London - Sipping her glass of chilled Chablis, Erica Waddington’s eyes wandered slowly around the bar. It didn’t take her long to find what she was looking for.
In the opposite corner, blond hair falling foppishly onto the collar of his Paul Smith shirt as he idly scrolled through his BlackBerry, was a stranger. And he was alone, like her.
As Erica’s eyes locked with his just an instant too long, she felt a surge of excitement. Crossing her legs suggestively, she knew all she had to do was wait. Sure enough, two minutes later, the stranger was standing casually at the bar beside her. For Erica, the thrill of the chase had begun.
“Two hours later we were making passionate love in my hotel bedroom,” Erica, 50, recalls with a smile. “After a long day at work, the release was exactly what I needed - my little treat to myself.”
Whether her husband and three children would agree with her is doubtful. But then, Erica’s not alone. In fact, she’s just one among a growing band of women who’ve been dubbed the Alpha Adultresses.
These high-earning, successful women are every bit as willing as men to use their power to attract younger lovers for quick flings.
Newspapers are crammed with sex scandals involving powerful men. This past week alone, Dominique Strauss-Kahn - of late the world’s most powerful banker - has been accused of rape, megastar Arnold Schwarzenegger has admitted having a love-child with his housekeeper and the scandal surrounding MP Chris Huhne’s past indiscretions continues to rumble on.
However, a new academic study suggests women are inherently no more virtuous than men. It’s just that, in the past, they have lacked the confidence or opportunity to stray.
Like men, women are finding that power is a potent aphrodisiac. And just like men, they are giving in to the thrill of illicit lunchtime assignations and the sheer excitement that accompanies their transgression.
Nor do they feel any more guilty or ashamed about it than a man would - if anything, less so.
Professor Joris Lammers, of Tilburg University in the Netherlands, who conducted an anonymous survey of more than 1,500 readers of a business magazine, has found being powerful makes women more prone to be unfaithful.
He questioned people, from top executives to ordinary employees, about whether they’d had affairs. They were asked how powerful they thought they were and quizzed on other factors including their feelings of confidence, and what they thought their risk of being caught was.
The results revealed a strong link between power and infidelity, regardless of gender.
“The strongest predictors are not religion or moral belief, but power and opportunity,” says Professor Lammers. “Power can undermine your morality and increase your risk-taking, and the effect of power on women is just as strong as on men.”
Certainly, women like Erica are happy to admit they feel no shame in going all out to get what they want - not just in the boardroom but in the bedroom.
For Erica - for obvious reasons names in this article have been changed - treating herself to a night of illicit sex is on a moral par with her regular shopping trips to Paris, her facials and her gym membership. For her, and many other alpha females, sex is simply another trapping of success, a reward for hard work.
A millionaire businesswoman who runs her own chain of travel agencies, she lives in Cheshire with her husband, Thomas, 52, who works for her, and their three children aged from 11 to 17.
She says, “I love walking into a boardroom, wearing a beautiful tailored suit, knowing that every man’s eyes are on me. The success of my business - we had a turnover of £2-million last year - gives me such a feeling of power and confidence, and that has translated into my attitude towards relationships.
“I don’t feel guilty: my family have a lovely life, in a five-bedroom detached house with a swimming pool, thanks to my hard work, and my children are privately educated.
“I suspect there are a lot more alpha women like me who but who simply aren’t prepared to admit they are using their power and money to have affairs.
“I have had the best sex of my life in the past decade. None of these affairs, or flings, have meant anything to me, they are simply exciting and flattering.
“My ‘shenanigans’, as I call them, are my way of de-stressing after my long working day. Inevitably they take place in hotels when I am away from home, and I have discovered that I can completely divorce my emotions from my sex life. I can be on the phone to my daughter talking about her homework one minute, and then gazing into the eyes of a handsome young man in a dimly-lit bar half an hour later.
“I know men approach me because I am rich and successful, and I often end up paying the bar bill and for the meal. But that doesn’t bother me. In fact, it gives me a sense of achievement that I am totally in control of the situation.”
Lucy Kellaway, a columnist on the Financial Times, wrote her novel In Office Hours after observing the increasingly similar traits of male and female executives. Her main character, Stella, is a highly successful economist in her mid-40s who has an affair with her twentysomething trainee.
