By Sandy Lawrence Edry
On a chilly morning, Robin rushes to get ready for work as usual, though today she reminds herself not to put on pantyhose -- she has never figured out a way to remove them "sexily." Then she kisses her husband goodbye, drives her 15-month-old daughter to daycare, and heads to her secretarial job in suburban Philadelphia.
BUT WHEN SHE GETS TO HER OFFICE, she ignores the papers piled on her desk and clicks the icon on her computer screen to launch America Online, which connects her to another, secret life. She sees on her buddy list that today's breakfast date has already signed on, and they confirm their rendezvous point: a deli near the airport. It's safe because it's public -- the man is a stranger, after all, despite their 4-week cyber-relationship -- and because it's decidedly unromantic. No one would suspect her real reasons for being there.
Cloaked behind the anonymity of screen names and dial-up connections, a housewife can now participate in an evanescent universe that is one part interactive Harlequin romance, one part sex-as- sport.
An hour or so after making an excuse for leaving work (something about her daughter feeling ill), she sits at a table in the back of the deli, preparing for the last step in what she jokingly refers to as her "interviewing" process. Today's applicant, a 31-year-old married commodities broker, has already passed two crucial tests: His opening message didn't start with, "Hey baby, what are you wearing?" and the first time they "cybersexed," the words he typed exhibited both sensuality and attentiveness.
When he walks through the door, Robin is relieved. He matches the description he e-mailed earlier: about 5-foot-8, nicely built with dark hair and eyes, a goatee and an olive complexion. He does not appear disappointed with the way Robin looks, either: five feet tall and 36 years old with short, curly brown hair and a body she describes as "a little chubby." Online, she usually tells men her measurements right away: 38D-29-40.
After a hastily eaten meal, Robin and her new friend return to her car, where a momentary silence precedes an awkward first kiss. One kiss leads to the next and soon she finds herself driving to the airport Hilton. At the end of an afternoon she later describes as "OK," she checks her makeup in the dashboard mirror before returning home, expecting to feel some guilt. After all, this is her first affair since she got married, five years ago.
Instead, she says several weeks later, "I now understand what men usually say. I believe now that it can be only about sex. I went home that night, kissed my husband and said, 'Hi, how are you.'" As if nothing had happened.
CLOAKED BEHIND THE ANONYMITY of screen names and dial-up connections, a housewife can now participate in an evanescent universe that is one part interactive Harlequin romance, one part sex-as-sport. With a computer, a modem and a subscription to an Internet service provider such as AOL, she can meet someone new from the comfort of her own home while her unknowing husband watches television in the next room.
Even if they never cross the virtual boundary -- as many never do -- cyber-affairs can ruin a marriage. "People are more hurt by emotional intimacy because it undermines the very fabric of the marriage," says Dr. Lana Staheli, a Seattle-based counsellor and author of Affair-Proof Your Marriage. "It takes away from the partner."
Cybersex is not the only Internet diversion on offer. Increasingly, flirtations are moving from anonymous chat rooms to real-world hotel rooms, though it's unclear just how many Internet affairs move offline. After all, it has proven nearly impossible to determine the number of low-tech affairs; some studies report that 60% of married Americans have committed adultery, while others put the number as low as 15%.
What is known is that Internet affairs have been blamed for divorces in many American states and almost all provinces. "I suppose at any one time, we might have six to 10 cases where relationships have formed that way," says Malcolm Kronby, counsel for the Toronto family law boutique, Epstein Cole. "We've got one going now where the relationship formed between a woman in Toronto and a man in the U.S. Midwest who met in a chat room."
Dr. Ann Evans, president of the British Columbia section of the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy, says the issue has also become a serious topic of discussion at therapist conferences, including her organization's most recent convention in Denver, Colo. "At first, people were making jokes about it, but that stage has passed," she says. "We are all aware that this has become a serious thing."
The best place to gauge the extent of online affairs is, of course, online. To be more specific, in AOL's chat rooms, where the Internet service provider's 25 million members spend more than 56 million hours each month. There are other chat services, such as those on Yahoo! and MSN, but AOL's chat rooms, which have evolved to an unparalleled level of specificity and ease-of-use, are the top choice for most would-be U.S. adulterers.
