In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

Is Chatting Cheating?

Some do not see any difference between online and offline affairs.

"A man can have two, maybe three love affairs while he's married. After that it's cheating." Yves Montand

Online sexual activity involves various types of activities, such as viewing explicitly sexual materials, participating in an exchange of ideas about sex, exchanging sexual messages, and online social interactions with at least one other person with the intention of becoming sexually aroused.

In a stimulating paper entitled "Chatting is not cheating," John Portmann defends online lust and characterizes cybersex as talk about sex; he maintains that such talking is more similar to flirting than to having sex. The issue of online cheating is, however, more complex-especially when it concerns those types of sexual activities involving social interaction with other individuals.

People consider their online sexual relationships as real, as they experience psychological states similar to those typically elicited by offline relationships. Accordingly, cybersex is not merely a conversation about sex, but is a form of sexual encounter itself; it involves experiences typical of sexual encounters, such as masturbation, sexual arousal, satisfaction, and orgasm. Indeed, people consider cybersex to have a high degree of psychological reality. However, many of them do not consider it to be morally real-at least not as real as offline affairs. One survey found that over 60 percent of people having cybersex do not consider it to be infidelity. Many of them believe cybersex to be similar to pornography; it is an extension of fantasy, keeping them from physically being with other people. Consider the following statement from a 41-year-old married man: "My wife doesn't care if I have relationships (even sexual) on the Internet. It's like it's not real. I can get away with it. But I'm sure she'd get upset if we were to meet for a drink or something" (all citations are from Love Online).

Some people even consider cybersex as a means not to cheat-it is something that may add spice to their offline relationship. These people believe that if they do not know the real name of their cybermate and never actually see them, their affair cannot be regarded as real from a moral point of view; it should be considered as not any different from reading a novel or other kind of mere entertainment-a way to play out fantasies in a safe environment.

Other people admit that cybersex done without the knowledge of the other partner is cheating as it involves deception; nevertheless this is a type of positive cheating: "having cybersex with someone other than one's spouse IS cheating, but it's OKAY cheating." In some circumstances cybersex may help a person through rough periods in an offline, loving relationship. In such circumstances, cybersex may be recommendable, but can still be regarded as cheating. As a 29-year-old married woman, who often engages in cybersex, says: "People need to ultimately and consistently remind themselves that 99% of fantasy is WAY better than the actual reality." When people feel trapped by their current circumstances, but they still do not want to ruin everything around them, cyberspace may offer a parallel world in which things are better. Being in that world can help them preserve the actual one, while not giving up exciting emotional experiences. Living within the two worlds is not easy and may become risky when people do not realize the limitations of each world.

Whereas people having online affairs tend to reduce their problematic nature, their offline partners often do not see any difference between online and offline affairs: the lack of physical contact and face-to-face meetings does not diminish the sense of violation of their vow of exclusivity. The fact that most of these affairs are concealed from the offline spouse is indicative of such possible harm. Consider the following reaction of Melissa: "I glanced at the screen and was shocked to find John talking to some woman about how he'd like to throw her on the bed and make wild, passionate love to her. I was furious and hurt. We had quite a blow up about it." A similar attitude is expressed in the following message: "I recently found a love letter my husband sent to a woman via email. I know there has been no physical contact because she lives across the country, but I still feel betrayed, humiliated, and hurt."

At the heart of moral harm is the harm we impose upon other people. Just as casual sex is not inherently harmful, neither are online affairs. They may be so, when participants are also involved in another primary offline relationship. In this regard, the following aspects are particularly significant: (a) the resources invested in such affairs are taken from the primary relationship, (b) the wish to actualize online relationship is intense, and (c) the degree of intimacy in online affairs is high. All these worries are genuine and can be found in many online relationships.

One way of reducing the weight of these difficulties is to distance the online affair from offline circumstances; for example, by refraining from exchanging personal, actual details or by having other types of limitation upon the online affair. Thus, people may agree not to develop a profound relationship, permitting themselves only a virtual one-night stand, or an uncommitted affair, or promising to tell each other about each online affair. As one woman in a committed relationship remarks about her online sexual affairs: "I've had this discussion with my boyfriend and we both agree that as long as it's not with the same person more than twice, it is really masturbation. It's like reading an erotic story and masturbating to it. I think, however, if you do it with the same person more than once there is a risk of getting attached to them." However, the above types of limitations are extremely difficult to obey, as online boundaries are less constant and less rigid.

Generally, online affairs are easier to perform and put the agent in a less vulnerable position, as the chances of getting caught or being hurt in other ways are considerably reduced. They are also perceived to involve a lesser degree of betrayal as they involve more imaginary elements and the degree of neglecting the partner's interests may also be lesser. The private nature of online affairs may make them less painful for the betrayed partner as well. Moreover, when online affairs are revealed to the significant other, which is done more often than in offline circumstances, it cannot be considered as cheating.

Nevertheless, since online affairs are psychologically real they often cause actual harm to the primary, offline romantic relationships. Accordingly, people are likely to be just as disturbed about their partner's online sexual affairs as they would be if they discovered that their spouse was exchanging steamy love letters with someone else. Since people do not consider online affairs as mere fantasy or as mere interactions with an anonymous series of computer links, such affairs are highly emotional and can be harmful.

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Aaron Ben-Zeév, Ph.D., former President of the University of Haifa, is Professor of Philosophy. His books include: In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and its Victims.

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