When Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, a novel about the adulterous affairs of a doctor’s wife, was serialised in France in 1856, public prosecutors filed a case of obscenity against the author. Flaubert was acquitted but until as recently as July 1975, the “crime” of adultery if committed by a woman was punishable by three months to two years of imprisonment while a man only had to pay a fine.
France has come a long way since. Infidelity is not just the preserve of the highest spheres of the state. Though four out of the last five presidents have shown the way by making cheating on one’s spouse or companion commonplace, the ordinary French citizen has not lagged behind either. According to the results of a survey carried out in 2014 by IFOP (French Institute of Public Opinion), extra-marital affairs have been increasing with the percentage of French indulging in them, going up from 19 per cent in 1970 to 43 per cent in 2014. The survey shows that a little over one in two Frenchmen (55 per cent) and almost one in three Frenchwomen (32 per cent) admitted to having been unfaithful.
Sensing a business opportunity, websites targetting married or committed individuals looking for a bit of fun on the side have emerged. The most talked about is Gleeden, a contraction of Glee and Eden, which claims to be “the first extra-marital dating site designed by women”. Launched in 2009, it now has almost 2.5 million registered users worldwide, including in India, of which one million are in France. The ratio of men to women is roughly 60:40. Gleeden, perhaps, owes its success to the fact that it has been created and run by women, with women in mind. “It is in effect an opportunity for women to get their own back after centuries of pardoning men their dalliances,” says Solène Paillet, Gleeden’s communication head.
Only men pay on this woman-friendly site with checks that ensure paid sex offers as well as obscenities have no place on it. Built-in features include a panic button that allows for a hasty exit if the spouse enters the room and bank card deductions that appear under different headings each time to avoid raising suspicion. The site has been designed to reduce the risk of being caught to virtually zero.
How does it start? Who would resort to a website for an affair? I interviewed five Gleeden users, three women and two men to find the answers. They all spoke anonymously. They were all in the age group of 39 to 45 confirming the adage that not only men, but women, too, get naughty at forty. They had all been married or with their partner for 10 to 20 years and had two or more children. Four of the five had never been unfaithful till they discovered the site.
“To think, previously, when I saw their ads I thought the site was inciting people to debauchery!” said Stephanie, 40, a healthcare professional. “And now, I’m an enthusiastic user.” Similarly, Claire, 39, a German teacher with two daughters, with two months’ experience of the site, said, “About a year ago, I started feeling trapped in a life of excruciating boredom and routine. My husband’s a fine man but we’re poles apart and he’s content to just stay at home. I started by fantasising about men in the street and then took the plunge.”
Caroline, 43, who had sacrificed a promising career to raise three children, spoke of being weighed down by household chores while her husband did nothing much. He wasn’t even up for sex. She spoke about how she could not come to terms with her sex life ending in her early thirties because of her husband’s low libido. “One person can’t possibly give you everything,” summed up Laurent, 44, married for 17 years and a senior executive in the energy sector, who gave into the seven-year itch two years ago. Two of the respondents, Eric, 45, owner of a construction company and Stephanie were unfaithful only because of their spouse’s infidelity.
All, without exception, were very positive about their experience. Two of the women found the process enjoyable, as contrary to real life, men outnumber women and it was like “choosing from a catalogue” with men falling over themselves to win them over. For the men, it was so much simpler than wooing a woman in flesh and blood. They could cut to the chase in no time at all.
From their accounts, the infidelity was as much about flirtatious exchanges, the art of seducing and being seduced and the excitement of a double life as it was about sex and the enacting of sexual fantasies. Divorce was not on the table: sometimes, because it was taboo in their conservative Catholic circles but mostly, because of the children. “I couldn’t bear not to kiss my children good night every evening,” said Eric.
However, the course of infidelity doesn’t always run smooth as Gleeden discovered when its latest advertising campaign, depicting Eve’s partially eaten apple, had to be withdrawn after complaints that the ads were promoting adultery. The Catholic Family Associations filed a case against Gleeden for “the public promotion of duplicity, lies and breaching of the law”. It said the website was undermining “fidelity that is inscribed in the civil code as a constitutive element of marriage”. Yet, Versailles, the city where the protests were the most vocal, is very high up on the list of registered users in terms of numbers, Paillet informed me.
By and large, France has been known for its tolerance of infidelity, especially male infidelity being dismissed with a philosophic Gallic shrug. Hotels in French cities rent rooms out by the hour for “quickies” or a “5 to 7” as it is known in French, meaning a quick tryst after work.
Infidelity is definitely on the rise. So much so that a French friend joked that France might have to revise its motto to “Liberté, égalité, infidélité”.
The names of all respondents have been changed
Radha Kapoor-Sharma is a Paris-based freelance writer