Taking Sex Differences Seriously

by Steven E. Rhoads, Ph.D.

Are the Turks Right to Think It's Wrong?

The Daily Standard
December 17, 2004

TURKEY is to join the European Union. That is big news. Next to Germany, Turkey will be the largest of the E.U. nations. More significantly, it will be the first Muslim nation to be a part of the European Union. The hope is that Turkey can show the world that Islamic values are not incompatible with liberalism, pluralism, and democracy

Turkey is well on the way to doing this. Before the formal accession process could be begun, the European Union required that Turkey make its laws congruent with European standards. Turkey passed 218 laws which reformed its penal code. Among them were laws making marital rape a crime and treating honor killings of adulterous wives as seriously as other cases of intentional murder.

But as we celebrate, it is worth remembering that Turkey almost didn't make it. Through much of the summer and fall there was one big sticking point. Turkey's government wanted to pass a law that would make adultery by either spouse a crime.

Europe was outraged. The E.U. Commissioner for Enlargement, the German Guenter Verheugen, said the proposed law "can only be a joke." He proclaimed that a law banning adultery would suggest that Islamic law was entering Turkish law, and his spokesman said such a proposal was "alien" to the European way and would indicate "a fundamentalist mentality that the state runs your bedroom."

Other E.U. officials warned darkly of violations of Article Eight of the European Convention of Human Rights. The article guarantees every European a right to "respect for his private and family life," but it explicitly allows governments to intervene in private matters to protect "morals" and the "rights of others."

Throughout Turkey, and Europe more generally, feminists led the charge against the law. But women commit less adultery than men and are generally more supportive of laws condemning it. A recent South Korean poll, for example, showed that their law against adultery was supported by 55 percent of men and 84 percent of women. Support for the law among Turkish women was also widespread.

FOR SOME REASON the Turks find the West licentious and have no desire to imitate our culture. Moreover, as it happens, the Turkish countryside has been invaded by leggy, blond prostitutes from the former Soviet Union. A Scottish history professor, now living in Turkey, reports in the Wall Street Journal that small Cappadocian towns can have as many as 50 of them, and they have led to the dumping of wives and to hollowed out marriages.

Turkey may have had reasons to make adultery unlawful. What are the costs and benefits of adultery? Might a civilized society choose to use the law to help enforce marital vows?

Adultery always brings deception, frequently brings guilt, and sometimes brings venereal disease. With its discovery comes shame, sadness, distress, and anger spurred on by a sense of betrayal and injustice. In its aftermath comes divorce (and sometimes violence). In cross-cultural surveys, adultery is a leading, often the leading, cause of divorce. Shirley Glass, a researcher and family counselor, finds that only 10 percent of her clients separate when neither has been unfaithful, but 35 percent do when adultery is involved.

Sixty percent of divorces leave minor children without a biological father in the home. The added risks to children in homes without biological fathers are multiple and alarming. Family income goes down. Education and health outcomes sink. Teenage male crime rates double in single parent homes and triple if moms marry their lovers. Correspondingly, teenage female pregnancy rates double.

Clearly, many of these results affect all of us, not just those families with the problem children. As one review notes, "time and again in the literature family structure explains more about crime than does race or low income." The effects start early--with 2-year-olds showing more emotional and behavioral problems than children in married families, and with pre-adolescents lying and destroying property more frequently. And the effects last. A study following a sample of academically gifted children for 70 years finds that parental divorce reduces a child's life expectancy by four years even after controlling for childhood health status, family background, and personality characteristics such as impulsivity and emotional instability. Forty-year-olds who grew up in divorced but otherwise advantaged homes are three times more likely than their peers to die prematurely.

Results like these pop up in studies from all over the world. Recent Swedish studies, for example, find that children of single parents are twice as likely or more to develop psychiatric disease, to attempt suicide, or to have an alcohol-related disease. Swedish boys in single families are four times as likely to develop a narcotics-related disease, and girls are three times as likely. The risk of dying in youth is more than 50 percent greater for boys in Swedish single-parent families than for boys living with both parents.

Even for the lovers benefits are slight. When the adulterer is male, he is often perfectly happy with his marriage. Glass finds that adulterous men "tend to have extramarital sex regardless of their satisfaction with their marriage." They often see their dalliances and affairs as meaningless fun, and stray when presented with a low cost opportunity.

Their liaisons, however, often think something else is a foot. They typically have a lower socio-economic status than the men they sleep with. These star-struck partners may not know the man is married and even if they do, they are often led to believe that he is unhappy and will leave his wife for them. In fact, prominent men forced or allowed to choose, overwhelmingly choose their wives over their lovers. Even when divorce ensues, one study found that only 3 percent of 4,100 prominent men ended up marrying their lovers.

When the wife is the one who strays, she is far more likely to do so because she is unhappy with the marriage. She thinks that she at last has found someone who is understanding and affectionate. But these love affairs don't usually last, and, regardless, female adulterers are far more likely to feel guilt and shame. Moreover, the latest evidence from Linda Waite at the University of Chicago shows that when spouses stick with marriages that they describe as unhappy, five years later, two thirds of them report that they are now happy. And when unhappy spouses divorce, five years later they are no more likely than those who stuck it out to say that they are now happy. This is true even if they have remarried Many of those loving mothers who divorced must now watch the decline of their children, who have been left without a biological father in the home; and the children will fare worse if the mothers marry their lovers than if they do not.

ADULTERY LAWS are mainly about deterrence, not punishment after the fact. If men tempted by adulterous opportunities knew that yielding to temptation could put them in court, they would not so often stray. If their lovers knew as much, they too would more often resist temptation.

I am confident that among the Turkish men who support laws against adultery are residents of Cappadocia who indulge with the leggy, blond immigrants. The South Korean poll that showed 55 percent of males supporting laws against adultery also found that 75 percent of the men admitted to adultery. These results no doubt give Herr Verheugen something else to laugh about. What hypocrisy!

Still, hypocrisy remains the tribute that vice pays to virtue. And it is not necessarily irrational for someone to want laws forbidding behavior that he could avoid without them. We are stuck with mixed natures, with some parts of our brains warring with other more distinctively human parts. We may want the law to help us do the right thing. In any case the predictable effects of adultery on children give governments reason enough to concern themselves with adultery.

Europe is in no position to lecture anyone about sexuality whether in or out of marriage. It seems incapable of creating families and societies that meet the most rudimentary criterion for good health--reproducing themselves.

BUT WE MAY have here an opening for America. A 1998 survey of 23 nations by the University of California at Irvine's Eric Widmer found the United States more disapproving of adultery than 15 European nations. Eighty percent of Americans said adultery is always wrong. Only Ireland and Northern Ireland seemed as adamant.

So we can tell Turkey and the rest of the Islamic world that we would never wish to rule out of the company of civilized nations a country whose only offense was taking marital vows seriously. We can remind them that the Bible--as well as the Koran--has something to say on the subject. And we can pledge to work together toward creating societies with laws that strengthen families.