Kellaway says her character is typical of a new breed. “Climbing the career ladder can do weird things to people and it can corrupt both men and women,’ she says. “I think it’s very plausible that it makes women more sexually promiscuous.”
This is borne out by the volume of traffic on Illicit Encounters. The internet site which caters for married professionals looking for adulterous affairs has nearly 600,000 members, and women looking for extra-marital sex outnumber men by 3 to 1. Most are married with children, aged between their early 30s and mid-40s, and pursuing a well-paid career.
“Alpha women look for a partner and conduct their encounters in a very business-like fashion. They will often grill prospective partners as though they were conducting a job interview,” says the website’s Rosie Freeman-Jones.
“I was naive when I joined this business. I thought women would be looking for a Brief Encounter-style romantic love affair. But it really is all about sex.”
Wealthy businesswoman Sarah Pattinson holds her hands up to that. She’s embroiled in an affair with a man eight years her junior. He give her the high-octane, high-risk sex she craves; she gives him expensive gifts and treats him to lovely holidays.
“We met through friends and I fancied him instantly,” admits Sarah, 49. “I think he was very impressed by my status and success.
“He likes all my ‘toys’ - the Range Rover Sport and my disposable income. I love to buy him clothes, and I recently paid for him to fly to India with a friend. In a way, he is my kept man. I have a phone that I use only to communicate with him which I keep hidden from my husband.
“At work, I am the boss. I make tough decisions, I hire and fire, and I have to maintain this air of control. I get a buzz from the power and the adrenaline, and that has translated into my sex life.”
Sarah, a mother of two teenagers, runs her own head-hunting business in London and lives in Islington with her husband Robert, 52.
Like most Alpha Males, she regards her affair as a healthy distraction. And, like most Alpha Males, her success has given her an intoxicating sense of invincibility; she simply can’t imagine being caught out.
“Before I ran this company, I don’t think I would have contemplated being unfaithful. But you do start to think no one can touch you and you are invincible,” she admits.
“On the surface, Robert and I have the perfect marriage - he works in the City in insurance, we have a beautiful five-bedroom home in Islington, our children are at a high-achieving private day school and our social life revolves around like-minded wealthy couples.
“But sex is unfulfilling. If we didn’t have the children, I might have considered leaving Robert for my lover, but our lives are just too complicated to un-pick. Besides, we do get on reasonably well and we have a fabulous lifestyle, including a villa with a swimming pool in Portugal.
“We have a live-in nanny who also acts as our housekeeper so my domestic duties are quite light. I work thirteen or fourteen hour days, and I have evening meetings too. This gives me the freedom to meet my lover, who also works in the City.
“Sometimes I take risks. Once my lover Nick rang me at home and Robert could have picked up. IÕll make excuses to walk down the garden and phone Nick at the weekends, and often I ring his phone just to hear his voice.
“The sex is incredible, and I think the ‘edge’ of ours being an illicit affair makes it even more enticing.
“Nick makes me feel beautiful and alive, and he keeps me young. I need to feel vibrant to stay on top of the game, especially during this recession, and that adulterous sex gives me that kick, that energy, to keep me motivated at work. Sex with Nick is my reward for my success and exhausting hard work. I would die, though, if Robert or the children ever found out.”
So why do women, who have worked so hard to achieve professional success, risk losing everything for the sake of adulterous sex, however electric?
According to Rosie Freeman-Jones, risk is a key element. “Both men and women at the top are addicted to risk. It is part of the DNA of successful people that they are more prone to take risks and more prone to cheat,” she says.
But you have only to look at golfer Tiger Woods to see how quickly an affair can destroy not just a marriage but a career and reputation.
Even if he is found not guilty of rape, will former International Monetary fund head Dominique Strauss-Kahn ever be able to rebuild his reputation? Meanwhile, Schwarzenegger has shelved plans for a career comeback in order to deal with the fallout from his affair.
And Lucy Kellaway warns that Alpha Adultresses are risking even more than their male counterparts.
“There is a double standard,” she says. “A man having an affair might be seen as a bit of a lad, whereas a woman like Stella in my book is likely to be seen as pathetic, or a bitch and a slapper.
“Because there are so few women executives, the ones that do succeed are put on a pedestal - and they have a lot farther to fall. The message of my book is that affairs end badly for everyone.”
And, while the figures demonstrate very clearly that increasing numbers of successful women are being tempted to stray, can women really divorce sex from commitment in the same way as a man?