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When Is Sexting Cheating?

A new documentary on Anthony Weiner’s downfall begs the question

Halfway through the documentary Weiner, a warts-and-all look at former congressman Anthony Weiner’s disastrous 2013 New York City mayoral campaign, references to the scandal that unraveled his career are reduced to two words: “the thing.”

For those in need of a memory-jog, “the thing” involved photos of Weiner’s penis, multiple women (including a 22-year-old porn actress named Sydney Leathers) and some very explicit naughty talk. What “the thing” didn’t include, however, is actual sex or infidelity, at least by the conventional definition of the word. While other high-profile political sex scandals revolved around “things” like paying prostitutes $3,000 per hour for sex (in the case of former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer) or fathering a child with a housekeeper (in the case of former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenneger), Weiner’s scandal didn’t include any sex.

Which raises the question: Was it still cheating?

In the film, which won the prize for best documentary at the Sundance Film Festival and will get a limited theatrical release later this month, Weiner describes his online flirting as initially being “superficial.” He thought of it as a game. “I had a blind spot about it,” he says in the film. “And it was a big blind spot.”

There were ultimately two batches of damaging texts released over the span of several years. The first, released in May of 2011, forced Weiner to resign from Congress after being eviscerated in the press.

“Is there any point, really, in trying to fix men?” wrote New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd at the time. “This scandal resonates less as a feminist horror story than an Internet horror story.” The film picks up with Weiner two years later, when, on the eve of announcing his run for mayor, the second batch of texts was released, dooming a candidacy that had been leading the polls.

“It’s like living in a nightmare,” said Weiner’s wife, Huma Abedin, when asked how she was feeling after the revelation of the second round of texts (which included messages like “Baby you’d be crawling for the door to prevent me from fucking you silly.”). However unlike the wives of Spitzer and Schwarzenegger who left their relationships in the wake of their husbands’ scandals, Abedin stayed with Weiner. It’s possible that Abedin and Weiner had an open relationship that allowed for the exchange of explicit texts. But it’s also possible that she didn’t consider her husband’s behavior to be cheating, or even an “emotional affair” — typically defined as a friendship that progresses toward greater levels of intimacy and attachment.

To be clear, no one is trying to defend Weiner whose behavior was dishonest, unseemly and frankly boneheaded. But unlike Spitzer and Schwarzenegger, Weiner broke a different set of rules that are far more complicated — the rules that determine the boundaries of acceptable behavior in the online world, which are rapidly evolving and still quite ambiguous.

If Abedin didn’t consider sexting to be cheating, she’s not alone. A recently released study commissioned by the law firm Slater Gordon found that less than half of women consider sexting cheating, and only a third of men. But public opinion differs from legal opinion. Had Huma decided to divorce Weiner, the digital trail he left would’ve been fair game in any divorce battle and potentially quite destructive. “It definitely has an impact” on rulings about custody or property division, says Tara Scott, a Los Angeles-based family law and divorce attorney. “People just don’t seem to realize how their stuff can be accessed in so many different ways.”

But often it’s not so cut and dry. Consider the hacking of the extramarital affair website Ashley Madison. What if your spouse was one of the 37 million who signed up for an account? Is that grounds for divorce? Or perhaps you discovered in your partner’s browsing history that he or she had simply visited the Ashley Madison but didn’t actually create an account. What then?

“Tens of millions of people in America were on this site at some point, and I’m sure some number of them were cheating on wonderful people in horrible ways. But there’s a pretty broad spectrum here, and everyone’s getting painted with the same brush, which feels pretty crazy,” said one person who was caught up in the sting, according to an article in Business Insider.

Of course, digital technologies are changing our relationship with sex even when they don’t involve explicitly planning an affair. Porn consumption is rampant and for couples in committed relationships, watching porn has become normalized—at least compared to the cultural standards of 20 years ago. On the other hand, with the advent of social media, cloud computing and online avatars there are many more opportunities for people to make really bad decisions and get exposed for them. The line between raciness and deviancy is razor thin.

Last fall, a friend of mine received a text from a male friend that included a naked selfie of a faceless woman. This would’ve been fine if the girl my friend had just started dating hadn’t come across the photo. My friend didn’t take the photo nor had he even asked for it, but he still spent the next week trying to smooth things over (it wasn’t a deal breaker). I’d wager almost everyone under the age of 40 has a story similar to this.

In the old days, the philanderers of the world relied on the old credo ‘deny, deny, deny.’ In the age of Weiner, however, it’s been updated to: delete, delete, delete.

Peter Kiefer is an L.A.-based writer. He previously wrote about Uber driver’s nerdy demographics for MEL.

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