Terrance Heath

Virtual Infidelity?

Filed By Terrance Heath | June 10, 2011 2:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics
Tags: Anthony Weiner, Arnold Schwarzenegger, DSK, Internet, Slate magazine, Twitter

Anthonyweiner.jpegWeinergate is stretching into a scandal that will probably keep the 24-hour news cycle churning during breaks in the Casey Anthony trial. The poltical implications are still being hashed out - not the least of which being that as the scandal broke, Weiner was on the verge of exposing a conflict of interest concerning Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas. [Via Jack & Jill Politics.] (Shades of Eliot Spitzer?)

Just when we thought it couldn't get any stranger, Long Dong Silver comes galloping in to save the day.

I could say more, but there are a couple of Weiner-related questions that interest me today.

The first is a Slate magazine poll, which asks "Which scandal-plagued politician would you least want to be married to?"

The choices are John Edwards, John Ensign, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and Anthony Weiner.

Seriously? These are the choices? Staying single isn't an option? "All of the above"? I have to be married, and it has to be to one of these guys?

Hmmm.

Couldn't you give me at least one more option? Like "I'd sooner eat glass?" No?

Ok. If I had to be married to one of these guys, and I had to pick the one I'd least want to marry, it'd be a toss-up. It comes down to Schwarzeneggar and Dominique Strauss-Kahn. I think, if you put a gun to my head and said I had to marry one of the two of them (better make it a bazooka, because I might consider taking a bullet instead), I'd be a bit less repulsed by Arnold than DSK. Then again, no one's pressed charges against Arnold. Yet.

I've already said my piece about John Edwards: Pretty is as pretty does.

Once your eyes are opened, you want to close them again. The closer you look, the worse it gets. You want to avert your eyes, as the New York Times article says people did when John and Elizabeth Edwards dined out at a Chapel Hill, N.C., restaurant. You want to look away, because - as we also say in the south - "That just ain't right."

To have an affair is bad enough, as a betrayal of one's spouse and family. To jeopardize any number of political futures and play games with the hopes of so many more people by pushing forward with a campaign - knowing the bomb in your closet could go off at any moment (say, after the nomination, sometime around mid October) - is another. But planning a wedding with your mistress, once your wife dies of the inoperable cancer that (by the way) she's still living with, to the point of talking locations and picking out a wedding band?

To continue the metaphor above, it's like finding out that the guy you flirted with but never dated turned out to be as much of a shitheel as the "ex" he reminded you of (Bill, you'll recall, allegedly promised Monica he'd divorce Hillary and marry her once he was out of the White House), and thinking, "Whew! Dodged a bullet on that one."

Politically speaking, that - to borrow another southernism - "takes the cake." It rightly earns Edwards the title of S.0.B., and those initials don't stand for "Sweet Old Boy." That's reserved for those who earn the title but at least remain likable. Edwards no longer qualifies as a likable S.O.B.

There's not much pretty about Edwards except his face. Sooner or later he'll lose his looks too. Then what do you have? A walking, talking personality disorder? No thanks, I'll just read the diagnosis. It takes less time, and it's far less painful.

John Ensign, as with Arnold, would normally be out of the running because of his politics. Add the affair to that, and running to his mommy and daddy to fix his mess.

Then again, facing the bazooka I might just say, "Ok. I'll just marry Weiner." He was faring pretty well in the poll when I took it.

The women of Slate give their thoughts on this collection of jerks: Online affairs may be just "stupid and embarrassing," while "men who [allegedly] abuse women" are a different strata of repugnant. Then again, Edwards and Schwarzenegger actually fathered and debatably abandoned children, while "DSK and Weiner seem to have been omnidirectional cads who didn't form lasting attachments." One Slate woman suggests that Weiner would love this poll: "He comes off smelling like a rose" by comparison.

At least with him it was all "virtual." Sure, the more I hear of his story the more I feel like I need a shower, but at least he didn't actually have sex with any of the women he's admitted to tweeting.

And yet, does that mean it doesn't "count" Is it cheating if it's all online?.

At Monday's press conference, Weiner clarified:

I never met these women and I never really had much desire to, and to me it was almost a frivolous exchange among friends that I don't think I made an important enough distinction about how hurtful it was and how inappropriate it was.

Although Weiner expressed feelings of remorse for his actions, according to a 1998 MSNBC survey addressing online "sexual relationships," 64 percent of participants said that they were in a committed relationships while engaging in online erotic chat and 87 percent still said that they did not feel guilty about online flirting and chat and instead seeing it as a form of entertainment akin to reading Playboy.

With another public figure enmeshed in yet another political sex scandal, questions have circulated in the media as to whether sexts and online chats constitute cheating. When watching Weiner's press conference on a slowed speed, it is evident the Congressman formed the word "relationship" before quickly changing his term for the nature of his interactions to "communications," Slate reported. Weiner may have been trying to suggest his behavior constituted flirtation rather than hardcore infidelity, this emotional disconnect does not necessarily exist for the spouse of the person engaging with an avatar lover.

I'm not so sure. Maybe it's something that needs to be decided between couples. Maybe couples need to work out their own rules. After all, there are plenty of people in open relationships, and it works well for all parties involved, probably because they've worked out their own "rules" in advance. Rules like, "Online is OK, but meeting someone is not." Or "Not in our house, and not in our bed." A married couple can have a understanding, like "Do what you want. Just don't bring anything home, and don't embarass me.

