Not the Ethics We Need, But the Ethics We Deserve

Yesterday, Charles Clymer wrote on Facebook regarding the Ashley Madison hack:

The thing about the Ashley Madison leak that truly fascinates me is the hypocrisy of internet privacy activists, whom are predominantly male.

No, I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to judge every person who has “cheated” on their spouse or with someone who is married. People engage in infidelity for a lot of reasons. There are trapped relationships, repressed sexualities and gender identities, abusive marriages, etc. I get that “cheating” isn’t always black-and-white and that people have a right to privacy.

But what blows me away every time some internet privacy incident comes up is that so many of the same people who rant and rave about government surveillance or compromised private information or unauthorized data collection… are the same folks who will gladly share a nude picture of a woman whose computer or device has been hacked.

These are the same people who view celebrity women as commercial products and thus, not entitled to any privacy.

These are the same people who, because of whatever bullshit “friendzone” grudge they hold against women, seem to gleefully–even obsessively–post stories, anecdotes, videos or whatever about women who have been caught cheating.

And not because of some moral crusade against infidelity but because they feel the need to control, in however small a way, women’s sexuality. If they’re not getting any, neither should women.

If they feel they have been denied sex by the women of the world (apparently a collective), they’ll go out of their way to publicly humiliate women in compromising situations.

Can women be cheating assholes or abusive or simply awful human beings? Of course. Every rational adult knows this.

But these angry, insecure men who spend their waking hours glued to Reddit and 4chan aren’t rational. They don’t view women as having the potential to be assholes because they’re human beings; they view a woman as an asshole because to them, she’s a product who is expected to perform to their liking. A robot devoid of character and personality, dreams and nightmares, needs and wants.

This is about a vicious sense of entitlement to women’s minds and bodies by a large population who wield enormous influence over the primary means of communication among human beings.

It’s not just about hacking a nude photo or revenge porn or the unceasing stream of harassment women receive online.

It’s also about enabling a culture that communicates to men that it’s perfectly fine to assault, rape, and kill women for not giving you what you want.

This whole Ashley Madison fiasco is simply another illustration of male entitlement and rage over the loss of that entitlement.

So, yes… while it’s a bummer to see privacy violated, I’m not exactly inspired to “join the cause”.

Shoot me an e-mail when your ethics are consistent and don’t blatantly and violently discriminate against women.

Fine, I’ll bite, since it’s a little weird to have Charles Clymer tell me that my anger over the Ashley Madison hack is “simply another illustration of male entitlement and rage over the loss of that entitlement” (which, you know, I never had), and that I’m one of the people who looked at the leaked nude photos last summer. I didn’t–and in fact, have been speaking out against this sort of thing for years–but the conflation Charles makes in this post sure is a convenient way of avoiding the issue of privacy and online shaming.

Are there people who oppose the Ashley Madison hack but supported the celebrity nude photo leak? Certainly. Are there entitled, sexist men speaking out right now against the Ashley Madison hack? Certainly. Unfortunately, you’re going to find horrible people in just about any political camp, including the most feminist camps out there. (TERFs, anyone?) That other people are ethically inconsistent doesn’t mean I have to be.

When it comes to ethical consistency, which Charles is trying to lecture us about in this post, you have to support what’s right and oppose what’s wrong based on what’s right and what’s wrong, not based on what your friends and your enemies happen to be doing.

I’ve already stated my opposition to the Ashley Madison hack in a variety of ways, so here I want to get a little more meta and point out a disturbing trend that Charles Clymer is far from the only progressive writer to play into. That’s the idea that finally this whole sexual shaming thing is impacting straight white men, not just women, queer people, and people of color! Rejoice!

I think I won’t. Yes, I belong to some groups that have suffered for millennia because of the idea that our private sexual lives should be anyone else’s business and that we should be judged and punished for living those lives. And you know what? It gives me no joy to see this virus spread. Revenge may be a valid impulse, but it doesn’t tend to lead to a better world for anyone. I don’t want straight white men to have to deal with public sexual shaming. I don’t want anyone to have to deal with it. The fact that it’s starting to hurt them too is not a good sign! It means we’ve really started to accept this as just the way things are.

