I have a confession to make. I broke the law. A lot.
Does it help if I say I had no idea I was doing it? Does ignorance get me out of my misdeeds? Ignorance seems to go a long way it seems — especially when it comes to draconian state laws. Especially those that apply more harshly to women than to men.
I first noticed this when someone sent me this article about a married woman in Buffalo, New York who was caught allegedly having sex in a public picnic area, with someone who was not her husband. Both the woman and her partner were charged with public lewdness. But oddly, only the woman was charged with adultery.
Adultery: “Legal Dictionary – voluntary sexual activity (as sexual intercourse) between a married man and someone other than his wife or between a married woman and someone other than her husband; also : the crime of adultery”
Of course, adultery seems like a very old fashioned legal rap to hit someone with. And why just the woman, in this case, and not the man as well? It may go back to yesterday’s column, explaining that New York is in fact the last state in the country not to allow a no fault divorce. Although many other states do in fact have old adultery laws on the books, they are almost never actually used as a charge. But for New York, where a person actually needs a legal reason to end a marriage, adultery plays a much bigger role, as many noted during the David Paterson scandal in 2008.
Section 255.17 of the state penal law states, “A person is guilty of adultery when he engages in sexual intercourse with another person at a time when he has a living spouse, or the other person has a living spouse. Adultery is a class B misdemeanor.” A class B misdemeanor is punishable by up to 90 days in jail or a $500 fine.
In reality, of course, the law is rarely enforced. About a dozen people have been charged with adultery since the early 1970s, most of them upstate. (Most of the charges were dismissed, or apparently were dropped after the defendants pleaded guilty to other charges.)
While no one is really at risk of being jailed for adultery, adultery still has tremendous significance in family law, said Alton L. Abramowitz, another divorce lawyer.
Adultery is one of three principal grounds for divorce in New York State, along with abandonment for a period of more than a year (or abandonment in the form of refusal to have sexual relations) and cruel and inhuman treatment, which includes both mental and physical cruelty.
Under New York law, Mr. Abramowitz said, in a divorce case, adultery can only be proven by the testimony of a third person who is not a party to the action and not a party to the adultery. “That’s how private detectives make a living,” he said.
An adultery charge, carrying the full weight of the police behind it, makes for a pretty convincing third party.
But over all, how can a moral law like this affect a woman more so than a man, especially when men tend to cheat more than their female counterparts?
Well, technically, just the very definition itself is biased. The original technical definition refers to “sex between a woman who was married and a person other than her spouse.” And, sadly, in some places that has not only not changed, but may be more exacerbated than you can imagine.
Imagine my shock when I learned upon doing more research that my home state of Minnesota is one such state that has laws on the books that make it illegal for women to have affairs, but not for their husbands. And that it doesn’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon.
“It’s completely obsolete and should be repealed,” said State Senator Ellen Anderson tried many years ago to get the adultery law repealed.
The law makes it illegal for a married woman to have sexual intercourse with a man other than her husband. It’s a gross misdemeanor: 1 year in jail and a possible fine up to $3000.
The law is a relic from the old days; passed by the territorial legislature before Minnesota was even a state.
It is not enforced, but it exists.
But it’s not the only law in the state regarding sexual relations for women. And sadly, this is where I may have to atone for my prior illegal activities.
Another sex-related law that targets women is fornication.
It’s illegal if you’re a single female. And not everyone thinks that’s a bad thing.
“We think they’re important. They send a message,” said Tom Prichard of the Minnesota Family Council.
Prichard explains that he does think that the law should be extended to men as well, which I suppose then has the added benefit of putting both partners in jail.
I wonder if we would be allowed conjugal visits?
Of course, all of these laws, which as people keep stating repeatedly are seldom actually enforced, hail back to the days when women needed to be guarded in order to ensure the parentage of the offspring and ascertain that property was legally passed down to the proper people. But now that we have so little concern for such thing, why are people so reluctant to finally remove them from the official police line up?
Is it really that the effort to overturn them is not worth it? Or is it that secretly, people enjoy having laws that can be used to shame women should the need arise?
After all, you never know who you might run into doing it on a picnic table.