It's Illegal to Cheat on Your Spouse in Massachusetts

A little-enforced but truly bizarre law is still on the books.

David Petraeus’s resignation from the CIA because of an adulterous affair made a lot of us curious as to whether adultery is illegal or just immoral, so The New York Times‘s Ethan Bronner takes the opportunity to investigate, and finds that if Petraeus and his biographer Paula Broadwell cheated in Cambridge, Mass., where they first met, they would in fact be in violation of Chapter 272, Section 14 of the Massachusetts General Laws, which reads:

Section 14. A married person who has sexual intercourse with a person not his spouse or an unmarried person who has sexual intercourse with a married person shall be guilty of adultery and shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for not more than three years or in jail for not more than two years or by a fine of not more than five hundred dollars.

That’s right. Though it’s rarely prosecuted, adultery is still on the books as a felony in Massachusetts. It’s a crime in 22 other states, too, including Petraeus’s home of Virginia, but in most of them it’s punishable by a fine, whereas here, one could go to prison!

Law enforcement, of course, often has better things to do than persecute a law carried over from our more Puritan days. (Colin Kingsbury noted in January that adultery joins the sale of sex toys and anal sex on the list of things of nanny-state laws we haven’t gotten around to repealing) so you don’t see too many arrests for cheating these days. Plus, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision striking down sodomy laws, it’s a little unclear whether this one would even stand up in court if challenged.

So what does all this mean? Well, given Petraeus’s affair likely unfolded outside the Commonwealth, it’s mostly just a fun fact. And that’s fine with us. Reuters columnist Jack Shafer wrote a piece Wednesday addressed to those who would complain about the inundation of sex scandal coverage, arguing they should take heart that salacious stories like these at least give the suddenly-interested citizenry occasion to learn more than they once knew about public affairs. Working information about the U.S. national security apparatus into stories about a crazy affair is the news media’s version of hiding a toddler’s medicine in his ice cream.