Has adultery become a spurious issue?

As the meaning of marriage has changed so has the focus of its betrayal. In the sex-obsessed Nineties, we may have invested too much in sexual trust
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It seems that it is still rather dangerous to talk publicly about sex. Last week the Bishop of Edinburgh narrowly missed being pilloried when he spoke of being more understanding towards adultery. It appears that either one stands fast to a fiction of heterosexual monogamy or one risks being portrayed as a licentious promoter of sexual excess and immorality. Why are we so readily tipped over into a virtual hysteria about sexual matters when, as a society, we probably have more information about sex and sexuality than ever before in our history?

Michel Foucault has argued that sex has come to occupy a tyrannical place in our lives and that we are no more free of obsessions with sex than were the Victorians. Although we might now seem to be more pro-sex in general than the Victorians, for Foucault it is not whether we say "yes" or "no" to sex that is at issue, but the question of why we have come to think that sex is so important that it should be a defining feature of our modern lives and our sense of happiness and fulfilment.

In the past few weeks media attention has, of course, not merely been on sex but more specifically on adultery. In the popular media, at least, it seems that great pleasure is derived from discovering and condemning such acts (while, of course, writing extensively about them). But has it always been like this, and might the adoption of other forms of relationships in the late 20th century indicate that this sexual behaviour has had, and may yet have, a different social significance? If we were to develop a greater understanding of the history of sex and of the history of marriage, might we be able to put both sex and adultery in their place, so to speak?

The changing nature of marriage in Western societies has long been the subject of debate. In broad terms two major phases or types of marriage have been identified, the arranged marriage and the companionate marriage. The arranged marriage predominated prior to the 19th century. Under this model marriage was essentially an economic arrangement and marriage partners were selected by parents or kin largely on economic grounds. Marriage and sex were about property and procreation respectively, not about romantic love, although companionship and compatibility were highly regarded. Until the 20th century divorce was extremely rare. Once married, people were legally bound to one another.

Under such circumstances, it is clear that people formed other attachments outside marriage. This arrangement was initially known as courtly love. As the name suggests, it affected only those in a certain class of society - and women had to be far more discreet than men, of course. Although our knowledge of sexual practices in the past is inevitably shaky, it would seem undeniable that many men of the upper classes were adulterous or kept mistresses.

Adultery was the only ground on which the Church would allow separation: it was regarded as a major breach of the marriage vows. For a woman the consequences of adultery were extremely harsh. She could be sent away from the matrimonial home and denied any contact with her children. Even after the introduction of civil divorce in 1857, adultery by women was treated far more severely than adultery by men. This was because of the thorny problem of what lawyers used to call the introduction of "spurious issue", or another man's child. Marriage in the upper classes provided social status and standing as well as kinship obligations. Thus, if a wife committed adultery, she was seen to bring great shame to her husband, his family and his household. Her adultery was also seen as likely to contaminate her children, giving rise to a cycle of degeneracy and the long-term decline of a family. Her sexuality was therefore a source of great potential danger.

A man's sexuality, on the other hand, might have been regarded as somewhat base, but as essentially natural. His infidelities, if known about, might thus have brought personal shame to a wife but not disgrace to the family.

Although the Victorian era can be seen as the high point of this double standard of sexual morality, things were starting to change. The first development was the slow rise of the ideal of romantic love which is evidenced in the writings of the time. This ideal began to see mutual affection as the prime basis for marriage. From slow beginnings this idea came to dominate Christian cultures in the West. The second development was the emancipation of women. Women tired of the restrictions of the Victorian ideal and began to demand a place in civil society. A crucial element of the suffragette campaign was also the demand for "chastity for men" and an end to the double standard. Once love started to become the basis for marriage, the old idea that it was worse for a woman to "stray" than a man began to be challenged - albeit slowly.

The point about romantic love was that it was supposed to be mutual, a two-way street. It entailed a personal commitment to another individual, rather than the idea of marrying into a family or property. Once personal commitment became the crucial element, it was hard to see why only one party had to live up to the pledge of sexual fidelity. These changes were reflected in reforms to the laws on divorce. In 1923 women were at last entitled to divorce their husbands on the single ground of his adultery. Then, in 1937, other grounds were introduced to include cruelty and desertion. This shift indicated the changing expectations people (especially women) were bringing to marriage. In particular the recognition of cruelty showed the extent to which expectations of (men's) behaviour had changed. In theory at least, wives did not have to put up with malice and violence, nor did they have to put up with unacceptable sexual peccadilloes.

