Human Nature

Textual Infidelity

E-mail, adultery, and Mark Sanford.

Back in the old days, if you loved somebody far away, the only way you could communicate was by letter. That wasn’t so great, for three reasons. First, it was slow. Second, you couldn’t hear or see her. Third, she could keep your letters, and if the relationship was forbidden, you could be exposed. The letters were evidence.

Then phones came along. Now you could reach your lover right away. You could hear the sweet sound of her voice. And if you were married to somebody else, phone calls left no textual record. Unless they were taped, you could deny the affair.

Then came e-mail. Like phones, e-mail provided instant communication. And if you were having an affair, e-mail had a big advantage: It was silent. You could write to your lover even if your wife was in the next room.

Over the last decade, we’ve witnessed this media revolution through a series of sex scandals. First came Bill Clinton. According to Ken Starr’s “Table of Contacts Between Monica Lewinsky and the President,” Clinton and Lewinsky had phone sex 17 times. Clinton denied the affair for months and might have gotten away with it—even though Lewinsky’s conversations with Linda Tripp were taped—if he hadn’t left a DNA sample on Lewinsky’s dress.

Then came Mark Foley. Having chastised Clinton for behaving “carelessly” in the Lewinsky affair, Foley avoided phones. He seduced his targets over the Internet. Boys chatting with Foley were interrupted by their mothers, but the chats were silent, so the moms heard nothing. “Hope she didn’t see anything,” Foley told one boy. “No,” said the kid. “She is computer dumb.” “Good. Haha,” replied the congressman. But the joke was on Foley: Chats, unlike phone calls, leave transcripts. That’s what eventually did him in.

Then came Kwame Kilpatrick, the mayor of Detroit. Kilpatrick stayed away from computers. He communicated with his lover and chief of staff, Christine Beatty, via cell phone. To keep the affair quiet, he texted her instead of speaking out loud. But text messages, too, can be preserved and subpoenaed. That’s what happened to Kilpatrick’s messages, forcing him to resign and plead guilty to obstruction of justice.

Thanks to Starr’s trove of phone recordings, subpoenas, and interrogations, we’ve heard plenty about what Clinton did with Lewinsky. But we know way more, and with much greater certainty and specificity, about what Foley and Kilpatrick did, because we have it in their own writing. Want the blow-by-blow from Foley’s chats? You can read them in Slate or ABC News (“cute butt bouncing in the air … i always use lotion and the hand”). If those aren’t graphic enough for you, the Kilpatrick-Beatty exchanges are posted for all to see at the Detroit Free Press (“I really wanted to give you some good head this morning. … I would then ask you to gently grab my ass and you would put your finger in just enough to make beg yo”).

Now comes Mark Sanford. He calls himself a traditional, spiritual man. Unlike Foley or Kilpatrick, Sanford didn’t text or chat about sex acts. He stuck to old-fashioned e-mail and wrote of love. But because he wrote, we know all about his longings. Some were spiritual: “Despite the best efforts of my head my heart cries out for you, your voice, your body, the touch of your lips, the touch of your finger tips and an even deeper connection to your soul.” Others were physical: “I could digress and say that you have the ability to give magnificently gentle kisses, or that I love your tan lines or that I love the curves of your hips, the erotic beauty of you holding yourself (or two magnificent parts of yourself) in the faded glow of night’s light.”

Sanford and his paramour, Maria Belen Chapur, had three problems. One, they were married to other people. Two, he was a governor with national ambitions. Three, they lived on different continents. E-mail solved all three problems. Sanford says they met in South America in 2001 and, after “he counseled her into the night about her failing marriage”—whatever that means—”struck up an e-mail correspondence” that lasted seven years. The governor took pains to conceal their few visits, paying hotel bills by cash to make sure, as he put it, that no one would “find a credit card record.” Yet he poured his heart, his soul, and occasionally his loins into Chapur’s Hotmail account. Last fall, according to Chapur, somebody hacked into the account and forwarded the e-mails to South Carolina’s leading newspaper, the State.

The e-mails doomed the governor. They put the State on his trail, and when he returned from Argentina last week, a State reporter, acting on a tip, confronted him. The paper told Sanford’s aides that it had the e-mails. At that point, Sanford called a press conference and spilled the whole story. According to the State, “the governor’s office said it would not dispute the authenticity of the e-mails.” How could it? They were too full of details nobody else would know. That’s what happens when you write letters: Every thought and reference is preserved.

Sanford’s e-mails paint a vivid and sad picture. It’s a picture of two people in love but tragically bound by commitments they have already made. A man who has been married for two decades seems to be discovering, for the first time, how love feels. He writes of solitude, longing, and spirituality in a style that oscillates between Spanish love songs and bad country music. He seems naive about everything: love, poetry, and e-mail. He is writing for publication and doesn’t know it.

Wise up, cheaters. Your passion for what’s-her-name may be gone with the sunrise, but text is forever. Just because it has vanished from your screen doesn’t mean it has ceased to exist, any more than your wife and kids cease to exist when you fly to Argentina.

But I’m wasting my words. Even after they’re parted, cyber-lovers can’t quit their habit. On Sunday, Chapur e-mailed her tale of the affair’s discovery to a colleague, who promptly posted it. And on Monday, Sanford sent all his “friends” an e-mail spinning the affair as a Christian reason to stay in office. “Thank you for taking the time to read this,” he concluded.

You’re welcome, Mark. Now, please: Stop writing.

(Now playing at the Human Nature blog: 1) Two men, no uterus. 2) The increase in U.S.-Mexico border tunnels. 3) Why people are disappearing into cyberspace.)