Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Volume 10, Jan. 8, 2007


Individual and Societal Response to Sexual Betrayal: A View From Around the World

 William Jankowiak and M. Diane Hardgrave
Anthropology Department
University Nevada, Las Vegas
Las Vegas, NV 89154

Introduction (1)

A prevalent assumption among social scientists is that extramarital affairs are tolerated more for men than they are for women. This research asserts that men are the beneficiaries of a set of social practices that ensure and validate men’s perception of women as their sexual property (Bourdieu 2001; Collins 1975; Freeman 1990; Harris 1993; MacKinnon 1988; Leacock 1993; Ressner 1986; Rosaldo and Lamphere 1974). To strengthen this perception, men have developed numerous institutions to control women’s behavior (Goldberg 1976, Smuts 1992).

Concurring with the patriarchal explanation, Pierre Bourdieu (2001) argues that sexual jealousy and the corresponding “mate guarding” impulses are learned responses and, hence, differences in women’s reactions to infidelity reflect differences in intensity to which a patriarchal ethos is internalized within a culture. From this perspective, it follows that men, especially in patriarchal societies, should be vigilant in mate guarding efforts; whereas women, due, in large part, to the internalization of the culturally sanctioned double standard ideal, would be relatively indifferent to a spouse’s infidelity.

In contrast, the male sexual jealousy hypothesis is rooted in evolutionary theory and posits a bio-psychological explanation for the origins of the male’s sense of ownership and the woman’s greater flexibility in her response to infidelity (Betzig 1989; Broude 1980). From this perspective, men and women have different reproductive interests and, therefore, different motives for not only entering into an affair but also how they respond to sexual betrayal. Men, presumably due to concerns with paternal certainty (Daly and Wilson 1983), tend to react to real and imagined acts of infidelity more quickly, and with violence. On the other hand, it is asserted that women will assess the relative impact that an affair may have on the stability of their marriage and the family (Buss 1999; Buunk et al 1996; Daly and Wilson 1983; Pietrzak 2002; Symons 1979). In this analysis, men and women should be equally vigilant, albeit often using different criteria to determine the severity of the threat, in monitoring their mate’s extra-marital sexual inclinations and actions. Like the patriarchal model, the sex linked sexual jealousy hypothesis assumes that sexual propriety, at least as it is manifested in the interpersonal domain, is more of a male concern or impulse. What separates the sexes, therefore, is not the presumption of ownership but instead the sex differences in “the emotional weighing of the aspects of infidelity” (Buss et al 1999:126). Women are more troubled by issues of emotional/financial betrayal; whereas men are more troubled by sexual betrayal (Buss 1992; Daly and Wilson 1983; Symons 1979). Both the patriarchal and evolutionary models concur that social and personal contexts should influence a woman’s response to infidelity, whereas a man’s response should remain more or less the same. From this, it follows that women, in some societies, should be relatively indifferent to their mate having sexual intercourse outside of the marriage or relationship.

In contrast, the pair bond hypothesis emphasizes the centrality of the dyadic or couple bond. It does not assume that sexual propriety is an exclusive male concern. Rather the hypothesis asserts that mate guarding is a proclivity common to both sexes, who are often intensely involved in efforts to regulate and/or undermine their mate’s sexual behavior. Spousal exchange arrangements are not the exception as they are organized around the belief that each spouse can exercise unstated “control” of the other’s sexual actions. A spouse’s ability to enter into an extramarital sexual encounter(s) is often contingent upon accepting this tacit political fact.

A pair bond may be based on a straightforward exchange of the sexual division of labor, or anchored in an implicit, albeit often unspoken, idealization that promotes responsibility, intimacy, and a sense of mutual belonging (de Munk and Korotoyev 2000; Jankowiak and Fisher 1992; Jankowiak 1995; Schelgel, n.d.). Because, the pair bond is present in most societies, even those that discourage its formation, such as those that arrange marriages, it can be inferred that men and women are equally prone to worry about spousal infidelity. From this perspective, the differences in men and women’s response to infidelity may be less stark than typical characterized in evolutionary psychological literature.

