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Young adults have double standards about sexual infidelity

Sexual infidelity is not restricted to the husband or wife with a seven-year itch or the middle-aged person experiencing a midlife crisis. More than 60 percent of college-aged students from Northern California have experienced sexual betrayal, according to S. Shirley Feldman, senior research scientist in the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Child Development and associate director in the Program in Human Biology.

Feldman says that the experience of sexual betrayal, which she defines as petting or sexual intercourse with a nonpartner in the face of an agreement to be monogamous, may affect scripts about trust and commitment that young adults take into later adulthood and marriage. Her studies show that although young men and women behave the same when it comes to sexual infidelity, they are playing by different sets of rules.

"A majority of late-adolescent relationships have been characterized by betrayal on the part of somebody in the dyadic relationship," Feldman says. "Those numbers are high, very high. They come very close to the estimates of marital infidelity." She reports that although quality data are difficult to obtain, it has been estimated that approximately 50 percent of married men and almost 40 percent of married women commit adultery.

Feldman is interested in understanding how adolescents deal with issues of emerging sexuality. "The normal child is expected to be asexual, whereas the normal adult is expected to be sexually responsive," she said. "This raises the question of how the adolescent deals with the transition from the asexual state to the sexual state." Since parental consent is necessary for studies on adolescents, Feldman surveyed the next closest age group: late adolescents 18- to 21-year-olds.

Late adolescence is a period of exploration, when individuals are discovering who they are and what they like and dislike. Over the last 20 years, Feldman says, adolescents have accelerated explorations of their sexuality, including intercourse. She suggests that adolescents have a perception of "readiness to take on adult kinds of privileges, although they rarely hurry to take on adult responsibilities. Interestingly enough, because sexual activity is held out as an adult behavior -- and according to the media and peer reports, a very gratifying adult behavior -- they want in on that too."

Her recent studies involve understanding how late adolescents deal with the "adult" issues of sexual betrayal. She surveyed college students from the lawns, cafeterias and libraries of community colleges, city colleges, a large state university and a private university (not Stanford). She designed questionnaires to get the students to think about specific relationships in which they were either the perpetrator or the aggrieved partner in acts of sexual betrayal, and asked the students about their attitudes concerning this sexual betrayal.

Feldman also surveyed students to determine if their attitudes differed depending on the type of betrayal. Since loyalty and trust are hallmarks of good friendships as well as good romantic relationships, she also asked students about the acceptability of betraying the confidence of a friend despite a promise not to do so. In this way, Feldman was able to compare the acceptability of sexual betrayal of a romantic partner to betrayal of a friend's confidence.

Females were just as likely as males to commit acts of sexual betrayal, she found. Males, however, had a more permissive attitude toward sexual betrayal than females, who were less likely to condone the behavior. Feldman also found gender differences in attitudes toward betrayal of a friend versus betrayal of a lover. Male respondents found betraying a lover more acceptable than betraying a friend, but only when the perpetrator of the betrayal was male. Female respondents felt that betrayal of neither a sexual partner nor a friend was acceptable, regardless of the gender of the perpetrator.

Feldman and her co-author, Elizabeth Cauffman of the Psychiatry and Law Research Program in the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic at the University of Pittsburgh, published the results of these studies in 1999 in the third issue of the Journal of Research on Adolescence and in the second issue of the Journal of Youth and Adolescence. A third paper on this topic is due out later this year.


By Kristina M. Wasson

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