Academic journal article Ethnology

Managing Infidelity: A Cross-Cultural Perspective (1)

Academic journal article Ethnology

Managing Infidelity: A Cross-Cultural Perspective (1)

Article excerpt

Anthropologists have not systematically examined extramarital affairs. Our cross-cultural study found that within every culture men and women actively resort to mate-guarding tactics to control their mate's extramarital behavior. A person's level of interest and involvement does not change with a culture's notion of descent, level of social complexity, or the degree to which a culture is normatively permissive or restrictive in sexual matters. In effect, sexual propriety is the presumed right of both sexes. Our findings are consistent with both the sexual jealousy and the pair-bond hypotheses, which hold that every marriage or love relationship is organized around a presumption of sexual propriety. (Extramarital affair, pair bond, sexual jealousy, human universal)


Conventional wisdom holds that in many societies women express relative indifference to their spouse's infidelities. Many social-science researchers ascribe this indifference to either male's propensity for psychological violence (Bourdieu 2001; MacKinnon 1988) or women's structural marginality (Freeman 1990; Harris 1993; Leacock 1993; Ressner 1987; Rosaldo and Lamphere 1974). These theories link patriarchy with male superiority to account for institutionalizing a double standard. A constant life lesson for women in these societies is their inability to forestall their spouse's infidelities. Reinforced by folk ideology, social convention, and common practices, men come to believe that it is their right to have extramarital affairs, while women become indifferent to their spouse's infidelity. From this theoretical perspective, it is axiomatic that men believe that they have ownership of women's bodies, whereas women own neither their own bodies nor that of their spouse.

The strength of this axiom derives in part from a kind of folklore of professional anthropologists and not from empirical documentation. To date, there is no comparative study that systematically examines how husbands and wives respond to a spouse's infidelity. Thus, the conventional wisdom of ownership and indifference remains untested anthropological assertion.

This article examines the similarities and differences in women's and men's responses to a mate's infidelity. It explores the significance of structural factors--degree of social complexity, type of descent ideology, the degree to which sexual practices are restrictive or permissive, etc.--on the way men and women respond to an act of infidelity. It also questions if there are sex-linked factors shaping men's and women's perception of and response to spousal infidelity.


Half a century ago, Ford and Beach's (1951) pioneering cross-cultural study of human sexuality found that less than 39 per cent (54 out of 139) of societies approved of some form of infidelity. Although not explored in any depth, the study determined that cultures overwhelmingly prefer to "circumscribe [extramarital affairs] in one way or another" (Ford and Beach 1951:114). A more recent cross-cultural survey of human sexuality found that extramarital affairs ranked just below incest "as the most strictly prohibited type of sexual relationships" (Frayser 1985:20). This finding was reaffirmed in a study that found no society, not even America during the permissive 1960s, condoning extramarital affairs (Harrell 1997:475). In spite of these holocultural surveys, cultural anthropology has yet to develop a theory accounting for extramarital sex's nearly universal approbation.

There are theories that focus on some aspect of the phenomenon. The most prevalent explanation is sociological. This perspective offers a gender-specific explanation for why men's extramarital affairs are tolerated more than women's. Focusing exclusively on stratified societies, Collins (1975) argues that men are the beneficiaries of a patriarchal ideology and a set of social practices that ensure and validate men's perception of women as their sexual property. …

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