Adultery (from Latinadulterium) is extramarital sex that is considered objectionable on social, religious, moral, or legal grounds. Though what sexual activities constitute adultery varies, as well as the social, religious, and legal consequences, the concept exists in many cultures and is similar in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. A single act of sexual intercourse is generally sufficient to constitute adultery, and a more long-term sexual relationship is sometimes referred to as an affair.
Historically, many cultures have considered adultery to be a very serious crime. Adultery often incurred severe punishment, usually for the woman and sometimes for the man, with penalties including capital punishment, mutilation, or torture. Such punishments have gradually fallen into disfavor, especially in Western countries from the 19th century. In most Western countries, adultery itself is no longer a criminal offense, but may still have legal consequences, particularly in divorce cases. For example, in fault-based family law jurisdictions, adultery almost always constitutes a ground for divorce and may be a factor in property settlement, the custody of children, the denial of alimony, etc. Adultery is not a ground for divorce in jurisdictions which have adopted a no-fault divorce model. In some societies and among certain religious adherents, adultery may affect the social status of those involved, and may result in social ostracism.
In countries where adultery is a criminal offense, punishments range from fines to caning and even capital punishment. Since the 20th century, criminal laws against adultery have become controversial, with international organizations calling for their abolition, especially in the light of several high-profile stoning cases that have occurred in some countries. The head of the United Nations expert body charged with identifying ways to eliminate laws that discriminate against women or are discriminatory to them in terms of implementation or impact, Kamala Chandrakirana, has stated that: "Adultery must not be classified as a criminal offence at all". A joint statement by the United Nations Working Group on discrimination against women in law and in practice states that: "Adultery as a criminal offence violates women’s human rights".
In Muslim countries that follow Sharia law for criminal justice, the punishment for adultery may be stoning. There are fifteen countries in which stoning is authorized as lawful punishment, though in recent times it has been legally carried out only in Iran and Somalia. Most countries that criminalize adultery are those where the dominant religion is Islam, and several Sub-Saharan African Christian-majority countries, but there are some notable exceptions to this rule, namely Philippines, Taiwan, and several U.S. states. In some jurisdictions, having sexual relations with the king's wife or the wife of his eldest son constitutes treason. By analogy, in cultures which value and normally practice exclusive interpersonal relationships, sexual relations with a person outside the relationship may also be described as infidelity or cheating, and is subject to sanction.
The term adultery refers to sexual acts between a married person and someone who is not that person's spouse. It may arise in criminal law or in family law. For instance, in the United Kingdom, adultery is not a criminal offense, but is a ground for divorce, with the legal definition of adultery being "physical contact with an alien and unlawful organ". Extramarital sexual acts not fitting this definition are not "adultery" though they may constitute "unreasonable behavior", also a ground of divorce.
The application of the term to the act appears to arise from the idea that "criminal intercourse with a married woman ... tended to adulterate the issue [children] of an innocent husband ... and to expose him to support and provide for another man's [children]". Thus, the "purity" of the children of a marriage is corrupted, and the inheritance is altered.
Some adultery laws differentiate based on the sex of the participants, and as a result such laws are often seen as discriminatory, and in some jurisdictions they have been struck down by courts, usually on the basis that they discriminated against women.
The term adultery, rather than extramarital sex, implies a moral condemnation of the act; as such it is usually not a neutral term because it carries an implied judgment that the act is wrong.
Adultery refers to sexual relations which are not officially legitimized; for example it does not refer to having sexual intercourse with multiple partners in the case of polygamy (when a man is married to more than one wife at a time, called polygyny; or when a woman is married to more than one husband at a time, called polyandry).