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. :)

Evangelical Apathy

You might think that the people who annoy me the most are those who hold views I strongly disagree with. Actually, though, it’s the people who don’t really care one way or the other, and–this is the important part–who insist on inserting themselves into every single political debate to yell at us for having opinions.

I call these people evangelical apathists, because they feel the need to spread their apathy like evangelicals.

Typical mating calls of evangelical apathists include:

  • “I mean, I get that [politician/policy/status quo] really sucks, but why do you have to make such a big deal about it?”
  • “Complaining about it won’t change anything.”
  • “Things will just get better on their own, anyway.”
  • “Well, I’m a [insert group/identity here], and I’m not offended.”
  • “Honestly, both sides are equally bad.”
  • “Don’t you have more important things to worry about?”
  • “It’s just a joke, stop being so sensitive.”

I’ve found that in my personal life, I tend to have a much harder time getting along with these people than I do with conservatives. With the latter, while we disagree, we can have a good time debating each other or at least bond over our mutual concern for what’s going on in the world. But with evangelical apathists, the very fact that I care about stuff seems like a thorn in their side.

These are the people who whine about “too many” political posts on Facebook. These are the people who loudly proclaim that politics is “boring.” These are the people who don’t vote–and not out of protest against the two-party system, but because they just can’t be bothered.

For example, during the Markwell controversy at my school last spring, the loudest voices–aside, of course, from the moronic anti-religious trolls who made the rest of us atheists look bad–were the people shouting “But why do you guys care if they proselytize?” without bothering to listen to our answer. (The reason we care, by the way, is because proselytism is condescending, insensitive, and annoying, and because Campus Crusade for Christ is an offensive reference to an act of Christian barbarity.)

The same thing happens with controversies like Chick-Fil-A and Daniel Tosh. There are those who defend them, there are those who criticize them, and then there are those making apathetic noises in our general direction and proclaiming how above these petty arguments they apparently are.

Except, of course, it’s ironic–if you really don’t care, why bother commenting?

I’d blame evangelical apathy on several causes. First of all, the internet does lower substantially the barriers to expressing your opinions, however inane they might be. It takes all of five seconds to leave a comment saying “hurrr I don’t see what the big deal is why do you guys even care lol.” This is much easier to do online than in person, because thankfully, it’s still considered rude to interrupt two people having a conversation to tell them that you find their conversational topic to be uninteresting. Online, on the other hand, this is par for the course. (For what it’s worth, though, I still think the internet is absolutely awesome and a wonderful medium for expressing opinions.)

Second, apathy is our cultural default. Apathy is cool, mature, “appropriate.” Passion is uncool, immature, and “inappropriate.” This is why apathy is something that so many people are so desperate to show off. In proudly displaying yourself as someone “above” such petty issues as racial slurs, rape jokes, and LGBT rights, you are tapping into our cultural ideal.

Third–and this is the one I can somewhat sympathize with–our political climate is toxic. People attack each other rather than ideas, and facts (what are “facts” nowadays?) are basically unobtainable. It’s all too easy to get burned out, throw up your hands, and declare neutrality.

And that’s the part I don’t begrudge anyone. If you’ve had enough, you’ve had enough. Get out and keep your sanity.

But respect the choices of those of us who are staying in the ring. If our political debates annoy you, don’t read our blogs and Facebook statuses. Don’t make us defend our decision to give a fuck. Don’t evangelize your apathy.

Get out of our way.

How to Have Sex Like They Do in the Movies

My recent post on consent got me thinking about how open communication about sex isn’t just important because it establishes consent, but also because it’s what makes sex great.

A man meets a woman–it’s always a man and a woman.

He is tall and handsome–she, thin and beautiful.

He cracks a witty pickup line with a confident smile, and she laughs and moves in closer.

