Representative Anthony Weiner may have taken it to an extreme. But the online flirtations and provocative photos that got him into so much trouble are far from unusual among adults these days, experts say.
What with Facebook friends, Twitter followers and Skype video chats, it is now all too easy to flirt with strangers and engage in sexual fantasy without (technically) breaking a marriage vow. Digital dalliance has entered the mainstream.
For instance, sexting — sending sexually suggestive text messages or photos, as Mr. Weiner did — is usually thought of as a teenage pastime. But according to a report from the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project based on a representative sample of 2,252 adults, it is far more common among people aged 18 to 29.
Nearly one-third of that group say they have received sexually suggestive or nude photos of someone they know, and 13 percent say they have sent them, the report said. Even among 30-to-49-year-olds, 17 percent say they have received such photos and 5 percent admit sending them. Similar Pew research finds that the comparable figures among adolescents are 15 percent and 4 percent.
“Given the alchemy of sex and lust and love and technology, it’s not that surprising that the numbers are where they are,” said Amanda Lenhart, a senior research specialist at Pew. “Anecdotally, those of us who know single younger adults know people who do this.”
Nancy Baym, a University of Kansas professor of communication studies and author of the new book “Personal Connections in the Digital Age,” agreed. “I think we tend to blame teenagers for behaviors that we’re quite guilty of ourselves,” she said. “Grown-ups are certainly capable of doing really stupid stuff online.”
The data reflect the new rules of digital romance, in which flirtatious texts have replaced phone calls, and Web sites like Facebook have replaced high school reunions as a way to reconnect with an old flame.
“We use new technologies in romantic relationships all the time,” said Dr. Baym. “When two people meet and they’re interested in developing the relationship, they go to text messages really fast as a way to safely negotiate the relationship.”
Therapists debate whether the Internet has facilitated more infidelity — after all, men and women have been betraying their vows since marriage began. Still, slight shifts in infidelity rates among young people and women suggest that digital media may be playing a role. Anecdotally, therapists report that electronic contact via Facebook, e-mail and text messages has allowed women in particular to form more intimate relationships.
More on Sexting in the Mainstream
“There’s no question that the Internet has increased the availability of alternative romantic partners, whether it’s flirtation, reuniting with old lovers or having texting sexual relationships,” Dr. Baym said. “The Internet dramatically expands the scope of potential people that we can meet.”
But while online communication may make it easier to cheat, it also leaves a digital trail that makes it more likely you’ll be caught.
“I don’t think the Internet is increasing transgressions, but it’s leaving a trail that is very accessible,” said Lois Braverman, president of the Ackerman Institute for the Family. “In the 19th century there were letters; in the ’60s and ’70s there might be private detective photos or credit card receipts. What’s different is that back then a transgression might have been discovered, but it didn’t go viral.”
Some researchers believe that the widespread availability of pornography via the Internet has also led to an insidious change in attitudes about sex.
One study found that more than a third of Americans had visited an online porn site at least once a month, according to a 2009 report in The Journal of Economic Perspectives. That study analyzed subscriptions to one major provider of adult entertainment, finding a relatively even distribution of subscriptions across the country.
“By all indications it’s pretty common,” said the author of the paper, Benjamin Edelman, an assistant professor at the Harvard Business School. “Just about anywhere you look, people are subscribing to online adult entertainment. It’s something people do in every state, every county.”
Tom Hymes, a senior editor at AVN Media Network, a trade publication that follows the adult entertainment industry, said online sexual behavior had been part of the mainstream for years.
“My perspective is that Rep. Weiner was behaving well within certain online norms, as far as what we see happening on a regular basis,” he said in an e-mail. “But his huge mistake was thinking he could maintain his anonymity (if indeed he did) when he seemed to be doing everything he could to use his prestige as a congressman in his online flirtations.”
Erick Janssen, senior scientist at the Kinsey Institute, said more study was needed to learn how the Internet and digital media are shaping adult behavior and relationships.
“People who engage in behaviors like erotic chats, seduction, exhibition, it’s probably indeed very widespread,” he said. “That the behaviors are there is hard to dispute. To connect that information with people’s relationship status, their values, what their partner might think of it — that sort of thing we don’t know a whole lot about.”