People can rarely resist a sexual scandal. They cannot help but revel in seeing others cut down to size for violating norms that may inconveniently constrain their own behaviour. This is probably why adultery has long been a favourite topic for novelists, not to mention the press – the latter taking a feverish and prurient interest in the sexual shenanigans of those in the public eye.
It is an interesting paradox therefore that, as a focus of serious study, adultery has received relatively short shrift. Deborah Rhode’s Adultery: Infidelity and the Law accordingly makes for quite an education, even for someone like me who (professionally, I must stress, as a divorce lawyer) encounters adultery on a regular basis.
In her comprehensive and colourful account of the legal and social consequences of infidelity, Rhode describes how the law governing adultery has an unbecoming history, marked by intrusive inquiries, inconsistent application, and racial, class and gender bias.
She explores why, at a time when sexual attitudes have grown more liberal, Americans remain largely unanimous in their disapproval of adultery, while US laws governing adultery have grown more anachronistic (I was staggered to read that 21 US states still have misdemeanour or felony prohibitions on adultery).
Author: Deborah Rhode
£21.95, Harvard University Press
While the main focus of the book is the treatment of adultery in the US, Rhode also provides a fascinating overview of differing views regarding adultery, offering some striking examples. In France, for example, the mistress of a former prime minister can comfortably stand alongside his widow at a state funeral without any fear of rebuke, whereas in some Islamic countries parties found guilty of infidelity can be stoned or hanged.
Rhode urges the international community to take a firmer stance in condemning adultery prosecutions as human rights violations. She makes a compelling argument that sustained pressure from coalitions of nations as well as prominent non-governmental organisations could help to bring about legal and social reform.
Although this is, in essence, a well-researched and academic analysis of the historical and legal landscape of adultery, it is also a thoroughly engaging and entertaining read.
Toby Atkinson is a partner in the divorce and family department at Stewarts Law, London