Early in 2015, South Korea became the most recent Asian country to repeal its laws criminalizing adultery, making Taiwan and the Philippines the only Asian countries where adultery remains illegal. Most countries around the world have also decriminalized marital infidelity, although a few still officially consider it to be a crime even if they choose not to enforce the laws.
Over 5,500 people in South Korea have been convicted of adultery since 2008, and the recent decriminalizing of adultery means that many of these people could have their cases reviewed and repealed.
Adultery Laws Tend to Be Enforced Against Women
The United Nations has issued repeated calls for countries that still criminalize adultery to repeal their laws. Such laws are frequently used to discriminate against women, since they typically establish much harsher penalties for women who commit adultery than for men who do the same.
In some countries, economic realities also lead to a gender imbalance when it comes to enforcing adultery laws. In Taiwan, men tend to be the primary earners. As a result, women rarely prosecute their husbands for adultery because the yearlong prison sentence that could result from a conviction would put them in tough financial straits. However, men will usually prosecute their wives when the situation is reversed.
Rape Victims Can Be Prosecuted for Adultery
Most of the countries in the world where adultery is still a crime are countries that are governed by Islamic law. Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Somalia, among others, have strict laws against adultery and enforce harsh penalties that can include imprisonment, flogging or even the death penalty.
Human rights organizations have expressed concerns over the way these laws are enforced, not only because women make up the vast majority of those who are prosecuted, but also because they are often enforced even when the “adultery” that a woman committed was the result of rape.
21 U.S. States Still Have Laws That Make Adultery a Crime
Believe it or not, the United States is one of those countries where adultery is still illegal, at least partially. There is no federal law criminalizing adultery, but 21 of the 50 states have laws on the books that declare adultery to be a misdemeanor offense, or even a felony offense punishable by life in prison.
There are many antiquated state laws that still exist only because no has bothered to take the steps to repeal them. For example, in Missouri, it is illegal to drive in your car with an un-caged bear, and in Salem, West Virginia, it is illegal to eat candy less than an hour and a half before going to church. These laws are not enforced, and the laws criminalizing adultery are also largely ignored.
In the case of most of these laws, repealing them formally is seen as not worth the effort. However, adultery laws are a bit more complicated and, of course, more political. While most people see adultery as a moral issue rather than a criminal one, politicians are hesitant to lead the effort to repeal such a law for fear of being seen as approving of adultery. In the United States, which tends to be sexually conservative in comparison with Europe, sexual peccadillos regularly threaten to derail political careers.