Weiner episode raises questions about online flirting with strangers.

June 7, 2011 | By | 9 Replies More

Over at Slate.com, William Saletan uses the recent scandal involving Anthony Weiner to explore the propriety of online flirtation with people one has never met.   Does this sort of activity constitute cheating on one’s significant other?   Saletan offers a thoughtful and serious discussion that meshes well with another recurring question these days:  to what extent are those Facebook “Friends” I’ve never met my friends?  If not much, then it would seem that our time with them amounts to social masturbation, and not any meaningful expression of friendship.

In the case of Weiner, I do think it’s telling that that he claims that he was not cheating, and he was not engaged in “relationships,” yet he was willing to lie to cover up what he was doing.   But maybe that raises another provocative question:  Just because one would rather not be exposed for doing an activity, is that any evidence at all that the activity is morally wrong?   Is social condemnation always an indicia of moral lapse.  After all, quite often the crowd is simply judgmental.   Or maybe the onlookers are simply permeated with schadenfreude.

I know people who have been married for decades who don’t talk to each other, and who don’t really know each other, yet they officially have a marriage.  Why is this situation not condemned?  Isn’t it a farce?  On the other hand, I know many people who are married, who sincerely admit that they can’t and shouldn’t expect that they could have all of their diverse needs and interests met by only one other human being.   Hence, in the face of a strong relationship at home, they have a wide variety of outside friends (often friends of both sexes) that they spend time with regarding those things their significant other isn’t passionate about, whether it be photography, history, raising dogs or whatever.  Sometimes that interest is flirtation; sometimes even sex.  I’m not suggesting any sort of lesson here, but what gives the crowd the right to judge a particular marriage that, in its own crazy-seeming way, seems to work?

And how could anyone concerned about this country not be dismayed, once again, when a sexually-tinged side show takes 90% of the media’s attention, such that real issues are not given proper coverage.  Could this be solved by requiring members of Congress to stand up naked while they give speeches on important topics?   How could we focus media attention on Wall Street corruption or the massive amount of money we spend of discretionary warmongering and, instead, encourage viewers to talk about these things intensely, to the same extent that we are all now jabbering about a horny man who has otherwise done an admirable job of being a thoughtful representative?   I have no answer to this question.


Category: Politics, Sex

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (9)

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  1. I don't think of online relationships as "social masturbation" — they're just as real as meatspace relationships, which also have varying degrees of shallowness.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Chip: I agree that many people limit their Facebook "Friends" to people they really know, but there are quite a few people who revel in being "friends" with people they collect as purported proof of their own value.

      As far as how many Friends people have on face book, The Economist offers this:

      The Economist asked Cameron Marlow, the “in-house sociologist” at Facebook, to crunch some numbers. Dr Marlow found that the average number of “friends” in a Facebook network is 120, consistent with Dr Dunbar’s hypothesis, and that women tend to have somewhat more than men. But the range is large, and some people have networks numbering more than 500, so the hypothesis cannot yet be regarded as proven.

      What also struck Dr Marlow, however, was that the number of people on an individual’s friend list with whom he (or she) frequently interacts is remarkably small and stable. The more “active” or intimate the interaction, the smaller and more stable the group.

      Thus an average man—one with 120 friends—generally responds to the postings of only seven of those friends by leaving comments on the posting individual’s photos, status messages or “wall”. An average woman is slightly more sociable, responding to ten. When it comes to two-way communication such as e-mails or chats, the average man interacts with only four people and the average woman with six. Among those Facebook users with 500 friends, these numbers are somewhat higher, but not hugely so. Men leave comments for 17 friends, women for 26. Men communicate with ten, women with 16.


      Here's another bit about Robin Dunbar and Facebook, from All Facebook:

      According to Robin Dunbar, professor of evolutionary anthropology at Oxford University, the Facebook yardstick that your brain can only handle is 150 friends.

      Okay, so you have hundreds, maybe even thousands of Facebook friends. But guess what? All but 150 are meaningless, as far as true friendships are concerned.


  2. Erich Vieth says:

    The St. Louis Post-Dispatch raises questions about media priorities:

    The nation is spending $2 billion a week in Afghanistan, propping up one of the most corrupt governments since Caligula's. Five soldiers and a Marine were killed there in the last week. Outgoing Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates concluded his final trip there on Tuesday by channeling the late Gen. William C. Westmoreland: "I leave Afghanistan today with the belief that if we keep this momentum up we will deliver a decisive blow to the enemy and turn the corner on this conflict."

