Three's a Crowd

'What I learned from being the other woman, even if I was only a girl

Strictly speaking, it was wrong, this thing I was doing, and to be perfectly honest, I knew it—probably because doing it required skipping out of school early to wait in the parking lot's mid-afternoon silence for him to pick me up. At his house, when someone approached the rec room, I would be suddenly covered with an old gray comforter. The whole romance lasted no more than a few weeks, and featured only a handful of encounters, but they were nevertheless significant and searingly hot to my freshly minted sexual sensibilities. The first time I saw his girlfriend up close wasn't until months later, when she was standing ahead of me in a grocery store line, picking up fruit for her cross country team.

The dormant guilt hit me like so many bursting eggs—eggs being among the things I was buying to throw at my teachers' houses. But even as I was paralyzed by shame, hating my hoodie and scruffy braids, so was I also struck with pity for this nice, happy girl, who of course was my physical and psychic opposite, a tall, broad-smiling milk drinker who wore a great deal of fleece. Even at age 15 in the checkout line, the complicated ethical minutiae that engulfed me as a budding "other woman" was starkly clear.

Sexual morality is strewn with little contextual land mines—qualifiers like "It depends" and "But what about" and "It was only because" buffer our understanding of "right" and "wrong." Still, one element that's almost universally considered a non-negotiable "wrong" is being the other woman, the Jezebel who knowingly engages in a relationship with a man already "taken" by the bonds of marriage or a high school promise ring.

Those who have faith in the emotional competence of men will note that it is indeed the male cheater's fault, no matter how suave the moves or round the ass of his secretary or formerly platonic friend. If he's going to cheat, the details and motivations of the third party hardly matter. There are also those who are content to accept that cock-weakened men are simply incapable of resisting the wiles of an aggressive femme fatale. Vile temptress, they say. He couldn't help it. The misogyny in this equation is tantamount to any other ugly sexism.

Surely among the worst things a person can do is violate a bond with their partner, lay their honor on the table like a ragged pageant sash and fuck someone else beside it. You know who you are, assholes. There's only one individual with the decision-making power to cheat, and subsequently, there's no real ethical variance between a predatory homewrecker with an agenda and a sweet-cheeked fawn who got suckered into such a compromised relationship.

Despite the nasty vilification of the female homewrecker (see: Angelina Jolie, Britney Spears, Claire Danes, Sheryl Crow), there is no existing archetype of "the other man." The very idea of "the other woman" being morally neutral may be especially hard to grasp, because it seems contrary to the earthy, maternal and constructive paradigm that even the coolest and foxiest ladies are supposed to embody. Likewise, rarely do we consider that the other woman may not have a primary goal of splitting up a relationship. She could be in it for the sex.

And the sex can be hot. It has to be hot, exceedingly hot. There are no sweatpants in adultery. There are no bouts of the flu, no arguments over how much time is appropriate to spend on instant messaging, no in-laws, no 5 a.m. airport drop-offs. Granted, these are some of the things that make actual, good relationships so exquisite. But the dirty psychological transgression adds a molten subtext that generates the kind of intense, immediate and raw sex that can be hard to come by once you and your love puppy have pinkie-sworn commitment. Additionally, homewreckers as a group gravitate to the underworld of black lace underwear, in-bed stiletto and champagne combos, screaming moodiness and mental illness, all of which can proffer erections in the short term, but wear thin after a while (the emphasis on oral proficiency, however, does not).

Fucking a man that isn't yours is intoxicating for the ego, in that he's risking the comfort and stability of his partnership to bang you. Similarly, it can be emotionally freeing, especially for women that are in a stage or a lifetime of purposeful self-centeredness. Taken men are safer for such women, in that they're less likely to want to be with you, less likely to show up on your doorstep when you're composing your opus or mastering a Nigella Lawson concoction, happily alone.

Some rules of homewreckery: Never, ever, sleep with your friend's man. Obviously. This makes you a heinous cunt who deserves whatever sexual karma the kids are passing around these days. Never actually date a man who cheated on someone with you. He will do it again. If it's true love, he's still a total dick who should have broken up with her first. Use condoms. And finally, remember that it's not your secret to tell.

As I settle into the sunset years of my mid-20s, I've abandoned the practice in favor of more traditional romantic partnerships, like the one I currently have going with Joan Didion's new collection. It's worth noting that engaging in such behavior when you're supposed to be a fully-realized adult can leave you pretty vulnerable to the criticisms of others, particularly those upright gentlemen that wouldn't entertain the idea of having a girl on the side. As my friend Ryan says, "Essentially, I see a spectrum, continuum, whatever, of infidelity and being the 'other woman' is definitely somewhere on that." I disagree, and would never cheat (nor have I, to my knowledge, been cheated on), but I acknowledge that my own moral position won't be (and hasn't been) taken up by every suitor. Experience has afforded me the opportunity to witness where and how damaged relationships falter and I feel I'm richer for it, not morally bankrupt. And I know for certain that the road to romantic bliss is rarely a smooth one.

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