The Postmodern Hester Prynne

THERE IS THIS perhaps uncomfortable fact: Sex means just as much to women as to men, but secrecy is a more fundamental component of sexuality for women (Ms. Holmes said the female cheaters she knew had all successfully kept it from their husbands.) “My sexual life is pivotal to me, as I believe it is for everyone else,” Edna O’Brien, no stranger to self-revelation, once said while being interviewed by Philip Roth. “For me, primarily, it is secretive and contains elements of mystery and plunder. My daily life and my sexual life are not of a whole-they are separated.” A cheating woman will tend to be very, very good at hiding it.

Female sexual secrecy is not the same thing as repression. There’s much more to it than that. Set loose in the world, female sexuality can invite danger. Every category of violence against women, from stalking to murder, is heavily weighted toward ex-relationships, according to government statistics. Strangers are no day at the beach, either. It’s not that an available woman in a sexy outfit chatting up guys in a bar is asking to be preyed upon-but can you blame a woman who, out of inchoate fear as much as anything, chooses to express her sexuality in more private ways? For mothers, there’s even more at stake in sussing out and avoiding potentially violent men. Children really do need to be protected from abusive men, and how do you know which ones are? A Los Angeles woman who has just started dating after a divorce told me that meeting men now makes her worry about protecting her 4-year-old daughter, “about the fact that we are presented to the world as a package.”

Not only are women better at keeping secrets, the forms their extramarital relationships take tend to be much more varied, often easy to not even classify as cheating: The IM relationship, the “emotional affair,” the “work husband”; there is perhaps less boning in a hotel, more pouring out of her heart and dropping erotically charged lines to someone who is not her husband, someone she may not even have met in person; she may be trying to decide if she is in fact having an affair with the guy. (Women can keep sexual secrets even from themselves.) The experts agree: It’s all infidelity. If she doesn’t even tell her friends about it, that may be because in the end she finds the whole thing not a badge of pride but actually embarrassing-the not the sexual but the emotional exposure. When Karen Karbo tried to get women to talk about their experiences with “online cheating” for an article in Canadian Elle, she found her subjects slinking away after initially agreeing to talk. They were ashamed not so much of the cheating part, but of the neediness it seemed to advertise. “They all said they had great stories but that they were too embarrassed because it made them look pathetic,” she emailed.

There is one giant exception to the rule of female sexual secrecy: women who sleep with the married alpha males. These women seem to relish the chance to tell the world about their epic forbidden romance with, or their shoddy treatment at the hands of, someone famous. Their blabbing is in fact another big reason that the public face of cheating is so overwhelmingly male. “Hollywood women probably cheat just as much as the men,” speculated Amy Sohn, author of the novel Prospect Park West, which depicts cheating among the Park Slope stroller set. “But there are all sorts of reasons that the men they have affairs with wouldn’t go to the tabloids, where the Tiger Woods-type women do. For one thing, the women they go for-the low-hanging fruit, as they say, not their economic or social equals-have an economic incentive to expose it, while the men don’t, necessarily.”

In the end, the female propensity to wrap sex in romance may explain why they, more than men, can find that cheating does not brand them with notoriety-if they handle it right. “With the cheating women, they often end up in a relationship with the person, so there’s nothing tawdry about it, and the stories just fade away,” Ms. Sohn said. “It means you fell out of love with your first husband and fell in love with your second husband! Wow!”

editorial@observer.com