The pair bond hypothesis is also consistent with Sarah Hrdy’s (1999) modification of evolutionary psychology theory of sex differences. Hrdy points out that women are sexual entrepreneurs who seek out extra sexual partners because they may prove helpful to them and their children. Implicit within Hrdy’s premise is that female sexual entrepreneurship also involves mate guarding. If it is to a woman’s advantage to seek additional partners, it is also highly advantageous to monopolize her mate’s resources, with the most effective form being the monopolization of her mate’s sexuality. From this, it follows that women would find extramarital sexual affairs (e.g., short and long-term) troubling and thus unacceptable. Implied in Hrdy’s critique is the notion that women often perceive that out of casual sexual encounters can come emotional and material entanglements. A woman’s uneasiness with a mate/lover’s infidelity, therefore, can produce a generalized anxiety that arises not over paternal certainty per se, but rather over the perception that a valuable “resource” (e.g., material and/or marital inclusiveness and all that entails) may be seriously compromised or terminated. For women, there appears to be a tacit presumption that out of sexual intercourse can arise a more lasting relationship.

To date, the primary data on the sex differences in response to adultery comes largely from the research of evolutionary psychologists who rely primarily upon the force choice (or hypothetical) method to obtain their data. In contrast, some psychologists have questioned the validity of the force-choice methodology (Goode 2002:D1) compared to data obtained from case studies and other ethnographic contexts. Presently, there is no cross-cultural study of how men and women actually respond to adultery in real situations. We designed our study to identify those situations where the ethnographer discusses how men and women respond upon learning their mate had an extra-martial affair. Our study relies, therefore, on behavioristic data reported by the ethnographer(s), as such, it represents a departure from the survey methods favored by psychologists.


We drew our data primarily from Murdock and White’s (1969) standard cross-cultural sample of 186 societies. We supplemented this sample, wherever necessary, with more recent ethnographic sources. The anthropological study of infidelity is surprisingly sparse. The most extensive data is from South America, and the least from sub-Saharan Africa. Since we were looking to determine the presence of private sentiments, we looked closely, whenever possible, at individual actors, from their perspective, and at the strategies used to respond to a mate’s infidelity.

Given these limitations (e.g, we could not find information on some cultures), as well as other considerations (e.g., we did not use the historical communities listed in Murdock and White or other European cultures as we feared that response would be uniform and thus did not want to distort our small sample set), 110 cultures were dropped from the Murdock and White sample. An additional 22 cultures were excluded since the ethnographers noted only men’s response to adultery. We were, however, able to increase the sample size through contacting contemporary ethnographers (n=12) who had worked in the same or similar societies. This supplemental sample boosted our overall total to 66 cultures, counting responses for both genders gave us a total of 132 responses. This constituted our sample universe. Although smaller in size than we would have preferred, the remarkable consistency across cultural areas suggests, as we will demonstrate below, that there is a striking uniformity in men and women’s response to adultery. The findings are robust and suggest that our relatively small sample set is representative.

Adultery is defined as sexual intercourse without a spouse’s permission. We were unable to determine from the ethnographic evidence whether an act of infidelity was brief or long-term. In this paper, extramarital sex, affair, infidelity, and adultery are used inter-changeability. Since no ethnographer indicated the speed with which men and women sought to terminate a mate’s extra marital affair, we could not determine whether women were slower than men to respond to a particular sexual infidelity.

Ethnographers did report when other specific acts of adultery were permitted, restricted or tolerated, and did record the types of punishments inflicted on the offenders. In addition, ethnographers provided one, or more, in-depth accounts of cases of adultery. From this data we were able to categorize and code similarities and differences in how women and men respond to adultery. Every ethnographer interviewed noted the responses observed in the field were highly typical. Although this interview sample set is small, we suspect it is representative of the other non-interview ethnographic accounts.

For each culture, all documented responses to infidelity were collapsed into three larger categories: Use of self-help, appeals to higher authority and appeals to the general public. The self-help category was used in those incidences where men and women tried to resolve the matter between themselves. Self help actions were divided between those which used verbal and/or physical violence against a spouse or rival’s person or property, and those which relied upon “distancing the self from a spouse.” This was done to tease out subtle gender differences in self help style of response. Thus if the ethnographer noted that the response included both physical violence and distancing self, these were counted twice (see Table 2). Distancing one’s self included banishing or leaving a spouse, emotional withdrawal, and suicide (the most extreme form of distancing).


