When It Comes To Morality Laws, Women Often Get The Shaft

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.

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Jordan G.
Jordan G2 years ago

As to New York matrimonial law ... this article is the least of its problems. Oh, and there are (at least) seven reasons in DRL 270.

Charles Wallace
Charles Wallace6 years ago


I remind everyone that the topic of this article was the unequal treatment of this particular morality law: only women can be guilty of adultery. Men can't. That's wrong. That's not "equal protection under the law". Morality laws like this one, more often than not, tend to apply more harshly to women than men. Changing this will not destroy society.

Charles Wallace
Charles Wallace6 years ago

@DH C: "Adultery is bad for society because it undermines the family which is the basic building block of society, and that can cause the whole tower of blocks to tumble down." "Society cannot survive based on such behavior."

Marriage is a contract, DH. There are lots of things that can invalidate a contract. That doesn't mean that society will collapse if we don't make all of them illegal. On the contrary, not allowing people autonomy over their own bodies will do far more to topple society than decriminalizing adultery. You cannot legislate morality, because there is no such thing as Universal Morality. Whose morality are you going to enforce? Whoever's you choose is going to anger people who disagree with that morality. No. Adultery should not be a crime. What it IS, though, is a reason for terminating the marriage contract. Yes, I know it's painful for the wronged spouse. I've been there. But many things that emotionally hurt people are not (nor should they be) illegal. A woman may be emotionally hurt by her husband spending all their weekends watching football, instead of doing things with her. Are you in favor of making watching football illegal? I'm certainly not. But if that woman is really feeling totally neglected, no one would fault her for divorcing the guy and getting someone who appreciates her. Society's laws need to stay out of our bedrooms.

I remind everyone that the topic of this article was the unequal treatment of this particular m

Andrew Carvin6 years ago

Have you ever owned a set of wooden blocks, and stacked them on top of each other? What happens if you start removing the blocks at the bottom?


It all falls down.

I don't think adultery laws should be removed, but I do think they have to be made fair for both sexes, and inclusive to include same sex partners.

Adultery is bad for society because it undermines the family which is the basic building block of society, and that can cause the whole tower of blocks to tumble down. We should at the very least factor in adultery when it comes to finding fault in ending marriages, and not reward adulterers for their betrayal.

Adultery is not a consensual sharing of sexual partners by two married adults, or the consensual allowance of additional sexual partners beyond the couple’s relationship. If a couple is comfortable with that kind of relationship chances are they are communicating their needs to each other effectively, and have reached an understanding that includes the trust of their agreement.

Adultery is a betrayal of the trust that a marriage is supposed to be based on because it breaks any presumed agreement without discussion, and pre-consent.

If you commit adultery you are essentially saying to your loved one “my needs matter more than you, and I care so little about your feelings that I’m not even going to discuss it with you beforehand to see if you would be ok with it.”

Society cannot survive based on such behavior.

pesky b.
pesky b.6 years ago

Oh for god's sake, marriage and divorce both benefit the female.
My wife left me, her dog, and our daughter in May to go fornicate with another male. I never committed adultery once in our entire marriage.
Not only is she not punished for this behavior, she's rewarded!. I've paid all the bills for our daughter, my wife hasn't paid a penny, and yet she can come after me for half my savings and half the value of our house. Indiana has no fault, 50-50 law which means the purpose of no fault is to find fault. if we go to court I am on trial, something right out of Kafka. This is how males who step up and be good dads are treated. Like crap.
this article no doubt written by a female. Why does the Christian religion list adultery as one of their ten commandments? What is the point of taking marital vows if adultery isn't at least
not rewarded? I am outraged and doing a public forum.

Helen Camren
Past Member 6 years ago

Maybe if the busybodies got better in their own bedrooms they wouldn't be invading other people's bedrooms. What do you think?

Helen Camren
Past Member 6 years ago

Only the women and only the poor.

The men are expected to have affairs when women who want to be rich marry them.

Carole Rousis
Carole R6 years ago

I'm thinking maybe the man was not married and, therefore, cannot be acused of adultry. Never-the-less, morals are different for different people. The days of the "scarlet letter" are gone. Adultry is not a good thing but it is a choice two consenting adults need to make for themselves. Morals vary greatly in today's world. One persons "never do" is someone else's "why not do?".

Monique Taylor
Juniper Birdsong7 years ago

What two grown consenting adults do is their own damn business, and no one, especially not the government, has the right to tell them what they can or can't do with their relationships.

Vanessa S.
Vanessa S7 years ago

I totally agree with Mimi.