What Anthony Weiner did online is not really surprising. Not in the least. Thousands, if not millions, of people engage in sexual banter by phone, text, and the internet every day. There's no way to tell how many of these people are married, but researchers have long known that online sex sites are well populated by people who say they are in serious relationships, including marriage.
Obviously, the pervasiveness of cyber-cheating does not make it right. But it should make us think. And it should stop us from indulging yet again in the righteously indignant finger-wagging that is possibly our most self-defeating national pastime. For once, when a salacious scandal like this one erupts, let's stop licking our chops long enough to ask what it means, not simply about him but about us.
I don't know Anthony Weiner and, like pretty much everyone else, can only speculate about why he did what he did, even after marrying a highly desirable woman. But I do know the rush of getting a text, or an instantaneous email response, or a "like" on Facebook, and realizing that someone is thinking happy thoughts about me. This feels good. Sometimes, depending on the sender, it feels really good. And however chemical-driven this reaction may be, it is easy to imagine wanting to feel that way again. And again. And ...
Therapists and religious leaders sometimes call this addiction, and I'm not qualified to say if they're right or wrong. I'm more interested in why so many perfectly decent, happily married people nonetheless engage, even fleetingly, in what we'd all like to tell ourselves is uncharacteristic, bawdy behavior. Perhaps cyber-flirting briefly eases the tedium of sitting at one's desk, day after day, trying to achieve something of value and wondering what's the point of it all. Maybe it promises comfort that someone has time for you or finds you attractive, when your spouse no longer seems to. No doubt it is, for some, a fantasy that helps one escape something -- a job, a marriage, the endless changing of diapers, that stressful commute -- that feels deadening. It helps one feel, let's face it, less lonely and afraid, more powerful and captivating. Or, in Megan Broussard's fateful word, hotttt!
Of course, besides being ephemeral, all of this soothing is utterly counterfeit, just like any other form of escapism. Visit the websites for women ensnared in electronic affairs and you'll see that they know they're being conned. Anthony Weiner surely knew this too; we all do. But loneliness, boredom, and fear persist in our everyday lives, and the old habits resurface. "Sexting is a lot less harmful than hard drinking or drug abuse," one might think. "Really, it hurts no one." But this belief too, I suspect, is false.
I have been married for 15 years. I deeply love my husband, and I have kept my marriage vows. But I have been, at times, sorely tempted to play around in cyberspace. I'm certain he has too. Haven't you? Surely, I am not the only person willing to admit that focusing erotically on a singular, lifelong partner does not always feel, well, erotic; in fact, it's very, very difficult. And while friendliness can morph rapidly into flirtatiousness anywhere, it is especially easy online. As an academic scholar, I spend hours and hours of my working life alone, with only my computer and iPhone to keep me company. Since friends and colleagues no longer call (instead, they email or text), I often go entire days without hearing the sound of a live human voice, until I'm reunited with my spouse and three children at suppertime.
Fidelity demands self-discipline and integrity, first and foremost; that's obvious, and Weiner seems to be lacking in both. But faithfulness in marriage could surely be aided by better ways of structuring our public and private lives. What we badly need, in the wake of the Congressman's sad story, is a national conversation about our work environments and the technologies that make us feel isolated, anxious, and bored, despite all their promises of social connection. Some of us need to figure out why we're spending more time googling old high school crushes than dropping in on friends, volunteering our time to help others, checking in on our parents, or having sex with our spouses. Others just need to stop wasting time at the office and get back to work. Many of us need to confront the disappointment we feel in our careers or our marriages and make clear decisions about what to do. And those of us with children urgently need to show them that we care more about being with people than trolling for fake gratification online.
Pundits, please stop fixating on the survival chances of Weiner's post-sexting career. Quit gloating over his Icarian fall, and presenting him as one more narcissistic scoundrel whose pathetic double life is uproariously entertaining to the rest of us. Call in smart people who think hard about social networks (David Brooks would be a start) and are developing good ideas about how we can work to develop more sustaining work and home environments, filled with friends in the flesh rather than online. Let's work on being more civil and less smug, remembering that we flourish as a society only when we are as committed to empathy as to criticism.
Anthony Weiner's online dalliances are not astonishing. What's astonishing is his -- and our -- relentless self-delusion. Make no mistake: his moral failings may mirror our own.