Perhaps it is for this reason that there has always been something wicked about the idea of a married woman having a fling. If a married man has an affair, so the theory goes, he is simply being, well, a man. But if a woman has one she is viewed as a monster: think of Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice.
Perhaps that is why society has always dealt so harshly with adulteresses. Literature is strewn with casualities, from the humiliating exile of Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, to the public hanging of Tess of the D'Urbevilles, to Anna Karenina's painful suicide on the railway tracks of St Petersburg. And if the women don't do the decent thing and top themselves, like Emma Bovary, they are invariably despatched by others: Zola's Therese Raquin, for example.
But surely times have changed? After all, new statistics released by Relate show 40 per cent of married women have owned up to having extra- marital relations, coinciding nicely with a new ITV drama, A Woman's Guide to Adultery. So what should a woman do these days, if reason fails and lust threatens to triumph over logic? I asked a number of women what advice they would offer to any woman considering a fling. Don't] came the deafening reply. And if you do, don't ever, ever get caught, and don't ever, ever tell.
Deidre Sanders, the Sun's agony aunt, reports that she gets a lot more letters these days from married women having affairs. 'Don't do it,' she says. 'And if you are doing it, stop. And if you still insist on doing it never, ever say anything, not even to your best friend, and certainly not your husband.' Some women, she says, are tempted to tell their husbands out of egocentricity. 'You don't like my body? Well, Fred/Bert/Bob thinks it's gorgeous.' Or, 'What do you mean I look a mess? Well Michael/James/Tristran thinks I bear a close rememblance to Catherine Deneuve.'
Other women, she says, are driven to confess all by guilt. 'They may feel relieved to have off-loaded their guilt, but they run the risk of off-loading their marriage too. Most husbands simply don't want to hear about the existence of an affair, past or present.'
Amanda Craig, the novelist, thinks adultery is 'absolutely awful. And one of the reasons why I won't write about it in my books is because I have no intention of ever committing it,' she says. She thinks any woman contemplating an affair should be aware of the practical risks.
'She should make sure that she has her own pension plan - if your husband finds out and divorces you and you haven't got a pension, you can be stuffed in your old age.' It is unfair to involve anyone else in the affair. 'Don't borrow a friend's house - it's so squalid. Keep it absolutely private.'
Comedienne Ruby Wax agrees. 'If a girlfriend of mine was contemplating an affair I'd tell her not to do it,' she says. 'But if she insisted on it I'd tell her to keep her mouth shut and do it in another city.'
Sally Moon, formerly Lady Sarah Graham-Moon, who famously punished her husband for his adultery by slashing his suits and giving his vintage port to the neighbours, comments drily that 'the biggest give-away is new underwear. If you do buy yourself some Janet Reger, pretend that it's for your husband.' She warns against the dangers lurking in an itemised telephone bill. 'It's very obvious if the same number keeps cropping up on the bill the whole time.'
Liz Lochhead, the Scottish poet, finds the subject fascinating. 'I really like writing about adultery in my poems, but I've never wanted to do it myself. Fortunately since I met my husband I've never fancied anybody else and I'm quite sure nobody's fancied me either. If I had to give advice to my best friend, I'd say, Don't do it. But if I was giving advice to the heroine of a novel, I'd tell her to do it so that I could enjoy reading about it.'
Helen Williams, editor of For Women magazine , says: 'I think adultery is equally painful for men and for women. But I do think that men are somehow more appalled at the idea that their wives could be unfaithful. Their pride can be absolutely shattered.' But once they have decided to embark upon it, by and large women are much more proficient at adultery than men, she says.
'Women are much more thoughtful. They are better at detail, so they are going to make sure that they're not found out. Men are rather cavalier about knickers in the glove compartment - they don't think they're going to be found out, but they usually are. A woman is far more subtle.' Usually, that is. 'But if she says she has been working late, she can't then arrive home with perfect hair and make-up and fresh lipstick - that's not how she would look after 16 hours slaving away at a desk.'
Like most of the women I spoke to, Helen Williams also believes that it's a big, big mistake to conduct the affair in the marital home. 'It's really against the rules. It's so sordid. And it means that you've got to keep changing the sheets.'
But the biggest and most important rule, according to Sally Moon, is quite simply, 'Don't fall in love.'
Deidre Sanders says: 'Women do tend to believe that they're in love when they have an affair. Men can be more detached about it, more opportunistic, but women need to feel more emotionally engaged, and that can be fatal.
'The best advice that I can give to any woman who is having an affair is quite simply this. Stop doing it.'
Allison Pearson, page 27
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