Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Economist explores adultery

Hyphens are important, and the subject of this Economist essay is extra-marital sex, as opposed to extra marital sex.

Americans are increasingly intolerant of adultery, but Esther Perel believes they should take a more European attitude.

"Attitudes towards sex and sexual morality have changed dramatically in the past few decades, with ever fewer Westerners clucking over such things as premarital sex or love between two men or two women, but infidelity is still seen as a nuclear no-go zone in relationships. In fact, studies show that even as we have become more permissive about most things involving either sex or marriage – ever ready to accept couples who marry late, divorce early, forgo children or choose not to marry at all – we have grown only more censorious of philanderers. In a survey of public attitudes in 40 countries from the Pew Research Centre, an American think-tank, infidelity was the issue that earned the most opprobrium around the world. A general survey of public views in America, conducted by the University of Chicago since 1972, has found that Americans are more likely to say extramarital sex is always wrong now than they were throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Younger generations can usually be relied upon to push sexual morality in a more permissive direction, but infidelity is the one area where the young and old seem to agree. In this broadly tolerant age, when so many of us have come around to accepting love in all different shapes and sizes, adultery is the one indulgence that remains out of bounds."

Here's the NORC* report, whose first figure shows that Extra-marital sex wins the race for something that is "always wrong" in public opinion, with 80% of the surveyed Americans agreeing (contrast that with 20% for sex before marriage).
Trends in Public Attitudes about Sexual Morality, APRIL 2013

*NORC at the University of Chicago = National Opinion Research Center.

To get technical, I like to think of transactions as repugnant if some people want to engage in them and others don't want them to  even though the others can’t detect that the transaction has taken place unless someone tells them. So secret adultery seems to fall into that category (if you confine your attention to adulterers who engage in safe sex and are discreet, not overcome by guilt, etc.).  

And it appears that the repugnance of adultery is in a long cycle of a sort: it's on the short list of Ten Commandments ("don't commit adultery" comes right after "don't commit murder"), it appears to have become less repugnant in Europe and perhaps at times in the U.S., but its repugnance level in the US remains high, and apparently is rising.  And of course adultery carries the risk of discovery (not least because it may be the cause of guilt, and guilty secrets), and in places where it is repugnant it therefore remains a potential home-wrecker.  

Maybe the repugnance of adultery is related to the importance of contracts--if most people believe marriage comes with a promise of fidelity, then adultery is a violation of at least an implicit promise. Or maybe it has to do with the fact that a good marriage is a repeated game based on trust, and that even a well kept secret violation of trust takes a toll on the secret-keeper (if only through Mark Twain's adage "tell the truth, then you don't have to remember anything") and hence on the marriage...

Repugnance is important--economists need to understand it better. (It's not just laws against buying kidneys for transplant...)


More on adultery, and its sometimes special place in law: Adultery, Law, and the State: A History.
NOVEMBER, 1986, 38 Hastings L.J. 195 by Jeremy D. Weinstein

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