Further, everyone keeps conveniently ignoring the fact that straight white male lives were not the only ones potentially ruined by this hack. It is impacting LGBTQ people. It is impacting women. It is impacting people who did not join the site to cheat, but because they needed things to be “discreet” for some other reason, and if you really can’t imagine any other reason someone might need things to be discreet, well…what you lack in imagination, you make up for in privilege.

I do recognize that for some people, this hack turned out to be a good thing. The people who found out that their own ostensibly monogamous partners were cheating on them, for instance. Maybe the hack gave these people a way to get back control over their lives. It’s almost inevitable that unethical actions will genuinely benefit some people who themselves did nothing wrong; that’s one of the reasons ethics is hard. That’s why I didn’t really see anything wrong with people using the hack to find out if they were being cheated on.

As for all the people I know–many of whom I greatly respect–who were gleefully feeding their entire email address books into that app so that they could spy on the lives of their friends and acquaintances and that one random person they emailed once about a potential sublet, that only fills me with horror and fear. Horror that I have friends who care so little for others’ privacy; fear that one day I’ll get doxxed, and people I thought were my friends will cackle at their laptop screens as they violate my consent.

I keep coming back to this patronizing undertone in all this–that I should somehow be glad for this. That this is keeping people safe. That if we all watch each other, if our world becomes like a panopticon, then we can be safe from being cheated on, from being discriminated against, from being hurt. I don’t agree. I don’t want this. I didn’t ask for this. This does not feel safe to me. I would feel much more safe if we all just finally agreed that it is unacceptable to dox and shame people unless they present a real, direct threat to someone else. I do not feel safe when my friends say, “Well, we’d never dox you, you haven’t done anything bad.” But someone else thinks I have! Everyone has done something bad according to someone.

Sexual shaming is an old, old problem. For a while it seemed to be getting better, but now I’m not so sure. We’ve started to accept its premises rather than challenging them. Some of us celebrate the fact that people who were always safe from sexual shaming are no longer. That shows them, right? They deserve it after what they’ve done to us, right?

We’re in the middle of the ocean and the water’s streaming in through the cracks in the hull, but rather than patch them until we can get to safety and build a better ship, we’ve apparently decided to just sink the motherfucker along with everyone on it. Nobody gets any privacy! Everyone gets their sex lives posted online and scrutinized! Anyone can lose their livelihood–even their life–for doing a disapproved-of thing!

Is this what justice looks like to you? It’s at least a twisted sort of equality, I’ll give it that.

But some of us have boats and life jackets and others don’t. Some at least have a wooden plank to grab onto, and others don’t even have that. Who do you think will be the first to drown? Who will be able to float away to land? Most importantly, wouldn’t it have been better not to sink the ship to begin with?

This is what Charles Clymer refers to as “a bummer.”

Revenge may taste sweet, but it’s not nutritious. It won’t keep us alive. Only justice can do that.


Further reading: “Our Shared Affair: The Sexual Shaming Behind the Ashley Madison Hack” by Katherine Cross, who has seriously been a consistent breath of fresh air to me in all these discussions about online doxxing and shaming.


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Should We Publicly Shame Cheaters?

This past week has seen two shameful episodes in the Creepy People Getting Into Others’ Private Affairs And Shaming Them Online category.

First, Gawker published (for no apparent reason) a story about a married “C-Suite” Condé Nast executive who arranged to spend a weekend with a male porn star who then attempted to blackmail him–and, with Gawker’s capable help, succeeded*. Max Read, the now-former editor-in-chief of Gawker, justified the story thus: “given the chance gawker will always report on married c-suite executives of major media companies fucking around on their wives.”

Second, hackers are threatening to leak the user data (including credit card numbers, addresses, and listed sexual fantasies) of 37 million individuals using the website Ashley Madison, which helps people find partners to have extramarital affairs with. The hacker group claims that the reason for the attack is because Ashley Madison charges money for user account deletion and then doesn’t fully delete the information, but their demand isn’t a change in the policy–their demand is that the site goes offline altogether.

