“I was the ‘other woman’. Here’s why the trope is as harmful and misogynistic as ever”

Written by Rachel Thompson

Following the online reaction to Adam Levine’s alleged cheating, journalist Rachel Thompson recounts her own experience being the ‘other woman’ – and explores why the misogynistic trope is as alive as ever.  

Once upon a time, I was the other woman. 

After the deed was done, the guy in question faced zero repercussions; he emerged unscathed, while I was cast as the villain.All the more galling was the fact that he had been the one to pursue me. One by one, every single person in our friendship group cut ties with me. My flatmates didn’t speak to me for two agonising months, and eventually, I lost every single friend I had. Even today, the man in question is still at the heart of the friendship group, which remains fully intact. The only difference being: my status in that circle of uni pals was brought to an abrupt end right there and then.

A lot has happened in the 14 years since I made a mistake that upturned my entire life, but one thing that remains entirely the same is society’s vilification of ‘the mistress’ in heterosexual affairs. Last week, when a TikTok creator posted about flirtatious messages she’d received from Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine, the internet was quick to turn on the ‘other woman’ in the supposed affair. In the video that Instagram model Sumner Stroh posted, she claims: “I was having an affair with a man who’s married to a Victoria’s Secret model. At the time I was young, I was naive. I mean, quite frankly, I feel exploited.” Stroh went on to post the receipts – screenshots of messages from Levine. “It is truly unreal how fucking hot you are,” one such message read.

Levine has since denied having an affair but acknowledged that he “crossed a line during a regrettable period in my life”, and called his actions “inappropriate”.  

Yet, it was Stroh that TikTok was quick to turn on, with people in the comments chiming in to say: “U ain’t the victim, babe,” “Clout is one hell of a drug,” and “She holds no accountability,” to name a few. Some TikTokers stitched Stroh’s original video and critiqued her motives for sharing the story to begin with, accusing her of chasing ‘clout’ (aka internet fame) and manipulating followers into seeing her as a victim. In contrast, when it came to the internet’s reaction to Levine, the memes and jokes flowed freely – the verdict was in: his horny messages were ‘deeply cringe’ to witness. As for holding men – and, in this case, the purported cheater – accountable, the silence in this instance was deafening.

It’s not surprising, of course. The trope of the ‘other woman’ has a long history. It can be traced as far back as the Bible’s presentation of Jezebel, a Phoenician princess who, in the New Testament’s Book of Revelation, is linked with leading Ahab astray by worshipping false prophets, and has ever since been associated with ‘the fallen woman’ and sexual promiscuity. Nyasha Junior writes in Dame magazine: “Jezebel’s is the age-old story of a woman who is regarded negatively for traits that often would be applauded in a man.”

Jezebel evolved into a racist stereotype that was used to sexualise and violate enslaved Black women. This trope, used in tandem with the ideal of the chaste white Victorian lady, presented a binary which projected hypersexuality onto Black people and rendered whiteness synonymous with marriageability. This duality of womanhood – you’re either pure and sexless or hypersexualised and ‘fair game’ – is still present today in myriad forms.

You’ll likely be familiar with the term Madonna-whore complex, a theory posited by Sigmund Freud to describe straight men who see women as fitting into two distinct roles: they’re either saintly Madonnas or they’re impure whores. This idea that women can only be one of two things predates Freud’s theory and is present throughout cultural history, such as in Titian’s Sacred And Profane Love painting from 1514.  

Sexologist Madalaine Munro tells me that our willingness to give “the (often male) cheater a free pass” is a continuation of the sexism that’s woven into the infrastructure of our society. “It is also a symptom of a deeper issue that is exemplified through patterns of placing the responsibility on women for men’s actions. For example, we have dress codes for girls and women in order to not make men uncomfortable, as opposed to seeking to understand why men may inherently sexualise women’s bodies,” she says.

