Is 'sexting' the new infidelity?
Hannah Betts explains why the beep of a text on your partner's phone could be the death knell of a trusting relationship
This week brought word that The X Factor judge St Cheryl Cole is planning to divorce her husband, the dastardly Ashley, following the footballer's 'sexting', or sex-text shenanigans.
Cole would appear to be in a category all of his own when it comes to plumbing the seamier reaches of the zeitgeist. However, his sexting habit seems to be among his more conventional behaviours. Everybody's at it: Tiger Woods, the entire Premier League, even that nice British television presenter Vernon Kay.
Moreover, this is not merely a celebrity predilection. Illicit sexting is as hot as Hades, and the perpetrators will be one's colleagues, friends and, quite possibly, one's partner.
"U looked gr8. I wnt you and h8 it when we're apart. Txt me a pic of Lil Mark."
Mark -- not, needless to say, his real name -- proudly shares the latest communication from his latest crush. They average 40 or so messages a day, largely concerning what each would like to do to the other.
I use the word "like" advisedly, for Mark and his paramour have not yet had sexual relations -- not because they are teenagers, despite the txt spk -- but because 46-year-old Mark is married. While he texts and emails choice obscenities, he will be bathing the children or serenely watching television with his wife.
Where once the symbols of infidelity were lipstick on the collar and dubious hotel bills, so today the principal indication is likely to be repetitive stress disorder of the thumb. The technology that has allowed the working day to expand into a 24/7 slog conducted via BlackBerry has no less enabled a hot and heavy culture of permanent flirtation; a flirtation where the virtual may effortlessly slide into the physical.
We are used to the notion that the young are embroiled in a constant sexting deluge of booty calls and (aptly named) Facebook pokes. However, the habit is increasingly ubiquitous among older, but apparently no wiser, individuals, many of them in relationships. Where once adulterers had to take some trouble to stage-manage an affair, now he or she can seek out candidates from the family sofa.
Vernon Kay, 35, has become the reluctant poster boy for this trend. Kay is married to Strictly Come Dancing's Tess Daly, 38. He is the host of Family Fortunes, she the author of a new book on motherhood. Yet the family values central to the pair's appeal have been tarnished by the revelation Kay has been despatching erotic messages to a clutch of women.
Kay maintains he has not slept with his sexters, but apologised on his radio show last week, saying that something he had seen as "harmless banter" was inappropriate conduct for a married man.
Paula Hall, a psychotherapist, has a chapter on the symbiosis between technology and infidelity in her new book, Improving Your Relationship for Dummies. When asked whether she finds this behaviour common, her response is an emphatic: "Yes, yes!"
"People can legitimately term these platonic affairs," Hall explains. "The defence is that it involves nothing sexual -- not even touching. But there is obviously deceit and a breach of trust.
"It is the holding of secrets from your partner that is damaging," she continues. "Plus you're idealising someone to whom you have constant access. In fact, it may be less about the other person than escapism into a powerfully intense world where the texter has autonomy and feels attractive. There are couples who can negotiate these boundaries, but for most it will be a case of playing Russian roulette."
A thirtysomething woman of my acquaintance vehemently agrees: "I thought I was being so modish, so virtuous. I'd never flirt with a colleague in a bar, but virtual communication seemed like a harmless grey area. I was an accident waiting to happen -- grooming myself and potential partners for an affair.
'Texting was my crack: an exhilaration I wasn't getting in my marriage. The man I fell into a sext affair with was always there for me, like the imaginary friend I had as a child, but with the one-track mind you have as a teen. It was brilliant, intoxicating -- and disastrous in terms of my marriage. My husband said he would rather I had picked up a stranger for a one-night stand. It was the intimacy of the virtual relationship he couldn't stomach." Her marriage has survived, but relations remain strained.
The compulsion of this seduction is that it takes place piecemeal. Spellbound by an intimacy exacerbated by lack of eye-to-eye contact, egging each other on to more graphic revelations, the sext addict craves ever more potent hits. Kay has observed how his exchanges started off 'pretty innocent,' yet rapidly developed into something more explicit. He also found himself using the computer phone service Skype, which allows users to view each other.
The new iPhone 3GS, among other top-of-the-range mobile phones, enables owners to send video footage. The video files involved are so vast that it would be rare for sexters to use them. However, as with all technology, it can only be a matter of time. Certainly, Ashley Cole's alleged adeptness with MMS (sending images via text) suggests it is a small step from saying what activities one would like to engage in with another person, to demonstrating the apparatus one would use, to playing away.
Even where sexts are not made flesh, many may feel the damage has been done. Tess Daly has been reported as saying the trust is gone in her relationship, as anyone who has ever observed their partner's clandestine smile on receiving a message will understand. Sexting, like sex, creates a conspiracy of two from which the rest of the world is excluded. And in a culture in which we are inseparable from our phones, the potential is always there, literally to hand.
But perhaps we are in danger of succumbing to sextual hysteria. Penny Mansfield, director of the relationship research organisation One Plus One, remains sanguine. "We tend to stress the damage technology can do to relationships, but people are using it to sort out problems."
She points to evidence from the Oxford Internet Institute to suggest couples are using text and email to confront topics they otherwise find too challenging. Mansfield contends that there are situations in which sexting may even play a positive role.
Often these flirtations don't involve a sexual relationship, or the break-up of a partnership, but are a way of people dealing with an unhappy time in a relationship, or a period of readjustment. They get over it and things settle down. Relationships wax and wane, but it doesn't mean they can't wax again." The waning may prove terminal for Mr and Mrs Cole. However, Kay and Daly are advised to take note.