As I noted in my recent piece on the subject of Creepy People Getting Into Others’ Private Affairs And Shaming Them Online, nobody is safe when this sort of behavior is socially acceptable. Nobody. Because we all do immoral things at some point in our lives, and while some will claim that cheating is its own special category of immorality and therefore deserves naming and shaming online, that doesn’t really seem to follow from any reasonable premise. Cheating is (generally**) wrong because it’s wrong to break an agreement with someone without first letting them know that you are unable to stick with the agreement. (And being unable to stick with an agreement obviously kind of sucks for everyone involved, but I’m uncomfortable with classifying it as immoral.) It’s not wrong because sex is bad, or because wanting sex with more than one person is bad. The reason cheating gets placed in its own special category is because it pertains to sex and relationships, not because it’s inherently worse than other immoral acts. (It may be worse than some immoral acts, to some people, in some circumstances, but that’s not an inherent property of cheating.)

And I am entirely unconvinced that homophobia did not play a role in Gawker’s story, or in the (presumed or actual) interest of its audience in that story. Stories about men cheating on their wives with other men get attention in a way that stories about men cheating on their wives with other women just do not. Charitably, one could claim that this is just a man-bites-dog effect–these stories are so much more rare. But the fact that we place them in an entirely separate category from other “Men Cheating On Wives” stories suggests that same-sex attraction is, well, an entirely separate category. Who cares which gender someone sleeps with? We still do, apparently.

By far the most disturbing claim I’ve seen about these incidents is that outing cheaters is for the good of their “victims” (that is, the people they are cheating on). This is the claim that Max Read so flippantly made, and also a claim I’ve seen about potential benefits of the Ashley Madison hack.

First of all, consider that when you out someone as a cheater, you are also outing someone as a “victim” of cheating (or a “cuckold,” or whichever term you wish to use). This may not seem like a big deal, but being cheated on is also quite stigmatized to some extent–maybe not quite as much as cheating, but still. A woman who gets cheated on may be accused of being “frigid” and “failing to keep her man happy”; a man who gets cheated on may be ridiculed and considered less of a man. (That’s in the context of heterosexual relationships, but I don’t doubt that same-sex relationships are subject to some of the same gendered societal crap.) For some people, the pity may be even more difficult to deal with than the blame. And while nobody’s posting the cheated-on spouses’ names online, all their friends and family will know! Now their private pain has become quite public.

Further, put yourself in their shoes. If you’re going to find out that your spouse is cheating on you, how would you like to find out? By having thousands of people retweet an article about it? By having all your friends text you and ask if you’ve seen that Gawker piece? By having your coworker stop by your office and say, “Wow, I’m so sorry, I can’t believe your partner was using that cheating site!”

I wouldn’t be surprised if many people would rather not know at all.

In fact, some people would rather not know at all in any case. It’s a common assumption that if someone is cheating on you, naturally you would want to find out ASAP so you can dump them. But for some people, peace of mind is more important. They may suspect their spouse is cheating, but as long as things are basically fine and there’s someone around to help support the children, they’d rather just not deal with finding out. That’s valid. It’s not my place to tell someone what they ought to want to know and how they ought to respond to a suspicion that they’re being cheated on. It’s not what I’d want for myself, but everyone doesn’t have to want what I want.

I think there are some cultural components to this as well. While I haven’t conducted (or read) a comparative study, it seems that a lot of Russian couples approach extramarital affairs in this “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” sort of way. I can’t imagine they’d be pleased if someone came tattling on their spouse for their supposed good. I really wish Americans–and people in general–would remember that their norms and standards are not universal or inevitable. In some other cultures, by the way, it’s also considered extremely messed-up to meddle in people’s private lives this way.

