Does sexting without physical contact constitute cheating?

Cristen Conger

Rep. Anthony Weiner details his sexting affairs at a press conference. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Yesterday afternoon, as Rep. Anthony Weiner stood before a hoard of media and described his sexting relationships with "at least six women over the past three years," he emphasized that it never crossed the line into physical contact. "I've never had sex outside of my marriage," Weiner told the press. Nevertheless, he sent "inappropriate" messages and photos to various women over Twitter, Facebook, email and occasionally phone.

His clarification that he never met any of the women in person, much less engaged in physical contact with them, seemed like an attempt to qualify his erring. Since he never actually had sex, then he wasn't cheating on his marriage, right? Sexting has opened up a whole new cheating gray zone, right alongside the emotional infidelity that might develop between close coworkers. It tiptoes beyond the bounds of committed monogamy, allowing us to flirt with external relationships and potentially sidestep the guilt that might come with crossing physical boundaries.

But does sexting without physical contact constitute cheating? Can illicit instant messages compare to candlelit dinners and hotel meet-ups? Moral relativism aside, sure. I highly doubt that Huma Abedin, Rep. Weiner's wife, is brushing the whole ordeal off since he never met up with any of his Internet lust interests. And even if the couple sticks together, the Web will always contain the record of what happened, that underwear snapshot just a Google Image search away.

Non-physical affairs can sting deeply even when they aren't splashed across multiple media outlets. Another politician's wife -- Eleanor Roosevelt -- once discovered a collection of love letters FDR had penned to another woman, Lucy Mercer. Biographers suspect that the affair wasn't physical, but the revelation was hurtful enough for Eleanor to suggest divorce. Moreover, though the letters were quickly destroyed (unlike the 200+ Facebook messages Weiner allegedly sent one of his Internet interests), Eleanor's personal letters describing the Mercer affair provided an historical record of the incident. Consider that in today's context of highly traceable emails, tweets and instant messages, sexting affairs are essentially asking to be discovered. And though flirty messages and suggestive snaps might seem innocent enough, that type of gray zone cheating can certainly be considered cheating nonetheless, especially once the digital archive is unearthed.

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