Adultery laws belong to a period long passed

By Stephen Whitehead  / 

Mon, Mar 18, 2013 - Page 8

The speed of social change experienced around the world since the end of World War II has been breathtaking. It is difficult to keep up with it, and everyone is several steps behind the globalization movement sweeping ahead and pulling the world along in its wake.

So its not surprising that previously held “truths” and prevailing value systems increasingly appear anachronistic and out of touch with the times. The same is equally, if not more, true of legislation and laws.

In the UK, the Buggery Act of 1533 included the penalty of death. This was not repealed until 1861, and it would take another 106 years before same-sex sexual activity was decriminalized across the UK.

Jump forward to this year and same-sex marriage is about to be legally recognized in the same country that once put men to death for engaging in such relationships.

China was a country that for centuries not only culturally accepted, but legally reinforced women’s lower social status and relative powerlessness, until it finally outlawed forced and arranged marriages and concubinage in the Marriage Law of 1980.

Surprisingly, perhaps the country most behind in the sexual revolution of the late 20th and early 21st centuries is the US.

For example, sex toys are banned in Alabama, intercourse between unmarried couples is illegal in Georgia, oral sex is banned in Indiana, anal intercourse is banned in Cincinnati, Ohio, sexual positions except for missionary are illegal in Washington DC, and flirting is banned in San Antonio, Texas.

Crazy, yes; quirky, certainly; and also quite amusing, though one wonders why these states continue to have such ridiculous laws on their statute books.

Which brings me to Taiwan and the current debate about whether to decriminalize adultery. In an age when equality between men and women is a given in any developed or aspiring-to-be-developed nation, the idea that women are somehow “protected” by such a law is both incredible and inconceivable.

With marriages in decline, divorce rates rising, serial monogamy the experience of most adults over a lifetime, single lifestyles common, online dating ubiquitous and women more likely to push the “divorce” button, just what is it that legislators have to discuss?

It does appear that a small, but influential, segment of Taiwanese society has not quite emerged into even the middle part of the 20th century, never mind the early part of the 21st century.

Which is really rather surprising given the impressive advancement that Taiwan has made educationally, democratically, economically and culturally since 1949.

Taiwan is certainly right to be embarrassed by having an adultery law on its statute books, though the pace of global change has left everyone all a little behind.

Now is the time for Taiwan to prove that it is a member of the adult group of nations, mature in every respect, and not, like the US, a place where strange and quirky laws continue to coexist alongside outstanding technological brilliance.

Stephen Whitehead is visiting professor of Gender Studies at Shih Hsin University and co-author of Gender and Identity.