What is cheating, anyway?

Anthony Weiner's online dalliance with Sydney Leathers raises the question: how do we really define adultery?

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published July 26, 2013 7:43PM (EDT)

Sydney Leathers        (CBS)
Sydney Leathers (CBS)

At this point in the game, you'd be hard-pressed to find anybody who'd disagree with the notion that Anthony Weiner is a raging scuzzball. But would you call him an adulterer? Would you call him something worse -- or at least considerably dumber? Or to put it another way, do you have to touch a woman to cheat on your wife? So far this week, the New York Times has referred to Weiner's behavior as "online flirtations," the Daily Beast has called it "adultery (of a kind)," ABC News has devoted a segment to asking "Is texting really cheating?" and The Dirty has dramatically called it "luring victims."

Weiner has, by his own admission, "made terrible mistakes that have hurt the people I care about the most." Two years ago, he lied about being the victim of a hacking when in fact he'd been freely sending pics of his unit around like they were kitten videos on your mom's Facebook page. He then kept doing it. The man known in certain circles as Carlos Danger admitted on Tuesday that he'd sent "other texts and photos" – only after his explicit repartee surfaced on The Dirty. Then on Thursday, he clarified these revelations by adding that he'd had similar exchanges with other women – "I don’t have a specific number for you," he said. "Sometimes they didn’t go consistently. Whatever."

Yet for all of his transgressions, Weiner seems to have set firm parameters around his dalliances. There are no tales of him hop-scotching across the land, boning waitresses in every town. There's no heartbroken, "impossible love" for a lone other woman. There's no hypocritical relationship with the sex worker industry or firsthand knowledge of "the most beautiful vagina in New York." There's just… a pathetic middle-aged man with a phone and an erection.

The boundaries of fidelity are not always neatly drawn, and it's obvious that Weiner is not the only camper hanging around Rationalization Town. Remember fifteen years ago, when Bill Clinton haughtily, finger-pointingly declared he "did not have sexual relations" with Monica Lewinsky? Yet as the details of what he did have with Lewinsky emerged, it became evident that Clinton was cool with some fondling and with receiving oral sex -- and, until that fatal incident with the blue dress, had refused to honor Lewinsky with the intimacy of his full release. In his mind, it appears, putting his penis in one part of a woman represented something different – perhaps a lesser crime – than if he'd put it somewhere else. And allowing himself to be pleasured by a woman was different than allowing himself to orgasm with her. Because I guess that would have been really disrespectful to his wife.

The Weiner scandal raises similar questions about what constitutes a violation of trust – and the seemingly delusional lengths to which some people will go in the search for loopholes. When I posed the question of what really constitutes cheating on Twitter recently, there was near-consensus on the issue. As one friend said, "If partner says it's cheating, it is. If partner's okay, it's not. Cheating is breaking your own rules." After all, Google's Eric Schmidt reportedly has an open marriage, and  Will and Jada Pinkett Smith have for years discreetly described their relationship by saying they "BOTH can do WHATEVER we want, because we TRUST each other to do so." So if you should happen to get hit on by Eric Schmidt or Will Smith, it might be cool with their respective wives.

Part of the Weiner problem is the pure absurdity of it. It is, as another friend says, that his behavior has been so "hilariously undignified. We have cultural models for affairs… none for grown-ass sexters." Mostly, though, it's that he hasn't just, as his wife Huma Abedin said at his press conference this week, "made some horrible mistakes,…" mistakes that "took a lot of work, and a whole lot of therapy, to get to a place where I could forgive." It's that he made those mistakes in such a weaselly, rules-flouting way, as if he were trying to preserve some proud, private "at least I never screwed them" status. On some level, it seems he thought what he was doing was, to quote him directly, "Whatever."

But though the sex was virtual, the pain caused looks very real. Were I in Abedin's shoes, I'd be pissed at my man for offering to make another's genitals "beg for mercy." But I'd also be a whole different kind of furious at him for telling another lady, "I've found the perfect woman." That's a particular kind of emotional cheating, a snide suggestion that the old ball and chain is not "the perfect woman."

On "Inside Edition" this week, Weiner's declared texting and phone sex pal Sydney Leathers said she's now "disgusted by him." But she replied "yes" when asked if she had once loved him – and if he had ever said that he loved her. We can laugh at Weiner all we want -- God knows I'm certainly not close to finished yet -- but ouch. You've got a wife and kid, but you allegedly tell a woman you've never even met that you love her? There's no moral high ground there, just lies and plenty of scorched earth. You can pride yourself on not committing a technical adultery. But there's a whole lot more to a betrayal than where you do -- or don't -- stick your junk.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Anthony Weiner Bill Clinton Huma Abedin Monica Lewinsky Sexting