In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

Is Chatting Cheating?

Some see no difference between real and online affairs. Many others disagree.

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

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

In his stimulating paper, "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 a sexual affair. In reality, though, the issue of online cheating is more complex—especially when it concerns sexual activities involving actual interaction with other individuals.

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People, consciously or not, consider their online sexual relationships as real—they experience psychological states similar to those typically elicited by offline relationships. Accordingly, cybersex is not merely a conversation about sex, but a form of sexual encounter involves experiences typical of other encounters, such as sexual arousal, masturbation, orgasm, and satisfaction. Indeed, people consider cybersex to have a high degree of psychological reality—but many do not consider it to be morally real—at least not as real as offline affairs.

One survey found that more than 60 percent of people having cybersex do not consider it to be infidelity. Many of them believe cybersex to be similar to pornography—an extension of fantasy that actually helps to keep them from physical affairs with other people. Consider the following statement from a 41-year-old married man (all citations are from Love Online):

"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."

Some people, then, consider cybersex as a means not to cheat—something that may even add spice to their offline relationship. These people believe that if they do not even 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's no different from reading a novel or other form of entertainment. In other words, a way to play out fantasies in a safe environment.

Other people are willing to concede that cybersex without the knowledge of their partner, is cheating because it involves deception; nevertheless, some still maintain it's a type of "OK" cheating. In some circumstances, cybersex may in fact help a person through a rough period in an offline, loving relationship. In such situations, cybersex may even be advisable—but still 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 still do not want to ruin their relationship, cyberspace may offer a parallel world in which things are better. Time spent in that world can help them preserve their actual world, while not giving up on having exciting, even emotional experiences. Living within the two worlds is not easy, however, and may become increasingly risky when people do not realize the limitations of each.

Whereas people having online affairs tend to understate their problematic nature, their offline partners typically do not see any difference between online and offline affairs: A lack of direct physical contact and face-to-face meetings does not diminish the sense of a violation of their vow of exclusivity. The fact that most of these affairs are concealed from offline spouses is indicative of the possible harm. Consider this reaction:

"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."

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."

Just as casual sex is not necessarily inherently harmful, neither are online affairs. But they may be so when participants are also involved in another primary offline relationship, because of the harm imposed on those partners. In this regard, the following aspects are particularly significant:

  • The resources invested in such affairs are taken from the primary relationship.
  • The wish to actualize online relationship is intense.
  • The degree of intimacy in online affairs is high.

All of 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 imposing other limitations on the online affair. Thus, people may agree not to develop a profound relationship, permitting themselves only virtual one-night stands, or an uncommitted affair, or a promise with a partner 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 follow, as online boundaries are less constant and 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 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 when offline circumstances are involved, it could be considered as something less than cheating.

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

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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