Some amount of time passes–the amount depends on the kind of movie this is–and finally they are alone, almost always in his apartment. Without much (or any) invitation on her part, and without any prior discussion of matters sexual, the man kisses the woman, who responds passionately as though she’d been waiting for this very moment the whole time. They have sex. Few if any words are ever exchanged. But the sex is awesome anyway. It’s like they’ve been searching for each other their whole lives.

Does this ever actually happen? I mean, really, does it?

…not really.

Seriously. Observe a moment of silence for that script. Give it a eulogy. Stop searching for it.

I mean, I guess you don’t have to. If you dedicate your whole life to the search, you may eventually come across a person with whom you fit like two adjacent puzzle pieces, just like that. A person who just happens to share your favorite sex positions, who gives head just the way you like to receive it, who loves to be tied up while you love to do the tying (or vice versa), who feels ready for increasing intimacy at the exact same pace you do, who doesn’t have any triggers or STIs that you might need to discuss first, who shares your fetishes, who comes the easiest from whatever it is you already love to do most. A person who can do and be all this, without ever having to talk about any of it with you.

You might come across a person like that, but I doubt it.

Besides, you could have that kind of sex without finding that person at all.

Say you’ve met someone you’re attracted to. Maybe you’ve known them for an hour, maybe a year. Doesn’t matter. You’ve flirted with each other, and that tension is definitely there. Maybe you’ve gone on “dates,” maybe you haven’t. Regardless, this is a person you absolutely want to fuck.

So tell them!

Ridiculous, right? Aren’t you supposed to “get” them drunk? Shouldn’t you send signals and make sexual innuendo or just grab them and make out with them?

That’s what our pop culture would have you think, but as it is about many other things, it’s wrong.

Here’s the thing: nobody who really wants to have sex with you will be turned off by you telling them you want to have sex with them. In fact, they’ll probably be turned on. They may be a bit shy and embarrassed at first, because this kind of genuine, open forwardness about sex isn’t something our culture encourages. But they’ll probably get over it if they really want you.

Likewise, nobody who really wants to have sex with you needs to be drunk to do it. Having a few drinks may loosen them up and put them at ease, but if that desire wasn’t there already, no amount of alcohol will put it there–at least, not genuinely. And also, sex with a drunk person is not actually legal, since a drunk person cannot consent.

So, hopefully your would-be hookup buddy agrees that sex with you would be an awesome thing. Hopefully they’re also open and comfortable with talking about sex, because, unlike the movies tell you, communication–more so than “chemistry” or “the moment”–is what makes sex great:

“So how do you like to come?”
“It’s easiest for me if I’m getting myself off…with a little help. You?”
“I like to get head.”
“Good! I like giving it.”
“How do you feel about doggy style?”
“I love it. Could I handcuff you while we do it?”
“Actually, handcuffs make me a bit uncomfortable. What if you tied me up with a scarf instead?”
“That works!”

This isn’t something that most people are used to, except perhaps in the context of an established and ongoing sexual relationship. First of all, despite our sexualized culture, sex is still considered dirty and “inappropriate” for casual conversation by many people. Since it’s such a supposedly private and shameful thing, many of us will never discuss it with anyone but the closest of friends (and partners). Someone that you haven’t even slept with yet probably doesn’t fit the bill.

What this means is that many people feel a reflexive discomfort with talking about sex, a discomfort that they assume is “natural.” But it’s not. It’s a consequence of us being taught from birth that sex and penises and vaginas and butts are shameful. And so we’re ashamed.

Second, our culture–for example, the sorts of movies that I mentioned–teaches us that you don’t need to communicate about sex in this way for it to be great. In fact, it says, too much talking about or during sex is just weird and a turn-off (remember that awkward scene in The Notebook where they nearly have sex for the first time? And also that awkward scene in the pilot episode of Girls?). Furthermore, someone who is Right For You will supposedly Just Magically Know what you like Because Chemistry, so talking about sex shouldn’t even be necessary.

But it is. Not only to prevent assault, but to make sure that the sex you’re having is truly cinematic.

