On Sunday night, Internet hackers reportedly stole millions of users' private data from the website Ashley Madison, a dating website that explicitly facilitates adultery among spouses and couples. The hackers, known as Impact Team, sent a chill through the international cheating community after threatening to release personal information for 37 million user accounts.
But aside from whatever personal shame may or may not be associated with the leaked data, some people might have a bit more reason for alarm. Adultery remains on the books as a crime in 20 U.S. states.
U.S. adultery laws follow no consistent pattern, transcending traditional red and blue state divides. In some, they are misdemeanors carrying petty fines, while in others they are felonies theoretically resulting in years of jail time. Some state laws are relics from colonial times; others are quite a bit more recent.
Few states are as tough on adultery as Oklahoma, where the act is treated as a felony. According to state law, "Adultery is the unlawful voluntary sexual intercourse of a married person with one of the opposite sex; and when the crime is between persons, only one of whom is married, both are guilty of adultery." The stature adds, "Any person guilty of the crime of adultery shall be guilty of a felony and punished by imprisonment in the State Penitentiary not exceeding five (5) years or by a fine not exceeding Five Hundred Dollars ($500.00), or by both such fine and imprisonment."
The tough line in the Sooner state is a far cry from Maryland's adultery law, where a misdemeanor $10 fine was first put on the books before independence in 1749 — and hasn't changed since. In today's money, that's around $327.
Massachusetts, a commonwealth synonymous with liberalism, is also one of just five states and commonwealths that criminalize adultery as a felony. Following just behind Oklahoma, the Bay state promises philanderers up to three years in jail. Unlike Maryland's colonial holdover, or Oklahoma, which enacted its law in 1910, Massachusetts' statute was enacted in 1978.
In Michigan, where adultery is also a felony, at least one state judge suggested in 2007 the punishment could be life in prison.
In practice, however, things are a considerably different. "I would suspect that the implementation of those types of statutes are very far and few between," Bernard E. Clair, a prominent Manhattan divorce attorney, told Mic.
According to Clair, the relevancy of adultery is now largely left to the civil sphere. Even there, its impact is increasingly vestigial with no-fault divorce becoming increasingly common. "In New York, the bad deeds of either of the parties is hardly an issue anymore," Clair said.
While Clair speculated legislators may have more important things to do than repeal archaic infidelity laws, he also suggested more calculated motives could be at work: "Nobody has the guts to stand up and be behind a repeal of something that still, in some areas of society, strikes at the issue of morality."
With many statutes literally stretching back centuries, it's doubtful even Ashley Madison will spur nationwide action anytime soon.