But I'm leaning toward thinking it does count and that it is cheating, even if it's "just online." Hear me out - I think it's a problem of language, and our understanding of what constitutes infidelity catching up with what our technology makes possible.

As William Saletan points out, Weiner stressed the point that he had not met any of these women or had sex outside of his marriage. But the congressman kept referring to them as "relationships." That makes sense. He exchanged pages of text messages, and his communications with one woman involved not only "hundreds of messages" but graduated to a phone call that revealed Weiner had spent some time learning about her.

The relationship between Broussard and Weiner only ventured out of the digital world once, she said, when a man identifying himself as Weiner called by phone from a number associated with Weiner's New York congressional office on the afternoon of May 18.

"The day he called he just said, 'Who in the world would be acting like me?,' laughing about it," she said.

"You're an Internet rat, aren't you," Broussard said she asked him, to which Weiner just sort of giggled.

Then, she says, the conversation got personal. "He heard her [Broussard's daughter] in the background, I think, and he said, 'Oh is that,' and then he said her name, and I said, 'yeah, it's her birthday,'; and that kind of freaked me out because you had to pilfer through my Facebook to find out her name.

After they hung up, Broussard said she called the number back to see if it was actually him. A Weiner office receptionist answered, she said. Broussard provided a record of the call to ABC News.

That's why I tend to agree with Saletan that these are relationships, in what is a reasonably updated understanding of the term.

Weiner did meet these women. In his opening statement, he called them "women I had met online." Later, he referred to some of them as "women that I met on Facebook." This is the reality of social networking: Our introductions to people in cyberspace often feel like genuine encounters. We have met them in the new sense, if not in the old one.

Weiner's concession was more than semantic. When a reporter accused him of sexting complete strangers, the congressman replied: "I didn't have the sense that they were complete strangers. These were people that I had developed relationships with online, and I believed that we had become friends. But that was clearly a mistake."

So if the question is whether Weiner sent naughty pictures to strangers, the answer is no, he sent them to people - not women, but "people" - whom he had met and with whom he had relationships. But if the question is whether he cheated on his wife, the answer is no, because he never met these women, and he had only "communications" with them, not relationships.

In the annals of lust and sin, Weiner is just another straying husband. But in the unfolding story of information technology, he's a milestone worth thinking about. The trajectory of political sex scandals - Clinton, Mark Foley, Kwame Kilpatrick, Mark Sanford, and now Weiner - has taken us from phone sex to chat rooms to sexting to email to Facebook and Twitter. We're finding new realms in which to wander, meet people, and flirt. You can call these adventures whatever you want to. But we all know what they are. They're relationships.

What makes them relationships to me is simple: an investment of time - time spent getting to know your partner, time spent communicating, building intimacy and trust. It's not about sticking tab A into slot B, or exchanging bodily fluids. That can take a little as 15 minutes and can be done without exchanging names or numbers. Investing time also makes the other person a higher priority than other people or things. It's a simple matter of opportunity cost. Choosing to do one thing means sacrificing other opportunities.

Sure, there are things that take a higher priority at different times. You spend eight hours a day or more at work, apart from your significant other. You might invest time in other activities, apart from your partner, that are important; like exercise, meditation, or some other interest or hobby that is important to your personal happiness. (For me, it's writing.) You might invest time in maintaining other important relationships with friends, family or colleagues. But you always come back "home," where the heart - and the primary relationship - is.

It's like the "forsaking all others" part of marriage vows. By investing time and energy in building communication, intimacy and trust, you're choosing to be in a relationship with someone. Thus, unless your relationship includes the "understandings" I mentioned earlier, the other person and your relationship with them becomes more important than opportunities to have relationships with others. This applies to having a family with someone, as it's an extension of your relationship - it's a higher priority than most things.

Time invested in pursuing and building relationships with others is time taken away from, or not invested in your primary relationship. If it's done without the knowledge and consent of your partner, then it probably is infidelity, even if it's online.

People have entire relationships online that are no less real in terms of time and commitment than "real-time" relationships between people who are sitting in the same room. And people have had affairs online, too, sometimes while their spouse or partner is in the same house or even in the same room, unaware that a new relationship is starting or growing right under their noses. And the person at the keyboard is making a clear choice to invest time in a relationship with someone other than their spouse.

Before the Internet made Facebook and Twitter part of our lives, and we started having entire conversations via text message, "part-time" lovers used other means to communicate with each other without their cuckolded significant others knowing. "Call up, ring once, hang up the phone," instructs the Stevie Wonder/Luther Vandross hit. "If she's with me, I'll blink the lights, to let you know tonight's the night."

(Cross-posted at The Republic of T)

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Gosh Terrance you really went in depth on this one. I can't say I disagree in any substantive way but I do notice you employ an awful lot of morality laden concepts. Why it almost reads like Jesus saying those who lust in their hearts are guilty of adultery. I can't say I disagree with Jesus either. On the other hand why toss out a dedicated public servant just because he has a high sex quotient? The way I look at it his replacement is just as likely to be worse but perhaps in other ways. I'd rather bet that his wife can handle this whole mess now that it has surfaced. And if they split then who cares what he does to get his sexual kicks?

One thing I do know Terrance is that none of this is any of YOUR damn business. You are not married to Anthony Weiner or any of the other men you mentioned. Much of this post could have been written by someone from the religious right.