“We have anti-rape procedures to help women stay safer from the risk of rape rather than education on addressing the issue that it’s men who are the perpetrators in the majority of rape cases. We see birth control aimed at women when the number of possible pregnancies for a woman in nine months is one, but is technically unlimited for men.”

We’ve been down this road before: when Marilyn Monroe slept with JFK, when Camilla was the third person in Charles and Diana’s marriage and when Brangelina saw the entire world take Jennifer Aniston’s side and ruled Angelina Jolie the baddie. Hell, even Anne Boleyn was the villain in Catherine of Aragon’s marriage to Henry VIII. Mairead Molloy, relationship psychologist at dating agency Berkeley International, too, points out that it’s very interesting that people don’t ever talk about ‘the other man’, while ‘the other woman’ is such a common trope when we discuss cheating.

“The other woman is often seen as a homewrecker, causing havoc to happily coupled men and women, married couples and family units,” explains Molloy. “Throughout history, women have been depicted in this way within popular books and films: Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, The English Patient (1996), Animal Attraction (2001) and The Other Woman (2014) are examples.”

Hating the ‘other woman’ is the low-hanging fruit. But why? Well, it has a lot to do with gender roles in heterosexual relationships. “The other woman is often seen as the monster because, traditionally, men are seen as the ‘protector’ of the woman or the family,” says Molloy. “If a man enters into infidelity, they have broken the fairytale ideal of what a man should be, something many of us are guilty of seeking, and the other woman is often blamed for tempting him away from his significant other.” 

It’s unfortunate that Levine’s infidelity has been played out in the public arena for the court of public opinion to go to town on. But what fundamentally needs to change is our culture’s understanding of why people rove outside their own relationships in the first place. “Infidelity is the surface action which indicates deeper-rooted issues for those involved,” says Munro. “It signals that someone’s needs are not being met and the only way they are able to communicate that is through their actions.”

She adds that people who cheat have not cultivated mature ways to communicate their feelings, wants and needs, turning instead to their actions as ways to communicate. “It can be easy to blame and criticise,” Munro continues. “But for those I have worked with and who have cheated, it has been a pivotal turning point in their lives. If someone sits with the responsibility of betraying their partner’s trust and the depth of emotional harm that does, it can be a portal for huge transformation. We can’t hate ourselves into better people, so it requires sitting with why we did this and developing compassion for what these wounded parts need in order to create healthier relationships in the future.” If you look at cheating through this lens, you can see that in many cases – without wishing to generalise – the third party who gets embroiled is collateral damage.

A few years ago, I interviewed women about what it’s really like being the other woman in an affair. Some didn’t know the person they were seeing had a partner. For those that did, there are moments of self-loathing, of hating yourself for what you’re doing. The response was unanimous: behind closed doors, it’s a lonely experience. You feel like the dirty secret, the one he sexts when his partner is in the shower, the woman he stashes away and will never be seen in public with.

The other woman trope is a mechanism of the patriarchy, a weapon to divide rather than unite women. Women are pitted against other women, encouraged to compare each other’s looks and compete for the male gaze, so it makes sense we’re encouraged to hate the other woman. She’s supposed to symbolise everything we’re not and the ways we’ve fallen short as a partner. But, as long as women blame other women for men’s actions, men can continue to evade the consequences of their bad behaviour.

When I think back to my own experience, it feels deeply unfair. At the time, I was 20 years old, seriously lacking in self-esteem and deeply ashamed of what I’d done. I longed to be forgiven, for my friendship group to take me back. But it never happened. What I did was wrong and I have held myself accountable. But it takes two. So, why was I the only person facing the consequences? Years later, I have replayed this period of my life in my head countless times – losing all my friends, being uninvited from events, crying for hours because I felt so ostracised and publicly shamed. Seeing society’s reactions to celebrities’ infidelity only serves as a brutal reminder of that dark time – the other woman always pays the dearest price of all. 

Images: Getty

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