Finally, when you out someone as a cheater, you may be actually outing them as polyamorous. Anecdotally, I’ve found that there are many more people practicing consensual nonmonogamy without publicly coming out as poly than there are people who are out as poly. In fact, being accused of cheating is one of the dangers of not coming out as poly, but for many people it’s still safer than coming out, which could cause them to lose jobs, child custody, and so on.

A poly person who gets “outed” for cheating (or whose primary partner does) faces a really uncomfortable dilemma: they have to either come out (which also means outing at least one of their partners), or they have to perform the role of either remorseful cheater (with all the public groveling that entails) or jilted spouse (with all the public pity that entails).

A poly person who does choose to come out at a moment like this is likely to face a lot of backlash. People are in some ways even more suspicious of polyamory than they are of cheating–at least the latter fits into their understanding of relationships to some extent. On the flip side, people may claim that they’re lying about being poly so that they don’t have to face judgment for cheating. You can’t win.

In fact, when you put people’s private sexual lives on trial, nobody wins.

That’s because we all sometimes act immorally, and we all sometimes fail to live up to our own ideals. That is not some special sort of failure reserved for Bad People; we all do it. There are times to speak up and stop people from hurting others, and there are gray areas where no one (certainly not me) can really say whether or not something should be publicized. This is neither.

If you want to prevent cheating–if that’s really such a hot issue for you–then encourage people to consider and explore alternatives to monogamy. Not all people who would cheat in a monogamous relationship would behave ethically in a nonmonogamous relationship, sure. Some people suck. Other people are trying to do their best with what they have, and they don’t realize that they have a lot more options than they thought.

So, what now? some will ask. Gawker’s gonna Gawk and hackers gonna hack. True, we can’t undo the damage that has been done and we can’t necessarily prevent creepy people from ever creeping on others and putting their personal business online.

What we can do is refuse to learn the information or act on it. I still don’t even know the name of the executive who hired the porn star, and I don’t intend to learn it. I will not look at the list of Ashley Madison users, just like I chose not to look at the nude celebrity photos that got leaked last year. You shouldn’t either. If more people agree not to look, this type of information loses its power, and those who collect it and leak it lose the power to judge and ruin others’ lives for the fun of it–or for whatever twisted moral justification they manage to invent.


*As Parker Molloy pointed out, the Gawker story may actually have been in violation of the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics. If Gawker wants to keep positioning itself as a source of Important Journalism For Our Day And Age, they should take note. Can’t have it both ways.

**Also really important to note, as Dan Savage and Esther Perel both have, that cheating doesn’t always happen in a simple context where one person is a “victim” and the other is the “bad terrible cheater.” Sometimes people cheat because they are stuck in awful, possibly abusive relationships, and cheating is a way they preserve their sanity. Is this rare? Maybe. I don’t know. You don’t know either, though.


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The Importance of Centering Consent in Sexual Ethics

[Content note: sexual assault]

A week and a half ago I gave a talk about sex education at the Secular Student Alliance annual conference. In the section on creating a better sex education program, I mentioned that we need to center consent in the way we teach healthy sexuality to kids and teens. Rather than defining “right” and “wrong” in terms of what your religion accepts and what it does not, or what social norms approve and what they do not, we should define right and wrong in terms of what hurts other people and what does not, to put it simplistically. Sexual assault is wrong, then, because it means doing something sexual to someone else without their consent. By this definition, then, homosexuality or premarital sex or polyamory cannot be wrong by default (as long as they are consensual).

It’s become really apparent to me that when most people talk about the ethics of sex, they do not talk about consent.

For instance, premarital sex is wrong because sex is for marriage. Homosexuality is wrong because sex is for straight couples. Polyamory is wrong because sex and relationships should only involve two people.

Even things that are considered unethical from a consent-based point of view, such as pedophilia and bestiality, are often talked about as being wrong because people “shouldn’t” be attracted to children or animals, not because children or animals cannot give consent. The “sick” part of it is that someone could’ve wanted to do that, not that someone disregarded a child’s or an animal’s inability to consent.