It is after the Second World War that we see women forging ahead in terms of petitioning for divorce. The most usual ground was adultery. However, before we read too much into this, we should recognise that adultery has always been the easiest ground to use. So we do not actually know for sure that it was, or is, adultery that ends marriages or whether claims about adultery provide a quick, efficient exit from an unhappy marriage. However, what is clear through this century is that women's attitudes towards adultery have changed. In previous centuries they may not have liked it when their husbands went elsewhere, but they had to put up with it and possibly even found justification for it. In the 20th century, with the rise of romantic love, his infidelity became a betrayal of trust as much as hers had been before. But this time it was a betrayal of a personal trust, not simply of honour.

By the 20th century sex had ceased to be something we did and became something we were. The rise of the science of sex, the sexologists and particularly psychoanalysis transformed sex from something linked to sin and procreation into a major part of our quest for identity and self-understanding. Our fantasies, dreams and practices all came under professional and personal scrutiny.

By the Fifties, sexologists such as Eustace Chesser were urging women to enjoy marital relations and even requiring husband and wife to talk to each other about sex. The idea was to achieve greater marital fulfilment. With the demise of the legally indelible marriage, sex became the perceived new cement for modern marriage in the Fifties. Wives were encouraged to buy frilly underwear to lure their husbands back from their offices, where they might fall prey to temptation. Children became redefined, from having been the purpose of sexual intercourse, to becoming a major obstacle to marital sexual harmony.

At last the idea that women should have pleasure in sex took root. Sexual incompatibility was gradually seen as the death knell for marriage for both men and women. More than this, there grew the belief that there was something wrong at a deep psychic level if one was not attaining certain levels of satisfaction - or at least activity. Culturally speaking, in Western secular societies we have become so obsessed with sex as a measure of heterosexual bonding that we assume that if the sex is indifferent, the relationship must be, too.

Thus, typically when a sexual partner has sex with another person, it is felt very deeply as both a reflection on our personal adequacy and as a clear statement on the condition of our relationship. Moreover, because we have invested so much intimacy in sex, adultery is almost inevitably seen as a betrayal of a very specific form of trust. It is as if, in having sex, we imagine that we reveal our true selves to our partners and that it is only in sexual activity that we are totally intimate. Given these conditions it is hardly surprising that it is painful to discover that one's sexual partner is also sexual partner to someone else.

The question now is whether this regime of sexuality might be changing as the nature of marriage and relationships begins to change. Are we still subject to the rules and expectations associated with romantic love when it is clear that the married two-parent household with dependent children (the idealised image of the Fifties) is no longer a reality for the majority of households in the Nineties? Serial monogamy is becoming increasingly taken for granted and it would seem that people are willing to leave unsatisfactory relationships in spite of the emotional and economic costs of divorce and separation.

It seems no longer to be a primary goal for many women simply to get married. They want a personally satisfying relationship rather than a ring on their finger and the status of Mrs. We also know that many heterosexual couples are choosing to cohabit rather than marry, at least for a period of time. It may be that decisions to cohabit are part of a reluctance to accept the old expectations of marriage, which are beginning to feel too constraining (at least for couples without children).

There is also the rise of lesbian and gay households. As marriage is prohibited there can be few traditional rules to govern the behaviour of men and women in these households. Quite simply, the lack of generations of Agony Aunts to pronounce on how to be a proper lesbian partner, and the non-existence of the equivalent of guides-to-married-life for gay men makes it more likely that gays and lesbians can avoid the weight of tradition.

In these changing circumstances it becomes possible that the old emphasis on heterosex-as-cement may start to give way to other priorities for intimacy and trust. In particular the highly specific focus on genital sex and penetration as a defining feature of adult intimate relationships might come to be challenged. What might then emerge is not so much a Sixties caricature of a lemming-like rush into careless multiple partnerships as a situation in which we start to reassert power over sex, rather than sex having power over us. Sex might return to being something we do (subject to the usual ethical considerations of interpersonal relations) rather than signifying the quality of our lives, our personalities and our relationships. When that day dawns, the popular media might find they need more than sex to sell their wares.

The writer is professor of sociology at Leeds University.