The Double Standard, Men as Victims of Adultery, Prostitution, and Jesus: A Look at Proverbs 6:26

In reading commentaries for my post The Stereotype of the Nagging, Contentious Wife, I ran across an interpretation of Proverbs 6:26 that I’m not convinced is entirely accurate. This is the verse that seems to say it’s okay for a man to visit a prostitute, though he’d better stay away from another man’s wife. I don’t know about you, but it would not be okay with me if my husband dallied with any other woman, no matter who she was or how she made a living.[1]

For a prostitute can be had for a loaf of bread, but another man’s wife preys on your very life. (Prov. 6:26, NIV)

The comparison between the toll exacted on a man for having sex with a married woman versus a prostitute appears to imply that sleeping with the second is no big deal.[2] Even though it’s not entirely clear how to translate the Hebrew (it may mean that a prostitute reduces a man to a loaf of bread), becoming a pauper is not as bad as losing your life.[3]

What’s going on here? Tremper Longman III explains it like this:

The final section of this passage focuses on the inevitability of punishment for those who have a physically intimate relationship with a woman married to another man. …One might question why this would be the case since sleeping with a prostitute also intrudes on the man’s marriage with his wife. …It is not that sleeping with a prostitute is right, but that the other is doubly wrong. Two marriage relationships are shattered.[4]

While Longman’s assessment makes sense, it does not reflect the cultural assumptions in place at the time. No doubt sleeping with a prostitute is wrong and adultery is doubly wrong, but that is not the point of this verse. Rather, it highlights the reality of the sexual double standard at the time.

Longman’s comment got me thinking that maybe some of my readers aren’t aware of how expectations of sexual purity were different for men and women during Old Testament times. So I thought I’d write about that today.

The Double Standard

The distinction may be seen most clearly in that the Old Testament never mentions the marital status of a man involved in sexual indiscretion. Whether the man was married was, in fact, of no consequence; the only issue was the status of the female. Adultery was understood as “sexual intercourse between a man and a woman who was married or betrothed to another man,”[5] but never as sex between a married man and a single woman.

This double standard is apparent in Deuteronomy 22:25-29 that details differing consequences for rape, based on the woman’s marital status. If the woman was pledged to be married, the man was guilty of violating “another man’s wife” and subject to the penalty due adulterers, which was death. If she was not pledged to anyone – and this is the kicker – the man was simply required to pay her father the bride price and marry her.

Rather than being punishable by law, the man’s actions were legitimized through marriage. His marital status, in contrast, is never mentioned as a consideration. Neither is there note of any harm done to his first wife, if he has one, through his unfaithfulness and subsequent polygyny.

Similarly, it was the woman’s status that determined the penalty if the encounter was deemed consensual.[6] If she was betrothed, both were considered adulterers and stoned to death (Deut. 22:23-24). If she was unattached, once again the man was required to pay the girl’s father and marry her, with no possibility of divorce (Ex. 22:16-17). And if the man was the one who was already married, we are to presume that now he simply had to provide for another wife. As long as the woman in question was “single,” neither party was guilty of adultery.

This perspective is evidenced in more general principles. For example, whereas  “a young woman was required to remain a virgin until the consummation of her marriage … there is no mention of a corresponding requirement of male virginity.”[7] Even after a man was married, sexual fidelity to his wife was neither expected nor enforced.[8]

Why this laxness regarding men’s extracurricular sexual activity, but not women’s?

Well, one of the primary purposes of the sexual boundaries encoded in the Old Testament was to preserve the integrity of the family line, not necessarily to establish an ultimate standard of holiness.[9] Adultery on the part of the wife was prohibited since her fidelity was essential to this process but, at least in terms of his own household, the man’s was not.[10] The point was to ensure a man that any children born in his household were indeed his progeny (the identity of the mother was obvious and therefore needed no legal protection).[11]

As a consequence, as far as the practical sexual ethics of the Old Testament are concerned a man’s sexual exploits were only considered “wrong,” i.e. worthy of punishment, if he put the family line of another man in jeopardy. The ideal of one woman and one man for life was neither encoded in the law nor enshrined in common practice, though Genesis 2 makes clear that was God’s original intent.