To illustrate what I mean, consider one common argument against same-sex marriage: the slippery-slope fallacy that it’ll lead to people marrying and/or having sex with animals. Republican Senator Rand Paul, for instance, recently hinted at this. He claimed that if we start allowing same-sex marriage, then “marriage can be anything.”

No, it can’t.

People like Paul seem to think of sex as one person “taking” something else, that may or may not belong to them. A person of the opposite sex? Sure. A person of the same sex? No. An animal? Hell no. Laws concerning sex and relationships exist to prevent people from “taking” what they’re not supposed to have, based on moral standards we have set as a society.

If Paul switched to a consent-based sexual ethic, then he would realize that there’s absolutely no reason legalized homosexuality would lead to legalized bestiality. Another adult of the same sex is capable of consenting to sex; an animal is not. And that’s that.

Likewise, the conversation around Anthony Weiner’s sexting habits has largely revolved around whether or not it’s “appropriate” for someone in an elected position to be doing such things. Should a politician be sending dirty photos to women? Can we trust a man who cheats on his wife?

At least one of the times that Weiner sexted in the past, the woman did not solicit the photos. They were unsolicited. It was a nonconsensual encounter. That means that Weiner committed sexual harassment.

Accordingly, the problem with what Weiner did is not–or not primarily–that it’s “stupid” for a politician to send dirty photos or that what kind of a perv would even do that. It’s that he imposed himself sexually on someone else without their consent.

And while his latest dalliance appears to have been consensual, the fact that he sexually harassed someone in the past was not something for which he was ever truly held accountable.

Another example. Polyamorous people and/or people in open relationships or marriages are often accused of cheating despite the fact that what they’re doing is not defined as such under the parameters of their own relationships. Recently, the Frisky wrote a story about Brooklyn Nets player Andrei Kirilenko, who has an open marriage with his wife. However, the story framed this as “being allowed to cheat on his wife.”

First of all, that’s nonsensical. If you’re being allowed to cheat, then you’re by definition not cheating. Second, as long as Kirilenko is following the terms that he has set together with his wife and not keeping anything from her that she has requested to know, then he can’t be cheating.

The fact that people so often persist in viewing consensual non-monogamy as “cheating” suggests that they do not center consent. To them, certain things are verboten in relationships no matter what the people in the relationship have and have not consented to. The point, to them, is not that people in relationships should mutually agree on boundaries that work for them; it’s that people in relationships should just not do certain things because those things are wrong for people in relationships to do–such as sleeping with other people.

One final example: BDSM. Although BDSM can be used as a mechanism for abuse, and abusers obviously exist in the BDSM community as they do in any other, there are also plenty of practitioners of consensual, risk-aware BDSM who are happy and healthy through their choices. Yet some people, from sex-negative conservatives to certain feminists, insist on referring to all BDSM collectively as sexual assault, or at least as unhealthy, dangerous, and abusive.

They claim that because BDSM can resemble “real” violence, therefore it is violence and it must be ethically wrong, because hurting another person is wrong. But they divorce the content of a BDSM encounter from its context–a conversation about desires and boundaries, the setting of a safeword, the aftercare that takes place, well, after.

Interestingly, they often restrict this literal interpretation of things to sexual matters only; many people understand that while walking up to a stranger and tackling them is not okay, playing a game of football and tackling an opposing player is okay. They understand that while choking the crap out of a random person is wrong, practicing judo with a fellow judoka is not wrong. The difference is, of course, consent. A football player consents to being tackled; a judo student who shows up to class consents to practicing judo*.

But with sex, for some reason, this ethic falls apart, and many still believe that BDSM is, if not morally wrong, at least a sign of mental sickness or brokenness. (It’s not.) The fact that the participants consent to it, create mechanisms to withdraw consent if necessary, and make sure that everyone feels safe and satisfied afterward seems not to matter.

