Family and marriage values have been hot topics of discussion in Taiwan recently. Aside from the proposal to amend the law to recognize diverse families, the question of whether to decriminalize adultery has also sparked debate.
Taiwan’s legislature in 2009 ratified two key UN human-rights covenants — the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
A group of international experts came to Taiwan in February to review the country’s initial report on its implementation of them. One of the conclusions of the review is that the classification of adultery as a criminal offense is a violation of human rights.
The Ministry of Justice held a public hearing on Nov. 28 on the question of whether adultery should be decriminalized, and various arguments — both in favor and against — were put forward.
Unfortunately some of the ideas at the meeting were reminiscent of the debates over the decriminalization of adultery that took place when the Criminal Code was being drawn up in the 1940s. The sense of being in another time and place was really quite eerie.
Some people see the decriminalization of adultery as being part of the sexual liberation movement. They think that those who advocate decriminalizing adultery are the culprits behind the breakdown of families and marriages.
There are others who venture to equate victims of adultery with victims of sexual abuse. These people think that the state has a duty to defend a married person’s spouse against the outrageous behavior of a third party — the married person’s lover.
There are even those who say that the existing penalty under the Criminal Code is not strong enough, and that the third party in such an affair should not be allowed to get married, enjoy property rights or have parental rights over children born out of wedlock.
Some officials whose job it is to enforce the nation’s laws say that women who enter into marriage should be immaculate and obey their husbands, and that people who have broken the commandment of fidelity are in no position to demand human rights and equality for themselves.
These arguments against decriminalizing adultery are always presented under the pretext of safeguarding marriages and families and protecting children.
However, it should be asked whether we are still in an age in which it is considered necessary to trample on equality and human rights for the sake of marriage and the family.
The law that makes adultery a punishable crime violates gender equality. An analysis of data provided by district prosecutors’ offices throughout Taiwan for the years 2008 to 2012 shows a statistically significant gender difference in the handling of adultery cases, both at the investigation stage (including the lodging of accusations, the withdrawal of accusations and indictments), and during the trial stage, (including the withdrawal of charges and convictions).
From the perspective of the number of cases ending in a conviction, more women than men are found guilty of adultery. When compared with other crimes, for which an average of six times as many men are convicted as women, it is clear that women are disproportionately liable to be punished for adultery.
The reasons more women than men are punished for adultery can be inferred from the proportion of accusations that are withdrawn after being made against various categories of people.