Everyone in the media is talking about whether Anthony Weiner’s indiscretions count as cheating, and whether young people have different ideas about sexting and monogamy than everyone else. Huffington Post ran polls on whether sexting is “actual” cheating. The New York Times called Weiner’s interactions “online flirtations,” while The Daily Beast felt the need to qualify with parentheses — “adultery (of a kind).” Tom Gara of The Wall Street Journal tweeted that “if your biggest relationship shortcoming is you like having online sex chats with other women, thats miles from the big-league of shortcomings.” And in a segment on ABC News about sexting, relationship expert Donna Barnes said that while Weiner was “doing the sexual intimacy” with Leathers, he wasn’t guilty of physical or emotional infidelity because “he didn’t even know this person.”
Didn’t he, though?
Old folks are wont to say that nothing is what it seems on the internet; people (or “trolls”) say horrible things they don’t really mean, Anthony Weiner is Carlos Danger, and no one knows you’re a dog. But those things don’t just happen inside a computer. They are part of the real world: The victims of online bullying sometimes kill themselves, Huma Abedin is still married to that guy, and any dog who’s using the internet has a lot of explaining to do.
For those who grew up with the internet, the people they know online and the people they know offline are often one and the same. We interact all day on Facebook with friends we first met face-to-face, and we meet our Twitter followers for drinks. The internet is real life, and that’s all there is to it.
The first time I met online friends in person, it was 1994 and I was 12 years old. They were the fellow users of a local dial-up bulletin board system (BBS) in the Washington, D.C., area. Other than using nerdy aliases like Surrealistic Pickle and Snow Wookie, we were completely ourselves online and the first time I “met” them wasn’t really like meeting them at all. I already knew them. And while hanging out in person was cool, we were still awkward teens — all a little better at expressing ourselves in writing than we were face-to-face. When I look back, I remember our endless discussions on our message boards much more vividly than I remember the meet-ups.
Since then, I’ve made important memories both offline and on. Some of the most intense romantic moments I’ve had with boyfriends and crushes have been on the phone, via text, or over email (or during a few torrid weeks, with Twitter’s direct message feature). A few years ago I visited a friend who I’d been a bit in love with and found, on his wall, a Post-it Note on which he’d inscribed a drunken text message I’d once sent him.
I immediately took a picture of it with my iPhone.
Email and text messaging and social media are tools that humans use to talk, to get to know each other, to titillate, and sometimes to fall in love. They are — like landlines and postal services and telegrams before them — simply the messenger. Communicating with someone via text is no less real than writing them a love letter or even whispering in their ear. Either you are intimate with that person or you are not.
The woman who calls herself Sydney Leathers uses a fake name online, but she understands that the only wall between the internet and “real life” is an imaginary one in the minds of old folks like Anthony Weiner. She wrote about the affair for XO Jane and describes her affair with Weiner as “almost like my best friend.”
Being in a monogamous marriage while exchanging sexual fantasies and explicit photos with someone else isn’t a new kind of betrayal, and a panel isn’t needed to analyze whether or not it counts. It does. Young people, who grew up with the internet in their lives all along, understand this implicitly. It’s only the folks for whom this is all still new that the internet can be confused for a game where the rules don’t apply.