Along the southern Adriatic coast, the flat Italian beaches are broken by rocky hills that descend into the sea.
Here behind the boulders, in secluded caverns with shallow pools and sandy shoals, young Italian men seduce foreign women they pick up in the resort hotels, on the beaches, and in the bars and discos.
Here the boys lose their virginity in their late teens, and here they hone their sexual skills, count their conquests, and build their reputations as dexterous, passionate Italian lovers; personas they will cultivate throughout their lives.
Because local Italian girls are too supervised to be enticed and because prostitution is not practiced in these villages, young men are dependent on the seasonal tourist trade for their sexual education until they wed.
But by middle age, these men enter a new network of sexual liaisons; a quasi-institutionalized system of extra-marital affairs with local village women. With time each philanderer learns to exercise discretion and follow strict rules that everybody understands.
As psychologist Lewis Diana reports, adultery is the rule rather than the exception in these towns that dot the central and southern Adriatic coast; almost every man has a lover he visits regularly during weekdays, either late in the morning or in the early evening while husbands are still at work in the vineyards, on fishing boats, in their retail shops, or off on their own clandestine business.
Generally middle- and upper-class men have long affairs with married women of the same or lower social standing. Sometimes younger male servants visit the wives of landowners, while prestigious men occasionally have trysts with their maids or cooks.
But the most enduring relationships are those between men and women who are married to others, many of these affairs last for several years or even life.
The only dalliances that are taboo are those between older, unattached women and young, unmarried men – largely because young men boast. Gossip is intolerable.
In these villages, family is still the warp and weft of social life, and whispering threatens to expose the network of extramarital relationships, seriously disrupting the community cohesion and destroying family life.
So although infidelity is commonplace among adults – and known to most because of the lack of privacy, a code of absolute silence prevails. Family life must not be undermined.
One breach of this collective complicity occurred when a retired Italian businessman who had lived in America since childhood made a comment in a men’s club about a woman he hoped to lure into a sexual rendezvous.
All listeners immediately fell silent. Then, one by one, each man rose and walked out.
The man had pulled a monumental blunder. No married man ever speaks of his interest in other women. The taboo is stringent and unbreakable. Life is difficult enough not to jeopardise one of its rare diversions.
An ocean away in Amazonia, extramarital affairs are equally coveted – but much more complex.
Among the Kuikuru, a group of about 160 people who live in a single village along the Xingu River in the jungles of Brazil, men and women often marry shortly after puberty. But sometimes, within months of matrimony, both spouses begin to take lovers known as ajois.
Ajois get their friends to arrange their assignations; then they stroll out of the communal compound at the planned moment under the pretense of fetching water, bathing, fishing, or going to tend the garden.
Instead, sweethearts rendezvous and sneak off to a distant clearing in the forest, where they talk, exchange small gifts and copulate.
Even the oldest Kuikuru man and woman in the village regularly slip away for an afternoon rendezvous, says anthropologist Robert Carneiro. Most villagers have between four and twelve extra lovers at a time.
Kuikuru see sexual freedom as normal and retribution for adultery is rare.
Wife lending, known as wife hospitality, is customary among several Inuit (Eskimo) peoples. This form of adultery sterms from their concept of kinship.
If a husband is eager to cement his ties with a hunting companion, he may offer the sexual services of his wife – but only with her permission.
If all agree, she copulates with his business partner for several days or even weeks. Women also offer sex to strangers and visitors. But Inuit women see these extramarital couplings as precious offerings of everlasting kinship, not as social indiscretions.
Then over in Tanzania, the Turu tribe enjoy sexual licence during the puberty ceremony of their teenage boys.
On the first day’s festivities, extramarital lovers dance to imitate intercourse and sing songs extolling the penis, vagina and copulation. If these dances are not “hot”, or full of sexual passion, as the Turu say, the celebration will be a failure.
That evening sweethearts consummate what they have suggested all day.
But perhaps the most curious custom prescribing over adultery comes from our Western heritage.
In several European societies, a feudal lord had the right to deflower the bride of a vassal on his wedding night – a custom known as jus primae noctis, or “right of the first night.”
Some historians question whether this rite was widely exercised, but there seems to be some evidence that medieval Scottish nobles did indeed bed their subject’s brides.
Which raises the question:
What constitutes adultery?