Hacks of Passion

On a slow night, Anne, a 23-year-old assistant at an art consultancy, will get drunk at home with her friends and, instead of watching a movie or gossiping about men, they’ll break into one of their old boyfriends’ e-mail accounts. “My friends and I have a few glasses of wine, and it’s like, ‘Let’s go read [his] e-mail!'” Anne said, making an inbox sound like a pirated cable box-free of charge, only slightly criminal and endlessly engaging. The girls guffaw at his misspellings and giggle about his dating mishaps. They are as careful as cat burglars and never get caught. According to Anne, “It’s fun! It’s so entertaining.”

And also rather common. Manhattan marriage counselor Sharyn Wolf, author of Guerrilla Dating Tactics: Strategies, Tips and Secrets for Finding Romance, said that a lot of her clients have either committed this crime or had it done to them. “Men’s passwords are the easiest to figure out,” Ms. Wolf said. “Go home and change yours tonight!”

But who says passwords need to be guessed, anyway? Who says e-mail accounts need to be hacked into? These days, girlfriends and boyfriends, husbands and wives, girlfriends and girlfriends, casually swap the passwords to their Gmail, AOL and Yahoo! accounts out of convenience-when they can’t get access to a computer and need, say, directions to a party or the cell-phone number of a client, quickly retrieved from their inbox. Or they lovingly swap to prove their intimacy and their absolute confidence in the relationship and in one another.

“There’s a level of trust in relationships where, if I’m with someone for a while, yeah, I give them my fucking password, because I want them to know I’m not hiding anything,” said Anne’s roommate Jennifer, 26, who works at a corporate law firm and is blond, frightfully smart (though not about this) and Maxim beautiful. (She should have stuck to tried-and-true romantic gestures: initials carved into trees, joint checking accounts, copied front-door keys.)

E-mail intimacy hasn’t brought couples closer together; instead, it has broken hearts, wrecked long marriages and crippled new relationships. It’s no surprise that, with all this swapping going on, jealous mates might also feel liberated to break into inboxes and surreptitiously read their lovers’ mail. In truth, swapping passwords or sharing computers is actually less a signal of faith than it is a test, too tempting and too easy to fail.

And, for the most part, most of these women want to keep reading; for that reason, many of them refused to reveal their real names for this story. An unscientific study conducted by The Observer also indicated that men are just as likely to e-snoop-but most guys are just too scared to actually talk about it.

Or perhaps they’re wise. After all, the whole enterprise is rather embarrassing. E-snooping calls up the uglier sides of human nature: jealousy, suspicion, insecurity, masochism. Over the last decade, e-mail and the Internet have mostly just given people new and easy ways to fuck up, fuck each other over and fuck with their own heads.

“When you snoop, you’re not looking for the concert seats he’s going to surprise you with, you’re looking for something that’s going to break your heart,” Ms. Wolf warned in her best Cassandra mode. “When you snoop, you will always find something. You snoop to confirm something. It will always be there.”

‘Necessary to Lie to Find Out the Truth’ “In New York City, when you first start dating someone-see, this is where my problem starts-you have no fucking clue who they are. None,” said Jennifer, the Maxim-looking girl. She, Anne and another woman, Sarah, were leaning over a kitchen island in Jennifer’s Upper East Side duplex. The evening’s red wine, served in big green glasses, was hair-of-the-dog, meant to medicate their day-after-Valentine’s-Day hangovers. Dinner was a vat of hummus and bag after bag of baked potato chips. Taken individually, each woman registered as sweet and nice, but together the girls were as lovely-and savage-as a litter of Siamese cats.

“They could be lying. And it’s so easy to lie to people. I could be dating four guys at once-no one would know,” Jennifer continued. “It’s so easy to lie that I think it makes it necessary to lie to find out the truth.”

In August, while smoking a cigarette outside a bar in Soho, Jennifer met a grad student. He was a surfer, from California, and at first he showered her with attention and called “five times a day.” But one weekend, he seemed to just drop off the face of the earth. Worried, and feeling more than a little rejected, she thought to herself, “He checks his e-mail on my computer. I wonder if there’s anything I can do with that.”

She went to his university’s Web site. “And guess what?” she said. “His name came up and the password automatically filled in. So the fucking idiot had saved his password on my computer!” (This is a typical way of breaking into e-mail, and it can happen easily with Hotmail, Yahoo! and most Web-based sites.) “This gets really, really good now. I start reading the e-mails.”

Turns out her new man was spending a lot of time writing to women in Sweden, the Dominican Republic and Russia. Not just e-mails; these were love letters. For example: “It sounds like you like being in St. Petersburg right now, is that true? I wish it wasn’t so far away because if you lived closer, you would definately [ sic] be my girlfriend.” And: “From the moment I saw you, I was so attracted to you, but I didn’t think you felt the same. Anyways, I’m so glad that we finally did break through the barriers and allowed ourselves to truelly [ sic] connect.”

