Media reports highlight adultery among political leaders and celebrities, and such visibility could erode moral objections.
By Joseph Chamie*
Adultery, despite near universal disapproval, has become more visible and prevalent worldwide, challenging established morals of acceptable behavior. Daily news headlines list extramarital affairs of heads of state, government officials, celebrities and other elites. In many instances, extramarital affairs among high-level officials are open secrets, tolerated until other corruption or crimes are uncovered. In addition, social media, technology, and modern lifestyles facilitate adultery.
Adultery, defined as voluntary sexual intercourse between a married person and a person who is not a spouse, occurs in every society. Historically, most cultures consider the behavior immoral, and religions imposed stiff penalties including death: In the Bible, the seventh of 10 Commandments states, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” and the Koran prohibits adultery, describing the behavior as “a shameful deed and evil.” In Hinduism, marriage is a sacred and sanctified relationship, with adultery considered a serious breach of dharma, punished here and in the hereafter. Buddhism regards adultery as a serious transgression, furthering suffering and viewed as harmful to oneself and others. Confucianism, considering marriage of prime social value, holds faithfulness and sincerity as first principles and includes infidelity among grounds for divorce.
While religious doctrines still condemn adultery, social norms and laws have changed. Adultery continues to be strictly prohibited in some countries like Pakistan, Philippines, Saudi Arabia and Somalia, yet is decriminalized in nearly all industrial societies. A notable exception to decriminalization of adultery among developed countries is the United States, where it remains a criminal offense in 21 states: Various forms of adultery are a misdemeanor in Florida, New York and Utah and a felony in Massachusetts, Michigan and Wisconsin. Prosecutions are rare.
While severe punishments for adultery have by and large disappeared, the majorities of the general public in virtually every country still view adultery as immoral. A global survey across 40 countries, covering three-fourths of the world’s population, found 78 percent suggesting that married people having an affair was morally unacceptable. The study’s notable exception was France, where 47 percent said an extramarital affair was morally suspect.
Such widespread disapproval makes reliable estimates of adultery among married men and women hard to come by. The estimates, for the most part based on self-reporting, are likely to be lower than actual levels. Those involved are reluctant to admit adulterous behavior even to researchers. Despite measurement difficulties, a 2005 global survey estimated that 22 percent of married people worldwide admitted to having committed adultery. A 2016 survey suggested that in more than one-third of marriages, one or both spouses commit adultery.
Men are more likely to commit adultery than women. In the United States, for example, national surveys of married couples found that 25 percent of men and 15 percent of women admitted to committing adultery; in the United Kingdom, 15 percent of husbands and 9 percent of wives reported having an extramarital affair. A 2012 study of Chinese aged 18 to 49 years either married or in a stable relationship also reported higher adultery/ infidelity rates for men than women, 14 and 4 percent, respectively. Recent data for some countries, such as the United States, indicate that women may be closing the adultery gap. Younger women appear to be cheating on spouses nearly as often as men, while some researchers question whether the gap is real or if women are less likely than men to admit to extramarital affairs.
People deny the activity because infidelity has serious negative social and personal consequences – and can lead to blackmail, bribery and corruption. Extramarital affairs can devastate marriages, families, careers and political ambitions. Adultery increases a couple’s odds of separation and divorce and is often cited as a major reason for divorce and an underlying factor for rising divorce rates. Popular media are full of instances of celebrity and elite couples breaking up after adultery is discovered. In the United States, estimates suggest that one-third of marriages survive extramarital affairs.
Extramarital affairs can impose serious emotional effects on spouses, children and other family members. In particular, an extramarital affairs can result in psychological difficulties for the noninvolved spouse along with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder including damaged self-esteem, confusion, depression, nightmares, disassociation from reality and a compromised sense of confidence.
Throughout history, especially in traditional and religious communities, marriage and the sexual behavior of men and women were proscribed within culturally acceptable norms and rules of behavior. Modern lifestyles are eroding those customs. In particular, technology – the internet, mobile phone messaging and cameras, social networking and pornographic websites – allows people to observe one another and interact, often clandestinely, more than ever before. One study reported on how social networks encourage users to connect with new people and reconnect with old partners, which in turn facilitates adultery.
Extramarital dating and adultery websites have proliferated worldwide. One website reports more than 30 million users in more than 15 countries. Such websites permit individuals to meet online, browse profile photos, list interests, specify desired characteristics and check potential partners in advance before identifying discreet locations for a meeting. Social-networking technology also permits individuals in conservative societies to directly and privately observe new patterns of marital and sexual behavior. Some men and women, especially younger adults, consider trying out the lifestyles of other countries, including sex before marriage, cohabitation and even adultery.
The media’s reporting of adultery, particularly in politics, entertainment and business, has also evolved in recent decades becoming more frequent and detailed. In the United States, for example, infidelity reported among presidents during the 20th century, including Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy, emerged after the men had died. Today, newspaper stories, interviews and photos of officials and celebrities accused of having extramarital affairs are commonplace. Recognizing the changes in marital sexual behavior, the public’s interest and financial gains, the movie and entertainment industry have increasingly focused on the issue. Movies such as American Beauty from the United States, China’s In the Mood for Love, France’s Nathalie and India’s Astitva tend to normalize adulterous behavior.
The institution of marriage and its meaning has changed markedly since the mid-20th century. Marriage is no longer the permanent or sacred institution it was a century ago with increased incidence of premarital sex, cohabitation, divorce, separation, remarriage, blended families, single parenthood, and individualistic social values and expectations. Most people across the globe continue to regard adultery as morally unacceptable and just plain wrong, yet the widespread disapproval may not be sufficient to alter the growing visibility. In the long term, sexual decisions of individuals may erode moral objections to adultery and social trust.
*Joseph Chamie is an independent consulting demographer and a former director of the United Nations Population Division.