The Weiner Case: When Is Tweeting Cheating?

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A photo from the website shows a shirtless Representative Anthony Weiner

Apart from the eerie similarity to the opening plot point of the Matt Damon vehicle The Adjustment Bureau (handsome potential New York City mayor  brought down by ill-advised photograph), the most striking thing about the spectacle of the slow-motion Weinermobile crash that took place on Monday is how it divides the sexes.

As my colleague James Poniewozik points out, right after the last surreal moments of New York Congressman Anthony Weiner’s already bizarre press conference — during which he admitted that yes, it was he who accidentally posted a picture of his unders on Twitter, and oh yeah, he’d kind of used electronic communication with strangers to get his rocks off before — most of the news channels went straight to a bunch of guys to figure out what it all meant.

(More on Rep. Weiner’s Wife Dodges the Role of Supportive Spouse)

The men looked a bit puzzled, many of them arguing — especially if they were Democrats — that because Weiner hadn’t broken the law, they weren’t quite sure what the big deal was.

There was the sticky issue of the wife, the woman to whom barely a year ago he’d pledged eternal troth. But if Weiner didn’t actually meet any of the several women he admitted to having flirty and sexually charged communication with, let alone sleep with them, then where was the harm? After all, the men noted, some of it even took place before Weiner was married. Until the inadvertently public tweet, it was private, consensual social-media contact between grown people.

In the game of Monogamy, the consensus among the blokes was: Weiner deserves the equivalent of being sent to jail. No passing Go, no collecting $200, but a few rolls of the die and he’s back on the streets.

(More on Sex and Politics: Are Powerful Men Really More Likely to Cheat?)

For many women, on the other hand, perhaps especially wives, the whole thing is galling. How could sending dirty e-mails — or in the case of Twitter and Facebook, direct messages — to other women possibly be the faithful and loving thing to do?

It’s not a hard science, but if the spectrum of infidelity has the Full Arnold (secret child with another woman) and the Semi-Eliot (occasional use of prostitutes) at one end and saying something flirty to the person handing you a caffe latte at the other, then sending pictures of your congressional member to women you don’t know is somewhere in the middle, a gray area.

Social media has vastly widened the borders of this misty territory, making it easy to find former flames on Facebook, admirers on Twitter and people you liked the look of from across the conference facility on LinkedIn. Once you’ve found them, it’s up to you and your moral compass as to what you do with them. Because of the disembodied nature of electronic communication, people are often much less guarded about how they express themselves.

(More on The 10 Most Shocking Twitter Scandals)

There’s a concept that marriage therapists talk about, emotional infidelity, where a person doesn’t actually sleep with another person, but they have a relationship that’s intense and intimate in every other way. Sometimes these are gateway friendships to full-blown affairs, other times they blow over. Generally guys tend to dismiss these as no big deal, a technical foul at best.

But to many women, for whom physical and emotional intimacy are kind of a package deal, these can be devastating. Why, these women like to know, is sharing intimacy with them not enough? While Weiner’s biggest crime against the state seems to be subjecting it to a spectacle of ginormous cheesiness, his wife, the accomplished knockout Huma Abedin, has got to be weighing her future with a man who cannot call a moratorium on the sexy talk with strangers even in the first flush of wedded bliss.

In the end, what Weiner did was spectacularly stupid. It’s forgivable to send a public tweet when you meant to send a private one (I say this as TIME magazine’s reigning queen of the inadvertent “reply all”). But it’s stupid to lie about it.

(More on See pictures of the Anthony Weiner scandal.)

It’s foolish, as even tweens know, to send risqué photos to people you haven’t met. But it’s witless to send them to the opposite sex if you’re married or in a committed relationship. (How did Weiner think Abedin would feel?) It’s imprudent to lie to the press, your family and supporters, and it’s chowder-headed to do it if you know that you can be easily found out.

While we’re at it, it’s injudicious to organize a press conference so badly that there’s nobody but yourself to cut off questions and let it be hijacked by a blogger and a shock-jock sidekick. And finally, it’s not fair but it’s true that it’s particularly harebrained to do all this if you have a family name that is as memorable as Weiner.

Maybe elected Representatives don’t have to be faithful or clever or honest to be decent leaders. But is a little wisdom too much to ask?

Related links:

The Caligula Effect: Why Powerful Men Compulsively Cheat

The Case for Letting Your Partner’s Eye Wander

What We Can Learn from the Schwarzenegger-Shriver Split