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Nobody Can Agree on What Constitutes Cheating Anymore

The internet has fucked this up for all of us

Some truths hold fast no matter how much society changes: Sleeping with or kissing another person, once or a lot, when you’re committed to an exclusive relationship with another person, is something most of us see as cheating. But a new survey reveals that we’d be hard-pressed to find real consensus on whether all the other ways people can dilly-dally around on the internet count as infidelity, whether it’s sexting, flirtatious messaging, keeping your Tinder account active, or even watching porn without your significant other.

The survey, from (the family-oriented site, it should be noted) Deseret News and YouGov used data 1,000 people across the U.S. as well as 250 Mormons (relevant: the Deseret News is based in Salt Lake City), to take our temperature on what we think of as a legit side piece these days. Turns out some 76 percent of Americans see sex as cheating (Mormons, 84 percent); 73 percent consider a one-night stand as cheating (Mormons, 87 percent); and 71 percent consider kissing to be cheating (Mormons, 80 percent). (No word on what’s up with the 24 percent who don’t think sex is cheating. Surely they can’t all be nonmonogamous?)

But the percentages go down from there as we move to digital turf. The following percentage of all Americans and Mormons polled saw the following things as cheating, too:

  • Sexually explicit messages (69 percent of Americans; 78 percent of Mormons)
  • Actively maintaining an online dating profile (63 percent; 78 percent)
  • Being emotionally involved with someone else (55 percent; 64 percent)
  • Sending flirtatious messages (51 percent; 67 percent)
  • Going out to dinner with someone you find attractive (37 percent; 50 percent)
  • Going to a strip club without your partner (23 percent; 62 percent)
  • Watching porn without your partner (19 percent; 56 percent)
  • Following an ex on social media (16 percent; 24 percent)

Obviously, religious folks tend to be more pearl-clutching about consorting with the opposite sex. Also not surprising, older people in general have stricter views about what constitutes cheating compared with the younger generations. But where the obvious didn’t bear out were in some little differences between millennials and Gen X-ers. While they were mostly in agreement over what constitutes “always cheating,” some 60 percent of Gen-Xers were fine with keeping up a dating profile while committed, compared to just 50 percent of millennials. Some 16 percent of millennials were not okay with someone following an ex on social media, whereas only 10 percent of Generation X folks thought it was a big deal (maybe they are too old to realize “following” an ex could also mean stalking around the clock). Likewise, 33 percent of millennials thought dinner with someone you have the hots for was a shit move, whereas only 28 percent of Gen-Xers felt that way.

This isn’t a huge sample size, but there is no question that the internet has moved the needle for all of us in terms of fidelity by simply making it easier to trawl for kicks without ever leaving the house. Get bored or dissatisfied enough with your current partner, and a little sweet relief is a mere click away. Studies from more impartial places have also found that lots of people—men at twice the rate of women—use Facebook for emotional affairs or so-called “back-burner relationships,” ones where you maintain a side flirtation just enough to keep it viable should your current relationship crash and burn.

That said, what is or isn’t a betrayal is going to vary widely among couples based on their own values, experiences and negotiations. So while the internet may be a Pandora’s box of confusion for defining how to keep a relationship on the straight and narrow these days, it still comes down to whether two people can, at long last, agree on how much the mouse can play, mostly online, even when the cat is sitting right there beside you.