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Dr. Ebony Utley

Digital Indiscretions – Part Three: Obsessions

Digital Indiscretions is a three part series on infidelity in the age of technology. The series is based on Dr. Ebony Utley’s interviews with U.S. women about their experiences with infidelity. Interviewees chose their own pseudonyms to protect their privacy.

The use of technology is not only about whether one can or will be unfaithful. Technology also plays a prominent role in how much a betrayed person wants to know. Some women do not want to know any details about their partner’s infidelity. Some women want to know everything. The discovery options aided by technology are vast—cell phones, caller ID, voicemail, email, texts, instant messages, PayPal, bank records, social media profiles, digital recordings, and even online maps.

Some discoveries among the women I interviewed were accidental, but most were the result of a focused and intentional obsession with discovering information about a partner’s affair.

Irene acknowledged, “For a number of years I lost my mind and started going through every email, every file, every underneath.” Pauline noticed that her boyfriend of two years was leaving his phone face down and liking smiley faces that women posted on his Facebook pictures. One night while he was sleeping she went through his phone because as she said, “I turn into an FBI agent when all this stuff happens.”

Several women admitted that were not proud of their actions. Janet confessed to stalking her boyfriend’s other girlfriend on social media—mostly Instagram. “I was literally stalking. I’m not even going to lie. I’m checking and I was like, ‘What are you doing?’ It’s consuming some hours of my day because every hour I’m checking. Is she saying something? Are they together? Are they around each other? I have to stop.” Ironically, Janet did not have a Twitter or an Instagram account; she would log onto friends’ accounts to gather information.

Alesia conceded to going too far while confirming her boyfriend’s infidelity when she said, “And then another time, there was this girl who left a message on his cell phone. I called that girl, which is so out of character for me. I hated that! I’m calling these girls asking what the dude is doing and stuff like that. I hated that. Because that’s the girl I always tried to avoid being. Looking through cell phone bills and bank accounts; he took me out of my element and I didn’t like that.”

Linda’s husband was a serial cheater. She perused cell phone records and financial statements, called hotels, searched his computer and iPad, and read messages. She even emailed one of his mistresses.

“So I did something that’s not very nice. I created a fake Gmail account that sounded just like it would be his Gmail account and I emailed her and I said, ‘Hey, what’s going on? This is the best way to contact me right now. How’re you doing?’ She writes back, “Oh I feel like somebody that’s lost her best friend. I’ve missed you so much and not being able to talk to you is just awful. You can’t live like this. Your wife is crazy. Just go get a disposable cell phone. Go to the pay phone if they still have them. Do anything. I have to talk to you.” And so then I started asking questions. I made up questions that I supposed he would ask, like “What do you want from us?” And she said, “I want to be walking down the beach hand in hand, growing old together but I know that’s not what you’re telling me is going to happen.” That made me feel sad. I probably hurt her.

Linda admitted, “I have a PhD in each of his affairs.” Later in the interview she mused, “I think I got addicted to the hunt, the hunt for information.” A hunt that was made possible by the same technology her husband used to be unfaithful.

How obsessive would you become about a hunt? In “The Entire History of You” episode of an excellent series (I am very biased) titled Black Mirror, the characters each have a device called a grain that allows them to replay their past memories. Here’s a huge SPOILER ALERT: the main character becomes obsessive about his wife’s relationship with a “friend” and uses their grains to eventually confirm his wife’s infidelity. Watch the video:

The episode is incredibly entertaining and admittedly it seemed far-fetched until July 22, 2015, when Google received a patent for a searchable video archive of anyone wearing a device similar to Google Glass. A device and storage system like this could make recalling our sexual greatest hits easier than ever, but it would also make it easier for partners and others to hack them as well. How would you feel about living in a world where every aspect of one’s digital indiscretions were archived and accessible online? How obsessed would you become?

Digital Indiscretions – Part Two: Confessions

Digital Indiscretions is a three part series on infidelity in the age of technology. The series is based on Dr. Ebony Utley’s interviews with U.S. women about their experiences with infidelity. Interviewees chose their own pseudonyms to protect their privacy.

In the past, infidelity was more difficult to prove—that is, until it met technology. Not only do we have dating sites today, we also have dating sites designed to facilitate extramarital affairs.  And we have hackers who breach dating sites designed to facilitate extramarital affairs.

On July 20, 2015, Ashley Madison was hacked. 37 million users’ private personal information was compromised, and it is still unclear how much of this data will be revealed to the public.

Evidence from a massive hack certainly makes it easier to receive a confession from a cheating partner, but hacking isn’t the only way women have creatively used technology to prove their suspicions of infidelity.

When Hope found evidence of her husband’s inappropriate behavior on Facebook, she told herself, “I have to print it out so if I ever change my mind or he makes up a really good lie I can go back and look at it and remember why this won’t work out.” When her husband continued to lie she showed the printed messages to his parents.

She recalled, “It wasn’t until probably my fourth installment of emails, pictures, and video that I sent his parents and they were over there crying, that he said “Okay, I did it. Just stop sending stuff to my parents.” Hope admitted that she did not want to send so much proof to his parents, but she desperately needed them to know the truth.

Hope’s decision to print her evidence was an opportunity to create physical proof of his digital indiscretions. Lassie also printed all of the sexual communications between her fiancé and the other women that she found in his email. She said, “I printed them out and I just left them—I wanted to really screw with him, so I left them on the floor with my engagement ring on top of them and then left the apartment and waited for him to come home.”

Whereas Hope and Lassie printed the virtual evidence so they would have physical proof, Pauline engaged in what she called “a whole different game of technology” when she found virtual evidence of her boyfriend’s emotional affair.