Failing to center consent in one’s own thinking about sexual ethics is a problem for several reasons. First of all, it conveniently allows for bias, stigma, and discrimination against queer, poly, kinky, and otherwise sexually non-conforming people. It allows people to dismiss others’ lived experiences by naming them something other than the participants themselves wanted it named. Consensual BDSM becomes sexual violence, consensual nonmonogamy becomes cheating, and so on, despite the protests of the people actually doing these things.

Second, painting any sex other than heterosexual monogamous (perhaps married) sex as Bad blurs the lines between consensual and nonconsensual sex and makes it easier for abusers and assaulters to get away with abusing and assaulting. For instance, if teens are taught that all sex before (heterosexual monogamous) marriage is wrong, they have little reason to be suspicious if their first partner manipulates or coerces them, because they know that Sex Before Marriage Is Bad and this must just be the price they have to pay. If people think that having sex with someone other than your spouse is Bad, they may not realize that it’s unreasonable and abusive for their partner to adamantly refuse to tell them anything their other partners, including their STI status.

There are, of course, issues with consent, too. Consent can be coerced or otherwise given non-freely. Viewing all consensual sex as Completely Good obscures the fact that even consensual sex can perpetuate systems of sexism, racism, and so on, no matter how much its participants enjoy it. Consensual sex can, of course, be risky health-wise, and while people are free to choose to contract STIs if that’s what they for whatever reason want to do, their other partners and their children do not always have that choice.

However, consent can be a great framework for sorting out what is definitely ethically wrong, and what is not. Consensual sex may not be flawless, but nonconsensual sex is absolutely not okay. The examples I provided–of bestiality, of sexting, of open marriages, and of BDSM–show that basing sexual ethics on consent works better than basing it on oughts and shoulds.


* The sports examples here are also good examples of the limitations of consent that I mentioned. A judo student who feels pressured to engage in exercises they’re not comfortable with isn’t really consenting. A football player who isn’t informed of the traumatic and permanent physical consequences that football can have on the body isn’t really consenting either. Sports, like sex, can promote racism, homophobia, and all sorts of other crappy things.

Is It Wrong To Help Someone Cheat?

A while ago, a great blog called Polyskeptic had a post about the ethics of helping someone else cheat. Dan Savage had said on an episode of his podcast that it’s definitely not okay, and Wes of Polyskeptic disagreed.

Wes brings up some good points about what exactly is wrong with cheating, and it’s not the sex itself:

The poly community has, shall we say, an unconventional view of cheating. We tend to say that the problem with cheating isn’t the sex, it’s the lying. There’s nothing inherently wrong with having sex with a person in a relationship. The problem is that when a monogamous person cheats, they are being dishonest with their partner. The harm is caused by the betrayal, not by the sex.

The problem with the standard advice is that, once the proposition has been made, the harm has already been done. By turning down the proposition, you’re turning a cheater into merely an attempted cheater. Is that really any better? To my mind, it is not. When someone attempts to cheat, the betrayal has already occurred.

He goes on to say that simply refusing to help the person cheat is not in itself morally good unless you also inform their partner that they propositioned you, because the harm has already been done by the proposition itself. But people have no moral obligation to protect others’ relationships, and since helping the person cheat wouldn’t make the situation any worse than it already is, you might as well do it.

Dan Savage’s preferred option – rejecting the cheater – is premised on the idea that you have a responsibility for the health and quality of that relationship. As I’ve explained above, rejecting the cheater is, at best, not helping the relationship, and at worst harming the relationship. If you accept that you have a responsibility for that relationship (what I call the “be a hero” option), the only moral choice is to inform the cheater’s partner (or at least make reasonable efforts to do so). Any other choice makes you an accomplice to fraud. If you truly think you have an obligation to that relationship (which I don’t think that you do), your obligation must be to ensure that it isn’t being conducted under false pretenses.  Otherwise, you’re helping the cheater to hide their cheating.

It’s an interesting argument, but ultimately I disagree.

First of all, for many monogamous people, wanting to cheat is not at all the same thing as actually cheating. Back when I was monogamous and thought about this sort of thing a lot, I knew that even though I would be really hurt if my boyfriend tried to cheat but wasn’t able to, I would be even more hurt if he tried to cheat and actually did. It’s not really logical, but for some people it really is about the sex.

