The OED and "adulterous" & "adultery"

Joel S. Berson Berson at ATT.NET
Sat Sep 12 19:47:07 UTC 2009

At 9/12/2009 02:39 PM, ronbutters at AOL.COM wrote:
>Where is there a law that says anything about conception? Would a
>married man who had intercourse with an 80-year-old woman not be
>guilty of adultery? Or if he had anal intercourse with a fertile young woman?
>Just wondering.

Me too -- about the law in modern times.

In colonial New England (i.e., before 1692), adultery would only have
been charged in an opposite-sex circumstance, specifically of a man
with a married woman; that is how the law was written.  I was
probably wrong to imply that the possibility of conception was a
crucial factor in charging adultery.  (I don't recall reading
anything particular to an infertile married woman.)

The possibility of conception -- or rather its absence -- was the
significant factor in considering a sexual act "unnatural".  Thus
anal intercourse by a man with a fertile young woman, even if she
were married, would have been presented as sodomy (a capital crime),
not adultery, as would male-male sexual activity.  (Sexual activity
between two women was not sodomy by law, with possibly no cases
having been discovered -- it would be difficult to produce witnesses
or other evidence.  If such a case had been presented, the charge
would have been something like "unnatural acts".)


>------Original Message------
>From: Joel S. Berson
>Sender: ADS-L
>To: ADS-L
>ReplyTo: ADS-L
>Subject: Re: [ADS-L] The OED and "adulterous" & "adultery"
>Sent: Sep 12, 2009 2:23 PM
>At 9/12/2009 02:06 PM, ronbutters at AOL.COM wrote:
> >"opposite sex" seems archaic.
>Perhaps -- what does modern law say?  Must adultery include the
>possibility of conception?  (It certainly had to in the early modern period.)
> >------Original Message------
> >From: Joel S. Berson
> >Sender: ADS-L
> >To: ADS-L
> >ReplyTo: ADS-L
> >Subject: [ADS-L] The OED and "adulterous" & "adultery"
> >Sent: Sep 12, 2009 10:30 AM
> >
> >The OED (1989) defines "adulterous" solely in terms of "adultery"
> >--  "1. Pertaining to, or characterized by the practice of adultery"
> >(senses 2 and 3 are not relevant here).
> >
> >It defines adultery (also 1989) as:
> >
> >"1. Violation of the marriage bed; the voluntary sexual intercourse
> >of a married person with one of the opposite sex, whether unmarried,
> >or married to another ...
> >"b. Extended in Scripture, to unchastity generally ..." (Again,
> >omitted portions and sense 2 are not relevant.)
> >
> >But "adulterous" was not only "extended in Scripture, to unchastity
> >generally".  It was extended in colonial New England not to
> >"unchastity generally" -- that was "fornication" or "uncleanness" --
> >but to unchastity by or with a married person.  This can be seen in
> >the reports of numerous legal cases where adultery was suspected or
> >charged, but not proven, and "adulterous conduct" found
> >instead.  (Where both parties were single, adultery was not charged
> >and "adulterous conduct" not found, only "fornication".)
> >
> >Can a change in the definitions be expected when the OED gets around
> >to the (black and white) A?
> >
> >Joel
> >
> >------------------------------------------------------------
> >The American Dialect Society -
> >
> >
> >Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry
> >
> >------------------------------------------------------------
> >The American Dialect Society -
>The American Dialect Society -
>Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry
>The American Dialect Society -

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