Most political sex scandals follow a predictable narrative: An illicit sexual encounter is followed by exposé, and then the inevitable apology and atonement.
From what we know about Anthony Weiner's transgressions, the mayoral candidate deviated from these stages in one key way: With copious use of the web, he appears to have satisfied his urges without actually having sex. The X-rated photos and explicit messages he exchanged with young women online don't appear to be a means to an end -- no prelude to trysts in seedy hotel rooms or parked cars (offers of apartments aside) -- but rather, they were the end.
Thanks to technology, it's a sex scandal without any sex.
Weiner's particular form of indiscretion -- using websites to expose himself to more than a dozen different women -- reveals how social networks have become portals to new kinds of sexual encounters while forging fresh forms of sexual transgression.
His online dalliances underscore a new age of sanitized sex, where sexual relationships have been reduced to their most abstract elements and all necessity for physical contact has been eliminated. In contrast to an earlier generation that experimented with spouse-swapping, group sex and free-love communes in the 1960s and '70s, today's online generation is embracing sex with no one. Flirtation, foreplay and consummation can be tidily reduced to a few typed sentences and graphic photos, or perhaps even a phone call, if a couple really wants to go the extra mile. To satisfy their desires, a growing number of people, like Weiner, don't need intercourse -- they just need the Internet.
As Andrew Sullivan observed in 2011, when Weiner's racy pictures first surfaced, "The online world creates an outlet for the feelings that sexual adultery or sexual adventure create -- but without actual sex, without actual intimacy, without our actual full selves."
Weiner, who seems to have sent at least one illicit photo to a woman without any encouragement whatsoever, seems to have a thing for exhibitionism. Some might see in his behavior the online equivalent to donning a raincoat in an alleyway and flashing women who walk by, but others suggest he represents something else: A man whose deviance could only exist in the online world, which makes spontaneous flashing possible without the effort involved in the more traditional variety. "I'd bet my whole Ph.D. that he wouldn't be standing on a corner doing that," notes Barry McCarthy, a sex and marital therapist, and professor of psychology at American University.
Instead, Weiner, like so many others online, has become accustomed to on-demand sexuality, where relationships with another person are convenient, controllable and entirely on his terms. We're adopting an Amazon.com or Seamless Web approach to our sex lives, expecting that sexual fulfillment can be ordered up over the Internet like sneakers or pad thai. And Carlos Danger's dalliances with people like Sydney Leathers suggest that, increasingly, they can be.
"He was never going to take this into the real world, but he wanted to express himself as a sexual being, and technology gave him the ability to do that," said Cindy Gallop, founder of MakeLoveNotPorn, a platform for "real-world" sex videos, and author of Make Love Not Porn: Technology's Hardcore Impact on Human Behavior. "[Sex] is like anything else on the Internet: It's very easy to get a quick hit everywhere."
It's especially easy to get a quick hit on one's own terms. Weiner minimized the risk of rejection by relying on social media to serve up the women to him -- he generally approached women who'd followed or praised him on Twitter and Facebook. The web allowed him to form relationships with real women who were mostly fantasy, responsive avatars that wouldn't spoil the illusion with annoying habits, physical imperfections or emotional demands. The online nature of the affairs also allowed him to indulge these fantasies on his schedule, anywhere and anytime he pleased. And he operated in an atmosphere of unreal reality, just virtual enough to seem innocent and unreal, and just real enough to make the fantasy a fulfilling one.
These virtual affairs aren't only more convenient, but the crescendo of a sexual relationship -- eliciting desire, stoking connection and eventually reaching orgasm -- requires less participation from the people involved than ever before. There are no rendezvous in out-of-the-way motel rooms and no heavy petting. Only typing.
What we have seen of Weiner's trysts has revolved around a kind of "sex" that was clean, cold, practical and utterly efficient. The leaked transcripts of Weiner's chats with Leathers don't read like the torrid, passionate correspondence of star-crossed lovers separated by circumstance. They're transactional and to the point. Weiner seemed to indulge a fantasy, then quickly get back to planning his political comeback.
For a public struggling to make sense of Weiner's online affairs, the virtual element makes them appear dirtier, says Rachel Hills, author of a forthcoming book on sex and Generation Y. Yet Tinder, the online dating app wildly successful among college students and twenty-somethings, perfectly embodies the rise and appeal of Weiner's brand of sex-free sex: The app, which connects people who find each other mutually attractive, can make people feel wanted without ever requiring them to speak to another person directly. Feeling desirable is now achievable through an app. Lonely? Insecure? Just log on, rate a few faces and wait for someone to like you back.
Tinder, one Tufts University sophomore explained to me this past spring, is used "more as an ego boost-type situation than a dating situation or a way to connect with people." The same could be said of Weiner's activities online.
Though these online relationships may seem as two-dimensional as the sites on which they play out, their effortlessness and simplicity raise a key question: Will they make offline relationships seem more appealing, or less? Is the absence of a warm body a downside or more of a perk? A John Edwards type might have had to soothe his lover's feelings or explain why he had to leave in the middle of the night. When Weiner had had enough, he could just shut down his computer.
Except, of course, Weiner's disgrace delivers yet another reminder of another aspect of the online realm. Just as it beckons as a place full of seemingly unlimited encounters achievable at any moment, it also functions as the ultimate archive, a repository of every embarrassing exchange, accessible to anyone connected.
The medium that enabled sexless sex scandals will also preserve them forever.