Why Men Cybercheat

Anthony Weiner may insist his marriage to Huma Abedin will survive, but why did he risk it all for affairs with women he never met? Jessica Bennett offers nine scientific theories for why men cheat online.

06.07.11 5:53 AM ET

The flirtations began three years ago—long before Anthony Weiner's marriage. But they continued after his wedding, making their way onto Twitter, Facebook, and presumably, elsewhere. There was the woman in Seattle who alleged she'd never met the man; a Jewish gal who reportedly told Weiner she gave a mean, ahem, oral service; and, allegedly, a Vegas blackjack dealer. Late Monday, we learned of a fourth source of Weiner's wandering joystick: a 26-year-old Texas single mom who says her relationship with the congressman began in April, culminating with "hundreds of messages," photos, and an interview with ABC News. "I asked him to take a picture and write 'me' on it so I would know [it was him]," the woman said. "I didn't think it was him. I thought for sure, 'Why would someone in that position be doing this?' "

It's the question on everybody's mind this week, after Weiner (D-NY) confessed he'd sexted with a number of women, somehow ending up with an underwear-clad crotch shot spammed out to thousands of followers on Twitter. Weiner's wife, Huma Abedin, a top aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was not with him when he issued a tearful apology at a Manhattan hotel on Monday, but the 46-year-old congressman insisted she supports him. He also insisted he'd had no physical relationship—or desire for one—with any of the women. "I never met these women and never had much desire to," he told reporters.

It's a confession that makes Weinergate all the stranger, when you think about all the congressman had to lose. Why conduct an affair that could jeopardize so much without the satisfaction of carrying it out? What's the allure of a pseudo-relationship with a woman you have no desire to meet, or touch? We asked the experts why men like Weiner (and Lord knows he's not the first) have the overwhelming urge to cybercheat. Here are a few of our favorite scientific theories.

Sending Crotch Shots Is a Biological Right

As Ogi Ogas, coauthor of A Billion Wicked Thoughts, puts it, it's possible that men who show their junk are compelled by an unconscious, evolutionary urge. Men, says Ogas, inherit this desire from their primitive ancestors—male monkeys and apes, for example, regularly show off their parts to show their sexual interest. Why wouldn't human males do the same? Ogas notes that one in four webcams on Chatroulette is aimed at a penis, and on adult-networking sites like Fatasti, more than a third of men use a penis as their avatar. "It's perfectly natural," says Ogas of the male urge to show your member. Of course, he warns, most women won't share your enthusiasm.

He's an Exhibitionist

It's a loaded label, but men who flash themselves to strangers rarely seek contact afterward, instead describing a powerful sense of relief from the display alone. (As Ogas notes, a former wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys who was arrested for exposing himself to a 10-year-old said the experience left him "strangely relieved.”) "Exhibitionists want to shock, they want to surprise, they want a reaction," says Pepper Schwartz, a sociologist at the University of Washington. Could the crotch shot be to Weiner what the prostitute was to Eliot Spitzer? Surely. But whether he’s a true exhibitionist depends on how, whether, and to what extent his female targets actually responded.

He's an Egomaniac

Weiner’s situation is particularly interesting, say experts, because he's a man whose career depends on public trust. Why does a man with so much on the line risk it all for a silly crotch shot? "Certainly you need a lot of arrogance," says Schwartz. "You need to think you're going to get away with it."

It Boosts His Self-Esteem

Affairs online are inherently rewarding, say researchers, even if they don't result in a face-to-face meeting. “The attention alone from sending out photos, the adoration from multiple women, it’s an ego boost—and it can be very addictive,” says Julie Albright, a sociologist at the University of Southern California.

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Arousal Makes Men Stupid

No, really. Arousal sends dopamine to the brain; dopamine is the chemical associated with desire. When humans are consumed by desire, their reasoning gets hazy. As Helen Fisher, the anthropological biologist, has described it, brain scans show that the more dopamine is present in the brain, the less blood flow reaches the part of the cortex associated with decision making. Thus, lovebirds make stupid decisions—sometimes, they even overlook the most logical things about each other (like, ahem, that one of them is married).

Technology Is a Turn-On

Even before we think about sex, communicating online creates a continual adrenaline rush, says MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle: "We get a little shot of dopamine every time we make a connection." Add to that the potential for a sexual reward, and, well, it's easy to see how the technology itself can be seductive.

It's Easy to Disassociate Online

There has been plenty of research to show that many of us lose our inhibitions when we log onto the Web; but, according to Turkle, we can also lose the sense that our actions are tied to “real” relationships and “real” consequences—occupying a kind of magical space between reality and fantasy. "This is true when we text, when we tweet, when we send an unconsidered email," says Turkle.

He Thought He Could Get Away With It

There’s no doubt: cheating has been made easy (and easy to hide) by the social elements of the Web, and many men don't think they have to worry about getting caught. Still others don't see anything wrong with what they're doing to begin with: studies show that many men liken online affairs to porn or Playboy, while women consider them cheating. “That’s huge,” says Albright. “Because if men go online thinking that it’s harmless fun—and they can get all the excitement, attention, and adoration from the Web that they may not be getting at home—it can be very attractive.”

He Thought You'd Be OK With It

And maybe you are. A 2001 study on infidelity found that the vast majority—87 percent—of spouses don't feel guilty about online erotic chat and flirtation, while 65 percent of women and 80 percent of men say they'd cheat if they knew they wouldn't get caught. "I call this the 'avatar affair,' " says Pamela Haag, the author of Marriage Confidential. "It's all smoke, no fire, in the sense that bodies never touch." And if they do? "The big romantic standard has always been one strike and you're out, but I really think that's opening up," she says. We'll see how Mrs. Weiner feels about that one.