Daphne, a 22-year-old marketing manager, knew it was never going to work out with her ex, Dave. There were red flags from the start, she says: Since they started dating in the spring of 2022, Dave would frequently lie about little things, “or what he would call ‘withholding the truth,’ which he claimed was not the same as lying,” she tells Rolling Stone. (Daphne’s last name has been withheld by Rolling Stone at her request; Dave’s name has been changed to protect the not-so-innocent.) But Daphne did not expect that her relationship with Dave would end, thanks to a person who (most likely) did not even exist.
Last summer, she says, when Dave was scrolling through his Instagram messages to show her a meme, she saw a DM from an account simply labeled “Instagram User,” which indicated to her that the account had since been deleted. But the DM caught her attention because it contained a winky face, with the message “Here’s the link. Please don’t leak it.” When Daphne clicked on it, she saw a page advertising NSFW videos for sale.
When Daphne confronted Dave about it, he said it was “just some football thing” — “he knows I don’t care about football, and would never normally ask more questions than that,” she says. “But I knew exactly what it was.” She told him to leave her apartment. They never spoke again.
Daphne never confirmed whether Dave was talking to an actual sex worker or to a bot (she assumed it was the latter, she says, due to the odd syntax of the messages). But ultimately, it didn’t matter to her whether she was real. Dave thought she was, and to Daphne, that was a major violation. “Obviously, he’s gonna see stuff online, obviously he’s gonna watch porn. I don’t care about that,” she says of her reasoning at the time. “It’s more so the intent behind it. And the intent was for him to have a conversation with who he thought was a real person, in a way that was disrespectful to my relationship with him.”
The question of intent is one that has come up countless times in reactions to a TikTok video Daphne made with the caption, “POV your friends are trying to cheer you up after your bf cheats on you with an Instagram s*x bot scam,” accompanied by screengrabs of texts from her friends over Olivia Rodrigo’s “Get Him Back!” (“tell him to come over i got alexa too,” one wrote).
The video went viral on multiple platforms, racking up more than 9.6 million views and debates in the comments over what constitutes cheating (perhaps unsurprisingly, Daphne says, men tend to be more in the “texting with a bot is not cheating” camp, while women tend to argue otherwise). But what shocked her was how many women in her comments said they had been in similar situations, having caught their partners unwittingly sexting bots, even sometimes being caught in blackmail schemes as a result.
“I have so many girls coming into my comments and into my DMs on TikTok and Instagram sharing their stories, which are way, way worse than mine,” says Daphne. “I think that men maybe are missing a brain cell or something like that.”
Of course, men sexting with people other than their partners, or paying for adult content online, is nothing particularly new — nor is the debate as to whether sexting, say, an OnlyFans model on Snapchat constitutes a form of infidelity. The phenomenon is also not entirely specific to men: Daphne says she has received countless messages from bots pretending to be prospective sugar daddies, though she says she has never engaged with any beyond a cursory initial message: “I think men just literally don’t even think that far through,” she says. “I think they can only think about what’s happening in the moment.”
William J. Ryan, a psychologist and couples’ therapist who specializes in betrayal, says it is “not uncommon” for couples to come into his office with this specific scenario. Usually, he says, it arises from couples not being clear about what does and doesn’t “count” as cheating in their relationship. “People have various monogamy agreements,” he says. “There are some who allow non-physical sexual contact with others, such as texting, sexting photos, masturbating to porn, masturbating to a live sex worker or to a live friend.”
Sexting with a bot, however, adds a unique element to the discourse, considering the person on the other end is not actually real. And there is certainly a market for such content: platforms have been inundated with ads for AI chatbots intended to replicate real-life boyfriend/girlfriend relationships, such as Replika or Anima, though user experiences vary widely in terms of degrees of horniness. Though platforms like Meta and TiKTok have attracted criticism for allowing ads for such apps while censoring content from real-life sex workers, the discussion of what impact they may have on IRL relationships has been limited to the theoretical space until fairly recently, with videos like Daphne’s bringing it to the forefront.
Some users of apps like Replika have argued that AI chat bots serve something of a therapeutic function, with people on subreddits like r/CharacterAi_NSFW sharing stories about how their interactions with bots have awakened fetishes they didn’t know they had, or even discussed how they’ve saved their marriage by preventing them from cheating IRL. Others, however, have argued that programs like Replika can reinforce potentially problematic power dynamics, or serve as Band-Aids for more insidious issues in a relationship.
This was the case for Sophia Pasciuto, 19, who says her relationship ended when she found out her ex was texting with a bot. The two had been dating for several months, and she says while it “wasn’t necessarily a bad relationship,” it was plagued with “trust issues” due to him maintaining a close relationship with his own ex, and hooking up with several women while they were on breaks.
These trust issues prompted Pasciuto to log into his account. “I was at a PF Chang’s with my mom and brother when I saw the DM request notification on his account,” Pasciuto tells Rolling Stone. “I checked it being nosy and saw that it was one of those spam accounts you see in comment sections, with a girl half naked in the profile picture and she comments something like ‘click the link in my bio for naughty pictures.’” She then saw her ex had downloaded “this weird scam app and spent real money for nudes” from the woman, though the nudes did not feature the same woman as the one on the account. When he’d tried to sext her, he didn’t get a response.
Pasciuto looked through her ex’s DMs and found that he had messaged many other women on Instagram who had DMed him offering nudes, providing screengrabs of the interactions to Rolling Stone. She did not confront her ex, instead posting a story on Snapchat with the caption, “Imagine spending real money on an Instagram sex bot.” She says her ex changed his password, and they never spoke again.
Like Daphne, Pasciuto used the word “intention” when characterizing her ex’s actions as cheating. “For me cheating is all about intention. He willingly messaged the account for pictures, sent vulgar messages, AND spent money,” she says. “[It] would not make a difference if he knew it was a real person or not. He actively sought intimacy with ‘something’ that/who isn’t me. I think if you consider it cheating with other real-life humans then it should be the same with simulators/AI/bots, especially with how realistic they can look.”
As AI technology improves and the chasm between flesh-and-blood erotic imagery and cleverly engineered dupes becomes less great, it seems fairly likely that more and more people will either willingly engage in infidelity with a bot, or be led astray by a convincing facsimile of an IRL adult content creator. And in truth, to those who responded to Daphne’s video with similar stories of their own, the distinction doesn’t really matter. What matters is that couples need to have firmly entrenched guidelines in place to prevent anyone from getting hurt, says Ryan.
“I think couples need explicit agreements,” he says. “If they don’t have explicit agreements, then they should make one about what constitutes a betrayal. What is their transparency agreement, what is their monogamy agreement? Outside of how you two decide it, I don’t have an opinion. That is not for me to come from high and to tell you what cheating is.”
Speaking to a partner about what does and doesn’t constitute a boundary violation, whether it’s masturbating to a steamy Replika convo or having an intimate, albeit asexual, conversation with an online cam performer, is both highly subjective and deeply essential to maintaining a healthy relationship, says Ryan. While such conversations may be uncomfortable, they can save a lot of pain — and awkwardness.
“I’d definitely say I would rather be cheated on with a real person than a bot in some cases,” Pasciuto says. “It would be a lot less embarrassing.”