Let he who has not sext cast first stone

FEEL THE HEAT: Emails and texts can generate a powerful feeling of intimacy.
FEEL THE HEAT: Emails and texts can generate a powerful feeling of intimacy.

In his Essays, the great observer of human nature Michel de Montaigne described how Lycurgus, the lawgiver of ancient Sparta, decreed that married couples should engage in sexual pleasure only by stealth. The challenge of arranging their trysts while endeavouring to avoid discovery by others would, the lawgiver reasoned, introduce a level of excitement to marriages that might otherwise grow stale.

Today, married or not, we often employ digital communication to introduce both stealth and titillation to relationships, something Lycurgus likely would have understood. Through texts, emails, tweets, and Facebook postings, we spend a great deal of time and energy seeking and consuming emotional intimacy. Email and other forms of digital communication makes all romance - licit, illicit, new or old - extraordinarily convenient, and browsing for emotional connections online is now a part of everyday life for millions of people, bringing us daily pleasure as we connect to the people we love.

Sometimes, some of us go too far, as the recent scandals involving former CIA director David Petraeus and Marine Corps' General John Allen reveal. In both scandals, email was the handmaiden of sexual betrayal as well as the source of its exposure. Much has been written about how General Petraeus and his mistress Paula Broadwell could have avoided detection by using more clandestine means for their virtual exchanges, such as encryption software. That they did not reveals how deeply embedded, mundane - and hence, unexamined - electronic communication has become in even the most private realms of our lives. General Petraeus and Ms Broadwell weren't naive. They simply used email like we all do - constantly and, all too often, unthinkingly.

In many ways, email was the perfect medium for General Petraeus and Ms Broadwell. The general and his groupie - both apparently uber-fit, type A personalities - created a digital version of the "dead-drop" message relay, which involved each of them saving drafts of emails for the other to read on a Gmail account set up for that purpose. The system must have provided a compelling combination of intrigue and ambient, asynchronous intimacy for the pair, while offering each of them a semblance of privacy and control over the situation.

Although the public is not yet privy to details of the Petraeus-Broadwell e-record, (one fears cringe-worthy sexual euphemisms involving military jargon) it would be surprising if the messages rose above the level of over-eager, awkward sexual reminiscences. Given its poverty of visual and aural cues (sexting pictures and emoticons notwithstanding) and its demands for immediacy, email can be a far more limiting medium for emotional expression than face-to-face or phone conversations. It can also be ambiguous, which is why General Allen can claim his many flirtatious communiques with the Tampa socialite also involved in the scandal were merely harmless, friendly banter.

The unspoken rules that govern so much of our behaviour in face-to-face interactions in social encounters aren't present in most mediated communication online. Despite a lack of physical cues, however, emails and texts can generate a powerful feeling of intimacy between frequent users, as both Ms Broadwell and General Petraeus apparently were. Ms Broadwell's overly familiar way of talking about General Petraeus during public appearances, likely had as much to do with the hours she had spent in intimate email exchanges with him as it did with their physical relationship.

As many psychologists who study internet use have shown, email and other forms of mediated communication also encourage what is called the online disinhibition effect: Freed from the usual constraints of social convention, people act out in more extreme ways than they might in public. This is the force that leads people to post unhinged comments on their ex's Facebook pages and compels elected officials to tweet pictures of their hairless torsos (and other parts of their anatomy) to people other than their wives. This disinhibition effect, combined with some old-fashioned jealousy, is also what appears to have emboldened Ms Broadwell to send anonymous and allegedly threatening emails to a woman she perceived as a rival for General Petraeus' affections, unwittingly setting into motion the investigation that would reveal her own affair.

And yet, the public shaming of those involved in the scandal and widespread schadenfreude of all of us watching, it distracts from an uncomfortable reality: You don't have to cheat on your wife or sext an acquaintance to be guilty of using email as a tool for deception. Recent research suggests that we are far more likely to lie in email than in face-to-face conversations.

New Scientist described Cornell University Professor Jeffrey Hancock's research as, "Acting out a particular personality online reinforces the behaviour, making it more likely to be followed in real life. This could start a cycle as our public and virtual selves feed into each other and we become gradually more indulgent, more indiscreet - or perhaps more egocentric".

General Petraeus and Ms Broadwell might not have been lying to each other in their private email exchanges but, by engaging so often and so intimately with each other online, they were reinforcing their mutual commitment to betraying their spouses offline.

Email is a highly effective technology of self-deception as well. What we know in theory - don't send emails that you wouldn't want to see read aloud on national television by your grandmother - doesn't always prevent us from doing the opposite in practice.

Were any of our email accounts subject to the same scrutiny as those of General Petraeus, we might not be revealed as cheating cads, but most of us would, in ways large and small, be exposed as frequent and shameless purveyors of idle gossip, unnecessary fibs, outrageous flattery, pathetic excuses and bandwidth-hogging cat videos. History might end up judging General Petraeus a meritocratic and military success but a moral failure. As for the rest of us, let him without a sinful email sent (or drafts) folder cast the first stone.

Christine Rosen is a fellow at the New America Foundation and senior editor of the New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology & Society.

-Future Tense