Should We Judge Infidelity By Who Cheats?
The question of infidelity may not be as simple as it looks.
This tweet sparked off a discussion about extramarital affairs. It was part of a larger conversation around adultery laws in India. One thread argued that extramarital affairs were valid escapes for women in abusive marriages. This idea challenged my firm notions on infidelity and made me have to think further. I suggested that cheating was not a good solution, which upset the others in the above conversation and derailed our discussion. Culpability over cheating is an emotional conversation on something that dates back centuries. It was sparked off by a question of law. So I was using reason but perhaps that’s an inadequate filter to address the emotions that come up. The law is a set of rules that are supposed to cover a wide variety of human situations. This means they can never be set in stone and must be interpreted, re-interpreted and evaluated constantly. Laws have historically been made and carried out by people in positions of privilege who are shielded from realities they’ve never experienced. That means their judgements are limited and may be excessively harsh for people whose realities differ from their own. This is where the issue is. It is not as simple as whether infidelity is right or wrong. It’s about who determines right/wrong. Then there is the question of whether we believe that justice is punitive or reformative. And we must ask, does what does cheating really mean?
There is a horrible imbalance of power between genders, systemically supported by the law, corporate world, social structures and well, even biology. Most women stay in abusive, even dangerous relationships because there is no alternative or the alternative is unthinkably worse. This case is buzzing right now (just one of the many that shows up when you Google ‘Delhi woman murdered’ which tells you just how normal this is). There may be children to care for (an abusive partner is unlikely to be a good parent). Gender wage gap, age-tracking, mommy-tracking and glass ceilings collude to make life without a male partner much harder for a woman. Even she isn’t a parent, the ever-present misogyny of families, neighbors, landlords, service personnel & employers make life a living hell. I know two women living with abusive partners because they cannot afford to move out. I can understand the logic of staying with one unsafe person for security rather than take on a lifetime of threats from every side. I have thought it myself and lived it. Perhaps for a woman trapped in an inescapable situation, looking outside the relationship offers respite. Would it be humane to deny her that when she lives in a world that already takes away so much from her?
The law must be equal for all members of society but do we live equal lives? Is it still violence if it was in self-defense? Is a single act still disrespectful when it comes from someone who is routinely disrespected every day? How does a single act of aggression weigh up against daily microaggressions piled up on a person? Is it a moral wrong to fight for survival? Are we punishing people for being less crafty and more impulsive in how they strive for lives of dignity and safety? Or are we punishing them for even wanting it – an attitude of ‘how dare a woman treat a man like that’ reeks of exactly that.
It’s worth noting that the world sees ‘extramarital affair’ very differently for cis men and everyone else. We see this in every double standard about virginity, ‘boys will be boys’ attitudes, notions of sex as something women have to safeguard & bestow or be punished for letting it go too easy, while cis men walk away with accolades for perpetrating all manner of harm on other genders. This song from the Chicago soundtrack comes to mind, with 6 women prisoners convicted for murder, offering their defenses. These include being abused, manipulated and violated. A line in one of the songs goes, “It was a murder, but not a crime”.
Consider this dichotomy in the context of two other films – Unfaithful and Gone Girl. In both cases, one spouse cheats and the other commits murder in jealous rage. Unfaithful‘s murderous husband is presented as righteous & justified, even loving since he doesn’t after all, kill his wife. He’s just protecting what is rightfully his.
Gone Girl received many reactions, notably the rage of men and its murderous protagonist named a sociopath and a demented control-freak incapable of love. That tells us that crimes are so or not depending on the gender of the criminal. Does that hold true of infidelity too? I think this unfair scale causes the kind of anguish that defends cheating as an escape from abuse.
Sex always seems to come up around questions of cheating. Consider the concept of sex as a form of territoriality (usually by men over women), the way Unfaithful depicts it. The law under discussion is part of a larger mindset that frames women as the property of men, our bodies as their territory. This is the same mindset that cannot distinguish between sex and rape within a marriage. This model of social behavior forgets that women are human beings (not objects), that our bodies are only the property of our own selves (rather than of male masters). In this context, sex is used by cis men to subjugate, conquer, lay one’s personal brand on women (all of which we see in the rituals of romance and marriage).
This imbalanced framework also validates sexual jealousy disproportionately when it rises in cis men. Indeed, sexual jealousy is framed as a way for cis men to claim what is ‘their own’. Thus how cis men think of women is – a trophy for public prestige, a toy for self gratification, a machine for personal services. In a society to whom sex means this, what does cheating mean?
Acid attacks are a result of romantic rejection. The ‘friendzone’ is a microaggression stemming from sexual jealousy. These are devoid of love or respect. They are only actions of rage over a woman’s agency. They associate a woman’s assertion of her identity with personal betrayal – as if either a woman can be a human being or a cis man can be a ‘real man’. This challenges the very idea of love, so fundamental the concept of infidelity.
I don’t like quoting religion at all but even Jesus said ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone’ and that was in a story about a woman being stoned after being accused of infidelity. What does justice mean when we treat infidelity differently based on who is cheating? Should a person be held accountable to a rigid moral code designed to benefit those who hurt them? Infidelity is an erosion of trust and respect but these are things between human beings and must be two way. When one starts dehumanizing the other, you have to ask who really cheated on whom?
(This was very complex experience for me as it brought up old traumas. Cheating sparks off such intense feelings in people and when the law gets involved, it can get even messier, especially on social media. So I took several weeks to work through my thoughts and eventually decided to split it up into two posts. The second is here. If you found the above interesting, even if you disagree, please consider reading the second as well and share your opinion in the comments.)