By BRUCE DENNILL
Marlene Wasserman, akaDr Eve, has, it appears, been seduced (intellectually, anyway) by the data in her latest book, Cyber Infidelity. She was able to put the book – which is really more of an academic work including saucy case studies – together thanks to unprecedented access to the databases of “adult dating”/cheating site AshleyMadison.com. Wasserman was given permission to delve into that information by the company’s founder Noel Biderman. Ironically, more or less as the book was released, the website was hacked and, with his clients’ details starting to trickle into the mainstream, Biderman has stepped down as boss.
Interpreting the data, Wasserman has identified some trends in the way some people view infidelity and its consequences. For one thing, taking responsibility appears to have become about percentages and compromise; about saying “I’ll accept that then if I can get this now.”
“There’s no compromise,” states the author.
“These hook-ups are an add-on; a gain. It’s people saying that they feel happier in a traditional space – marriage or whatever – because they have the means to meet their other needs elsewhere. The new idea is the ‘good enough’ model: it’s not about striving for excellence anymore.”
Wasserman sounds like a convert.
“It’s an elegant solution to the problem of meeting those needs – until you get caught. While you’re involved in cyber infidelity though, you experience a higher state of well-being. You’ll be happier, have more energy and feel no guilt, because no consequence is anticipated.”
That seems more than a little naïve…
“When you’re dealing with people in this space, it feels like a real person, and yet not at the same time. So there’s not that same obvious link to cause and effect.”
The lack of demand for commitment in the online space suggests that those spending more and more of their time there believe themselves capable of handling life alone. As a therapist, does Wasserman believe that to be true?
“The answer to that has been pre-empted to some degree by stories in the media that underline the increasing status of singleness,” she says.
“There’s a trend towards honouring singleness, removing the notion of it being something to be ashamed of and ushering in a different view of commitment. The married people on AshleyMadison.com believe in commitment, but this system allows for more choice, so when focusing a new partner, they are also aware that there are other potential options should something change or not work out. And their feeling that not being with someone being equal to unhappiness can fit into that paradigm.”
So cyber infidelity is challenging the traditional notion of two being better than one?
“Relationships are changing. People want attachments and alone time,” notes Wasserman.
“In long-term relationships, partners can become over-familiar with each other, which is not a good model: remaining an individual in a relationship is important.”
Theoretically, perhaps – but what about the reputation management aspect of online infidelity. If you stay online as a persona and nothing more, perhaps problems can be avoided, but meeting a cyber-connection in person can still be a deal-breaker for more cautious people.
“Actually, the trend is now to try and meet earlier than later,” says Wasserman.
“People need visual cues before they make decisions about new partners. The whole thing becomes really seductive – it doesn’t feel like infidelity because there’s no sex.”
Again, that’s just disingenuous. It takes a special sort of simple-mindedness to not be aware of the impact of such actions, surely?
“This book is about trying to help readers understand what they’re already doing,” offers Wasserman.
“From a therapists’s point of view, there’s no real training available in dealing with cyber infidelity; in understanding the different personae of people online.”
Is that uncertainty in any way tempered by the fact that cyber infidelity is more or less always a solo activity, where peer pressure is not much of a push factor?
“That’s actually one of the positive aspects of such activity,” suggests Wasserman.
“People don’t feel judged online. In modern life, there’s not a lot of private space, but online, a person can act like an adult and a sexual person, and express themselves as they want to.”
Fair enough, but again, feeling safe behind a computer screen doesn’t equate with remaining safe once things move out from behind that barrier. Cyber infidelity blurs the line – perhaps even changes the definition – when it comes to rape. Hooking up online and agreeing to meet somewhere with sex as the only thing on the agenda means that consent is implied as soon as both parties arrive at a venue. That means that whatever happens next can be interpreted differently relative to what might have occurred in a situation where people had gone somewhere hoping to meet someone, but with no targeted outcome.
Wasserman is silent for a moment before answering.
“I didn’t ask directly about physical safety when I was doing this research,” she concedes.
“I asked about condom usage, though – there is none.”
She pauses again.
“The issue is that people don’t feel like the folks that they’re meeting are strangers. If you spend any amount of time chatting to someone online, the impression is that you know each other.”
This is an unconvincing response to a serious consideration, but it does tie in to another trend the book highlights – how online habits are changing due to the way what people are doing in that space is viewed. For instance, according to the AshleyMadison.com statistics quoted in the book, looking at pornography online is considered cheating by fewer people now than it used to be, with emotional connection with a cyber partner considered more problematic. What happens, though, when that behaviour becomes considered the norm: where does the boundary move to then?
“AshleyMadison.com is not an enabler, it’s a business model,” says Wasserman. “There’s more cheating via Facebook! I think it is reflecting the nature of people a la the Steve Jobs philosophy: give people something they didn’t know they needed and you’ll be successful. That such things do lead to new types of behaviour and relationships makes this a very exciting place to be as a clinician. I see it as an opportunity to educate people better.”
What effect does the website being hacked have on such considerations? Even the least cautious AshleyMadison,com member must pause for thought now, surely?
“Actually, no,” states Wasserman.
“There’s been a global spike in sign-ups to the site since the hack. I think it must be down to curiosity value about the platform – there’s still no sense of doing anything wrong. And the selling poijt of the website is the privacy users can enjoy. I don’t think the owners have tried to capitalise on that.”
So far, the therapist in Wasserman has not interjected much, with her academic side enjoying the science of cyber infidelity more obviously. Simplistically speaking, as a sex therapist, getting people to talk more often and more openly about sex is a good, healthy thing. Cyber infidelity allows openness, but on a closed platform: is that harming or helping when it comes to dealing with confused or hurting patients?
“A lot of what I do in therapy,” she says, “is to push people to communicate better; to go beyond superficiality. Now, I have to take couples’ online relationships into account. The old me would have said that parners had to talk face to face. The new me says to patients: ‘Use the resources you have – if you’re talking online, that’s valid.”
Now there’s an aspect of the whole set-up that sounds helpful, rather than varying degrees of risky or flat-out dangerous.
Wasserman shakes her head slightly before concluding: “I wish online life improved offline relationships.”
Enough said, perhaps.
Cyber Infidelity: The New Seduction by Dr Eve is published by Human & Rousseau.