Anthony Weiner's cybersex relationships: If it's only online, is it still cheating?

Science, technology, and life.
June 7 2011 8:35 AM

Meetless Weiner

If Anthony Weiner never met his online girlfriends in the flesh, does that mean he didn't cheat?

Here's what Rep. Anthony Weiner said at his press conference yesterday, according to multiple sources:

Over the past few years, I have engaged in several inappropriate conversations conducted over Twitter, Facebook, email, and occasionally on the phone with women I had met online. I have exchanged messages and photos of an explicit nature with about six women over the last three years. For the most part, these communications took place before my marriage, though some have sadly took place after. To be clear, I have never met these any of these women or had physical relationships at any time.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right. Follow him on Twitter.

The key sentence—"for the most part, these communications took place before my marriage"—appears in transcripts and excerpts published by CNN, CBS, Fox, NY1 television, the New York Post, the Daily Mail, the Atlantic, and Slate. But an important word—or, rather, half a word—is missing from those transcripts. If you watch the press conference on C-SPAN, about a minute and a half in, you'll hear it. "For the most part," says Weiner, "these relaysh—these communications took place before my marriage."

Anthony Weiner's Facebook page. Click image to expand
Rep. Weiner's Facebook page

The rest of the word is obvious. Weiner was about to call his interactions with these women "relationships." But that would be too honest and dangerous. Relationship implies infidelity. Communication, on the other hand, suggests mere flirting.

Rewind the video, and you can see what happened. Weiner had looked up from his text and was trying to find his place again when the R-word slipped out of his mouth. Halfway through it, he saw that the scripted word was communications and corrected himself.

Ten days into Weinergate, this is where we stand. The congressman has admitted to fooling around with women online, but he refuses to acknowledge that this was unfaithful. What's worth debating now isn't what he did, but what it means. Increasingly, sexual adventures outside of marriage are taking place online. Is this cheating? Or is it something less, as long as you don't touch one another?

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Like Bill Clinton, who officiated at his wedding, Weiner defines sex in a way that excludes his shenanigans. "I've never had sex outside my marriage," the congressman insisted yesterday. But unlike Clinton, Weiner doesn't have to parse the significance of fellatio. Weiner's definition is more defensible: If you don't meet in person, it isn't adultery.

Throughout the press conference, Weiner stressed this point. "I have never met any of these women or had physical relationships at any time," he declared in his opening statement. When a reporter asked whether he had ever had "phone sex" or an "affair" with any of the women, Weiner replied: "I never met any of these women. I never was in the same room with them. I never had any physical relationship whatsoever."

Weiner depicted his online interactions as a kind of game disconnected from reality. "I never met these women, and I know I never really had much desire to," he said. "To me it was, you know, almost a frivolous exchange among friends that I don't think I made an important enough distinction about how hurtful it was and how inappropriate it was." Sexting other woman was more hurtful than he had meant. But to him, it was innocent, since they had never met.

But that defense won't fly. Weiner did meet these women. In his opening statement, he called them "women I had met online." Later, he referred to some of them as "women that I met on Facebook." This is the reality of social networking: Our introductions to people in cyberspace often feel like genuine encounters. We have met them in the new sense, if not in the old one.