Big Questions

Should Flirting Over Instant Message Be Considered G-Cheating?

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My Gchat list is a minefield of potential romantic disaster. At any given moment, I can emerge from “invisible” and make myself available to my live-in boyfriend, my longterm ex, the guy I went on a single date with who ghosted except for the fact that he remains stubbornly, perpetually online, that hot guy with biceps the size of my legs who occasionally sends me flirtatious emails, and a friend from high school who asks me to marry him every time he gets drunk. I’ve learned the hard way that Gchat is a personal danger zone, a place where it’s all too easy to stretch the boundaries of appropriate flirting when I’m in a relationship IRL. But what does appropriate even mean in Gchat terms, and how do you know you’ve crossed the line?

Like so many children of the ‘90s, I grew up with AIM and MSN Messenger. I taught myself to flirt by getting drunk with my girlfriends off Mike’s Hard Lemonade and boldly IMing popular boys who were magically approachable online, with their dumb rap lyric IM names and rampant use of emoticons. All that early practice has made me very good on Gchat. Better on Gchat — sassier, braver, wittier, more intimate — than I am in person with someone new, and especially with someone I’m attracted to.

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Talking has become synonymous with moving our fingers across a keyboard. Within the safe space of the Gchat box, where body language and messy human realities are removed, we can interact as sheer words. Gchat is both profoundly intimate (I’ve found myself, for example, in conversations with acquaintances about absent fathers) and weirdly isolating (think of how chats sometimes just stop in the middle, when your Gchat partner gets up to refill their coffee without saying BRB). Still, no matter how personal you get, it’s never as personal as what happens offline. On Gchat you can say anything, be anything. Even the spatial reality of Gchat — a tiny box that’s easy to hide and minimize — makes what happens there seem benign. If you regret something you’ve said once the conversation is over? Delete your history or even the contact, and console yourself with the fact that nothing happened In Real Life.

I asked my friend Anna what she’d do without Gchat, if she thought it would make it harder to flirt.

Anna:  omg yes
I’d be bored
I’d die

We’ve long praised the merits of Gchat: how it lets us stay connected via an invisible umbilical cord all day, every day; how easy it is to send something as simple as “HI” to a cute guy from class or work; and how as a flirting tool it showcases our best quality — our brains — while eliminating the anxiety of simply being a human in the world, standing in a bar, wondering if our jokes sound stupid or make sense.

Anna: i think it allows you to tap into your stream of consciousness
more than other things
and people who are naturally better at expressing themselves via writing than with actual human words
are good at Gchat

me:  yes that is how I feel

Anna:  also there’s something like
breathless about it
that appeals to me

The breathlessness Anna refers to gets at something about Gchat’s allure — it’s a conduit towards romance without bodies, towards sex, ultimately, but not necessarily physical sex. That’s what makes G-flirting such a moral gray area. If, online, you say something like “I wish I was kissing you,” does it count as having kissed?

On the one hand, if you Gchat me that you’re forcing me to imagine myself kissing you — you’ve spoken an imaginary reality into existence. That’s how cyber-sex works. On the other, more obvious hand, you can’t kiss someone without a mouth. A burst of new research about the way reading effects our brains further complicates this question. Researchers at Emory University discovered that when subjects read passages containing sensory details, their brains were stimulated in experiential areas. For you non-scientists: reading about eating a melty chocolate chip cookie and actually eating a melty chocolate chip cookie are, in brain-terms, closely related activities. By that logic, then, any Gchatting that strays into sexually suggestive territory is cheating, right?

Trisha, my 25-year-old coworker, says, “G-flirting is not cheating. I’m not even sure cyber-sex is cheating.” Her point — that virtual sex and IRL sex are hugely different things — is valid. After all, the line between virtual sex and a fantasy is very slim. Nobody really thinks that if their partner jerks off while imagining having sex with say, Shakira, that he’s cheated. But as prudish as it may sound, if I found out my boyfriend was having cyber-sex with someone via Gchat, I’d be devastated.

All flirting contains the promise of sex, but Gchat tricks both parties into thinking that this promise is unfolding in a realm that’s free from repercussions, because it’s so separate from reality.

My boyfriend and I owe Gchat a lot. When I was in the midst of a horrific, drawn-out breakup with my ex, my boyfriend started Gchatting me. He’s a shy guy, so shy he could barely speak to me in person, and it was only through Gchat that I realized how funny he is, how smart, how thoughtful and empathetic. In true Cyrano de Bergerac style, it was his words, not his pheromones, that made me want to date him. In real life, my ex and I were going through the ringer, but online, I was falling in love. I’d sit at my boring office job and Gchat with my now boyfriend eight hours a day, to ranging degrees of intensity. It was largely harmless banter, but there was no doubt that I was spending more time trying to make him laugh than I was trying to fix the shitty mess I’d made with my ex.

Is what I did cheating? Kim Rosenfield, a Clinical Social Worker who specializes in relationship issues, says, “The content often doesn’t matter. It’s the attention turned away from the loved one and a preoccupation with another online, even if it’s just ‘friendly” chatting, that tends to begin to spell trouble.  In fact, non-sexual or explicit betrayals can often feel more painful, because they’re less obviously ‘wrong’ and can be more slippery in terms of boundary violations.”

This matches my experience — it felt like a betrayal, though I couldn’t have explained exactly why.  During our chats there was a charged tension to every word, and even to that agonizing little phrase “is typing…” All flirting contains the promise of sex, but Gchat tricks both parties into thinking that this promise is unfolding in a realm that’s free from repercussions, because it’s so separate from reality.

Except it’s not. As soon as I was officially single, my boyfriend and I launched from Gchats to a real date. The date was horrible compared to the chats, which is a conversation for another post. But because of the chats I went on a second date, and slowly the dates got better, and now that we live together it’s the chats that suffer by comparison. People love to talk about how the things we do online are distortions of our true selves. No doubt that’s true, and that online exchanges have stolen something from the texture of real-life interaction. But Gchat, and what happens there, is very real for me — is place where I’m as much, if not more, myself than anywhere else.

There is no easy way to draw boundaries online, but for now, I’ll leave it at this — when one of those dudes in my Gchat minefield sends me a message, I’m going to be very careful how I reply.