Definitions of adultery vary.
The Lozi of Africa do not associate adultery with intercourse. The Lozi say that if a man accompanies a married woman he is not related to as she walks along a path, or if he gives her a beer or some snuff, he has committed adultery.
If an English businessman finds himself in a foreign city buying dinner for an attractive colleague and then performing every sexual act with her except copulation, he might think that he’s been adulterous. In fact, a poll taken by People magazine in 1986, some 74% of the 750 respondents believe that one does not actually need to engage in intercourse to be unfaithful.
Among the Kofyar of Nigeria, people define adultery quite differently. A woman who is dissatisfied with her husband but does not wish to divorce can take a legitimate extra lover who lives openly with her in her husband’s homestead. Kofyar men are permitted the same privilege. And no one regards these extramarital relationships as adultery.
The Oxford dictionary defines adultery as “sexual intercourse by a married person with someone other than one’s spouse.”
So by Western standards, the Italian man, the Eskimo woman, and the Kofyar wife who have engaged in extra lovers are committing adultery, while the Lozi husband and the married Englishman who bought a woman a drink, perhaps even reached orgasm with her – but did not have coitus – have not philandered.
Cultural mores completely affect our attitudes to adultery and this is nowhere more evident than in all agricultural societies where people use the plow (rather than the hoe) to grow crops — cultures such as Japanese, Chinese, Hindu and preindustrial European.
In this patriarchal societies adultery was not a term even regularly applied to men; it was considered largely a female vice.
The sexual double standard for adultery arose in farming cultures in tandem with the belief that the male was the bearer of the family “seed”. It was his duty to reproduce and pass on lineage. But only in India were men supposed to be faithful to their brides.
Throughout Asia, husbands were encouraged to have concubines. In China, where a man could have only a single legal wife, concubines were often taken into the family compound and given private apartments, luxuries and attention.
Moreover, these women were treated with much more respect than is a mistress in the West today – largely because concubines served an important purpose, to bear sons. And because their children supplied the blood of the patrilineage, all infants born out of wedlock in China were considered legitimate.
A traditional Chinese or Japanese man could be branded as adulterous only if he slept with the wife of another man. This was taboo. Illicit sex with a married woman was a violation against the woman’s husband and his entire ancestry.
In China these lawbreakers were burned to death. If a man seduced the wife of his guru in India, he might be made to sit on an iron plate that was glowing hot, then chop off his own penis. A Japanese man’s only honorable course was suicide.
In traditional Asia agricultural societies, only geishas, prostitutes, slaves and concubines were fair game. Sex with them was simply not considered adultery.
This same double standard for adultery was first recorded among the forebears of Western civilisation in several law codes written in Semitic dialetcs between 1800 and 1100 B.C. in towns in ancient Mesopotamia.
Like those of other agrarian communities, these early peoples of the Tigris-Euphrates valley felt that a woman had to “maintain her virtue”. A wife who was adulterous could be executed or have her nose chopped off.
Meanwhile, a husband had licence to fornicate with prostitutes whenever he chose; philandering was a transgression only if he coupled with another man’s wife or took the virginity of a peer’s eligible daughter. Only for these crimes could he receive a stiff fine, castration, or death.
As in America today, however, more than one sexual code operated simultaneously. Some ancients engaged in fertility celebrations in which extramarital coitus was expected. For them sex had to be an aura of sanctity; the sex act brought fertility and power. But for the most part, stricter codes prevailed in the cradle of Western civilisation. Only women, however, were expected to be faithful to a spouse.
Amongst most historical agricultural Asian peoples, male adultery was essentially a trespass against another’s property. Moreover, as in other ancient agrarian societies, adultery was not considered sinful, an offense against God.
This would change….