ABC Life with Carrie Jenkins 03 June 2019
Ask your friends whether visiting a strip club, watching porn or following hot people on Instagram is cheating, and you’ll likely get mixed responses.
Sure, you’re not being a full-blown dirtbag by sleeping with someone else while in a monogamous relationship (think Khloe Kardashian’s ex Tristan Thompson), but you still might be crossing a boundary and stepping into a moral grey area.
Entering this dubious space is what the cool kids are now calling “micro-cheating”, and it can be as simple as liking a photo of an attractive person you follow on social media.
Technology and shifting value systems are breaking down traditional definitions of cheating, but we haven’t quite figured out what is definitively good and bad in this brave new world.
To navigate this complex dilemma, and others like it, we’ve started a new series here at ABC Life called It’s Complicated. Each fortnight, we speak to philosophers, ethicists and cultural experts about ethical issues in the realm of culture.
We spoke to a sexologist, a relationship scientist and two philosophers to find out:
- Are acts like visiting strip clubs, watching porn or flirting while in a relationship morally wrong?
- How does technology further blur the line between faithfulness and unfaithfulness?
- Is it just about hurting your partner, or are you doing yourself a disservice too?
Some of this “isn’t rocket science”, according to our experts, but relationships are pretty complicated these days so hopefully we can give you a better idea of how to figure out what’s right and wrong.
What is micro-cheating?
Micro-cheating is doing something you know your partner wouldn’t like and would cause distress if they found out, according to ABC Life’s resident sexologist Tanya Koens.
But unlike black-and-white betrayals, such as sleeping with someone else without your partner’s approval, micro-cheating behaviours sit in a grey area of fidelity.
The definition of micro-cheating is going to vary from couple to couple, depending on their beliefs, and it can encompass a wide range of actions.
Visiting a strip club, flirting with someone outside of the relationship you’re in via technology, watching pornography and following hot people on social media are examples of just a few.
“The trouble starts when people aren’t communicating well enough to know each other’s definitions of ‘cheating’,” says Carrie Jenkins, Canada research chair in philosophy at the University of British Columbia.
Micro-cheating behaviours can sit on an “unvirtuous” scale, says philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, from CUNY-City College in New York.
Basically that means it isn’t black and white. Even if two particular actions are bad, they aren’t morally equivalent.
“Murdering someone, for instance, is clearly worse than stealing from him,” Professor Pigliucci says.
“But both actions are indeed wrong.”
He says micro-cheating is “wrong” and not a “grey area” in terms of ethical or unethical behaviour, because it betrays trust.
It also isn’t good for our own character, but we’ll come back to that later.
“But that doesn’t mean that visiting a strip club is on the same level as sleeping with someone else while in a monogamous relationship,” Professor Pigliucci says.
Is it ever OK to micro-cheat?
Of course, watching porn or flirting with a colleague isn’t wrong or cheating if all people in the relationship are OK with it, says Deakin University relationship scientist Gery Karantzas.
“One of the things that any of this stuff comes back to and is utterly central, is whether the couple itself, let’s say a monogamous relationship, has particular norms about how it will operate and whether the kind of behaviours that people are engaging in are outside of the norms of the agreement that the couple has,” he says.
So it’s all about communication and trust right? Sounds easy? Well, turns out it’s a little bit more complicated.
Ms Koens says even when a couple might disagree on what is OK, you could still be in the clear by doing it anyway if the other person’s requests aren’t “reasonable”.
You can help understand if something is reasonable by assessing the motivations around it, she says.
“I always say, jealousy comes for one of two reasons; there is a legitimate threat to the relationship, or someone’s insecurity,” Ms Koens says.
Also, we can accommodate our partner’s wishes, but that doesn’t mean we’d be in the wrong if we didn’t.
“There are lots of things our partners like that we don’t, like maybe [you enjoy] eating a big steak when they’re vegetarian,” she says.
“Even if you really wanted steak, you might not eat it in front of them.”
How technology further blurs the lines
Technology, whether it’s social media or dating apps, has arguably made it easier for people to cheat, but it’s also created new dilemmas for what is morally right and wrong.
“I’ve had clients arguing with each other about following hot people on Instagram,” Ms Koens says.
“Some think it’s not OK … but we like to look at other people.
“It’s the same as having crushes on movie stars — most people have a celebrity f*ck list.”
But having a crush on a movie star isn’t quite the same thing as following someone you went to uni with on Instagram who posts near-nude selfies from the beach.
And following them is only one part of the equation — what does a like on a bikini photo suggest?
How about a sneaky DM?
You might not feel that’s OK, and that can be difficult to navigate with no established “norms” in this new space, says Dr Karantzas.
“There no clear norms around the way that we use [technology],” he says.
“[But] you need to afford [the relationship] the same respect it deserves online as it does offline.
“Let’s say someone is following someone on Instagram, just because of how attractive they are. If you are with your partner walking down the street ogling at someone, would you feel uncomfortable doing it? Would you not do it? Would you partner question what you are doing?
“It’s the same thing on Instagram.”
Dr Jenkins says “a pretty good smell-test” is if your partner learnt about something you did, would you feel terrible?
“It’s not rocket science, just a really important principle for love, sex, and relationships in general: if you are not sure, don’t assume, ask.”
Is it just about hurting your partner, or are you doing yourself a disservice too?
Something social media and technology does allow us to do is explore these new, grey areas within the privacy of our phones. Which means that in some instances micro-cheating without your partner finding out is easier than ever.
But betraying your loved one’s trust isn’t just about the impact on them.
It deteriorates your own character, according to Professor Pigliucci.
He quotes philosopher Marcus Aurelius, who says (in much fancier terms than these): you should never value anything as rewarding if it compels you to break a promise, lose self-respect, to hate, to suspect, to swear, be hypocritical or hide.
Professor Pigliucci says many modern moral philosophers think of ethics as the field that answers questions like “is action X right or wrong?”
But the world of ethics and morality is much more complicated than that. It’s about developing a framework and understand the moral consequences of our choices, which aren’t always clear-cut.
“That means that there is no sharp distinction between right/wrong actions and the integrity of our character, what you call our moral fibre,” Professor Pigliucci says.
“The more we consciously decide to do good, the more we train ourselves to stay on a positive path; the more we decide to do wrong, the more we train ourselves to go down a negative path.
We’ll leave you with this from Dr Karantzas to ponder.
“If you love someone and your acts could potentially hurt them, why do it?”