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Anthony Weiner Scandal: Do Twitter, Facebook Flirtations Constitute 'Avatar Affairs'?

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After days of misinformation and false accusations of Twitter hacking run amok, Weinergate peaked Monday when Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) admitted to having sent revealing photographs of himself sporting boxer briefs and an erection to a 21-year-old woman via Twitter. While Weiner confessed to having had similar “communications” with six women over Facebook, Twitter and email for the past three years both before and during his marriage, he offered the caveat that the liaisons began and ended online.

This new breed of online extra-marital relationship -- with erotic chat and online photo exchange but no physical contact whatsoever -- has become an increasingly prevalent practice.

“The 'avatar affair' is all smoke no fire," said Pamela Haag, author of the newly released book “Marriage Confidential: The Post-Romantic Age of Workhorse Wives, Royal Children, Undersexed Spouses & Rebel Couples.”

"It happens online, totally in cyber-land, with the exchange of emails and images, and the lovers never meet and never touch,” Haag added.

At Monday’s press conference, Weiner clarified:

I never met these women and I know never really had much desire to, and to me it was 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.

Although Weiner expressed feelings of remorse for his actions, according to a 1998 MSNBC survey addressing online “sexual relationships," 64 percent of participants said that they were in a committed relationships while engaging in online erotic chat and 87 percent still said that they did not feel guilty about online flirting and chat and instead seeing it as a form of entertainment akin to reading Playboy.

With another public figure enmeshed in yet another political sex scandal, questions have circulated in the media as to whether sexts and online chats constitute cheating. When watching Weiner’s press conference on a slowed speed, it is evident the Congressman formed the word “relationship” before quickly changing his term for the nature of his interactions to “communications,” Slate reported. Weiner may have been trying to suggest his behavior constituted flirtation rather than hard-core infidelity, this emotional disconnect does not necessarily exist for the spouse of the person engaging with an avatar lover.

“It is very hurtful if you are in bed at night, waiting to make love to your partner and they are not interested because they have already spent themselves online,” said Dr. Jennifer Schneider, a sex addiction expert who has studied the emotion repercussions of affairs in the Internet age. “My studies show that for the spouse, an online affair is exactly like a “real life” affair except for not having the risk of sexually transmitted diseases.” Partners are still guilty of disconnecting from their spouses, keeping secrets and lying about behavior.

Schneider added that in some cases -- not necessarily including Weiner’s -- such online behavior could be indicative of a sexual addiction, which is conservatively estimated to be prevalent among 3 to 5 percent of the U.S. population.

“When this happens to a well known figure -- and we have a lot of them these days -- we ask what they were thinking,” Schneider said. “They weren’t. They were in an altered state, and it usually isn’t an isolated event; they’ve usually had a long history, and they got restless and got caught. This is usually just the tip of the iceberg. Six women? That’s just right now, this week.”

According to a 2010 survey of the 1600 members of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, 81 percent of members had seen an increase during the past five years in the number of cases that use social networking evidence.

Linda Lea Viken, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers and a divorce attorney in South Dakota, has argued numerous cases in which evidence from Facebook or Twitter has undermined testimony in court proceedings.

“I have been quoted about [social media playing a significant role in divorce court] with numerous local papers and was worried that people would read it, take note and I’d lose great evidence in court,” Viken said. “But people are getting even worse. It doesn’t faze them.”

Viken said incriminating evidence ranges from pictures of husbands with 20-something-year-old women on boats with beer to men asking for full custody who have an online profile stating they are single without children. One man fighting accusations of an aggression problem's online “about me” description read, Viken said: “If you have the balls to get in my face, I'll kick your ass into submission."

“One thing I always tell people of those kinds of social media, before you post it, before you send it, read it out loud and pretend you are in a courtroom reading it in front of a judge,” Viken said “If you don’t want to read it, don't post it because it will be read in the courtroom.”