1. Based on cross tabulations we found no statistical difference between men and women in their efforts to curtail a mate’s extra marital sexual behavior.[X²= .19, df1, N.S.] This is consistent with Hrdy’s modified evolutionary hypothesis that asserts men and women would be equally concerned with monitoring and thus managing a mate’s extra marital sexual behavior. Moreover, men and women were equally inclined to use self help tactics regardless of descent ideology.

2. In every culture sampled (N=66), we found no incidence where women condoned or accepted their spouse’s infidelity. This is also consistent with the pair bond hypothesis and Hrdy’s modification of the evolutionary theory.

3. We did find differences in tactics employed by men and women in response to infidelity. While there is a tendency for men to prefer self help more than women, however this was not statistically significant. [X²= .667, df1, N.S.]

4. We found a statistically significant difference between social complexity and self help tactics used in response to infidelity. In egalitarian societies we found 58 percent (34 of 58 occurrences) use of self help. In stratified societies we found 31 percent (23 out of 74 occurrences) use of self help. [P <.05].

5. There is a positive relationship between social complexity and the frequency in which men and women appeal to higher authorities (or official institutions). This pattern is especially pronounced in stratified societies, with men appealing to higher authority 71 percent of the time (25 out of 35 occurrences) whereas the percentage drops to 41 percent (or 12 out of 31) in egalitarian societies. On the other hand, women appeal to higher authority in 31 percent (or 11 out of 35) on the stratified societies, and only 16 percent (or 6 out of 31) of the egalitarian societies.

Table 1 Gender, Descent and Types of Responses to Infidelity

Total cultures
Self Help
Higher Authority

Table 2 Gender and Self Help Styles

Physical Violence
Distance Self


Our study found that men and women, especially within the interpersonal domain, are actively involved in mate-guarding tactics. Contrary to the sexual jealousy and the patriarchal hypotheses that assert that women’s responses would vary by type of descent system or level of social complexity, we did not find any measurable difference. Women’s level of interest and, albeit often tacit, disapproval of a spouse’s extramarital affairs remains high in every culture. In effect, sexual propriety is the presumed right of both sexes and, as such, a fundamental component of every marital union.

This is consistent with the cross-cultural studies (Ford and Beach 1951) of human sexuality which found that less than 39 percent (54 out of 139) of societies approved of some form of an extramarital affair. Although not explored in any depth, the study determined that cultures overwhelmingly prefer to “circumscribe [extramarital affairs] in one way or another” (Ford and Beach (1951:114). Suzanne Frayser, in a more recent cross-cultural survey of human sexuality, found that extramarital affairs ranked just below incest “as the most strictly prohibited type of sexual relationships” (1985:20). This finding was reaffirmed in Steve Harrell’s (1997) cultural analysis which found no society, not even America during the permissive 1960's, legitimized extramarital affairs (1997:475).

Our cross-cultural survey lends further support to these earlier findings and observations of sex differences in response to infidelity. There is variation in the way men and women seek to punish a mate for infidelity. In 50 percent (33 out of 66) of our sample, women preferred to distance themselves (e.g., either by sulking, refusing to converse, stopping the performance of domestic chores such as cooking, running away, or by resorting to suicide to humiliate a spouse) to achieve their goals. In contrast, in only 29 percent (19 out of 66) of the cultures did men emotionally or physically withdraw. Furthermore, suicide, as a way to shame a spouse for infidelity and, thus, damages his reputation, appears to be exclusively a female response, and is found mostly in stratified societies.

In contrast, men around the world also overwhelmingly prefer to use self help tactics rather than going to higher authorities (e.g., the courts) to punish an adulterous spouse or terminate a marriage. Men’s preferred self help tactic is physical violence which they resort to in 88 percent (58 out of 66) of cultures; Whereas women only relied upon it in 64 percent (42 out of 66) of cultures sampled. Clearly, men (n=58 cultures) prefer tactics of more direct physical confrontation (e.g., by beating a spouse or the rival, or both) whereas women employed a more broad base strategy (i.e., beating a spouse or rival, or emotionally or physically distancing themselves from their spouse). Our findings are consistent with Victoria Burbank’s observation (1994) that women are capable of engaging in physical aggression much more frequently than has been previously acknowledged in the anthropological literature. In the domain of sexual betrayal, women’s use of violence is not always symbolic and is often highly effective (Burbank 1994).

