The concept of "relationships" is ever-evolving. At one time in history, the only valid relationships were heterosexual, monogamous relationships comprised of people from the same race and social class. Today, a relationship is largely amorphous, defined by the two or more people involved. In the United States, the trend of "opening up" a relationship is on the rise. What does all this mean then, for the age-old concept of "cheating"? Does it too evolve with the times? If relationships are broadening in definition, then it logically follows that cheating would too. A recent piece in Vice by JS Rafaeli asked exactly that question: What does cheating mean in today's society? To investigate, Rafaeli sought the insight of professional who, in some way, deal with the notion of cheating in their careers: a sex worker, therapist, and a lawyer.
Emma (Sex Worker)
Asking a sex worker about cheating feels awkward given that a number of his/her/their clients may be cheating on their spouses/relations with said worker. Emma gives a very straightforward answer: "If you're having any sort of sex with someone who isn't your partner that they don't know about." In her mind, as long as your partner is aware of the situation, then the action does not constitute cheating. This makes logical sense given the rise in open relationships and non-monogamous couplings in 2017. When asked about the motives for cheating, Emma has a plethora of opinions. Some men do it for the fun of it: there's something so masculine to them about sleeping with tons of women. Emma deplores this kind of cheating. Where things get a bit grayer are men whose partners are not open to their fetishes or seemingly weird sexual desires. Emma even mentions a number of clients whose partners are ill and those clients come to her to satisfy both sexual and intimate needs. Of course, there's the obvious question: if you're a sex worker having sex with other people, does that count as cheating? Again, Emma argues that as long as your partner is aware of and okay with the situation, then it's not cheating.
Catriona May (Therapist)
Perhaps the most knowledgeable about cheating and relationships, therapists are the ones who hear couples' most heavily guarded secrets. As expected, May gives the most politically-correct answer: "When people talk about cheating it means something is being transgressed. It's an agreement between a couple, and that agreement is broken. In my work, for most couples it's an actual sexual affair, but sometimes people are concerned about a very intimate friendship." Cheating is up to each individual couple to define. That can lead to issues down the road: what if one person's idea of cheating is at odds with his/her/their partner's? In a way, those situations are the therapist's bread-and-butter. When differing definitions exist within a single relationship, trouble and conflict are all but written in the stars.
Leave it to a lawyer to go right to the textbook definition: "Legally, adultery is defined as 'sexual contact'," recites Tanseem. She admits that the definition is flexible when you introduce the human element; couples don't exactly live their sexual lives according to that strict definition. But all in all, the legal definition has remained fixed for centuries. What has changed, however, is its relative importance in legal disagreements. Tanseem explains, "In the old days there was definitely still a moral discussion about the cause of a divorce, and adultery was very significant. It changed around the early-ish 20th century." Today, the division of assets and care for the children are much more important than the specific cause for the relationship's deterioration. A family lawyer will spend significantly more time on those queries as opposed to the debate over who cheated on whom.
All in all, the evolution of what constitutes cheating is fascinating. Though there are variations in the definition according to these professionals, one similar thread seems to underpin each's opinion: the work of defining "cheating" falls upon the people involved in a specific relationship. Apart from the legal definition, no single "correct" definition of cheating exists. Only when those involved with each other can agree on an interpretation of cheating can lines be drawn and trust be built.