    After we deliver that decisive blow and turn the corner, maybe we will see the light at the end of the tunnel.

    Meanwhile, in Iraq (remember Iraq?) five U.S. soldiers were killed Monday in a rocket attack. At least spending there is down to $1.3 billion a week.

    The nation has serious problems. Anthony Weiner isn't one of them. Sarah Palin's vacation isn't one of them. News judgment is.


  3. Erika Price says:

    I wish Will Saletan had also mentioned the flexibility and subjectivity of the term cheating. For some people, a kiss at a party is a violation of trust. For others, the line is having sex with someone else and not telling one's primary partner about it. For others, online correspondence is acceptable but in-person encounters are taboo. For others still, a degree of physical/sexual contact with a third party is OK as long as the partner is present. And all conceivable combinations exist- maybe certain sexual or flirtatious acts are 'cheating' while others are fine. Et cetera.

    I'm not just talking about relationships that are sexually open versus closed; many monogamous couples have widely varying definitions of 'cheating'. And considering the prevalence of infidelity of one sort or another, unconsummated dick-pics seem utterly benign. Wives and husbands the world over have forgiven much worse.

    Weiner's actions for me raise only one concern: that he was sending these sexts to women who weren't interested. If he were trading pics over an online dating site or Craigslist (which is so common as to render Craigslist nearly unusable for in-person encounters, I've heard), I'd see nothing wrong with his actions whatsoever. But sharing these shots with women out-of-the-blue, unprovoked seems like a creepy boundary violation, albeit minor.

  4. Ben says:

    One of my close friends joined one of those match websites and is doing well. I, for one, would be appalled if women just started sending me suggestive photos out of the blue.

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    Rachel Maddow is furious that the Democrats piled on to kick out Anthony Wiener:

    "Congratulations, Democrats," she said. "In an era of unhinged, ideological, big money conservative media that is wholly and admittedly divorced from the precepts of journalism, in hounding Anthony Weiner into resigning … you have just fed and unleashed this beast onto yourselves, probably for a generation."


  6. erichvieth says:

    I didn’t quite know where to put this telephone sex worker video but I found it both funny and interesting. An Australian comedy show called two telephone sex workers and conferenced them together, not telling either of them that the other was a telephone sex worker. I have never before (really!) called such a service and found it interesting how the conversation opened up and progressed. This doesn’t actually even get R rated, and the segment is worth a laugh or two.

  7. Erich Vieth says:

    Here’s a well-written and thoughtful article on whether strict monogamy should be assumed to be an aspect over the full course of a marriage. This article, written by Mark Oppenheimer, focuses on the advice given over the years by sex guru Dan Savage.

    What is Savage’s perspective on monogamy?

    Savage’s position on monogamy is frequently caricatured. He does not believe in promiscuity; indeed, his attacks on the anonymous-sex, gay-bathhouse culture were once taken as proof of a secret conservative agenda. And he does not believe that monogamy is wrong for all couples or even for most couples. Rather, he says that a more realistic sexual ethic would prize honesty, a little flexibility and, when necessary, forgiveness over absolute monogamy. And he believes nostalgically, like any good conservative, that we might look to the past for some clues.

    Savage recognizes that there is far more binding together a couple than sex. Therefore, extramarital sex should not necessarily be a deal-breaker, though it often is.

    It was not until the 20th century that Americans evolved an understanding of marriage in which partners must meet all of each other’s needs: sexual, emotional, material. When we rely on our partners for everything, any hint of betrayal is terrifying. “That is the bind we are in,” Coontz said. “We accord so much priority to the couple relationship. It is tough under those conditions for most people to live with the insecurity of giving their partners permission to have flings.”

    Oppenheimer does a great job of recapping many of Savage’s opinions, as well as adding his own thoughts to the mix.


  8. A good deal of Savage’s attitude seems to be “If you’re going to have a picnic, clean up your mess afterward. If you’re not willing to do that, eat at home.” Behind the often hilarious way he writes, there is a grounded pragmatist at work who will not forgive those who seek only to have their own party at everyone else’s expense. Recall my post on this and that I said sex must be consensual, but consensual means a whole lot more than just two people saying yes.

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