“All of a sudden, my entire view of him changed,” said Jennifer. “Before that, I was like, ‘He’s sweet, he’s nice …. I mean, sure, he’s a stoner, and you think he’s a sweetie.’ All of a sudden, I realized: ‘He’s a fucking player!’ I was just glued to my screen for a while. I wanted to know who he was. You have no idea, and it really drives you crazy.”

Anne agreed: “It’s addictive. Once you start, you just can’t stop. You don’t say, ‘Oh, I bet there’s nothing good on the next page of e-mails.’ Of course there’s something good on the next page of e-mails.”

Not surprisingly, e-mail snoopers wear themselves down. Knees bobbing anxiously, at first they search only for suspicious names, but at some point they’ll begin to compulsively read every banal little thing: orders from Amazon, forwards from friends, letters to and from Mom. No one will know. They’ll stay up all night staring at the computer, clicking on message after message, browsing page after page, and then skulk into bed feeling haunted and pukey and numb.

Yet, for all the typical feelings of shame involved, reading another’s e-mail seems different from the traditional methods of disrespecting a loved one’s privacy. Diary-reading, for example, requires a ton of actual effort-mattresses must be lifted, closets rifled through, locks busted open. Once a password is obtained, however, a Hotmail account is conveniently and frequently accessed. And by it’s very on-screen, send-and-receive nature, e-mail doesn’t feel very private. E-snooping is therefore almost an offspring of Google stalking. Yahoo! mail and an Outlook inbox are easily seen as just one more Web site to scroll-one that’s a treasure trove of especially detailed information easily searched by date, time, sender, recipient and keyword. Here, the suspicious can search to their heart’s content for such phrases as “That poor bastard has no idea I’m screwing around on him,” or “You’re so much better in bed than he’ll ever be.”

In Anne’s case, the e-mail stalking started after she and her boyfriend broke up. His password, after all, was the same for all his accounts: “Aussie,” inspired by his semester abroad, plus his birthdate. He was a year behind her in school, but they’d kept going out long-distance after she moved to the city. They’d planned on spending the summer in New York together, but one night, drunk out of his gourd, he confessed to cheating on her and they broke up. What she discovered in his inbox was that he’d cheated on her not once, but once with five different girls in a single week. One of the e-mails she discovered began like this:

“Hey, What’s up? I hope you enjoyed sleeping in! … as I was up bright and early at 8. (i hate you) … haha just kidding. i will always love my naked friend … anyway, I had a lot of fun last night and I hope you did too. I’m not sure if you remember, but we were going to go out tonight for dinner?”

Anne still torments her ex. She mentions things to him she couldn’t possibly know: girls he hooked up with, places he went. The boy, for his part, seems impressively, almost heroically dense, and it hasn’t occurred to him yet-even though he knows she knows his password-that she would ever read his mail.

“It’s not a compulsive thing anymore,” said Anne. “It’s really empowering for me. I’m still in control. It reinforces the fact that I was always the one in control. The breakup was his fault and I can check his e-mail. It’s boring, but I’m still in control. But he’s still an asshole.”

She sighed and acknowledged: “It’s this passive-aggressive way of one-upping yourself.”

Anne’s co-worker Sarah, a small, dark-haired 24-year-old, hasn’t read ever her boyfriend’s e-mail, but she has engaged in all sorts of other Internet trickery. “Impersonation!” she said repeatedly. Once, pretending to be her boyfriend, she wrote an e-mail to the girl he’d cheated on her with, saying in effect, “I was really drunk last night, and I don’t really remember what happened last night, but you need to get tested because I might have given you herpes.”

And last Valentine’s Day, Sarah devised an I.M. screen name that closely resembled the screen name of that same girl. “Who’s your valentine?” she wrote to her boyfriend, in this other guise. “Nobody,” he replied. She immediately called him from work, now as the real Sarah, and screamed, “Am I your girlfriend? Am I your fucking girlfriend?”

“It’s one certain thing that sets you off into this person that you weren’t before,” she said gloomily. “Before this, I would never think to look in someone’s whatever.”

‘What Do You Think of Short Girls With Big Tits?’ “It was supposed to be like a nice, proper date,” said Emma, 26, about her dinner plans with Simon, the cute book editor she’d met last January at the Royal Oak in Williamsburg. A political-campaign staffer, Emma is cherubic, dates guys in obscure bands, and is rosy-looking in the way of people who blush with their whole faces. “I was jazzed; I was excited; I Googled him,” she said.

A few hours before the date, Emma was still trying to figure out what she was going to wear-aimless and anxious, she wandered over to the computer to check her Hotmail. Whereupon she found, waiting there in her inbox, a message entitled “Regarding Simon.”

“From a girl!” said Emma. “And I was like, ‘Fuck!'”