Men as Victims of Adultery

Hence there was no law that even implied a husband could commit adultery against his wife; a man could only commit adultery against another man (by sleeping with that man’s wife or betrothed). In the same way, a woman’s sexual indiscretion was always against a man, most often her husband but sometimes her father (if she was unmarried).

Neither a man’s nor a woman’s adultery was ever understood as being committed against a woman. This is why it didn’t matter if the male adulterer was married or not. Legally, in the Old Testament, adultery was always an offense against a man.

If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife – with the wife of his neighbor – both the adulterer and the adulteress are to be put to death. (Lev. 20:10, italics added)

If a man is found sleeping with another man’s wife, both the man who slept with her and the woman must die. (Deut. 22:22, italics added)

So, for example, if Bathsheba had not already been married, David would not have been guilty of adultery.[12] David’s “crime” consisted in taking “the wife of Uriah the Hittite” (2 Sam. 12:10), not in his unfaithfulness to his own wives. In no Old Testament scenario would Ahinoam, Abigail, Maakah, Haggith, Abital, Eglah, or Michal have been considered victims of David’s adultery.

In fact, no one viewed women as victims of adultery in those days. Rather, women were the cause of adultery and men the victims.[13] Not that this was ever God’s view of the matter; it was simply the interpretive lens of this ancient world.

Prostitution

Back to our problematic verse, Proverbs 6:26. In concert with this sexual double standard, even in Israel there was an implicit acceptance of prostitutes and prostitution.[14] The fact that Hebrew men were not permitted to sell their daughters as harlots (Lev. 19:29) tells us the practice was neither sanctioned by God nor condoned by society. Nevertheless, it persisted.[15]

So a man could visit a prostitute without breaking the law or committing adultery, even if he was married.[16] A Hebrew woman, however, could be stoned or burned to death for offering herself as a prostitute, particularly if a male relative took offense at her activities.[17]

This is the background to Proverbs 6:26. The verse is not about purity or morality in the way we would think of those things, but about pragmatic issues. While visiting a prostitute was not what parents might desire for their son, some might have accepted it as a compromise. A prostitute may cost money, or even reduce you to poverty, but she is not dangerous like the “unchaste wife,” creatively described by Bruce Waltke as the “deadly quick-silver lady” and “huntress waiting to trap her prey” who “stalk[s] the streets to seduce young men.”[18]

Jesus

Though a lot had changed since Old Testament times, a general attitude that favored men with respect to sexual ethics was still widespread during Jesus’ lifetime, and may be what lies behind some of his encounters with the religious leaders.

For example, while an upstanding First Century Jewish man would not be caught dead committing actual adultery, in some circles ipso facto adultery through serial divorce and remarriage was perfectly respectable.[19] Jesus slams this double standard and legalistic workaround of God’s design for human sexuality.[20]

In Matthew 5:32 Jesus does this slamming in a remarkable way. The verse is usually translated something like this:

But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery. (Matt. 5:32, NIV 1984)

The part translated “become an adulteress” is, unexpectedly, a passive verb. The normal meaning of a passive verb is that the subject of the verb is the recipient of the action, rather than the one performing it.[21] The updated NIV is the only translation I’ve seen that attempts to bring the passive voice of this verb into its translation, rendering it as follows:[22]

But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery. (Matt. 5:32, NIV 2011)

Jesus not only says this practice is immoral, he also claims it is a crime against a wife. What a change from Old Testament sexual ethics where it was legally impossible for a woman to be the victim of adultery. No wonder even the disciples thought Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce was crazy.[23]

When reading the Old Testament we need to remember that while some of its ethics represent absolutes, others reflect practical concerns. We also need to make sure we don’t take the sometimes one-sided view of Old Testament texts and employ it to blame one gender for all the evils in the world, but instead recognize that both men and women can and do harm one another.

