When Twilight star Kristen Stewart was caught cheating on long-term boyfriend Robert Pattison, the internet exploded with outrage. Fans felt sympathy for Pattison, but they also felt personally betrayed. Significantly less outrage was directed at the man she cheated with, Snowwhite and the Huntsman director, Rupert Sanders, a married father of two. For many, Sander’s behavior was business as usual: men are expected to cheat, but, by betraying her long-term boyfriend, Stewart also betrayed the idea that women care more about relationships than men. As the Twilight scandal revealed, most Americans continue to value monogamy, holding women morally responsible for upholding it. And yet, cheating among both men and women is widespread.
Interested in the ways college students think and talk about collegiate relationships and monogamy, we trained undergraduates to interview their peers. We found that both college women and men defined ‘real’ relationships as monogamous, but saw college as a time when they were exempt from many of its stringent rules. Cheating was acceptable, for example, if they were drunk, if someone was on vacation, or if a person was in a bad relationship. This ‘monogamy lite’ made sense because they imagined that life after graduation would be different. They would meet someone, fall magically in love, and never feel like cheating again. Thus, they used ideas about age as a way to make sense of and justify lighter relationship rules in college. As one woman said, “College is a selfish time of life.”
College women face competing expectations: they want to participate in the “fun” part of college life, which they can’t do with a boyfriend in tow, but they also want to see themselves as good women—caring and committed to relationships. They often find themselves in relationships because that’s what they’re supposed to do or want to get out of relationships so they can return to having fun. Cheating, in some ways, solves these dilemmas, getting them out of relationships without, ironically, jeopardizing their view of themselves as caring women.
Because they continue to believe in monogamy, they see cheating as a relationship gauge: if you cheat, then you’re not really that into him and you should break up. Once cheating occurred, they felt that breaking up was the only caring thing to do. Thus, cheating relieves women of unsatisfactory relationships, but it also relieves them of the expectation that good women should seek and sustain relationships rather than more casual forms of intimacy. Women’s reliance on cheating to exit unwanted relationships, however, is less a sign of collapsing gender distinctions in sexual behavior than of continued inequity in dating relationships.