“Simon was/is, in fact, juggling five women at the moment and sleeping with three of them,” wrote a medical student who claimed to be his girlfriend of seven years. “I thought you would like to know how he has talked about you and what he has done to me before you consider getting involved with him.” The angry medical student was e-mailing her boyfriend’s lovers one by one, prowling for details and provoking breakups. She even pasted into her letter to Emma a series of e-mails that Simon had recently written to a friend. Emma read in horror what Simon had to say about his and Emma’s run-in that night at the Royal Oak:

“What do you think of short girls with big tits?” wrote Simon.

“I love short girls with big tits,” replied his friend. “Remember my first girlfriend? I’m assuming you met a nice short girl with big tits.”

“On the dance floor of the Royal Oak, I did indeed meet a nice short girl with big tits,” wrote Simon. “She had her eyes on me from the moment I walked in. Unfortunately, I can’t really say that I got a good look at her, it being dark and me being drunk, but her tits were undeniably big.”

Emma-remember, mere hours before she’s supposed to meet this guy-fired off a furious, indignant e-mail to Simon’s girlfriend, offering to go to dinner with him simply to throw a drink in his face. But when she returned to her inbox, she discovered an e-mail waiting there from Simon; his girlfriend had bcc’d him on her e-mail to Emma.

“For the record, though I did engage in such a conversation regarding your physique, I do respect your humanity,” Simon wrote.

“I don’t even know what that means,” Emma said as she recounted the story.

Needless to say, she didn’t go out with him, even though he did ask: “Would it be weird for us to go on that date now?”

After that, Emma instituted a policy of asking guys if they had girlfriends before she kissed them.

The Weird Thrill And then there’s that rare situation where deception brings two people closer together. Molly, a 24-year-old writer, found her new boyfriend’s e-mail open on her computer. They’d only been dating a few weeks, and he checked his mail just before getting into bed. Snooping was something she’d had problems with in the past-she read one ex-boyfriend’s e-mail so often that “it became like some sort of rote thing, like how you check the New York Times weather report if you have an extra minute.” Even though her boyfriend was lying a few feet away from her, she just couldn’t help herself.

“It was the sent e-mail, the e-mail from him, that really interested me,” she said. “I wanted to go back to the dates around the beginning of when we met and see what his impressions of me were, and what he said to people about me.” Molly was full of unnecessary insecurities-she constantly worried that she wasn’t pretty enough, not skinny enough, not cool enough. As they moved from casual to serious, she desperately wanted some tangible reassurance that this guy liked her.

What she found was an e-mail he had written to one of his friends around the time of his and Molly’s second date, something to the effect of: “She came over last night. Well, you know, physically, she’s not everything I would want, but I find her so amazing in so many other ways that I just want this.”

Molly sat there for a while, frozen, not knowing what the hell to do next: “I mean, also because it was exactly what I was looking for. There it was, a very concise statement of what his impression of me was-to a friend, being very candid. But then I had the problem of him being right in the room with me. I was experiencing all these contradictory thoughts. ‘Cause really, I was in the wrong for having violated his privacy. But I was incredibly hurt. I felt like there were two victims here. But I was the one who brought that on both of us. I felt awful about myself in many ways.”

To snoop or not to snoop, to confess or not to confess: Molly’s dilemma is typical. In the end, what’s worse? Breaking into someone’s e-mail, violating their trust, looking like a psychopath? Or is the ugly truth discovered in the purloined e-mail the real infraction? Men and women may continue to read their lovers’ e-mail in supposed secrecy, but what they do with the information they find is another story: They either have to choke down their hurt and anger, or confront their mate. And all the victim of e-mail theft has to say is, “But you betrayed me, too. You broke into my e-mail.”

Or maybe not. When Molly got into bed, she lay there for a while, stiff as board, completely confused. Her boyfriend noticed immediately that something was wrong, and when he probed her, she confessed what she’d done.

“To my shock, he didn’t back off at all, he didn’t shy off at all,” Molly said. He told her: “I did write something about you not being my physical type, and it’s true. You’re not the type of girl that I’ve gone out with before, and you’ve completely shattered my type.”

Before Molly, he’d mostly dated “gym rats, all-American blond waifs.” Molly is more voluptuous than waifish, her hair a very dark shade of honey blond-she’s plenty cute enough to inspire conversions. Finally, after hours in bed fighting and talking, he convinced her that he was one of the sincerely converted. He wasn’t angry; more than anything, he seemed “scared” that what he’d written would cause him to lose her.

“After that, I felt invincible, I really did,” said Molly. “I felt like I’d opened the closet and looked at my worst fear, and there was nothing else to fear after that. I guess that’s not totally true-there’s infidelity.”

Molly then vowed never to snoop again, but she speaks of it with the eloquent nostalgia of a drug addict just barely clean.

“It’s a thrill,” she said. “It wasn’t, actually, when I was reading my ex-boyfriend’s e-mail, because he was so incredibly boring that it got tedious. But that moment when I first did it in this episode was totally thrilling. Especially having him in the room while I was doing it. It was a weird high. I felt thrilled.”

Hacks of Passion