Public whipping, branding, beating, ostracism, mutilation of genitals, chopping off of nose and ears, slashing feet, chopping at one’s hips and thighs, divorce, desertion, death by stoning, burning, drowning, choking, shooting, stabbing — given these punishments, it is astonishing that human beings engage in extramarital affairs at all.
Yet we do.
In the 1920s, pioneer in sex research George Hamilton reported that 28% of men and 24% of women interviewed had strayed. It was the talk of American dinner tables for more than a decade.
Then, in the late forties and fifties, the famous Kinsey Reports revealed the figures had risen; adulterous men now at 33% and women at 26%.
Almost two decades later these figures apparently had not changed significantly, despite enormous changes in American attitudes toward sex during the 60s and 70s – the so called Sexual Revolution. A survey commissioned by Playboy magazine that 41% of men and 25% of women had philandered.
Two new trends stood out, however, both sexes started their trysts earlier than in former decades, and the double standard had eroded.
In the 80s, the figures went up a notch. Cosmopolitan magazine asked 106,000 readers and the poll indicated that 72% of married men had participated in at least one affair and 54% for women.
The 1987 issue of Marriage & Divorce Today, read that “Seventy percent of all Americans now engage in an affair sometime during their marital life”.
But who knows whether any of these figures are accurate?
Men tend to brag about sex, whereas women more regularly conceal their escapades. All we can say is that one thing is for sure; despite our cultural taboo against infidelity, we are adulterous.
From a Darwinian perspective, it’s easy to explain why men are – by nature – interested in sexual variety. If a man has two children by one woman, he has, genetically speaking “reproduced” himself.
But if he also engaged in dalliances with more women and by chance, sires two more young, he doubles his contribution to the next generation.
So, as the biological explanation goes, those men who tend to seek variety, also have more children. But why are women adulterous?
A woman cannot bear another child every time she sneaks into bed with another lover’ she can get pregnant only at certain times of her menstrual cycle. Moreover, a woman takes nine months to bear the child, and then it is often several more months or years before she can conceive again.
Unlike a man, a woman cannot breed every time she copulates. But are they really less interested in sexual variety?
Many scholars argue “man is the natural playboy and woman the doting spouse”, but Helen Fisher begs to differ. She says there are at least four reasons why adultery could have been biologically adaptive for our female forebears.
- Supplementary subsistence – extra goods and services would have provided our adulterous female ancestors with more shelter and extra food, perquisites that gave them more protection and better health, ultimately enabling their young to survive disproportionately.
- Insurance policy – if a “husband” died or desserted home, she had another male she might be able to enlist to help with parental chores.
- Early Upgrade – If a woman was “married” to a poor hunter with bad eyesight and a fearful or unsupportive temperament, she stood to upgrade her genetic line by having children with another man – Mr Good Gene.
- Law Of Probability – If a woman had offspring with an array of fathers, each child would be somewhat different, increasing the likelihood that some form among them would survive unpredictable fluctuations in the environment.
Many would not agree with the belief that men are the Don Juans and women are the shy, retiring recipients of sex and it’s seen amongst many cultural traditions and beliefs around the world.
The custom of the veil evolved in Muslim societies partly because Islamic people firmly believe that women are highly seductive. Clitoridectomy, the excising of the clitoris, is done in several African cultures to curb the high female libido. Talmudic writers in the early Christian era stipulated that it was a husband’s duty to copulate with his wife regularly precisely because they thought women had a higher sex drive than men.
The Cayapa Indians of western Ecuador think women are lechers. Even the Spanish men who strut, preen and philander in the small towns of Andalusia are convinced that women are dangerous, potent and promiscuous – hence the practice of a chaperone.
So the picture on the adultery puzzle is taking shape. But there is a last line of evidence to toss into your thinking cap – that offered by prostitution…