The chapter “Adultery, women, and social control” in David Cohen’s book Law, Sexuality, and Society argues that adultery in Classical Athens was not as straightforward as the laws created for it, and that scholars need to start looking at the how and the why of it to truly gain insight.
What Cohen is examining in this chapter is how sexuality and honour are linked. For a man, it’s actively protecting the sexual purity of the women in his care. For a woman, it’s maintaining that purity before the eyes of others. We can see this, Cohen says, in the community standards: the man’s realm being outdoors and the woman’s indoors. Cohen notes how authors (Euripides and Aristophanes in particular) depict women as powerful, yet dangerous. They have the ability to reproduce, but are also aligned with the left (that is, from the devil) and thus the weak link of the family. The family unit, however, does help rein the women in to reach their beneficial side.
He then looks at all the times it was socially acceptable for women to leave the house, and how fear of adultery stems from here. The man is ignorant of what a woman does when she leaves the house, yet the same conventions that dictate that her place is indoors and his outdoors prevent him from staying home to monitor her. In this way, Cohen says that women are responsible for policing their own purity. Because the men weren’t around to do so, they accepted the responsibility of keeping their own names free and clear on their own. Female gossip was a tool used to keep women in line with the social standards.
How then did the Greeks deal with the dichotomy of the ideal (the woman stays indoors) and the reality (her business forces her out)? Cohen says it’s a very fine line, realizing...
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...p the Athenian’s idea of the feminine as chaotic and the masculine as rational. Gossip is very much an intangible, changeable thing, whereas the law code for adultery states that a man must see his wife having the adulterous affair before he can take action – a more rational mode of conduct.
I would have liked to see Cohen go into more detail on how a man will sleep with another man’s wife to raise his own stature. Considering that punishments go a long way in emasculating and embarrassing him if caught, how does his status increase if he doesn’t get caught? I’m assuming he’s not going to go around saying “I slept with so-and-so”, because if he did he’d arouse suspicion and the husband may catch him at it next time.
Cohen, David. “Adultery, women, and social control.” Law, Sexuality, and Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Print.
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