People are loving reality cheating videos in droves like the popular YouTube series “To Catch a Cheater” (some explicit imagery). The Ditto for the true life TV series “Cheaters” which promises to document “the pain of a spouse or lover caused by infidelity.”
These shows specialize in catching or entrapping partners and spouses on camera in the act of cheating on their loved one and showing the betrayed partner’s filmed reactions of horror, anger and humiliation.
What makes these painful reality stories so compelling? I can understand the urge to check up on your own spouse or partner, but what makes watching someone else get sexually betrayed so compelling?
Hidden camera entertainment has a history as long as mass media. In my memory it began with a radio show called “Candid Microphone” which later emerged as the TV show “Candid Camera” which purported to show people “caught in the act of being themselves”. The results were often silly, funny and even heartwarming. These family friendly episodes connected to our shared foibles as human beings. And the people who were filmed were largely willing to be put on TV for all to see.
A more recent and darker version of the same premise was the TV show “To Catch a Predator” in which men seeking to sexually hook up with underage victims were entrapped in a sting and exposed on film (and arrested). In this show there are no real life victims because the whole situation was a set-up. Nobody got hurt, except the bad guys.
The fascination may have been with seeing the inner workings of a sexual predator’s mind, the self delusion, the denial. Most people probably felt gratified to see such people trapped and taken off the street.
I would argue that the reality cheating shows draw offer a smorgasbord of drama, relief, schadenfreud, voyeurism and revenge. But most of all they may offer a cautionary tale reflecting anxiety about our current societal dislocations.
A time of sexual transition
Both men and women cheat in large numbers during at least one of their relationships. One set of data showed that 57% of men and 54% of women admitted to infidelity in a relationship and a whopping 74% of men and 68% of women said they would have an affair if they knew they would never get caught.
The nature of courtship (or even the necessity for courtship), monogamy, sex role expectations, norms of sexual orientation and gender identity itself have all been increasingly called into question in my lifetime.
We are in a time of transformation that took off with the women’s movement of the ’70s. The challenge to traditional sex roles was reinforced in recent decades by the fact that it became financially impossible for most families to live on one person’s income. This has stressed the fabric of the family and put a huge strain on the entrenched patriarchal idea of what it means to be a man or a woman. We are in limbo. We have pushed off from one shore but we have not yet reached another.
One might think that this should be a great relief, a freedom to be whatever we want. And on one level it is. But people do seem to need to have some sense of their “place” in the world. We like knowing what the rules are, even if we break them. And we like a sense of belonging. We do a lot of what we do because it is what we have always done.
Cheating videos are a rebellion against political correctness
These shows do appeal to many prurient and baser interests. They allow us to be voyeurs in that we are viewing “illicit” content. And like tabloid articles about the grotesque or tragic misfortunes of the rich and famous, they may make us feel a sense of gratitude for just being everyday simple folk.
However, these cheating shows do more than just catch the bad guys and expose them. They also show us the pain of the victim. I believe the net affect of all of this is to subtly reaffirm the traditional expectations about relationships. In their hears people want their partners to be faithful. People are deeply hurt if they are betrayed. People are tempted to be sexually unfaithful even knowing their relationships may pay a heavy price.
In an interesting reversal, traditional expectations are now “politically incorrect”. The shifting social/sexual landscape tells us we should be tolerant of sexual alternatives of any kind. This tolerance, this loosening of old standards of behavior is now “politically correct”.
These changing expectations are coming at us faster than we can adapt to them. We are torn between what we really feel and what we are supposed to feel. This causes stresses on the individuals and families as they adapt to what many would say are more “normal” (looser) ways of behaving. In this sense the cheater genre is deeply conservative, reminding us that we are not so chill after all.
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