The latest Anthony Weiner saga has left pundits shocked, absolutely shocked. (Just kidding; probably anyone familiar with Weiner saw this coming loud and clear.) Which begs the question — why do we still care so much what Weiner does with his wiener, or his smartphone?
The answer lies with the medium: sexting, in this case via Twitter. I don’t think a full-on affair would have captured the public imagination quite so vividly. After all, affairs are old news; they have probably been going on as long as people have been getting married.
But sexting is relatively new. The Atlantic Wire found that the word “sext” first appeared in the Globe and Mail in 2004. Since then, we haven’t wasted much time. A 2014 study found that half of all American adults had sexted; people in romantic relationships are more likely to sext. Still, we’re profoundly squeamish about the subject. Online, “sexting horror stories” abound, alongside breathless guides for parents.
Perhaps that’s because of how easy it is to imagine ourselves or our partners in similar situations. Our phones are often an extension of ourselves. A 2015 Bank of America report found that 71 percent of respondents slept with their phones on their nightstand, tucked in bed with them, or in their hands. We respond to the often incessant buzzing as if messages received via text are more important than those delivered by any other means.
While many find the omnipresence of technology annoying, it can be incredibly seductive knowing someone else is just as enraptured by you as you are by them. Since we all have a seemingly endless stream of emails awaiting our urgent reply, sending rapid-fire risqué messages can be a sign that you’re considered special. A sext feels more personal than an email, and can be read on the sly, a naughty secret tucked into your pocket.
Maybe we can’t get our fill of Weiner because many of us know that we could just as easily be in a similar position. As a culture, we sometimes forget that people can woo us with words, and in the same way some people think calories eaten standing up “don’t count,” sexting can feel like it doesn’t count because you’re interacting with someone on the other end of a phone. You know logically they’re a person, but it can feel surreal. Even though I’m in the most stable, happy and fulfilling relationship of my life, when a casual conversation with an ex has turned slightly flirty, veering into sexting territory, I’ve paused, wondering, Who would it hurt?
As Tina Horn, author of “Sexting: The Grownup’s Little Book of Sex Tips for Getting Dirty Digitally,” told me, “Digital communication is still in many ways an ethical Wild West. People are always looking for a loophole to get away with doing what they want. Often people in long-term monogamous relationships crave novelty, and sexting offers that.” When people sext, she said, “They are reaching out for human connection, for attention, for the thrill of the new. If someone has self-destructive tendencies, then the immediacy of access to technology that scratches that itch can overwhelm their self-control.”
It’s also fun. For several years, I was engaged in an affair with a married man. During most of that time, though not all of it, I was single. While we only saw each other in person a handful of times, our sexts came fast and furious. There was an intimacy to them that simply wasn’t replicated in any other form, even though we also shared steamy emails and phone calls.
“Every single day humans around the world are sending playful, creative, erotic messages to one another without violating or betraying anyone,” Horn says. “Sexting, like sex itself, has its own thrills and pleasures regardless of whether betrayal is involved.”
Sexting can represent a gray area, a slippery slope of digital communication that, I would venture, many of us have danced on the edge of more times than we feel comfortable admitting. Sexting has an allure all its own and can be a rush of attention and arousal that follows us anywhere we go: on vacation, to the doctor’s office, into the bathroom at the office. We can’t look away from Weiner’s scandals in large part because social media and smartphones have enabled all of us to flirt with the idea of sexting, even if we don’t actually take the plunge. And that possibility, one that’s always, literally, at our fingertips, is as tantalizing from afar as it is up close.