So, yeah; a woman can be the victim of adultery. Who knew?


[1] Scripture gives very little attention to prostitution as sex slavery, though there is a nod to it in the fact that fathers are forbidden to turn their daughters into prostitutes. Yet for the most part prostitution is addressed as though the woman freely chose that line of work. One wonders how often this was truly the case.

[2] Tremper Longman III notes: “A prostitute will cost money, but a relationship with another man’s wife may well cost the son his life,” Proverbs (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), loc. 3754, Kindle. Bruce Waltke writes: “Specifically, he [the son] needs protection from the smooth-talking, unfaithful wife. The Book of Proverbs, Chapters 1-15 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), loc. 9249, Kindle.

[3] The KJV, NKJV, NASB, NET, and ASV, among others, translate along these lines.

[4] Longman, loc. 3772.

[5] B. L. Bandstra and A. D. Verhey, “Sex,” in International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ISBE), vol. 4, ed. G. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 438.

[6] The woman was obligated to cry out to prove that she did not consent but was given the benefit of the doubt if the encounter occurred where no one could hear her.

[7] Bandstra and Verhey, 438.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Another was to forbid sexual acts that were considered aberrations, such as incest, bestiality and homosexuality.

[10] See my post Cheating Wives, the Double Standard and a Bizarre Bible Passage on Num. 5:11-31 for an illustration of how this priority worked out in the OT legal code.

[11] This is not an unreasonable expectation, yet it shifted the focus form marital fidelity to more practical issues. This, in turn, made room for the double standard, an obvious deviation from God’s best.

[12] According to Old Testament standards with its tolerance of polygyny.

[13] The book of Proverbs, in particular, presents this view of things. Recent commentators, however, recognize that this is at best only half of the story.

[14] Bruce Waltke notes that “Foreign prostitutes are tacitly accepted in the Old Testament as part of the tawdry scenery,” loc. 9309.

[15] F. E. Hirsch and J. K. Grider, “Crime,” in ISBE, vol. 1, ed. G. Bromiley (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1979), 816.

[16] Note that both female and male temple prostitutes, an abomination in Israel yet part of the landscape at various times, were solely for the service of men, never women.

[17] See the account of Judah and Tamar in Gen. 38. Judah’s men thought nothing of the fact that he had visited a prostitute. Though Judah was widowed by this time so his behavior might be viewed as somehow “excusable,” so was Tamar. Yet Judah as Tamar’s father-in-law had the power to prescribe the death penalty for her while completely overlooking his own indiscretion. Fortunately, Tamar was savvy enough to protect herself in advance by keeping Judah’s seal and staff.

[18] Waltke,  Proverbs 1-15, loc. 3431; Proverbs 15-31,loc. 5225, 5239. See also Hirsch and Grider, 816. While the description is faithful to the tone of the original, it does not acknowledge the one-sidedness of painting women as the sexual predators, especially in the ancient world where this was not typical. Yet even in today’s world where women are also sexually aggressive, men are statistically more likely to victimize women than the other way around. For these reasons I find Waltke’s terminology unhelpful.

[19] See Matt. 19:1-12, especially v. 3.

[20] Even in the Old Testament God rejected this double standard that favored men. See Hos. 4:13-14 where God says he will not punish the women for becoming prostitutes or adulteresses “because the men themselves consort with harlots and sacrifice with shrine prostitutes.” So while an equal standard is harder to find in the Old Testament, it does exist and clearly expresses God’s perspective.

[21] For example, “I murdered” is active and “I was murdered” is passive. The difficulty with translation arises from the fact that in English we can say “I committed adultery” (active) but not “I was committed adultery” (passive). The problem stems from a limitation of the English language.

