June 8, 2011 in Nation/World

Many see tech flirting as a form of cheating

Weiner’s admission brings virtual activity to forefront
Jocelyn Noveck Associated Press
Ethics probe

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi has formally requested a House ethics panel probe of New York Rep. Anthony Weiner. Pelosi on Tuesday sent a brief letter to the leaders of the committee noting that Weiner had “disclosed conduct that he described as inappropriate.” Weiner said Tuesday he would fully cooperate with the panel.

Sexting survey

Adults: 15 percent received a “sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude photo or video” on their cellphone, and 6 percent said they had sent one.

18-to-29 demographic: The numbers rose to 31 percent for receiving and 13 percent for sending.

Source: 2010 Pew Internet and American Life Project

Jon Austin’s wife, Amy, had a blunt assessment for her husband as the Minneapolis couple watched Rep. Anthony Weiner’s stunning confessions on television this week.

“You’d be dead,” she told him.

Regardless of his professional future, it’s Weiner’s predicament at home that seems to be launching countless discussions among couples like the Austins. And this time, it’s not a question of actual physical cheating – a la Eliot Spitzer and his prostitution scandal – but the murkier backdrop of Internet relationships: sexting, tweeting lewd photos, emailing.

If it’s virtual, does it constitute infidelity? Many Americans seem to think it does.

“Would you text it, post it, send it with your spouse looking over your shoulder?” asks Austin, 52, who works in corporate public relations and takes no issue with his wife’s frank appraisal of the situation. “If yes, then it’s not infidelity. If no, you’re cheating.”

In online postings and follow-up phone calls with The Associated Press, dozens of people echoed the same thought: Cheating need not be physical.

“I think the emotional betrayal is just as bad,” says Marissa Bholan, a 22-year-old graduate student in Syracuse, N.Y. “A married person should not be flirting online – or in any manner, really. It demonstrates a clear unfaithfulness. You’re married. Act like it.”

For one woman in Texas, the danger of online relationships became painfully apparent when she caught a boyfriend trading amorous instant messages with an Internet friend – at one point on her own laptop.

When Beky Hayes confronted him, he told her he never felt his virtual friend was “a real person” – even though an actual, clandestine visit seemed to be in the planning stages.

“I think there’s a perception that what you’re doing online is somehow not real,” says Hayes, a musician in Austin. “But of course it is.”

And men, Hayes adds, may be more vulnerable to the lure of Internet relationships “because they allow them to escape the responsibilities and pressures of real relationships.” She is no longer seeing that boyfriend.

A specialist in Internet addiction agrees that many people turn to online relationships to escape the pressures of their daily lives, reveling in the anonymity – particularly if, like a congressman, they are well known.

But some, says Kimberly Young, director of the Center for Internet Addiction Recovery, experience a more dangerous sense of detachment, somehow convincing themselves once the laptop is closed: “I didn’t really do that. That wasn’t me.” And they don’t see their actions as infidelity.

“I’ve seen married people go to great lengths to cover things up, hiding phone bills and the like,” says Young, a practicing psychologist. “But they don’t think it’s cheating. They say, ‘I love my wife.’ ”

There are few statistics available on adults and online relationships, partly because most research has focused on teenagers.

The most recent was a 2004 ABC News poll, in which 64 percent of adults felt that “if a person who’s married or in a committed relationship has sex talk in an Internet chat room,” they would consider that being unfaithful; 33 percent would not.

Is the Weiner scandal – in which the married congressman finally confessed, after days of denying it, to tweeting a lewd crotch photo of himself to a woman in Seattle – a Mars vs. Venus moment? Do men see it differently than women?

Psychologist Gail Saltz thinks so. “For men, the sexual act is much more disturbing than anything else,” says Saltz, who sees many couples in her Manhattan practice. “For women, what constitutes a betrayal is any emotional or sexual interaction.”

Of course, Saltz notes, men are more forgiving when it comes to judging other men, but not so much in judging their own partners. “A man would be extremely disturbed if his wife did any of this,” Saltz said, referring to the type of activity Weiner says he engaged in.

© Copyright 2011 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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