As monogamy becomes the global norm, so does sexual betrayal. Surveys show that more than 70 per cent of married people report at least one affair. Does infidelity remedy the deficiencies of the lifetime partnership, or does it signify the destruction of any true union? Rosalind Miles recommends some reflection on the uses of adultery...by Rosalind Miles / January 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
What does president Clinton have in common with Paula Yates? Prince Charles with Lady Chatterley? Jeffrey Archer with the “common prostitute” Monica Coghlan (whose services, a court found, Lord A was not in fact paying for with the ?2,000 he so generously gave her)? Accounting for infidelities-real and fictional-is a challenge akin to cracking the DNA code. But our public culture makes it difficult to talk about in a useful way.
We chatter about it, of course, incessantly. Adultery is constantly in the air: the recreation of the great and the not-so-good, and hence the staple of the tabloids. This seems to encourage us to discuss it in the manner of a party game. Name the most improbable celebrity pairings? Nelson and Emma Hamilton, Pandit Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten, Hugh Grant and Divine. It seems extraordinary that something so pervasive has received so little scholarly or even serious attention.
One exception is Dr Annette Lawson’s 1988 study Adultery. Her surveys found that 78 per cent of British husbands had committed adultery as against 47 per cent of a comparable group in 1965; overall figures for both sexes showed 73 per cent of married people reporting at least one affair during married life (with similar findings in the US); in first marriages, 66 per cent of women and 68 per cent of men reported at least one liaison before the age of 40. These figures are backed up by divorce petitions which cite “adultery” and “behaviour including adultery” as responsible for almost 70 per cent of marriage breakdowns.
It often seems that the only response to extracurricular sexual activity is a moral one, ranging from mild disapproval to outrage. Condemnation of forbidden sex, often backed up by vicious punishments such as stoning or the lash, has been the norm in most societies, and still is in, for example, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Yet infidelity persists and even increases: astonishingly, an official analysis of blood samples in England in the late 1970s found that 30 per cent of the men surveyed could not have been the biological fathers of at least one of their children. Something as pervasive as this must serve a function; it must have a raison d’?tre in the modern world.
At first blink, asking why people have illicit sex seems to inhabit that same region of thundering obviousness as the Shakespearean observation that it is the property…