American women, who trail men when it comes to making money, leading companies, and accumulating wealth, are closing the gap on at least one measure: cheating on their spouses.
The percentage of wives having affairs rose almost 40 percent during the last two decades to 14.7 percent in 2010, while the number of men admitting to extramarital affairs held constant at 21 percent, according to the latest data from the National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey.
The narrowing gap, reported by a sociologist at Auburn University at Montgomery, reflects multiple trends. Wives with their own jobs have less to lose economically from a divorce, and social media have made it easier to engage in affairs.
‘‘Men are still more likely to cheat than women,’’ said Yanyi Djamba, director of the AUM Center for Demographic Research in Alabama. ‘‘But the gender gap is closing.’’
Blacks, executives and managers, and Southerners were most likely to report extramarital affairs to the 40-year-old survey, the oldest continuous source of data on American behavior.
The main impetus behind extramarital affairs was predictable, Djamba said: One in four men described their marriages as ‘‘not very happy,’’ more than twice the number of wives who rationalized their adultery that way.
The survey results lend support to one researcher’s argument that what has been presumed about female sexuality for centuries may be wrong. Daniel Bergner, the author of the newly published book ‘‘What Do Women Want?’’ said cultural expectations have prevented women from having more affairs.
‘‘Women are programmed to seek out one good man, and men never have been really well-suited to monogamy, right?’’ Bergner said in a telephone interview. An increasing body of science suggests that women’s sex drives are as powerful as men’s libidos, Bergner said, though they’ve been repressed by thousands of years of male-dominated culture.
Alton Abramowitz, president of the Chicago-based American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, said he has seen an increase in the number of divorce cases sparked by cheating wives.
‘‘We always had a few cases with women, but they were much more discreet about it,’’ he said. ‘‘In the past 10 years or so, though, there’s been an uptick in those cases coming through our office.’’
More women may feel free to cheat because the economic consequences aren’t as dire as they were when more women stayed at home, said Pepper Schwartz, a University of Washington sociologist who writes ‘‘The Naked Truth’’ column for AARP, the largest group representing the elderly in the United States.
‘‘They can afford the potential consequences of an affair, with higher incomes and more job prospects,’’ she said in an e-mail. The ease of online affairs and the prevalence of computer use among younger women may be responsible for a large share of the increase, Schwartz said.