Adulterers all over greater Europe, but especially in Turkey, have been holding their breath in anxious apprehension; for quite some time it has looked as though the Turkish government, in its self-styled reform of the penal code, would make adultery a criminal offence.
Not only would this have been bad news for Turkish adulterers; it would also have been rather alarming for European Union adulterers, who faced the prospect of having, in Turkey, a new EU member which did not respect the inalienable human right, at least in Europe, to extramarital sex.
After all, Europe is the cradle of adultery, or at least of the cult of adultery; it was the southern European troubadours with their lascivious lute-playing and erotic poetry, directed at other men’s wives, who invented romantic love. Indeed originally romantic love was adultery: marriage was quite different and not romantic at all.
Things may have changed a bit since then, but even so, one’s cultural heritage is one’s cultural heritage, and one doesn’t want it undermined by a critical mass of newcomers who don’t like it. And if a country like Turkey, with its enormous population, not to mention its rather firm police force, were to become part of the new Europe, adultery might come under serious threat.
However, we can all breathe again. On Thursday the Turkish prime minister told the European commission that he would drop this inflammatory proposal, mindful no doubt of the fact, which had previously somehow escaped him, that anyone who attacks our universal human right to sexual satisfaction has absolutely no chance whatsoever of joining the European party.
One can imagine how it happened: his people may have been misled by the Ten Commandments, for example. Fortunately wiser councils have prevailed.
The Turks are not entirely alone in their condemnation of adultery. There are quite a lot of Europeans who disapprove of it, too. Melanie Phillips, my predecessor in this space, wrote a long and passionate piece last week arguing that adultery undermines society by breaking up families. She would certainly not support making it a criminal offence, but she does argue for public and private disapproval.
My own view is rather more traditional. I believe that it is divorce, not adultery, that breaks up families and society. Blaming adultery is simply to misdirect the finger of accusation.
Adultery need not lead to divorce. Adultery need not break up marriages. On the contrary, adultery traditionally has been a buttress against divorce, and could perfectly well continue to be so if people re-examined their undisciplined thoughts and feelings about it.
Adultery is the civilised way of dealing with the tragic fault line of marriage — desire. Marriage in the West usually begins with sexual desire, but while marriage is expected to last for decades, sexual desire certainly does not, whatever anyone’s expectations might be.
There may be some lucky couples whose marriage is conducted in a long rosy glow of undying desire, but my own rather amateur surveys and reading of novels suggest that for most people sexual desire for someone lasts anywhere from a few hours to about two years. After that, with any luck, love will have deepened in other ways.
Yet even so, evolution has played a very nasty trick on us: Eros is like a delinquent child; desire is totally anarchic, it defies married love and, and as George Bernard Shaw famously discovered when he questioned a lady of nearly 90 at dinner, it doesn’t seem to fade with time.
Love and marriage, according to the Fifties song, go together like a horse and carriage. If so, marriage is like shackling the precious carriage of children, family and home to a half-blind half-crazed racehorse, which is certain to career off course.
The traditional solution to this glaringly obvious problem was, failing extreme social repression or possibly the stoning of adulterers, to find a discreet way of gratifying sexual desires privately without upsetting the carriage.
It’s true that this solution was more often available to men, and to the rich — adultery tends to prosper with separate addresses and separate bathrooms. But when divorce was impossible, or very much frowned upon, adultery was less frowned on, and in a way less risky, because it did not usually lead to divorce.
The difficulty today is that divorce has become socially acceptable. Indeed, people often speak of it as something of a duty; for instance, if a man’s friends discover that his wife has been having a torrid affair they will urge him to divorce her at once, for that reason alone, even though it will break up his home and distress and impoverish his children, and he might not, truly, mind very much.
Besides, on the principle that all sexual passion fades, she would probably get tired of the boyfriend quite soon anyway. As someone said of sailors, they tend to come home with the tide.
That is only true, however, in a cultural climate where adultery is tolerated. In ours it is considered insulting, humiliating and totally unacceptable. Indeed a spouse who has been cheated on is despised much more than the cheat, because of the slur on his or her sexuality. That is largely because our culture is so absurdly sexualised.
Sex and sexual gratification are everywhere around us, in everything we see and hear. This gives us a hugely inflated idea of what is due to us sexually, and of how much our identity is based on our sexuality, our sexismo.
Not many things are new in any era of history, but I truly believe this is one. Sex has somehow replaced honour in our sense of ourselves. That has proved to be bad, and possibly fatal, for marriage.
Banning adultery, à la Turque, or stigmatising it as Melanie Phillips recommends, is not the solution. The solution lies in rediscovering the social importance of adultery, but only under certain conditions. There are, or ought to be, rules for adultery.
The first and last one is discretion, to avoid humiliating anyone or threatening the family. Never admit. Never tell. Never hint. The temptation to boast about sex must at all costs be resisted; it is not a very high cost, after all, for the privilege of giving in to sexual temptation.
The second rule, therefore, is to avoid asking too many questions. Turning a blind eye is a central virtue in marriage.
The third is loyalty to the marriage, and very public loyalty. Jeremy Irons, skirting round this delicate subject in an interview last week, said in describing modern marriage that “a modern couple give each other the freedom to flirt with new beginnings elsewhere”. How wrong that is.
Adultery isn’t about new beginnings — that’s homewrecking. Serious adultery is for the seriously married, at least in Europe.