Somewhat similarly, there are plenty of poly folks who are completely fine with their partner(s) seeing other people but nevertheless don’t want to know when they’re having sex with someone else, or even who those people are, because it’s unpleasant for them to hear about and makes them feel jealous. So it’s completely possible to be okay with the fact that your partner slept with someone else, but not necessarily with the knowledge that they actually did.

Second, Wes’ argument presumes that being rejected in an attempt to cheat can never be an illuminating or transformative experience for someone, that the person will just shrug and carry on trying to find another person to cheat with. That’s not necessarily the case. Sometimes you fall for someone else, ignore the problems in your current relationship, pursue a fantasy in your mind with this new person, and finally try to cheat with them. Being told “no” can be a wake-up call that causes you to realize that you want to stay committed to your current partner, that you need to work on your relationship with them, or that you need to leave them.

Of course, sometimes it doesn’t work that way. Some people never do develop that self-awareness. But if I had a chance to help someone develop it by not helping them cheat on their partner, I’d take it.

The idea that refusing to help someone cheat without informing their partner about the proposition is harmful is also strange to me. If you’re an “accomplice to fraud” if you don’t cheat with them, how are you not one if you do cheat with them? While informing their partner would arguably be a more “moral” option than just doing nothing, it also overrides the couple’s right to conduct their relationship without your interference. And, yes, it’s too much effort for most people to do even if they wanted to. How would you even get the person’s partner’s contact info?

Whether or not it’s ethically wrong to help someone cheat, there are tons of reasons it’s at least practically a bad idea. If someone’s willing to betray someone’s trust, they’re probably also willing to lie to you about STIs and birth control, for instance. And although you may not be pursuing a monogamous relationship with this person (at least, hopefully not, since they’re with someone else), even casual, open arrangements can involve violations of trust. That’s why even poly folks tend to have such a thing as “cheating.”

In any case, I can’t quite agree with the view that other people’s relationships are absolutely not your responsibility and that if you happen to participate in fucking up someone’s relationship, it doesn’t matter because it’s not your job to preserve people’s relationships. Obviously you don’t carry nearly as great a responsibility for other people’s commitments than the people who have made those commitments, and obviously helping someone cheat isn’t nearly as wrong as cheating, but the idea that we’re all just individual little islands and carry no obligations to each other seems way too libertarian for me.

Personally–and you don’t have to agree with me or do the same thing–if someone asked me to help them cheat, I would say no, and I would strongly urge them to either ask their partner for an open relationship or think about what’s causing them to want to cheat. I would urge them to do that, and that’s it. I wouldn’t play counselor or mediator, I wouldn’t look up their partner on Facebook and let them know what happened. This would be my way of trying to leave the world and these two people in a slightly better state than I found them.

There Is No Universal Definition Of “Cheating”

A very disturbing thing I found here.

Every time I read a women’s website or magazine these days, I come upon a headline that demands to know, “IS THIS CHEATING?!?!” Is sending flirty Facebook messages to someone else cheating? Is sending them nude pics cheating? Is flirting cheating? Is there a chance you could actually be cheating on your boyfriend and not even realize it?

Technology seems to exacerbate these existential questions because it keeps giving us new ways to violate our partners’ trust (but, on the flipside, it keeps giving us new ways to be sexual). Coming up to someone in person and stripping naked is one thing; sending a nude photo of yourself to them is another (or feels like another). And so we have to have these endless conversations about what exactly cheating is.

Here’s the thing, though. If you’re reading a magazine article to find out if you cheated or not, you’re doing it wrong, because it can’t answer that question for you. The only person who can tell you that is your partner.

Nobody else can tell you what “cheating” means in your particular relationship because it’s different in each one. In monogamous relationships, most people take the “default” definition of cheating, which includes any sort of sexual contact with someone else. But even then, what about flirty Facebook messages? What about “emotional cheating,” when you have feelings for someone else (even if you don’t act on them)? Some people count these things as cheating; others don’t.

