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Le supplice des adultères by Jules Arsene Garnier

Adultery is referred to as extramarital sex, philandery, or infidelity, but does not include fornication. The term "adultery" for many people carries a moral or religious association, while the term "extramarital sex" is morally or judgmentally neutral.

Adultery is illegal in some countries. The interaction between laws on adultery with those on rape has and does pose particular problems in societies that are especially sensitive to sexual relations by a married woman and men, such as some Muslim countries. The difference between the offenses is that adultery is voluntary, while rape is not .

The term adultery has a Judeo-Christian origin, though the concept of marital fidelity predates Judaism and is found in many other societies. Though the definition and consequences vary between religions, cultures, and legal jurisdictions, the concept is similar in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Hinduism has a similar concept.

Historically, adultery has been considered to be a serious offense by many cultures. In some countries, adultery is a crime. However, even in jurisdictions where adultery is not itself a criminal offense, it may still have legal consequences, particularly in divorce cases. For example, where there is fault-based family law, it almost always constitutes grounds for divorce, it may be a factor to consider in a property settlement, it may affect the status of children, the custody of children, etc. Moreover, adultery can result in social ostracism in some parts of the world.

Three recent studies in the United States, using nationally representative samples, have found that about 10–15% of women and 20–25% of men admitted to having engaged in extramarital sex.


The word adultery originates not from "adult," as is commonly thought in English-speaking countries, but from the Late Latin word for "to alter, corrupt": adulterare.

Adulterare in turn is formed by the combination of ad ("towards"), and alter ("other"), together with the infinitive form are (making it a verb). Thus the meaning is literally "to make other." In contrast, the word "adult" (meaning a person of mature years) comes from another Latin root, adolescere, meaning to grow up or mature: a combination of ad ("towards"), alere ("to nourish", "to grow"), and the inchoative infix sc (meaning "to enter into a state of").

The application of the term to the act appears to arise from the idea that "criminal intercourse with a married woman ... tended to adulterate the issue [children] of an innocent husband ... and to expose him to support and provide for another man's [children]". Thus, the "purity" of the children of a marriage is corrupted, and the inheritance is altered. The law often uses the word "adulterate[d]" to describe contamination of food and the like.


In the traditional English common law, adultery was a felony. Although the legal definition of "adultery" differs in nearly every legal system, the common theme is sexual relations outside of marriage, in one form or another.

For example, New Yorkmarker defines an adulterer as a person who "engages in sexual intercourse with another person at a time when he has a living spouse, or the other person has a living spouse."North Carolinamarker defines adultery as occurring when any man and woman "lewdly and lasciviously associate, bed, and cohabit together."Minnesotamarker law provides: "when a married woman has sexual intercourse with a man other than her husband, whether married or not, both are guilty of adultery." As recently as 2001, Virginiamarker prosecuted an attorney, John R. Bushey of Luraymarker, for adultery, a case that ended in a guilty plea and a $125 fine. Adultery is against the governing law of the U.S. military.

In common-law countries, adultery was also known as "criminal conversation". This was the civil tort arising from the same act(s) giving rise to the criminal action for adultery. Another tort, alienation of affection, arises when one spouse deserts the other for a third person. This act was also known as desertion, which was often a crime as well. A small number of jurisdictions still allow suits for criminal conversation and/or alienation of affection.

A marriage in which both spouses agree to accept sexual relations by either partner with another person is a form of nonmonogamy, and the spouses would not treat the sexual relations as adultery, although it could still be considered a crime in some legal jurisdictions.

In Canadamarker, though the written definition in the Divorce Act refers to extramarital relations with someone of the opposite sex, a British Columbiamarker judge used the Civil Marriage Act in a 2005 case to grant a woman a divorce from her husband who had cheated on her with another man, which the judge felt was equal reasoning to dissolve the union.


Durex's Global Sex Survey has found that worldwide 22% of people surveyed have had extramarital sex.

Adultery in the United States

Alfred Kinsey has found in his studies that 50% of males and 26% of females had extramarital sex at least once during their lifetime.. Depending on studies, it was estimated that 26–50% of men and 21–38% women, or 22.7% of men and 11.6% of women had extramarital sex . Other authors say that between 20% and 25% of Americans had sex with someone other than their spouse. However, one survey that measured the prevalence of adultery in the 12 months prior to the study showed rates of extramarital sex as low as 2.5%. The results suggest that while 15–25% of married Americans have had extramarital sex at least once in their lifetime, extramarital sex occurred infrequently in any one year.