The lower incidence of women using physical violence as a mate retention tactic does not mean that women are less effective in influencing a spouse’s behavior. The sex differences in the expression of physical aggression, along with the relative infrequency in which women appeal to higher authorities, does not lessen the fact that in almost every culture woman actively monitors, discipline and, thus, attempt to modify or punish a spouse’s extra marital sexual behavior(s).

This finding does not support the patriarchal hypothesis which asserts that women, especially those in patrilineal descent systems, would be indifferent to a mate’s infidelity. Nor does it support the evolutionary sex linked jealous explanation that posits that women, under some circumstances, can be less troubled by a mate’s extra martial sexual affair. To the contrary, we found that women, on the whole, found their mate’s infidelity to be unacceptable.

We have contended that men and women’s response to a mate’s actual infidelity may not be that different. The sex differences in response may arise more from individual personality factors than they do from innate sex differences. It is highly likely that women perceive sexual intercourse as a prelude to a loss in commitment to share material and emotional resources. Here, the underlying concern is that out of sexual intercourse can arise other forms of entanglement. In this way, our analysis should not be regarded as a refutation of the sex link sexual jealousy hypothesis, but rather a qualification of that position.

Our findings are also consistent with Hrdy’s (1999) modification of the sexual jealousy hypothesis, where she asserts that it is always beneficial for women to manage her mate’s resources, with the most effective form being the monopolization of her mate’s sexual behavior. From this perspective, everyone has developed an individualized “double standard” that implies: “You cannot, but maybe I will.” This does not mean that there are no double standard societies. At the normative level this is clearly so. However, the fact that in some societies men and women tolerate a non-spouse’s infidelity does not mean that they are equally tolerant of their mate’s infidelity. In this way, there are double standard societies (Haavio-Mannila and Kontula 2003). However, the fact that infidelity is judged ethical tolerable by the “neutral public” does not mean that individuals in so called double standard societies are indifferent to a mate’s sexual escapades. Our research found this seldom to be the case.


Our findings are supportive of both Hrdy’s modification of sexual jealousy hypothesis as well as the pair bond hypothesis. Both hypotheses maintain that within every sexual encounter there is the presumption that men and women are equally vigilant, in their efforts to neutralize, if not regulate, their mate’s extra marital inclinations and conduct. Because both sexes are equally invested in monitoring one another’s sexual indiscretions, neither one regards infidelity as inconsequential. We suspect that a woman’s response to infidelity is seldom a singular motivational act. That is, it is neither exclusively emotional nor exclusively sexual response, but rather something that combines both. Although men and women often use different ways to respond to a partner’s infidelity, this should not obscure the larger finding: Extramarital sex is equally troubling to both spouses. In the end, sexual propriety may prove to be a fundamental component of the human pair bond. If this assertion is sustained with more in depth ethnographic investigation, it would suggest that “ownership” of a mate’s body is a tacit presumption of both sexes.



1) We would like to thank the following people for support and assistance in collecting the data used in this study: Gene Anderson, Jiemin Bao, Jim Bell, Susan Brownell, Ann Buchmaster, Kevin Birth, Pat Draper, Carol Ember, Mel Ember, Victor DeMunck, Ted Fischer, Vanessa Fong, Tom Gregor, Lee Kirkpatrick, Barry Hewlett, Lewellyn Hendrix, Frank Marlowe, Robert Levy, Charles Lindholm, Cherly Lindholm, Kennedy Ondeiki, Tom Paladino, Gary Palmer, Alice Schelgel, Charles Stafford, Dave Suggs, Douglas Raybeck, Jennifer Mauer-Parker, Len Plotnicov, Juliet Rubens, and Tommi White.

2) These include: “Arranged marriages, seclusion of women, chaperonage, obsession with virginity, ...[to] the men’s house complex” (Gregor 1995:338). In some egalitarian societies, patriarchal ownership and control has become ingrained in what Marvin Harris called “a male supremacy complex” which is “characterized by male monopoly over weapons, [once the] training of males for combat, [and] training of females to be the passive rewards for masculine performance...”(Harris 1977).


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