Casablanca, kissing, the giddy exchange of bodily fluids, the pressing of the flesh—It’s all so 20th century. Today there doesn’t need to be sex in your sex anymore.
The “virtual,” cyber, or mental affair, variously named, is one of those new frontiers of online social media and the Internet. These are intense relationships that happen in an online medium, where the participants might never touch, kiss or meet each other.
One of the most interesting curiosities of the cyber affair is that sex or physical contact has now become an optional feature of a romantic relationship or an affair.
As in Correggio’s Jupitor and Io (see picture), the nymph is caressed by a phantom, incorporeal lover. Physical contact of some kind has always been the litmus test that distinguished flirtation from a relationship; the fantasy from its realization, but not anymore.
Maybe with the online world of incorporeal romance, a sexual bond is about how we think about each other and not about what we do to each other. The ethical weights and measures are in disarray. What’s more intimate: the one-night stand with contact and no mental connection, or the exchange of hundreds of pages of emails, with no contact? People have different views.
Jennifer Schneider is a prominent researcher of online sex addiction and the cyber affair. She’s found in her research and therapeutic practice that many patients grappling with infidelity feel that the mental affair hurts “just as much” if not more than a physical affair. In some cases, the betrayed spouse felt that the meeting of minds was a more searing intimacy than the meeting of bodies. Cheating is as cheating thinks.
Other couples don’t see it that way, and maintain physical contact as a definitional barrier between harmless flirtation and something more serious. So long as the contact remains virtual, they don’t feel that it’s a betrayal, or any worse than a flirtation by the virtual water cooler.
I talked to two people who viewed a cyber relationship as akin to a couple that “writes pornography” together, and just for each other. Most married couples don’t have profound objections to the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue or a porn flick, so how is it different in an online exchange when the couple crafts erotic material for each other, but never meets?
These are dilemmas of meaning that a fair number of relationships grapple with. Arguably, the intimacy in an exchange of letters and correspondence, even erotic letters, is in some ways more like a deep friendship. There’s no bright-line boundary. In my book I talk about how we're undergoing an “intimacy blur" today. Different kinds of relationships resemble each other and merge together. A marriage can feel like a friendship, a colleague can feel like a workplace spouse, and so on.
In any case, we hear mostly about the Internet’s seedy and exploitative sexual downsides, but it has its sunny, erotically emboldening upside. For one thing, looks and appearance don't need be the first screen or criterion in a virtual affair. This is Jane Austen meets Steve Jobs, an 18th-century seduction in 21st-century technology.
Admittedly, much of what you’ll encounter in an erotic chat room or a typical “sexting” situation is profoundly lacking in literary merit, but the potential is there for an exchange where the would-be lover’s narrative style and grammatical skill, or verbal acuity, are the first things shared, and appraised. In one example that I describe in my book, the two “lovers” didn’t exchange photos until they’d already written several detailed, thoughtful letters to each other. It revives the genre of epistolary seduction.
The mental affair is the safest sex you can have. No STDs, no AIDs, flu germs, pregnancy risk, or hickeys. When we’re basically advised that the only safe sex is to encase your whole body into a prophylactic Ziploc bag before touching, nothing’s safer than the incorporeal affair.
Under the cover of anonymity and the second life of the avatar, you can release the inner slut, or create a wilder alter ego. Things are sayable and imaginable in virtual space that wouldn’t get said in a more intense, risky face-to-face context. The unique online chimera of intimacy and anonymity; proximity and distance, can be emboldening in positive ways. It creates a space that’s neither entirely fantasy nor entirely real. There’s someone there, a “lover” on the other side of your musings, but they’re not dauntingly right there in the room.
The mental affair also eliminates the “he said/she said” conflict with a “he wrote/she wrote” accurate transcript of your entire relationship. You get a private archive of a love affair in your Inbox, forever, if you choose. In fact, this Permanent Record aspect of an extramarital cyber affair was what a betrayed spouse in one example found most painful after she discovered her husband’s infidelity.
True, you could delete the archive, and if your partner does the same, there will never be any DNA trace evidence or witnesses to suggest that the two of you had ever known each other. You’ll disappear into the ether from whence you came.
And with a cyber affair, it's nice that you can truly be floating on “the cloud” with your lover.