It’s been a marvelous few weeks for cheating. Every day, it feels like we’re waking up to a new niche sport or another obscure celebrity that’s become embroiled in a scandal. A Try Guy turned Wife Guy caught “losing focus”? Sure! The world of chess rocked by allegations of cheating via sex toys? Makes sense! The wives of hunky lineworkers doing repairs in Florida after Hurricane Ian using TikTok to warn off potential adulterous “bucket bunnies”? I had to google most of those words but OK!!
It’s as if someone is spinning a wheel as part of a game of Mad Libs that gets more and more absurd each round. If you were to tell me the cast of Ted Lasso cheated at the Emmys by using Bored Ape NFTs to bribe the presenter holding the envelope for Outstanding Comedy Series, I would believe you!!! (OK, that didn’t happen, but that second season still sucked.)
If 2018 gave us the Summer of Scam, 2022’s gift was the Summer of Cheating. It’s been extremely fun to watch all these dramas explode and suddenly become invested in people or things I once knew or cared little about. Nia Long’s basketball coach fiancé Ime Udoka had an “improper intimate and consensual relationship” with a colleague? I’m Team Nia! There were accusations of cheating during a livestreamed poker tournament because of an audacious yet successful hand? We need to bring Robert Mueller back out of retirement! The world of competitive fishing was rocked by stunning footage showing lead balls being stuffed into filets prior to weigh-in? I knew all along that something was fishy!!! (Sorry.)
Over and over again this past summer, many of us online have delighted in cheaters being exposed and the intricacies of their behavior laid bare for all to see. Take Adam Levine’s alleged, infamously vanilla Instagram DM sexts to women who were famously not his wife, which took all of five minutes to become a meme online. Ditto now-former Try Guy Ned Fulmer’s apology for apparently cheating on his wife (the instantly iconic “I lost focus and had a consensual workplace relationship”). The internet hasn’t had that much fun with cheaters since the college admissions scandal was exposed. There’s a reason affairs supposedly spike in the summer: People are horny — or at least, like me, they’re just horny for drama.
In addition to the sheer volume of betrayals, cheating seems to really touch a nerve with the public. It does, after all, make us feel good to dunk on a cheater. “I suspect that in some cases the moral outrage that’s being expressed is in fact virtue-signaling — positioning as being morally superior,” relationship counselor Brian Appleby told Screenshot last year about people exposing others’ mean friends or cheating partners on TikTok for the whole world to see.
Can you blame us, though? Most of us have spent the last few years living by a set of social rules and norms designed to keep each other safe. There were things you could and couldn’t do, and being a rule-follower or a rule-flouter became a political and cultural identity for many, a way of revealing what values you cherished and which community you belonged to. There was a huge amount of schadenfreude — and a detectable sense of glee — from those who dedicated themselves to naming and shaming COVID cheaters.
In Japan, one of the top contenders for 2020’s word of the year was “jishuku keisatsu,” which referred to self-appointed pandemic vigilantes. Another related term was “seigi chuudoku,” or “addiction to justice,” which Alan Turing Institute research associate and anthropologist James Wright explained as being a descriptor “for some people’s sense of self-righteousness and desire to shame others perceived as acting improperly.”
And while the pandemic definitely isn’t over, many people emerged from their bubbles this summer into social situations they had to navigate without the help of experts or authorities. Who’s to say what the rules are anymore? Why were they so important in the first place?
Because even if you did follow every edict these past few years, I’ll venture that you remember the white-hot rage — and perhaps, if you were truly honest with yourself, even envy — you felt upon learning, say, that while you were isolating in a crusty pair of sweatpants and two bottles of Sauvignon Blanc each night, others were heading off to pop-up concerts, secret raves, and underground sex parties.
Cheaters defy the rules. They do what they want. After so many years of worrying and trying to do the right thing, there’s something darkly appealing about not caring about anyone else.
All this plays into that nagging feeling that we just might be the only ones not cheating — which, it turns out, is one of the primary reasons people do cheat. Nobody wants to be a chump. Sometimes cheating is just about leveling the field — or, at least, that’s what cheaters like to tell themselves.
“Cheating is especially easy to justify when you frame situations to cast yourself as a victim of some kind of unfairness,” University of Pennsylvania neurologist Anjan Chatterjee once told the New York Times. “Then it becomes a matter of evening the score; you’re not cheating, you’re restoring fairness.”
Is everyone secretly hooking up for a slutty summer without you? Who can really say? But it’s a work happy hour and Steve from accounting seems down! Are these chess grandmasters the real deal? I have no idea, but strap in a set of vibrating anal beads and suddenly we’ve got a game going!
Everybody cheats to some degree, whether on their partner or their taxes or their homework or their Jamba Juice loyalty card. We’re not out here trying to out people who got too many smoothies for free. What takes a cheater to the infamy of Tristan Thompson, the Patron Saint of Cheating, is very simple: getting caught.
We live in an era of liars and scammers, of misinformation and disinformation, of gaslighters and election-deniers. A true cultural comeuppance has so far proved elusive, for the most part, as Donald Trump and his ilk wriggle out of yet another jam. No one is ever truly canceled, really.
I think deep down what we’re thirsty for is consequences, and the assurance that none of this is normal. That’s why it feels so cathartic to catch a cheater. Realizing you’ve been manipulated and deceived is horrible, but it’s also a relief to be able to confirm that the cards were stacked against you, or that things were just too good to be true.
That might be why it feels even more powerful to close in on a cheater together. Whether as an online collective of gossipmongers hungry to Twitter-dunk on people or just with one other person, it means you weren’t alone.
Consider the shock, but also the catharsis, of the two Las Vegas women who found out in August that they had each unknowingly been dating the same man for an entire year. They’d each sensed something was amiss, but could never really put it into words. For 12 whole months, he’d been swapping out the women’s toothbrushes whenever they stayed at his apartment.
When his con was finally busted, he seemed to suggest the cheating wasn’t initially something he’d set out to do, but was rather a lie that had ballooned beyond his control. “I never should have let it get out of hand,” he told one of the women.
That’s ridiculous, of course. Cheaters cheat and should be held responsible, no matter how it happened. But there is something to be said for a lie that grows and grows, sucking up all the oxygen until there’s nothing left for it to do but burst.
So what to do in the wake of such deception? Why not team up and begin again in a new season, free from deception and the liars who’ve plagued us?
Just three weeks after they discovered the truth, the two Las Vegas women went on a four-day vacation to Costa Rica together.
“Let’s go, girl,” one told the other. “It’s Hot Girl Fall now for us.” ●