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?

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.

Weiner's concession was more than semantic. When a reporter accused him of sexting complete strangers, the congressman replied: "I didn't have the sense that they were complete strangers. These were people that I had developed relationships with online, and I believed that we had become friends. But that was clearly a mistake."

So if the question is whether Weiner sent naughty pictures to strangers, the answer is no, he sent them to people—not women, but "people"—whom he had met and with whom he had relationships. But if the question is whether he cheated on his wife, the answer is no, because he never met these women, and he had only "communications" with them, not relationships.

Sorry, but that story doesn't add up. And it doesn't square with the emerging details of Weiner's online behavior. According to ABC News, Meagan Broussard, a 26-year-old woman armed with documentation, says the congressman "almost immediately" friended her on Facebook after she called one of his political videos "hottttt." They went on to exchange "hundreds of messages," many of which were sexual. On some occasions, she recalls him asking, "What are you wearing? What do you like? You know, in the bedroom…" In another message, he supposedly joked, "I am stalking you." Broussard also says Weiner phoned her and mentioned her daughter's name, which "kind of freaked me out because you had to pilfer through my Facebook to find out her name." And then there were the photos of his bare chest and thinly clothed erection.

In the annals of lust and sin, Weiner is just another straying husband. But in the unfolding story of information technology, he's a milestone worth thinking about. The trajectory of political sex scandals—Clinton, Mark Foley, Kwame Kilpatrick, Mark Sanford, and now Weiner—has taken us from phone sex to chat rooms to sexting to email to Facebook and Twitter. We're finding new realms in which to wander, meet people, and flirt. You can call these adventures whatever you want to. But we all know what they are. They're relationships.

(Readings I recommend: Sexual revelations probably won't bring Weiner down, but new details about his cover-up attempts might. Hendrik Hertzberg at the New Yorker calls Weinergate " the first entirely virtual political sex scandal, the first to have been conducted entirely via e-mail, and online social media." Dave Weigel points out that cybersex is often physical: Anyone who has dealt with Weiner online may now wonder, " What the hell was he doing as we talked?" Andrew Sullivan asks " if online flirting is unforgivable, why isn't off-line flirting unforgivable?" Having previously ripped Andrew Breitbart for misrepresenting Shirley Sherrod, I owe him a nod for being right about Weiner even when Weiner was misrepresenting him.)

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