“I screen shot all the messages to myself and I had thought about posting them to Facebook. I thought, ‘No, I’m not going to be public like that, then I’d be one of those messy girls.’ At my age, that’s not okay.” So I kept them to myself… When I woke him up I just said everything that I had found, and I was like, “Before you say anything, don’t try to deny it because I’ve screen shot everything to my phone and I have their numbers.”

Pauline didn’t need physical evidence. She used technology for her record keeping. Not only did these women use technology to discover their partners’ infidelity but they used technology to procure confessions.

Some Ashley Madison users may confess before the hackers determine whether to make good on their threat to release all their information, but I’m sure others will wait until a partner confronts them with undeniable proof, whether it be printed or on a screen.

Digital Indiscretions – Part One: Connection

Digital Indiscretions is a three part series on infidelity in the age of technology. The series is based on Dr. Ebony Utley’s interviews with U.S. women about their experiences with infidelity. Interviewees chose their own pseudonyms to protect their privacy.

It is easier to connect with people in the age of technology. We manage relationships by phone, text, video chats, social media, and social haptic networks. Not even physical touch is out of our reach.

Fundawear, for example, is underwear designed by Durex that “allows touch to be transferred over the Internet.” Frixion allows partners to stimulate each other no matter their distance. Geography is no longer a reason to reject a potential relationship. However, the same technologies that bring two people closer can also bring a third person into the relationship, and with it, the potential for indiscretion.

Interviewees recounted several stories of their partners’ digital indiscretions. Dawn’s husband initiated “an inappropriate Facebook/phone affair” with a woman he knew thirty years ago in high school. Other husbands had profiles on and India’s husband met his second wife on MySpace while he was still married to India.

Women also initiated online relationships. The possibility that Charlotte would leave her husband became even more certain after she reconnected with a friend on Facebook who is now her fiancé. Ebony decided her husband’s affair was no reason to break up their family. She admitted to being unhappy until she discovered the computer herself.

“So my niece turns me on to the computer. Mind you I don’t know nothing about a computer. She tells me, ‘Auntie you oughta see on this computer. You can go on these sites and you can do this and you can do that.’ So one day I go over to her house and I’m looking at her computer and they have this site called Unhappily Married. I’m like, ‘Oh, ok.’ So she shows me how the thing goes and we’re doing it. And I’m like, ‘Aahh, this is fun.’ I’m just enjoying it. So, next thing you know, I want a computer.”

Even after being caught by her husband, Ebony changed her screen name and was back in the online dating and cybersex game. The world of digital relationships is so compelling that even someone not ordinarily inclined to wander gets seduced by the intimacy of online connections.

Then there is the question of artificial intelligence. None of the interviewees in this study mentioned a robot as the third party in a digital indiscretion, but the possibility may be moving closer to reality.

The U.S. version of Humans is the story of synthetics who are not sentient but their communication with and care for their human owners make them indispensable. In season one episode four, primary user, Joe Hawkins has sex with his synthetic Anita. His daughter discovers the synth has been on “adult mode” and eventually Joe confesses to his wife who is outraged that he had sex with their children’s caretaker. Joe suggests it wasn’t infidelity, but more like having sex with a toy.

Joe’s defense raises important questions. Is sex with a synth a digital indiscretion? Would simply sharing feelings with a synth count as an emotional affair? How much connection is too much connection? How would you feel if your partner had sex with a robot and kept it from you?

All About Love

bell hooks’ legacy is love. No black woman scholar has theorized love as seriously as hooks has. All About Love, Communion, Salvation and Wounds of Passion personally inspired me to explore the heartaches as well as the healing powers of love.

In All About Love, hooks argues that everyone wants love, yet most of us are silent on the subject. We fear that honest talk about love will force us to face the pain of love’s absence as well as our failure to love ourselves and each other.

My research picks up where hooks left off. I interviewed 20 ever-married black women, who experienced infidelity during their marriages, and specifically asked them to define love. Their average age was 50. They were self-selected from southern California and their names have been changed to protect their privacy.

I was interested in how women who had experienced a “love failure” would define it. Here are sample responses from half of the participants.

Two women described receiving love.

Love is supposed to feel good. Love is supposed to make you feel warm and fuzzy inside. Love is supposed to make you feel secure. (Sherry)

It’s someone respecting who you are in the world. Someone who’s not out to change you and mold you into something they think is appropriate and for their benefit. (Tina)

hooks notes in All About Love that men often speak from a position of authority on love because they are conditioned to receive it, whereas women are conditioned to speak from a place of lack. These women are radical in the sense that they clearly define love as feeling good, secure and respected. Furthermore, they give the impression that they would not settle for less.

Another theme was unconditional love.

Love is patient. Love is kind. My definition is God’s definition. I still believe in the Corinthians kind of love, that love really never fails, it’s long-lasting, long-suffering. (Anita)

Well, it’s probably not like a fairytale romantic thing. At this point in my life, I would say it is a mutual respect. It is a place where you have compassion for the other person. Or you’re tolerant and accepting of that person for who he or she is without feeling like you need to change them into what you want. I think that real love is unconditional. (Lola)

Love is hard. Love is definitely unconditional. You really have to put the people that you love above yourself. That’s one of the only ways that you will really ever be able … to find true love. When it’s about pleasing your partner more than it is than pleasing yourself, you’ve found something. (Dee)

Unconditional expressions of love celebrate the mutuality that hooks encourages in her work. Love that is not contingent on structures of domination, behavior or appearance grants partners the freedom to love each other fully and fiercely. However, Lola and Dee’s unconditional love also sounds self-sacrificing. They prioritize the person they are loving and fail to discuss what it would be like to receive unconditional love.

Finally, the majority of the women interviewed defined love in terms of giving.

Click here to read on, including a startling declaration…