Should women be punished for cheating?

Should women be punished for cheating on their husbands? The debate rages on.

OddNaari OddNaari Oct 01, 2010

Get wary, you cheating missus! The Union home ministry is looking for ways to take the 'steam' out of your extra-marital affairs. Brushing aside protests from the National Commission for Women ( NCW), the ministry is looking for ways to put wives who cheat on their husbands in the dock.

And never mind if you agree with Aldous Huxley, who penned: "Chastity - the most unnatural of all sexual perversions…", the home ministry's taken it upon itself to decide what a man or woman can do between their bedsheets, even if it's with their mutual consent.

Here's one reaction the move has evoked. "The home ministry doesn't seem to have much on its hands. So it turns its attention on the love lives of ordinary people," scoffs homemaker Trisha Patil.

Fidelity, of course, is no guarantee of love - nor is infidelity a sign that love has faded or died.

Mira Kirshenbaum stirred a hornet's nest with her book, When Good People Have Affairs, when she insisted that adultery could often help save a failing marriage.

Just don't talk about it or it could do a lot of damage, she advises. Most adulterers are good people, simply seeking happiness and love in their lives, she says.

"Cheating on your spouse isn't a moral act, but most men and woman who have affairs are good people who make a mistake." That's Kirshenbaum's take on adultery, but the book has come under severe criticism from psychologists who argue that what's 'immoral' is actually telling people they can cheat in their marriages.

But then why do women cheat? There are many reasons - all the usual ones: Some get lonely, others want to escape the monotony of marriage.

"Some want to take revenge after they find telltale signs of their husbands' infidelity.

Then there are selfish, character-flawed women, who marry good men who love and take care of them, but continue to consort with other men for sexual excitement or money," says Mumbai-based marriage counsellor, Anuradha Dixit. But do you need to take the extreme step of putting them behind the bars? Kirti Singh, member, law commission, says, "Punishing women for adultery is a retrograde step. Adultery as a crime should be wiped out from the Indian Penal Code and neither men nor women should be punished for it. Adultery could, however, be considered a civil offence with civil consequences." Singh feels a law would make women more vulnerable as they may not be able to prove their innocence.

So why does the home ministry want to book women for infidelity when even men would agree they are more inclined to look for extra partners. David Barash, professor of psychology, University of Washington has an explanation for their behaviour. In The Myth of Monogamy ( which he coauthored), Barash says males of all species are easily aroused sexually and the best strategy evolutionary-wise, is to be fast and loose and produce more offspring. So a man has a "sexual sweet tooth" that natural selection has endowed him with - and it works even if he doesn't want to make babies.

Making women accountable for adultery will surely take the zest out of the girly talk centred around the other men in their lives. Giving a thumbs-down to the proposal, Ruchi Goel, entrepreneur and health activist, says, "It's a ridiculous decision.

As a moral issue, I don't approve of adultery but did laws ever stop people from doing anything? I say, get out of the relationship and do what you want. The offence is not criminal - it is a moral issue. Do not convert it into a crime or it might be used as a tool to get back at people." Meanwhile, a path-breaking study on evolutionary behaviour by Stephen T Emlen of Cornell University suggests that infidelity may even be natural as nine out of 10 mammals and birds that mate 'for life' are unfaithful.

"Females stray to gather the best possible genes for their offspring, while males are driven to father as many and as often as possible.

True monogamy actually is rare in the natural world," says Emlen.

In an interview to Global Viewpoint , futurologist author Alvin Toffler talked about the "diversification of family formats in sync with the diversifying wealth system.

There are single mothers. Unmarried couples. Married couples with no kids. There are fathers and mothers in serial marriages.

Monogamy won't go away, but polygamy may gain wider acceptance". The issue has thrown up a few piquant situations.

"Adultery is often the best way to get back at a cheating husband.

We will lose an important weapon to avenge the humiliation," theatre artist Tulika Gupta feels. The law is being proposed at a time when women are still the disadvantaged sex, she adds.

But is the home ministry listening?

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