Cultural and religious traditions

Man and woman undergoing public exposure for adultery in Japan, around 1860

Greco-Roman world

A similar rule applied in the old Roman Law. That is, in the Greco-Roman world there were stringent laws against adultery, but these applied to sexual intercourse with a married woman. In the early Roman Law the jus tori belonged to the husband. It was therefore not a crime against the wife for a husband to have sex with a slave or an unmarried woman.

It is well known that the Roman husband often took advantage of his legal immunity. Thus we are told by the historian Spartianus that Verus, the imperial colleague of Marcus Aurelius, did not hesitate to declare to his reproaching wife: "Uxor enim dignitatis nomen est, non voluptatis." (Wife' connotes rank, not sexual pleasure, or more literally "Wife is the name of dignity, not bliss") (Verus, V).

Later in Roman history, as William E.H. Lecky has shown, the idea that the husband owed a fidelity similar to that demanded of the wife must have gained ground, at least in theory. Lecky gathers from the legal maxim of Ulpian: "It seems most unfair for a man to require from a wife the chastity he does not himself practice".

The lending of wives practiced among some peoples was, as Plutarch tells us, encouraged also by Lycurgus, though from a motive other than that which actuated the practice (Plutarch, Lycurgus, XXIX). The recognized license of the Greek husband may be seen in the following passage of the Oration against Neaera, the author of which is uncertain, though it has been attributed to Demosthenes:

We keep mistresses for our pleasures, concubines for constant attendance, and wives to bear us legitimate children and to be our faithful housekeepers. Yet, because of the wrong done to the husband only, the Athenian lawgiver Solon allowed any man to kill an adulterer whom he had taken in the act. (Plutarch, Solon)

Abrahamic religions

Biblical sources

The Hebrew Bible (the Tanakh or Old Testament) prohibits adultery in the seventh of the Ten Commandments ( ). An example of adultery was the act of intercourse between David and Bathsheba.


Adultery is considered by many Christians to be immoral and a sin, based primarily on passages like . The sixth commandment (seventh in some traditions) ("Thou shalt not commit adultery") is also a basis, but see also Biblical law in Christianity.

Jesus taught that indulgence in adulterous thoughts could be just as harmful to the soul as actual adultery, and it is clear that both carry the same weight of guilt:

But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. ( )

and he also says

But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.( )

Some churches have interpreted adultery to include all sexual relationships outside of marriage, regardless of the marital status of the participants.

See also Expounding of the Law#Adultery and Pauline privilege.

Rabbinic Judaism

Though the Torah prescribes the death penalty by stoning for adultery, the legal procedural requirements were very exacting and required the testimony of two witnesses of good character for conviction.

At the civil level, however, Jewish law (halakha) forbids a man to continue living with an adulterous wife, and he is obliged to divorce her. Also, an adulteress is not permitted to marry the adulterer, but, to avoid any doubt as to her status as being free to marry another or that of her children, he must give her a divorce as if they were married.

Also, Jewish law recognizes the "law of the land" in these matters, so that if the law of the land has greater restrictions, then they will also apply.


Zina (زنا) is an Arabic term for extramarital or premarital sex. Islamic law prescribes severe punishments for men and women for the act of Zina. Premarital sex may be punished by up to 100 lashes, while adultery is punished by Rajm (stoning), according to some interpretations of the Islamic law. Punishing by stoning is not mentioned in the Quran, and is based solely upon hadith.

Under Muslim law, adultery and extramarital sex in general is sexual intercourse by a person (whether man or woman) with someone to whom they are not married. Adultery is a violation of the marital contract and one of the major sins condemned by God in the Qur'an:

Qur'anic verses prohibiting adultery include:

"Do not go near to adultery. Surely it is a shameful deed and evil, opening roads (to other evils)."

"Say, 'Verily, my Lord has prohibited the shameful deeds, be it open or secret, sins and trespasses against the truth and reason."'

"Women impure are for men impure, and men impure are for women impure and women of purity are for men of purity, and men of purity are for women of purity."

