THE BLOG

Flirting Online and Infidelity: Is This Our New Normal?

06/24/2011 02:20 pm ET | Updated Aug 24, 2011

Infidelity and flirting seems to be the new norm amongst politicians and celebrities, but is that what's really going on in households across the country?

Preliminary data shows that not only is flirting online and infidelity very close to becoming our "new normal," it's often tolerated within relationships.

The Normal Bar is an interactive survey gathering data from thousands of people on what the norms look like in today's society in relationships and dating. Although The Normal Bar is still gathering data, the results so far are alarming--especially when it comes to online infidelity.

When we asked people in a committed relationship, "Have you ever flirted with somebody online (chat room, Facebook, email, etc.)?", overall 46 percent said yes, and there was no significant difference in levels of flirting by age. There was, however, a significant difference in the levels of flirting broken out by gender. 51 percent of men, versus 41 percent of women, admitted to flirting online.

Dr. Pepper Schwartz, Professor of Sociology at the University of Washington and one of the authors of The Normal Bar, believes that these data show that easy access to sites that encourage and regularize flirting has changed men's and women's sexual habits. "The possibility of anonymity or physical distance from one another makes cyber-flirting seem innocent-and just sexy fun the first time someone tries it. However, people's emotions and desires build and what started out as a casual flirtation can build into a habit--and perhaps, an in-person meeting".

When we asked people in committed relationships if they thought of flirting online as being unfaithful, 51 percent of the women said yes, and 49 percent of the men also said yes.

Dr. Schwartz believes that means that a large number of the people who flirt online know that it is not something they would want their partner to find out and that many people resist the urge to flirt online because they do want to remain faithful.

Continues Schwartz: "It is interesting, however, that about half of people who have taken this survey so far think that flirting online is ok, and one has to wonder if they are kidding themselves. I mean, would they really be comfortable if their partner was doing the same thing?"

What happens when flirting turns into infidelity? In our survey, we asked people, "How would you react if you learned your partner had sex outside your relationship?"

Our preliminary results show that the culture has shifted somewhat about how they would react to infidelity. The Normal Bar results show that 59 percent of population would stay in their relationship, which is a significant majority. A large number-- 41 percent--would dissolve the relationship if they found out their partner had sex with someone else, but that's not the majority!

Why the reason for these results? The media is one likely culprit. Dr Schwartz believes "we have become somewhat desensitized to the shock of finding out about infidelity by the frequency with which it is portrayed on television and reported in the media about Presidents, Congressmen, movie stars and even high school teachers. This doesn't mean we accept non-monogamy or that the discovery of infidelity is not painful. It means that some people are treating infidelity in a similar way to how we now look at alcoholism or other human failings--for example, that, depending on the circumstances, it may be something that the person can apologize for, overcome with treatment and not repeat."

But attitudes have changed in other ways as well. We asked the following question: "What if you could have one night with somebody outside your committed relationship and it would have no effect on you, your relationship or family. As if that one night never happened...would you do it?"

The Normal Bar currently shows that 53 percent of respondents would have said yes.

When we compared people 18-24 years old to people 34-44, we found a stark contrast. As people age, they start changing their idea about what they'd be willing to do. 41 percent of the younger people would take advantage of the sexual opportunity compared to 61 percent of the older group. And not only age made a difference--so did time in a relationship.

It seems there is a very vulnerable moment in relationships when people have been together for almost ten years. A full 71 percent of people who had been together nine years said they would go for that one-night stand.

Dr. Schwartz believes that in the late teens and early twenties, there is a certain amount of being led around by one's hormones but that it is also the time of romantic pairing. Some people take advantage of sexual opportunity, but others are busy building relationships and don't want to hurt them.

"But as people age, and the relationship goes on, they often look wistfully back at sexual adventure and miss the "good old days." They don't always follow their sexual yearnings but these data indicate that if they could get away with a sexual opportunity with total security against exposure or relationship consequences, a lot more of them would take advantage of an opportunity. Not everyone would of course, but a rather eye-opening percentage have basically said that their desire for variety remains--even if fear of hurting a relationship or someone they love keeps then in check."

Are you normal? Take our interactive survey and find out how your normal compares to others. Data will be used for articles in our partnership with Huffington Post and The Normal Bar book will be published in 2012 by Crown Publishing Group, a Division of Random House.