Is sexting cheating? Anthony Weiner’s latest scandal begs the question

OPINION - In a digital era that makes explicit flirting easy, the nature of cheating might need to be redefined...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Is sexting cheating? Anthony Weiner’s latest scandal begs the question. In a digital era that makes explicit flirting easy, the nature of cheating might need to be redefined.

Weiner’s behavior has made him this issue’s unwitting poster boy. He left Congress in disgrace after being pressured to step down due to a sexting scandal in 2011. When he announced a similar transgression on Tuesday in the middle of his New York City mayoral bid, many came to question Weiner’s impulse control.

Weiner has admitted to indecent exchanges with three women since leaving congressional office.

Sexting’s impact on a marriage

Much has been made of his patient wife, Huma Abedin, who made remarks on July 23 after her husband admitted to exchanging lewd photos and messages with 23-year-old Sydney Elaine Leathers, an Indiana woman who reportedly “idealized” Weiner during their digital affair.

Amid numerous calls for Weiner to drop out of the New York City mayoral race, as tawdry images of Leathers and transcripts of their raunchy conversations begin to circulate, these revelations not only sully the reputation of the mayoral candidate; we also have to wonder how airing all this dirty laundry has worn on Weiner and Abedin’s bond.

“I love him, I have forgiven him, I believe in him, and as we have said from the beginning, we are moving forward,” Huma said during the press conference, The Washington Post reports.

Still, the intimate communications between Leathers and Wiener, which sources say occurred daily for months, may have crossed a blurred line from the merely seedy into outright cheating.

Her forgiveness strikes some as premature, if sexting is perceived as cheating, and Weiner has been caught not once, but twice.

Sexting’s fantasy versus spousal reality

“Whether or not ‘sexting’ is cheating is a really tricky one to call,” writes Louisa Peacock of The Telegraph in the UK. “Of course, it depends on so many things – the relationship you’re in, how long you’ve been together, how open your relationship is, how often your partner was ‘sexting’ behind your back, and to whom, and so on. But if it did happen to you, how on earth would you deal with it?”

Over 76 percent of the respondents to a poll on that site affirm that sexting is cheating. Yet, an expert interviewed for the piece states that the exchange of sexual content online is more complicated than many realize.

Because of the detachment that characterizes such interactions, both parties are dealing more in fantasy rather than engaging the reality of the other person. It can be easy for a married partner to compartmentalize that fantasy persona, keeping his or her forays into taboo realms hidden in secret communications.

Meaning, when Anthony Weiner sent images of his private parts to the distant Leathers as “Carlos Danger,” this might have meant little about his feelings for his very present wife.

“You can love someone and be committed and faithful in deed but there will be aspects of a fantasy life that comes into play,” Dr. Teri Apter told The Telegraph. “For example, if you go to a film, or watch a play, and feel a desire for one of the characters but don’t act upon it [i.e. it stays in the cinema; in that moment of watching the film], then that doesn’t feel like infidelity. It’s just a motor idling desire that doesn’t have any impact on other people.”

Sexting’s betrayal takes subtle forms

Some have noted that it is not nude selfies exchanged that constitute betrayal, but the more nuanced idea that a spouse would share heightened feelings with another person. Others have stated that the shock of realizing one’s life partner could engage in risky behaviors, putting a couple’s reputation at risk, is more undermining to a marriage than the sexual nature of explicit exchanges.

According to The New York Times, “Ms. Abedin did not appear in public on Wednesday.” Additionally, representatives for Weiner’s campaign did not respond to the paper’s questions regarding whether his wife would continue to play a central role in wooing women voters for the campaign.

While her absence is telling, it’s hard to know how Abedin sees Weiner’s sexting habit, which he says is now in the past.

For the rest of us, this digital era — which makes having many variations on typical relationships possible through online personas — may require spouses, lovers and those they engage to hold frank discussions on how the transgression of cheating is defined.

Is sexting cheating? Leave your opinion below.

Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter @lexisb.