Monday, Oct. 5, 2009 | 2 a.m.
You would think Katherine Hertlein has an easy job. She’s studies infidelity and she’s in Las Vegas, two things that go together like threadbare sheets in a cheap motel room rented under a fake name.
For all sorts of reasons, though, Hertlein’s job as an assistant professor in UNLV’s Marriage and Family Therapy department is as hard as that of a physicist looking for a neutrino, which is so sneaky and elusive that seeking it out requires putting a giant tank of water and lot of light detectors at the bottom of a salt mine. Because here is what Hertlein has to do: get people to talk about how and why they cheat.
It’s something cheaters are not inclined to do.
One time, she tried bribery, offering $25 Amazon gift certificates to people on the other end of the phone who would anonymously answer a few questions about infidelity. Cards seeking participants were handed out by an assistant at hospitals, at the airport, on the Strip, in shady motels, at swingers clubs. Cards were even stuffed inside the free sex magazine boxes.
And did the bribes work?
“Even that has a very limited success,” Hertlein deadpans.
Once, in a dark moment, Hertlein thought about attending “john school,” a police-taught class for men caught in prostitution stings. She pulled back, she says, when she realized this would not exactly be a random sampling of the population.
Consider this fact: There is no good research quantifying how common infidelity is in Las Vegas. Hertlein has been involved in what little research there is, and, she says, “I’d hate to generalize from a bunch of college students.”
There are two basic problems with studying infidelity. People lie about it — not only to their partners but also to friendly researchers promising anonymity and 25 bucks.
Also, more subtly, infidelity accumulates. If you’re asking a basic question like, “How many people cheat?” you’re asking about how many people cheat ever in their life. The problem is, you don’t get to conduct a lot of deathbed interviews. What you get are snapshots, often of college students. Say that you find that 25 percent of people in their 20s cheat. Well, Hertlein says, maybe by the time they’re in their 30s or 40s, 40 percent of people have cheated.
And here’s an even more basic problem with trying to study infidelity: It costs money, and most research funding comes from the government, and what government agencies want to fund infidelity research?
It’s the grizzly bear problem. Remember last year’s presidential campaign? John McCain cut campaign ads denouncing money wasted collecting grizzly bear DNA, joking, “I don’t know if it was a criminal issue or paternity, but it was a waste of money.” Those scientists were just trying to count the bears.
Imagine the kind of ad some congressman could cut about a study to figure out if people commit adultery in Las Vegas.
So what Hertlein and her fellow researchers are conducting, as far as grant applications are concerned, is HIV/AIDS prevention research. It goes like this: HIV/AIDS is spread by high-risk sexual behavior. Infidelity is a high-risk sexual behavior; after all, not only could a guy go out and catch something, he could come home and give it to his wife. Anything you learn about reducing infidelity will help reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS. And who could be against that? Now please give us some money so we can study infidelity.
At least it works.
As if she didn’t face enough challenges, Hertlein has now decided to specialize in Internet infidelity, which has all of the problems of regular infidelity research and compounds them with the fact that nobody has any idea what is going on with the Internet. The Internet changes too fast. A study from 1996 or 2004 is hopelessly out of date.
But wait: The first question is why would the Internet make a difference in infidelity?
Hertlein says cheating is partly a contest between how much opportunity you have to cheat and how high the penalties are if you get caught.
One way of thinking about opportunity is by location. For instance, you could live in Saudi Arabia, where it is almost impossible to socialize with the opposite sex. Or you could live in Las Vegas, where people are unusually young and unattached, can mingle in night clubs and strip clubs and sex clubs, where the billboards flash messages of sex, sex, sex and if you can’t find it for free, you can always buy it.
Opportunity-wise, the Internet brings Las Vegas to everyone.
And it’s not just the opportunity to cheat but the variety of cheating that’s not only available on the Internet but changing too fast to keep up with, says Hertlein. The basic definition of cheating is getting fuzzy.
Every couple has its own rules, but excepting swingers and possibly politicians, most people consider genital contact outside of their relationship to be cheating. This is such a common assumption we pretty much never talk about it. (If you’re curious: For swingers, cheating is usually about emotional intimacy. You can have sex with other people, just don’t love them.)
But there’s a wide range of activities available on the Internet, Hertlein says, that aren’t traditional adultery.
For instance, say your spouse plays a massively multi-player online game. He’s pretending to be a dwarf and he and someone pretending to be an elf pretend to have sex together. Is that cheating? Does it matter if it’s always the same pretend elf or if it’s just a series of random pretend-elf encounters?
If that’s not confusing (or embarrassing) enough, consider what’s coming in the near future: computer-controlled sex toys. They already exist and can be synchronized to act in time with pornography. Is that cheating? What if it’s remotely operated by a human being who is live-streamed into your home?
Chat rooms, webcams, e-mail, Facebook postings, easy-access porn, even text messages — all of these are recent additions to life and all of them, to someone, could be considered cheating. Hertlein says there are no shared definitions of Internet infidelity and, worse, most couples never sit down and have a fun conversation about infidelity (“So, would it be cheating if I ...”). And then one person does something that he doesn’t consider cheating and his partner very much does consider cheating.
Hertlein, who’s also a marriage and family therapist, sees this in her practice. But you know what? Most of the Internet infidelity she sees looks a lot like regular old analog infidelity. If the Internet cheater is a woman, the most common problem is that she’s having a prolonged involvement with another person, exchanging e-mails and chats giving and seeking emotional support. If the Internet cheater is a man, the most common problem is flirting and fantasizing over e-mail, leading to phone calls and assignations.
And the way you treat Internet infidelity, Hertlein says, is pretty much the way you treat regular old infidelity: lots and lots of therapy.
Counterintuitively, Hertlein’s research has concluded that younger therapists are most likely to blame technology and tell couples with infidelity problems to get rid of the computer, which is just silly. A computer costs money and has uses beyond infidelity. Hertlein is scornful: If somebody used a phone in his cheating, would he get rid of his phones? If he drove to meet someone, would he get rid of the car?
So why do younger therapists seem to have the most technophobic reaction? Hertlein says it’s because they’re inexperienced and looking for an easy answer.
Hertlein says that the Internet, like Las Vegas, makes relationships more vulnerable to affairs. The answer to both the town and the technology is to have a stronger relationship. “You have to be a little more on your game here,” she says.
Oh, and one of the ways she treats Internet infidelity?
She tells spouses to send those loving and flirtatious e-mails to each other.