In every society around the world, the overwhelmingly majority of men and women marry, and married couples are expected to engage in sexual relations. Sexual activity outside marriage is also condemned in many societies. However, in a number of cultures, extramarital affairs are at least tolerated, and a majority of societies accept and even expect husbands to engage in them. Fifty-six percent of a worldwide sample of 112 societies do not officially condemn extramarital sex for males, while extramarital liaisons are condemned and may be punished in only 44% of these societies. By contrast, extramarital sex is overwhelmingly condemned for women across the world. Extramarital sex is condemned in 88% of a sample of 114 societies, while is accepted in only 12% of these cultures (Broude & Greene, 1976).
As these statistics demonstrate, there is a clearly double standard when it comes to the extramarital sexual behavior of husbands versus wives. The double standard is magnified by the tendency of cultures to sanction more severe punishments for wives than for husbands, even when extramarital affairs are condemned for both sexes. For example, among the Chiricahua, a husband whose wife has engaged in extramarital sex is permitted to whip, mutilate, or kill his spouse, and pressure from the community provokes extreme responses even in husbands. A wife, by contrast, may scold an adulterous husband, but she may in fact ignore infidelities altogether for fear of otherwise chasing away a future potential husband. In matters of infidelity, a wife is not considered to be as greatly wronged as is a husband, since people think unfaithfulness is always the woman's fault anyway (Opler, 1941). Similarly, among the Crow, a husband might beat a wife who is unfaithful or slash her face with a knife. He might also instigate gang rape by his older clansmen. Men, on the other hand, are expected to carry on a number of affairs while they are married, and a man who remains faithful to his wife loses respect (Lowie, 1912, 1935).
Whereas it is usually the unfaithful spouse who is blamed and punished for acts of infidelity in most cultures, sometimes the lover is the target of reprisals. In Malaysia, an Iban wife can collect a fine from the partner of an unfaithful husband. She can also thrash the guilty woman, but then forfeits half the fine (Roth, 1892). Among the Igbo of Nigeria, a husband may demand compensation from his wife's lover, or he may rape the lover's female kin as retribution for the infidelity (Uchendu, 1965).
Even when extramarital sex is condemned, some societies selectively lift the restraints on extramarital sexual activity. Sometimes, extramarital sex is permitted with certain specified categories of people. The North American Haida allow husbands and wives to have sexual relations with the clansmen of the spouse (Murdock, 1936). Similarly, the Siriono of South America permit husbands to engage in sexual relations with anyone whom his wife calls sister, while a woman may engage in extramarital sexual relations with anyone whom her husband calls brother. This means that any married person is permitted to have perhaps 10 partners other than the spouse. Affairs of this kind are common and accepted, but do tend to be thought of as adulterous (Holmberg, 1950).
Sometimes, the normal constraints on extramarital sexual activity are also lifted on certain occasions. The Orokaiva of New Guinea allow married people to engage in extramarital sex during initiation ceremonies, although the same relationships would be condemned at other times (F. E. Williams, 1930). The Fijians permit husbands and wives to have extramarital sexual encounters when prisoners are brought home (Williams & Heylin, 1860).
A minority of cultures also have institutionalized wife-sharing, in which a husband is allowed to lend his wife to a particular other man or category of men. Sometimes, two men exchange wives. Wife-sharing is present in 34% of 101 cultures around the world (Broude, 1981). Typically, a man will share his wife with his kin or with a good friend. In cultures where wife-sharing is practiced, the husband can be expected to reap some kind of benefit from the exchange. Thus, wife-sharing is sometimes practiced to consolidate relationships between two men. For instance, among the Kimam of New Guinea, the feeling of obligation between friends who have lent each other wives is increased so that the men are now expected to help each other in times of need (Serpenti, 1965).
Wife-sharing can also ease tense relationships among men. In Australia, Aranda men will lend wives to members of an enemy village in an attempt to defuse hostilities (Murdock, 1936). Among the Lesu, a wife receives money from her lover and turns it over to her spouse (Powdermaker, 1933).
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