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Virtual affairs sex coronavirus lockdown
Illustration Callum Abbott

Sexting on Slack? The rise of ‘virtual affairs’ in lockdown

From masturbating to an ex’s Twitch livestream to revenge sexting, people who cheated during quarantine discuss their motives, guilt (or lack of), and whether the digital will become physical

TextBrit DawsonIllustrationCallum Abbott

“My virtual affair began after I found out my partner was having one,” reveals 28-year-old Eve*. “He had been sexting a girl – photos and everything – while staying at my apartment, even as I slept in the bed next to him.”

Eve and her partner were quarantined together for two months at the beginning of lockdown – in part to be safe, after Eve experienced symptoms of coronavirus, but also to “work on repairing the relationship”. Once she found out about her now-ex’s affair, Eve began to “imitate the same behaviour with a few different men”.

“At first it was casual banter,” she tells Dazed, “just to make me feel better about being betrayed, and soon it turned into exchanging photos. At no point did it make me feel better, though. It was spiteful.”

Eve is just one of many who began cheating online during lockdown. According to research released earlier this month, pandemic-related stress has driven an increasing number of people in relationships onto dating apps. Although COVID-19 has limited the ability for physical cheating, advanced technologies have enabled people to find solace in virtual affairs.

“Virtual infidelity offers an escape from the boredom and stresses of lockdown,” psychosexual and relationship therapist Clare Faulkner tells Dazed. “If the primary relationship is under pressure, a virtual affair might offer a space for release, where playfulness and flirting is welcomed, and anticipation and excitement sought.”

Faulkner says virtual affairs can “offer feelings of hope, serving as an antidote to the mundane, hopeless, and endless drudgery of pandemic life”.

This feeling of escapism is, in part, what led 26-year-old Annie* to begin an emotional virtual affair with her ex. “If it weren’t for the intense loneliness of staying indoors for the past four months, I probably wouldn’t have become involved in this bizarre affair at all,” Annie explains. “Things have just felt so stagnant, and I was looking for some kind of escape.”

Annie moved in with her current partner at the start of lockdown, after they’d been dating for a few months. Shortly before they got together, Annie had come out of a long-term relationship with her ex, who she describes as a “small-time Twitch streamer”. Although the pair hadn’t spoken since their break-up, which took place several months before lockdown, Annie began watching her ex’s livestreams in quarantine. “I clicked on one of his streams and it opened up an awful lot of feelings,” she tells Dazed, “and started this secret obsession.”

“Virtual infidelity offers an escape from the boredom and stresses of lockdown, serving as an antidote to the mundane, hopeless, and endless drudgery of pandemic life” – Clare Faulkner, therapist

Annie started to watch every single one of her former partner’s streams – “which he does four times a week for around three hours each” – hiding the activity from her current partner by claiming she was calling friends or family. “This became a full-blown – admittedly one-sided – emotional affair,” she confesses. “I’m one of his few paid subscribers, and will often donate to his stream to get a shoutout, which always gives me butterflies.” Annie says her username is an in-joke between the pair, and suggests it’s likely her ex knows she’s watching.

When Annie’s partner went to stay with his parents for a week, each night she fell asleep with her ex’s stream playing. “I’m a little ashamed to admit that I’ve begun to leave them playing in the background while I’ve masturbated,” she adds.

Although Annie’s ex did end up reaching out to her near the end of lockdown – she says the pair are “slowly becoming friends again” – they didn’t exchange explicit messages or photos, and she doesn’t think anything will be revived between them. However, according to psychosexual and relationship therapist Aoife Drury, this doesn’t necessarily reduce the hurt the affair may inflict on her current partner.

“As with all infidelity, trust is rocked and can lead to the ending of a relationship,” Drury tells Dazed. “With virtual affairs, this could be amplified by it happening under the same roof. The sense of betrayal may be magnified if the affair has happened while both parties are living together, because the level of secrecy has been escalated.”

Psychotherapist Silva Neves says that it may be difficult to define what counts as an affair during lockdown, explaining that the term ‘virtual affair’ has “no specific definition if couples haven’t talked about it”. Neves continues: “For some couples, conversations about boundaries have never really been discussed. While one partner might think that sexting is cheating, another might think it only applies to physical touch. Some people think emotional affairs are worse than physical ones. Therefore, one might have a virtual affair and tell themselves it’s OK because there hasn’t been any concrete prohibition about it.”

For Eve, her partner’s actions were clearly defined as cheating, and although she began her own virtual affairs, she initially “very much wanted to make things work” with him. She explains that keeping her own secret after being betrayed made her feel powerful, as though she got her “sense of independence and sexiness back”. Eve admits that she does regret “sinking down so low to someone else’s level”, adding: “I allowed his actions to take me out of my character, and skewed my own morals for no reason.”

Eve has never had a virtual affair before, but has cheated IRL in the past. “Both can be hurtful at the same level,” she tells Dazed. “Every relationship style is different, from monogamous to open to poly, but what matters is that boundaries are set and communication is transparent. Whether it’s virtual or IRL, when lines are crossed and people feel betrayed, it’s always going to hurt.”

“I don’t think these affairs are harmful in the same way as non-virtual affairs are. It’s easy to do strange things when they’re mediated by the anonymity of the internet” – Annie*

Annie also says she’s had affairs “of sorts” before, previously commissioning work from her ex under an alias while she was in a new relationship. “I don’t think these affairs are harmful in the same way as non-virtual affairs are – they just come from the desire for closure on my end. It’s easy to do strange things when they’re mediated by the anonymity of the internet.”

Faulkner warns that recovery from a virtual affair that has taken place during the coronavirus crisis could be harder than getting over an affair in normal times. “Reconciliation may be more troubling due to the social, emotional, and financial strain of the pandemic. With rising mental health issues, discovery of an affair at this time might be devastating and ultimately terminal for some couples.”

For Annie, whose partner still doesn’t know about her emotional Twitch affair with her ex, the secrecy and guilt hasn’t been worth it. “I wish that I’d just taken up making sourdough bread or something, rather than adding unnecessary emotional complications to my life to try and ward off the emptiness,” she concludes, adding: “There’s still time, I guess.”

*Names have been changed