Consent Does Not “Ruin the Moment”

People who oppose sensible things like anti-harassment policies at conferences keep bringing up the same tired myths about dating, sex, and romance: that it’s very important to have “mystery” and that making things clear and explicit “takes away the fun” and, worst of all, that asking for consent “would ruin the moment.”

I encounter this myth a lot in my work as a sexual health peer educator. When I talk to people about sex, I always emphasize the need to ask for consent whenever you’re doing Sexual Stuff with someone, and I am often asked, “But wouldn’t asking permission for stuff kill the mood?”

Sometimes I wonder what planet such people are living on, and whether or not they have, in fact, ever had sex. Because to me, there’s nothing hotter than asking someone if they want me to do [insert sexy thing here] to them and being answered with “Fuck yeah!” or “Yes please!” or, you know, just doing that thing.

For the vast majority of the people you will encounter sexually, there are two ways asking for consent could go. One is that you ask for consent and they say some equivalent of “Fuck yeah!” and you get to do that thing with them, knowing that they’re as into it as you are.

The other is that they tell you no, and then congratulations, you’ve just avoided assaulting someone. And with luck, you’ll find something else that you both want to do, or you’ll have a great conversation about your boundaries, or you’ll realize that this person isn’t into the things you are–or they’re not into you–and you get to move on before any feelings are hurt.

And if the person tells you no in a mean way or if they make fun of you for asking or tell you that it’s a turn-off, then guess what? The problem isn’t you, or the fact that you asked. The problem is them.

Of course, there are people who prefer not to be asked. A friend told me that she likes it when partners push the boundaries a bit without asking, and she tells them no once they’ve tried something she doesn’t want. But here’s the thing:

  1. People Are Different. My friend does not represent all people or all women, and anyone who assumes that she does is making a mistake. You can’t generalize from a single person you know, or even from all the people you’ve slept with in the past. There’s no such thing as What Women Want or What Men Want or What One-Night-Stands Want or What Spouses Want.
  2. If you are like my friend, you can negotiate this with a partner from the beginning–i.e. “I want you to do what you want to me without asking, and I’ll tell you if I want you to stop.”

Also, not all ways of asking for consent are equal for everybody. Personally, for instance, I find it really hot when someone is direct and confident–not aggressively confident, but assertively confident. For instance, “I really want to fuck you. Can I?” I find it much less appealing when someone clearly lacks confidence and stammers out something like “So um, do you think we could like, have sex now?” To me, that says that the person is asking not necessarily because they care about my consent, but because they don’t really believe that anyone would truly want to have sex with them.

But the beauty of this is, that’s just me. My desires are not everyone’s desires. My turn-ons are not everyone’s turn-ons.

You can ask for consent in a myriad of ways, many of which will be appealing to plenty of people. You could use my “I really want to fuck you” example. You could simply tell the person what you want to do and see how they respond. You could make a motion indicating what you want to do (such as reaching for their zipper) and ask, “Is this okay?” You could even take some of the pressure off yourself by asking them what they want (never a bad idea).

Some people protest that it’s ridiculous to explicitly ask for every single touch no matter how extensive a sexual history you have with someone. While most of them probably understand that you should ask for consent when it comes to penis-in-vagina intercourse (although, of course, there are quite a few people who still don’t get that), for some reason they don’t think that this same courtesy should be extended to other types of sexual contact. But there’s no reason intercourse should be categorically different. For many people, in fact, it’s not the most “intimate” possible act, and that’s not even to mention the fact that not everyone even does it (because, you know, non-heterosexual sex is a Real Thing). Furthermore, just because hugging or kissing someone who doesn’t want it isn’t “as bad” as penetrating someone who doesn’t want it does not mean that we shouldn’t try to prevent the former, too.

But regardless, these people are also misconstruing the argument. There are certain ways to consent nonverbally–for instance, if I move in close to someone and put my head on their shoulder, that probably means it’s okay for them to put their arm around me–and partners who have an established history can build up enough trust and knowledge of each other that they don’t need to ask about every single thing.

