A byte on the side

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Like many people who had been married for several years, Dick was bored with his relationship. There was no passion these days. In fact, Dick and his wife hardly slept together at all. However, Dick had no intention whatsoever of leaving his wife. He loved her and she was an excellent mother to their children. He knew full well what the usual solution to this problem was: have an affair. You simply accept that your wife satisfies some of your needs and your mistress others. But Dick really didn’t want to go behind his wife’s back, and he also knew that she could not deal with an open relationship, even if he could. So when Dick heard about Byte on the Side Inc. (‘Even better than the real thing!’), he had to take it seriously. What the company offered was the opportunity to conduct a virtual affair. Not one-handed cyber sex with a real person at the other end of the computer connection, but a virtual reality environment in which you ‘slept with’ a completely simulated person. It would feel just like real sex, but, in fact, all your experiences would be caused by computers stimulating your brain to make it seem to you as though you were having sex. All the thrills of an affair, but with no third person, and hence no real infidelity. Why should he say no?


Motivation & Background

Why does infidelity bother us? Some people say it shouldn’t and that it is only because we are culturally conditioned with unrealistic expectations of monogamy that it does. Sex and love are quite different, and we are fools if we allow a bond of affection to be broken by the biologically driven act of copulation. If the desire for monogamy is an artefact of culture, it is nonetheless very deeply rooted. It is the experience of many who enter free-love communes or try ‘swinging’ that they just can’t help being jealous when others sleep with the one they love. The ‘hang ups’ we are blithely told to throw away seem to be more than just psychological aberrations to be overcome. So if infidelity is likely to remain a problem for the majority, what is it about it that bothers us? Imagining how we’d feel about the prospect of our partner using Byte on the Side’s services might help us to answer this question. If we would have no objection to the cyber sex, that would suggest that the crucial factor is the involvement of another person. Our most intimate relationship must be one-to-one and exclusive. Traditional monogamy is what we want to see maintained. But if we would object to the virtual affair, that would seem to indicate that it is not the role of the third party which is crucial after all. What causes the hurt is not the turning to someone else, but the turning away from the relationship. On this view, when Dick turns on a computer to turn him on, he is signalling that he has stopped seeing his wife as the person with whom he wishes to express his sexuality. An affair is usually a symptom of a relationship’s existing problems, not the first cause of them. This fits this diagnosis of the source of the unease with Dick’s virtual lover. For it is of course true, even before he has logged on to his stimulating simulation for the first time, that he has already stopped seeing his wife sexually in the way he once did. And so the virtual affair is not a means of dealing with the core problem, but of avoiding it. In the real world, the reasons why infidelity bothers us are complex, and the person who objects to a virtual byte on the side may object even more strongly to a flesh and blood affair. What the case of Dick enables us to do is to focus our attention on just one aspect of unfaithfulness: the extent to which it is a turning away from our most valued relationship.


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