[22] In Mark 10:12 Jesus addresses the situation where a wife divorces her husband without cause to marry another man. In this case, since she initiated the divorce, she is guilty of adultery. So it’s not that a woman couldn’t be guilty of adultery but rather that, in fact, sometimes she was the victim and not the perpetrator. Jesus’ point in all these teachings is not to split hairs over when divorce may or may not be “allowed,” but rather to emphasize God’s original intent for marriage as a lifelong, loving commitment between one man and one woman. Jesus was slamming the casual attitude of Jewish men who put away their wife because another woman (probably younger and more beautiful) caught their eye.

[23] Matt. 19:1-12.

5 thoughts on “The Double Standard, Men as Victims of Adultery, Prostitution, and Jesus: A Look at Proverbs 6:26

  1. I have noticed the double standard, it has to do with biology. Women by nature of their biology receive and to some degree retain biological material from men. This is why in the New Testament a divorced woman becomes an adulteress if she re marries while her former husband is still alive (as well as any man dumb enough to marry her), only after he dies is she free to marry again. It must be something about the living DNA in her body from a male still alive in the universe that we don’t fully understand yet. Our current culture is a cesspool of mix and match DNA and generations of mongrels, we have no idea what mayhem we have done. It is interesting to note that a known working prostitute is in the family tree of our Lord though. Also, as far as polygamy there are no known cases of a woman having multiple husbands in the Bible, that is a huge double standard and should tell you that fairness doesn’t mean much to our creator in this area. Just look at the animals, where is the fairness? This is what threw off Darwin, he saw that it was survival of the fittest. We as humans threw off our perfect condition and now this is what we have, it isn’t fair at all, but it is what it is.

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  2. I dont know what version of bible you read but I read KJV and the translation of that to my own language “malayalam” is quite clear and not confusing at all. This whole conversation and blog is based on how you look at words. In my translation in native language, it clearly says to allude to this meaning “due to prostitute, a man will end up having to scrounge for food” aka, it means his wrong actions will bring consequences for him. It does not say it is ok to go to prostitutes. Eg: just because the road signs warns you of consequences of certain possible actions whilst you drive doesnt mean that it is ok to perform that action. Rather it helps you to avoid it.
    Even other translations means this word such as “a man is bought down to a piece of bread (although he started off rich but now spend his money on prostitutes) because of a prostitute” or some other translations means “the price of a prostitute is a loaf of bread” this 2nd one alludes to how cheap prostitute is. Their body is swapped for a piece of bread!! You can even compare the two translations, a prostitute swaps her body for a piece of bread and whatever value one gives that piece of bread is he/r worth. Now that the man is also bought down to a piece of bread, he equally got devalued, due to the prostitute. He lost self worth. To me, both meanings doesnt allude to making in ok to go to prostitutes of whatsoever.
    And @Tony, polygamy was bot okayed by God. It was adopted from other cultures. When he created humans, he created a man and only one woman!!

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    1. Hi Roshna. I agree that it is not okay to visit a prostitute and that this verse is not stating it is, although it could be misunderstood in that way. My point was to highlight the sexual double standard in OT times where men’s sexual indiscretions were not understood to impact women, but only men, and the way that we too easily read our modern sensibilities into ancient texts. Jesus, of course, demonstrates what God’s perspective has always been: absolute sexual fidelity on the part of both partners.

      Thanks for reading.

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  3. I’m really confused, Sarah.

    Are men more righteous when they cheat than women are?

    It doesn’t really make sense to say this double standard was allowed just because of their patriarchal culture. If men were held responsible for cheating just like women were, family lines would still be secure. It’s just based on male lineage and the belief all the man’s children are legitimate

    Why should the law concede to culture?

    For example:
    Why should betrothed women be held responsible for getting raped? This is rape culture.

    Why should they be subject to unreliable virginity testing? Why should they be treated like products?

    Why do rapists live while (supposed) non-virgin brides die?

    These can’t be concessions to culture, because they are commanded to kill her. It enforces patriarchy.

    It’s like men had an unlimited pool of women to choose from. As long as the women weren’t married, the men (married or not) could marry, fornicate, and rape without being killed.

