair. But also, these women tell us they take better care of themselves because they’re having an affair. They’re with someone who finally sees them again, or sees them differently than their spouse does, so they’re shaving their legs, they’re working out more. They’re taking care of their bodies in ways they wouldn’t have otherwise.
Your podcast is inspired by A Passion for More, Susan Shapiro Barash’s 1993 book that defined four reasons that women have affairs: for empowerment, for sex, for love, and for self-esteem. You found some other reasons that women are having affairs right now. What are they?
Women are craving autonomy over their own bodies. We’re seeing it be restricted by our government. A lot of the women that I interviewed said that after they started having kids, their body didn’t belong to them. It was always someone else’s — their husband’s, their children’s. They were growing a child, they were feeding a child, they were caring for a child. There’s so much physicality involved in that. They wanted their body to be just their own.
The pandemic definitely escalated that, because people were in such close quarters with their spouses, with their families. Women wanted something just for themselves again.
In the first episode, you talk to Nikki (name has been changed), a 30-something mom of two who has been married for 15 years. She felt that her husband was checked out and she had to perform all the emotional labor in their relationship, so she began having affairs. Tell me more about that.
It’s a myth that men want sex more than women. I don’t think that’s true. But I do think that women crave emotional connections and psychological space more than men do. And when women are doing so much emotional labor in a marriage, it’s a burden. It makes you feel like you don’t want to be close physically with your husband anymore. And you want to seek that connection with someone else.
I thought it was fascinating that Nikki said her affairs made her more confident at work. The sexier she felt, the less she cared about what her colleagues thought of her. Is that something you heard from other women?
Constantly. We heard it from every single woman that we interviewed and that was one of the things that blew my mind. All of them said it made them more confident in every single aspect of their life, from work to their marriage. Most women told me that they think the affair has improved their marriage.
It’s made them happier. It’s made them more confident in the bedroom with their spouse, because they felt like they could ask for what they wanted and they knew how to enjoy themselves a little bit better. I talked to a lot of women who say just the act of thinking about an affair, maybe putting themselves out there [on sites like Ashley Madison], made them feel more confident because it made them feel more desired again.
Nikki sounded like she was glowing.
All of them are glowing. I mean, that’s not to say this is without consequence. Generally, in any relationship, dishonesty is probably not a good thing. But all of these women told me that having an affair improved their lives in so many ways. I have a very close friend who is currently exploring a sexual relationship outside of her marriage, and her husband doesn’t know, but she’s never been f*cking happier. She’s doing great at her job. Her marriage seems so much better. And she glows.
You’ve probably heard people say, “If you’re going to cheat, just get divorced,” right? But a lot of people don’t want to leave their husbands. A lot of people like their husbands quite a bit. In reality, a lot of marriages are business partnerships. You’re running a life together, you’re running a house together, you’re raising children together. If all those things work, and only the sex doesn’t, why would you blow it all up?
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.