Carnal Nation has a new piece up about the ongoing question of whether cybersex is cheating or not. And I think that a lot of the debate is missing the point.
As far as I’m concerned, what makes something “cheating” is that you’re not following the rules. If you’re playing checkers and you move your piece in a direction that’s not allowed, that’s cheating. Unfortunately, when it comes to sexual relationships, the rules aren’t as simple.
Every relationship has a set of rules and those rules vary widely. Even within a culture that has specific rules for relationships, there are still lots of variations. And that doesn’t even begin to consider all of the unspoken rules that people bring to their sexual lives. For some people, watching porn, flirting with someone, or expressing sexual interest in other people is against the rule of “all of your sexual energy, desire and attention should be directed at me.” Now, if that’s the rule that you want to live by, go for it. But make it explicit and be open to negotiation- your partner may have different expectations.
If you haven’t made the rules clear, then we’re talking about expectations rather than rules. And basing a relationship on expectations is a great way to set yourself up for unpleasant surprises. Clearly, that’s not limited to sex although that’s one of the big areas in which this comes up.
There’s also the question of secrecy and how it affects relationships. Secrecy is one of the best ways to destroy a relationship, as far as I’m concerned. But that doesn’t mean that I’m suggesting that we have to tell our partners everything- privacy and secrecy aren’t the same thing. Marty Klein’s excellent book Your Sexual Secrets explores this in detail, but the short version is that privacy is based on setting boundaries, which is different from keeping secrets. Privacy is about setting limits, but secrecy requires hiding or withholding information.
So, for example, privacy might mean telling your partner that you like to masturbate while watching porn without necessarily doing it in his/her presence. On the other hand, secrecy could mean hiding the DVDs and denying what you were up to last night. Privacy means not letting people see something; secrecy means pretending that there’s nothing to see.
If your computer habits are prompting you to hide things from your partner or to lie about what you were doing until 2 AM, your impulse to keep things secret is probably a sign that you know that you’re doing something that goes against the rules. But if you can talk about your sexual desires and how you’d like to explore them by watching porn or having cybersex, and if you’re able to create a set of mutually agreed upon guidelines, then it’s not cheating. Even if you don’t share all the details of what you do, the fact that you’re not keeping things secret is a good indicator that, for you at least, it’s not cheating.
That may seem like a challenging thing to do, but lots of people have done it and it’s often not as scary as we think it will be. This is one of the ways in which living a sexually authentic life can challenge us to grow.
When it comes down to it, whether cybersex is cheating or not is up to the people involved. If it’s causing problems for you or your partner, then that’s absolutely something to deal with. Fundamentally, it’s cheating if it goes against the rules and it’s not if it doesn’t. And if you haven’t talked about what guidelines or boundaries you want your relationship to have, maybe it’s the catalyst to make that happen.