Strict Muslim law prescribes severe punishments for extramarital sex by both men and women. Premarital sex is punishable with up to 100 lashes, while adultery is punishable by stoning. The punishment for rape in Islam is the same as the punishment for zina (adultery or fornication), which is stoning if the perpetrator is married, and one hundred lashes and banishment for one year if he is not married. to obtain conviction of zina [consensual premarital sex], the act of sexual penetration must be attested by at least four male Muslim witnesses of good character, with the accused having a right to testify and their testimony given the most weight in the eyes of the judge(s). Also, punishments are reserved to the legal authorities and false accusations are to be punished severely. It has been said that these legal procedural requirements were instituted to make it impossible to obtain conviction.

Islamic Shariah Courts in Nigeriamarker evoked worldwide condemnation and protest and debate recently in sentencing some Muslim women and men to death by stoning (rajm) upon conviction for zina. Perhaps only Afghanistan, Iran, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia have this law on their books. However, stoning as punishment for sexual sin is not prescribed in the Quran, but is prescribed in the Hadith—oral traditions relating to the words and deeds of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. The only punishment for adultery given in the Quran is one hundred lashes and restriction of future marriage to another adulterer or the partner in the act.Syed Shahabuddin. "Should the Islamic punishment of Adultery be reconsidered?" August 8, 2009. />

Other historical practices

Historically, adultery was rigorously condemned and punished, usually only as a violation of the husband's rights. Among such peoples the wife was commonly reckoned as the property of her spouse, and adultery was therefore identified with theft. But it was theft of an aggravated kind, as the property which it would spoliate was more highly appraised than other chattels. It is not the seducer alone who suffers.

Severe penalties were imposed on an adulterous wife by her husband. In many instances she was made to endure a bodily mutilation which would, in the mind of the aggrieved husband, prevent her from ever being a temptation to other men again,

If, however, the wronged husband could visit swift and terrible retribution upon the adulterous wife, the latter was allowed no cause against the unfaithful husband; and this discrimination found in the practices of ancient peoples is moreover set forth in nearly all ancient codes of law.

The Laws of Manu of ancient India, for example, said: "though destitute of virtue or seeking pleasure elsewhere, or devoid of good qualities, yet a husband must be constantly worshiped as a god by a faithful wife"; on the other, hand, "if a wife, proud of the greatness of her relatives or [her own] excellence, violates the duty which she owes to her lord, the king shall cause her to be devoured by dogs in a place frequented by many."


Criminal penalties

Western countries
Most western countries have decriminalized adultery. Adultery is not a crime in most countries of the European Union, including Austriamarker, the Netherlandsmarker, Belgiummarker, Finlandmarker or Swedenmarker.

In the United Statesmarker, laws vary from state to state. In those states where adultery is still on the statute book (although rarely prosecuted), penalties vary from life sentence (Michiganmarker), to a fine of $10 (Marylandmarker), to a Class I felony (Wisconsinmarker) . In the U.S. Military, adultery is a potential court-martial offense. The enforceability of adultery laws in the United States has been / is being questioned following Supreme Courtmarker decisions since 1965 relating to privacy and sexual intimacy of consenting adults, in cases such as Lawrence v. Texas; however, occasional prosecutions occur.

In some East Asian countries, including Koreamarker, and Taiwanmarker, adultery continues to be a crime. In the Philippinesmarker, adultery (defined as consensual sexual intercourse between a married woman and a man who is not her husband) and a related act of concubinage (a man cohabiting with a woman who is not his wife), are considered crimes under the Revised Penal Code of the Philippines. Adultery is not a crime in Chinamarker, but constitutes grounds for divorce.

Middle East
Adultery had at one time attracted severe sanctions, including the death penalty. In some places, such as Iranmarker and Saudi Arabiamarker, the method of punishment for adultery is stoning to death. It has been suggested that Iranian officials are avoiding imposing the penalty because of social objections. Proving adultery under Muslim law can be a very difficult task as it requires the accuser to produce four eye witnesses to the act of sexual intercourse, each of whom should have a good reputation for truthfulness and honesty. The criminal standards do not apply in the application of social and family consequences of adultery, where the standards of proof are not as exacting.

Indian sub-continent
In Pakistanmarker, adultery is a crime under the Hudood Ordinance. The Ordinance sets a maximum penalty of death, although only imprisonment and corporal punishment have ever actually been imposed. The Ordinance has been particularly controversial because it requires a woman making an accusation of rape to provide extremely strong evidence to avoid being charged with adultery herself. A conviction of a man for rape is only possible with evidence from no less than four witnesses. In recent years high-profile rape cases in Pakistan have given the Ordinance more exposure than similar laws in other countries. Similar laws exist in some other Muslim countries, such as Saudi Arabiamarker.

