Through the Keyhole: Why It’s Immoral to Expect to Read your Partner’s Texts

The new survey of Singles in America is out.  There are lots of interesting stats. One that jumped out at me was this: 77% of women and 53% of men wouldn’t date someone who insisted on keeping their text messages private.

My analysis, as a professional ethicist, is this: Holy crap.

Behind this statistic is, I think, something like an emerging norm. I’ll call it the Norm of Transparency. It says that in a healthy relationship, your partner should be able to demand complete digital transparency. Someone who keeps texts a secret is up to something, and it’s bad for the relationship. As one blogger put it: “if he’s hiding his phone, there’s a problem!”

If it’s true this is emerging as a more-or-less universal expectation when dating someone – one of the study’s authors commented: “If he won’t let you look through his cellphone, that’s a deal breaker” – how should we feel? Is that sort of complete transparency a desirable ideal in relationships – or, on the contrary, is it actually unethical? The alternative is a belief that we all have a right to a zone of privacy in relationships, and that we are better off if we protect this zone, and don’t expect our partner to give it up.

We can always say: people can lay down the terms of their relationships how they want. If someone wants to read your texts and you don’t want them to, don’t date them. However, relationships are complex negotiations, shaped by social norms. We all put up with things that we might prefer not to, because we genuinely want to be with someone. And most of us are not over-run with wonderful, attractive people who want to be in relationships with us. If over two thirds of the people we meet expect to be able to read our texts, most of us are not going to feel able to say, “Well I’ll just find someone from the remaining tercile who doesn’t.” Further, even if a couple decides to negotiate such things openly, the prevailing norm (total transparency should be part of a healthy relationship) puts one party at a bargaining disadvantage. She is faced with the charge: “I want us to be open and honest with each other. You obviously don’t.” Most importantly, if we as moral reasoners have genuine reasons for believe a particular social norm, however widespread, is unethical, we have a responsibility to try to challenge the norm.

Is the Norm of Transparency unethical? I think it is, for several reasons.

A. It has an unethical motive. Whether people admit it or not, we all know perfectly well what the motive is: to make cheating harder. That is bad for a couple of reasons. First of all, we should want our partners to remain faithful to us out of a genuine desire to do so, rather than a fear of getting caught. Second, it is inherently hypocritical. The argument, inasmuch as it can be formulated as rational, goes like this: “If you trust me, you’ll let me see everything. Why? Because I don’t trust you.”

B. It will lead to a lot of bad decisions. If we think we should have to share our texts, it’s only logical that we should share email and social media messages. And perhaps share passwords. And this is happening. A Pew survey of teenage girls found that forty percent of them share their email and social-network passwords with their boyfriends. (Here is a New York Times write-up on the survey.) My very unscientific survey of some of my students revealed that they ALL do it. If young people fail to see the value in privacy, it’s not hard to imagine the bad outcomes that will inevitably result.

C. Finally, I think the Norm of Transparency is unethical because privacy in a relationship is inherently valuable. First of all, it is necessary for a certain kind of friendship. There is a special bond of friendship that comes from knowing that the things you share with your friend will not be passed on to anyone else. It establishes a kind of trust that is every bit as valuable as the bond of trust we have with our partners. I have some friends who I know share everything with their partners, and would let them read texts or emails. That’s fine, but I have a very different kind of friendship with them than with the people I know will keep my secrets. If everyone I knew subscribed to the Norm of Transparency, a certain kind of friendship would totally disappear from my life. And that would be sad. If it disappeared from society, we would be worse for it.

Second, it is just a mistake to think there is something automatically wrong with keeping secrets from our partner. There are lots of secrets that aren’t bad, they’re just — secret. Maybe you got a bad performance evaluation at work. Or you’re insecure about your weight, or your sexual performance. Or you hate your partner’s best friend. Sure, you may want to talk to your partner about things like that. But you may not. The point is, you shouldn’t have to. There are lots of reasons to have secrets in relationships. You may want your partner to believe that you are respected by your boss, or confidant about your body. You may prefer to tell things like that to a friend. You may want to talk to someone about the relationship itself.

One response would be: if you want to talk about things like that, do it in person. That may not be possible – friends often live away, or are hard to track down. But in any case, why make it more difficult? We can instead say that we should recognise the value of zones of privacy in our relationships, and not pressure people to give them up.

Cover image: Still from Guy Maddin, Keyhole (2011)

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