Adulterers in NY Aren't Just Cheaters—They're Criminals

State legislature is looking to repeal 1907 law that made cheating on your spouse a misdemeanor
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Mar 25, 2024 10:25 AM CDT
Adulterers in NY Aren't Just Cheaters—They're Criminals
A marriage official offers a couple their rings during a wedding at the Empire State Building in New York on Feb. 14, 2007. Cheating on your spouse is illegal in New York, but the state might soon change that.   (AP Photos/Bebeto Matthews, File)

For more than a century, it's been a crime to cheat on your spouse in New York. But as the AP reports, adultery may soon be legal in the Empire State, thanks to a bill working its way through the Legislature that would finally repeal the seldom-used law that's punishable by up to three months behind bars. Adultery bans were traditionally enacted to reduce the number of divorces at a time when a cheating spouse was the only way to secure a legal split. Adultery, a misdemeanor in New York since 1907, is defined in state code as when a person "engages in sexual intercourse with another person at a time when he has a living spouse, or the other person has a living spouse." What's to know about the repeal:

  • The first charged: Just a few weeks after the law went into effect, a married man and a 25-year-old woman were the first people arrested after the man's wife sued for divorce, per a New York Times article at the time.
  • Of very few: Only about a dozen people have been charged under New York's law since 1972, and of those, just five cases have netted convictions. The last adultery charge in New York appears to have been in 2010 against a woman who was caught engaging in a sex act in a public park, but it was later dropped.
  • The repeal's sponsor: Assemblyman Charles Lavine says the law is never enforced and prosecutors shouldn't be digging into what willing adults do behind closed doors. "We've come a long way since intimate relationships between consenting adults are considered immoral," he says. "It's a joke. This law was someone's expression of moral outrage."
  • In a word: Katharine B. Silbaugh, a Boston University law professor who co-authored A Guide to America's Sex Laws, said adultery bans were punitive measures aimed at women, intended to discourage extramarital affairs. "Let's just say this: patriarchy," Silbaugh says.
  • Felony? Most states that still have adultery laws classify them as misdemeanors, but Oklahoma, Wisconsin, and Michigan treat adultery as felony offenses.
  • What's next: New York's bill has already passed the Assembly and is expected to soon pass the Senate so it can move to the governor's office for a signature.
(More adultery stories.)

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