Cybersex: Will it make monogamy obsolete?

Internet connectivity and online porn have opened new ways to engage in extramarital adventures.

He never touched another woman, and claims to be happily married—yet for years he’s been conducting virtual affairs through Facebook, Twitter, and texting. Just how unusual is Anthony Weiner, New York’s scandal-plagued Democratic congressman? asked Tracy Clark-Flory in Not very. In a brave new world of online porn and instant Internet connectivity, millions of other men and, yes, women are exploring the “countless new avenues” for extramarital adventures. Like it or not, “technology has forever changed the landscape of intimacy and fidelity,” and is now forcing us to reassess our traditional concepts of monogamy. Does “sexting” count as adultery? Or are these virtual dalliances with strangers we’ll never meet just a harmless form of online entertainment?

These are questions we’re just now beginning to consider, said Andrew Sullivan in For the first time in human history, the Internet enables people to create an alternative sexual reality where they can exist as “a body without a head (or a mind), a pair of strained underpants,” or even as an avatar with a whole new identity. “We haven’t quite figured out how to square this with our other lives.” In the past, infidelity was fraught with the possibility of destructive consequences, including sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies. Not so if you “cheat” through an online sex chat or a pornographic webcam. These activities are so wildly popular, especially among people under 35, because they allow otherwise monogamous individuals to let off some steam. What’s so terrible about that? said Jessica Bennett, also in A recent survey found that 65 percent of women “and a whopping 80 percent of men” say they’d cheat if they knew they wouldn’t get caught. It’s simply unreasonable to expect one person to fulfill your every need, sexual or otherwise, through decades of marriage. Cybersex is just one of the many ways modern couples are seeking a little extra on the side. “That doesn’t mean the end of marriage,” but it may mean that we have to revise the rules.

If you think online sex isn’t “real,” said William Saletan in, you’re fooling yourself. The Internet creates an illusion of anonymity among its users, making them think of online affairs as a “kind of a game disconnected from reality.” That was the rationalization Weiner himself used to excuse his “sexting”; as he said in his defense, “I never met these women. I never really had much desire to.” But what he called his “communications” turned into real online relationships, rife with intimate exchanges and sexual expression, which he pursued addictively and recklessly. Weiner’s pregnant wife is now heartsick, and his career is in tatters. Sounds pretty real to me.

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But what a strange kind of reality it is, said Ross Douthat in The New York Times. As Weiner has reminded us, cybersex isn’t about relationships at all, or even about sex. It’s about narcissism—in its most “desperate and adolescent” form. You don’t tweet photos of your penis or artsy shots of your gym-sculpted pecs because you’re fascinated with the women on the other end. You send them because you’re fascinated with...yourself. Narcissism, of course, existed long before Facebook and Twitter, but social media serve “as a hall of mirrors in which it flourishes as never before.” In this obsessive new realm, the real thrill comes not from talking dirty but from the chance to say, over and over: “Look at me! Look at meeeee!”

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