In Indianmarker law, adultery is defined as sex between a man and a woman without the consent of the woman's husband. The man is prosecutable and can be sentenced for up to five years (even if he himself was unmarried) whereas the married woman can not be jailed. Men have called the law gender discrimination in that women cannot be prosecuted for adultery and the National Commission of Women has criticized the British era law of being anti-feminist as it treats women as the property of their husbands and has consequentially recommended deletion of the law or reducing it to a civil offense. The Government is yet to act. Extramarital sex without the consent of one's partner can be a valid grounds for monetary penalty on government employees, as ruled by the Central Administrative Tribunal.

Other consequences

Adultery may result in pregnancy, and the laws of the country that cover termination of a pregnancy and of child support come into play.

In addition, adultery has been grounds for divorce under fault-based divorce laws.

In the original Napoleonic Code, a man could ask to be divorced from his wife if she committed adultery, but the philandery of the husband was not a sufficient grounds for divorce unless he had kept his concubine in the family home.

Apart from criminal consequences, historically adulterers have suffered from society's disapproving attitudes toward them. The nature of these attitudes vary widely depending on local culture, religion and values, and how seriously the adulterer regards the opinions of others.

See also


  1. For example, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
  2. Encyclopedia Britannica Online, "Adultery"
  3. Clements, M. (1994, August 7). Sex in America today: A new national survey reveals how our attitudes are changing. Parade Magazine, 4–6.
  4. Laumann, E. O., Gagnon, J. H., Michael, R. T, and Michaels, S. (1994). The social organization of sexuality: Sexual practices in the United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  5. Wiederman, M. W. (1997). Extramarital sex: Prevalence and correlates in a national survey. Journal of Sex Research, 34, 167–174.
  6. []
  7. Evans v. Murff, 135 F. Supp. 907, 911 (1955).
  8. E.g., U.S. Code, Title 21, Chapter 1: Adulterated or Misbranded Foods or Drugs.
  9. Hate the husband? Sue the Mistress
  10. Boorstein, Michelle, Virginia Adultery Case Goes from Notable to Nonevent, The Washington Post, Aug. 25, 2004
  11. Adultery in the Military.
  12. Black's Law Dictionary, 4th ed. 1957.
  13. Black's Law Dictionary, 4th ed. 1957, citing Young v. Young, 236 Ala. 627, 184 So. 187. 190.
  14. Black's Law Dictionary.
  15. E.g., North Carolina.
  16. Durex. The Global Sex Survey 2005. Published online.
  17. The Global Sex Survey 2005, full report
  18. The Kinsey Institute. Data from Alfred Kinsey's Studies. Published online.
  19. Choi, K.H., Catania, J.A., and Dolcini, M.M. (1994). Extramarital sex and HIV risk behavior among U.S. adults: Results from the national AIDS behavioral survey. American Journal of Public Health, 84, 12, pp. 2003–2007.
  20. Wiederman, M.W. (1997). Extramarital sex: prevalence and correlates in a national survey. Journal of Sex Research, 34, 2, pp. 167–175.
  21. Atkins, D.C., Baucom, D.H. and Jacobson, N.S. (2001). Understanding Infidelity: Correlates in a National Random Sample. Journal of Family Psychology, 15, 4, pp. 735–749
  22. Dig., XLVIII, ad leg. Jul.
  23. Codex Justin., Digest, XLVIII, 5–13; Lecky, History of European Morals, II, 313.
  24. Ten Commandments
  26.,quran-uthmani&format=rows&ver=1.00 Online Quran Project Chapter 24
  29. Schoolcraft, Historical and Statistical Information Respecting the History, Condition and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States, I, 236; V, 683, 684, 686.
  30. H.H. Bancroft, The Native Races of the Pacific States of North America, I, 514.
  31. Laws of Manu, V, 154; VIII, 371.
  32. Adultery could mean life, court finds at
  34. Jonathan Turley, "Of Lust and the Law", The Washington Post, September 5, 2004, p. B1.
  35. 9 Iranians convicted of adultery.
  37. Hudood laws open to change in Pakistan, July 2005
  39. 'Adultery law must apply equally to men and women' at
  40. The Hindu : National : NCW rejects proposal to punish women for adultery at
  41. CAT penalises cop living with lover-Delhi-Cities-The Times of India at


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