But many (if not most) sexual encounters are not like that. Unless you’re certain beyond a doubt what someone wants–and, honestly, it’s difficult for me to think of a situation like that except when explicit consent has been given–you should ask.

Consent doesn’t ruin the moment. Assault, however, definitely does.

You’re a Racist

And a sexist, and probably a homophobe, too.

But it’s okay, so am I.

In fact, research shows that almost everyone shows signs of prejudiced attitudes. The Implicit Association Test, a psychological test designed to measure the strength of subconscious associations that people have, suggests that even people who openly profess not to be racist or sexist actually are, deep down.

When you take an IAT, you use a computer program to categorize words into two different categories, usually by pressing one of two keys as quickly as possible. For instance, the categories might be “Black” and “White,” and the words you have to categorize might be either pleasant or unpleasant in nature–such as “safe” and “unsafe.” In one round, you’ll be asked to categorize the pleasant words as “black” and the unpleasant words as “white,” and in the next round you’ll do it the other way around. (It’s actually a bit more complicated than that, but you get the idea.)

The software measures how long it takes you to press the right key to categorize each word, and research shows that people are quicker to categorize unpleasant words as “black” rather than “white.”

IATs are extremely valuable tools for psychological research. They’ve been used to study stereotypes and prejudice in all sorts of categories, including race, gender, weight, and others. The IAT seems to be difficult (if not impossible) to fake or “game” in any way. You can try it here.

There’s other evidence aside from the IAT that suggests that prejudice is shockingly common and deeply ingrained. You know that racist trope about not being able to tell people of another race apart? Well, apparently, that begins at the age of nine months. A recent study shows that while five-month-old babies could still distinguish faces just as well whether they belonged to their own race or to another, by nine months, they had become much better at distinguishing faces of their own race.

I don’t know if effects like these are caused by nature, nurture, or a mix of both (probably the latter). There’s evidence that prejudice is taught to us by society, but there’s also evidence that it’s an inborn trait that we evolved in order to distinguish friends from foes.

However, even if prejudice is completely biological (which I doubt), it doesn’t really matter. In addition to our tendency to sort people into groups, we’ve also evolved brains that can override our basic instincts. We are capable of going on hunger strikes for a cause, resisting the urge to have sex with someone we find attractive, overcome phobias of heights, snakes, and elevators, and ignore our natural revulsion for blood and disease and become doctors.

There’s no reason, then, that we should not also be capable of unlearning prejudice.

Research like this is why I think that we should take some of the stigma away from words like “racist” and “sexist.” Most people don’t want to be branded as bigots, even if they knowingly hold some attitudes that are bigoted. So the response that most people will make when accused of racism or sexism is “WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT OF COURSE I’M NOT A RACIST/SEXIST SOME OF MY BEST FRIENDS ARE BLACK/WOMEN.” The response should really be, “Wow, I guess I haven’t really worked on getting rid of my prejudice.” After all, prejudice is something we all have at least a little bit of.

We should acknowledge that fact rather than pretending otherwise. Even people who write constantly about bigotry and how to end it–such as me–hold subconscious (or even conscious) bigoted attitudes. The difference between people who care about social justice and those who don’t is not that we’re not bigoted at all and they are; it’s that we consciously work on correcting our bigoted views and they do not.

For instance, when I’m walking down the street at night and I see a black man and I involuntarily get scared, I force myself to ask why. And whenever I ask myself that, the answer is always that I’m scared because I’ve been taught to be scared, not because there’s anything to be scared of. And I don’t cross the street to the other side.

So when you realize that your mental image of a scientist is always a man, or that you feel disgusted when you see a fat person on the bus, or that seeing a man holding another man’s hand or wearing a dress (or both!) makes you uncomfortable, don’t just let that feeling be. Don’t assume that your feelings are always true. Question them, and you might be surprised at what you find.

We are all bigots in some ways. But some of us are more bigoted than others.