    It’s not like these patriarchal laws had to be given to them, right. It could have protected women instead of sinful culture. If they can be commanded to honor the stranger, and care for orphans and widows, couldn’t they treat women as equals? They had these laws for ~3000 years, long enough for a massive culture change, but the law enforced this culture for that long.

    In 1 Thessalonians 4 Paul refers to adultery as a crime against her man. 1 Corinthians 7:39 and Romans 7:3 also seem to imply that men don’t commit adultery when they cheat.

    Does this mean this same double standard is continued in the NT?

    I don’t know how to make sense of this.

    Thank you.

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    1. Hi Joel. I’m sorry you’re confused. I’m not sure if you’re confused about whether this is what the OT is saying, or if your question is why it says what it does. Either way, I’ll try to answer.

      First, the OT legal code does not present God’s perfect will. It was designed to define criminality and punishments, not moral absolutes. While we know that the 10 commandments were given directly by God, most of the secondary laws were a result of rulings in various situations that came to light over time (similar to what happens in modern societies). When something occurred – say a man had sex with an unattached woman – a ruling was made based on the overarching principles of the 10 commandments. Since adultery was forbidden, the question would be, what constitutes adultery? In a culture that accepted polygyny (one man marrying multiple women), is consensual sex between a man (married or unmarried) and an unattached woman adultery? Should we stone them for that or let them get married? How do we solve this problem? Or what if he seduced her – or even took her against her will? Is it better for her to be damaged goods forever than to be married to a lustful man?

      So, for example, we might not understand why Tamar would want Amnon to marry her after he raped her, but societal thinking was different in those days. If she had married she would have become a respectable woman; as it was, she became nothing and we never hear of her again.

      Jesus addresses the weaknesses of thinking any legal code can fully represent God’s standards, even one based on his revealed will. Repeatedly in Matthew 5 Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said… but I tell you…” Each time he is referring either directly to the OT law or to rabbinic interpretation of it, and each time he explains that God’s standards are higher. The problem was that over time the Jews began to equate the written law (which was designed to help society function) with righteousness. Jesus makes clear that the two are not the same, which would have been shocking to his listeners.

      So no, a man who cheats is not righteous and rape is not okay in God’s eyes. And yes, the OT law could have been written differently; it could have expected men to be virgins upon marriage (yet how would they establish this??), or it could have outlawed polygyny just as it disallowed polyandry (but how many women would then have no husband and no way to survive in a society where many men died in battle?). It could have acknowledged that women could be victims of adultery and expected men to remain faithful to their marriage vows. All of this would seem more just to us. But the fact is that it didn’t.

      This is where we have to accept that the OT ethic is not absolute, but culture-bound. However, the NT texts do not represent a double standard. In 1 These. 4:6 (the verse I think you are referring to) the issue is translation. “His brother” in this context means “fellow Christian,” so it could be a man or a woman. See this post for more on translation issues:

      https://sarahjoconnor.com/2021/12/07/when-is-a-brother-a-sister-gendered-language-and-bible-translation/

      Rom. 7:3 is simply an illustration. Paul could just as well have used the example of a married man. Perhaps he didn’t because as Christians we are the bride of Christ, so the example of a wife is more fitting. Paul probably addresses widows specifically in 1 Cor. 7:39 because there were more widows than widowers. There is nothing here to indicate the standard does not apply to men as well. The NT makes it clear that men do commit adultery when they cheat, just like women.

      Back to the OT law, we know that God’s will is not and will never be perfectly actualized in this world. Jesus said to pray that God’s will would be done, not to assume that everything that happens is his will. So a question for you is to consider to what extent life here on earth – including the Hebrew law code we find int he Bible – is an interaction between the will of God and the will of man. To what extent does God permit us to make bad decisions – or write unfair laws – and then live with the consequences? To what extent was the patriarchal system a result of the fall of humankind rather than an expression of God’s best?

      Hope some of this helps. Thanks for reading.

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