Monogamous relationships can have a lot of wiggle room, too. I’ve known many couples in which one partner is straight and the other is bisexual, and the straight partner doesn’t mind if the bisexual partner hooks up with people of their own gender (as long as it’s just hooking up). Long-distance relationships can also have certain “rules” for what the partners can do while they’re apart.

In non-monogamous relationships, there’s an even greater variety of configurations and definitions of cheating. Some couples restrict which types of sexual acts they can do outside of the primary relationship, or they specify that sex without barriers outside of that relationship would be cheating. Some people form triads or group marriages and forbid all sexual contact outside of that established group. Some decide that you can only hook up outside of the relationship at certain events or in particular spaces, or if your primary partner is present and either watching or participating.

Meanwhile, in other non-monogamous relationships–for instance, mine–the boundaries aren’t about specific acts or people, but rather about communication. If my partner or I act secretively about other people we’re seeing, we’re cheating. If we’re not considerate to each other in terms of making plans with those other people, we’re cheating.

But people don’t just come to these agreements by separately reading Cosmo articles about what cheating is and then never discussing it.

So, if you’re unsure of what counts as cheating in your relationship, you have three options:

1. Say nothing and avoid all activities that could possibly be considered cheating, thus potentially missing out on some great opportunities;

2. Say nothing and do whatever you feel like doing while convincing yourself that your partner wouldn’t see it as cheating, thus potentially, you know, cheating on your partner;

3. Ask your partner what they would like the boundaries of the relationship to be.

I can see why that third option might feel awkward or uncomfortable. If you ask your partner, “What are our boundaries as a couple? What could I potentially do that would make you feel like I cheated on you?”, there’s a chance that your partner will interpret that as you “looking for permission” to get involved in some way with other people. But if they understand the importance of communication in relationships, they’ll see it for what it is–an attempt to make sure that you’re on the same page and that neither of you will be hurt by a misunderstanding about relationship boundaries.

That’s also why it’s a good idea to have that discussion at the beginning of a relationship rather than once it’s been going on for a while, but late is definitely better than never.

The great thing about a discussion like this is that it also allows for discussing things that aren’t “cheating” per se, but nevertheless feel like a violation of boundaries. For some people, it’s not “cheating” if their partner flirts harmlessly (as in, with no intentions for anything else) with someone else, but they wouldn’t feel comfortable if their partner did that right in front of them. For some people–it’s hard for me to imagine this myself, but I’ve heard of it–it feels “wrong” somehow if their partner dances with someone else at a party. Some people would want to know if their partner develops a crush on someone else, but that doesn’t mean it’s “cheating” if they do. Nevertheless, finding out that their partner has been keeping a new crush secret would feel like a violation of trust.

All of these nuances can be made clear by a conversation about boundaries.

Prescriptive definitions of cheating (i.e. “this is what cheating must mean for everyone”) don’t serve anyone. They keep people stuck in a very restrictive version of monogamy (not that there’s anything wrong with monogamy, as long as you consciously choose it). They allow for misunderstandings that hurt people, such as when one partner thinks flirting with others is okay and the other feels like it’s cheating. They prevent people from creating their own relationship models that work best for them, and encourage them instead to conform to the dominant cultural conception of what a committed, “faithful” relationship is.

Edit: A reader and fellow blogger, Patrick, noted that the part of this post that deals with relationships between straight and bisexual people might be reinforcing the stereotype that all such relationships involve an agreement that the bisexual person can hook up with others of their gender. I definitely don’t want to reinforce that stereotype, so I asked him how I might have rephrased that in a way that was clearer and less stereotype-y. He suggested this:

“I’ve known many mixed-orientation couples (one partner is straight and the other is bisexual), and in some of them the straight partner doesn’t mind if their partner hooks up with people of their own gender (as long as it’s within their negotiated boundaries).”

I like this phrasing a lot more, so I decided to append this here. A huge thank-you to Patrick for pointing this out and suggesting an improvement. :)