Getting to them is as easy as clicking the People Connection icon at the bottom of the main AOL screen, which leads both to thematically grouped rooms created by the ISP's staff -- the Town Square has pleasantly titled rooms such as Sunday Brunch and The Breakfast Club -- and more than 300 bizarro rooms created by members themselves.
The member-chat Romance category houses the heaviest concentration of rooms catering to married people, from Michigan Affairs to Married Buxom BBW Babes. (BBW stands for Big Beautiful Woman, the politically correct term for "large sized".)
At 9:30 on a typical Saturday night, more than 800 people are logged into 44 member-created chat rooms with something about married or affairs in the titles. Many rooms, like SoCalAffairs4Real, are filled to their capacity of 23 people (a limit imposed by AOL to minimize confusing crosstalk). Here the lonely, the curious and the just plain horny gather.
It is a favourite hangout of Bigredmg, a recent law school graduate and husband of 15 years who estimates that he has slept with about 20 AOL women from the Southern California area -- hence the "SoCal" in the room's name. "Fat women mostly," he says. To accomplish this feat, Bigredmg stays online five to eight hours a day. "I am trying to find the passion that I lost," he says, adding that his wife is a "good woman and I love her, but there is no fire."
Nell also spends several hours a day in front of her computer screen, mostly in NJOver30. A housewife from New Jersey, she has had two affairs with other AOL members since joining in 1996. Married to a man who, she says, "abused me physically a few times, and mentally, every day of my life," Nell is looking for a way out.
Life for the would-be Canadian adulterer is not quite as easy, since the AOL Canada section of the chat rooms is not nearly as well populated or geographically targeted. Still, on almost any night a steady stream of men and women with screen names like CharmedCdn float through rooms such as Married M 4 F (Married Male for Female) and Married not Dead.
But perhaps the best virtual locales for the affair-minded on this side of the border are Yahoo! clubs, which are easily reached through Sympatico, Rogers, Shaw or any other ISP. The clubs are message-board/chat-room hybrids where members post requests for affairs -- and sometimes even their own photos. Type "Married" and "Canada" into the club search engine, and 26 entries appear, ranging from Alberta sex on the side affairs (247 members) to Club marriedandlooking in ONT (838 members). Members seem every bit as forward as their American counterparts: On Nov. 29, for example, Twinklineyes00 announced to the ONT club that she was "Looking for a teddy bear type, big and hairy ... ;) to play with in the GTA area. Drop me a line if a bear out there wants to play!!"
IN THE AOL FIRMAMENT, the NNJ Married Affairs chat room has a unique place: The group's activities are not exclusively online. Every Friday night for more than three years, about 20 to 30 married men and women find an excuse to get out of the house and head to a Holiday Inn hotel bar called Ozzie's, in Wayne, N.J.
Ozzie's looks exactly as you'd expect: a dark space with a long, faux marble bar that occupies half the room. On a Friday night, club-goers shimmy and shake on a small dance floor to a mix of Top-40 and disco hits. By 8:30 p.m., about 25 AOLers, mostly in their 30s and 40s, have arrived. Some are still wearing their wedding rings; others have removed them for the evening. The regulars kiss each other hello while the newcomers cautiously ask everybody for their screen names.
Harriet, a regular attendee in her 40s who bears enough of a resemblance to Linda Tripp that the bartender gives her a free drink, refuses to disclose who has had affairs with whom. "There is a code between most of the regulars and we guard one another's privacy."
Robin has visited the room but not Ozzie's itself. Tonight, she is on AOL, where she's checking out MarriedWantsAffair but has to wait -- it is that crowded. When she finally manages to squeeze into the room, five women are holding court, discussing everything from lingerie to hair color. One asks the assembled men: "What do you think makes a woman sexy?" The men's responses range from "intelligence and passion" to "legs ... and a nice butt."
Robin prefers the one-on-one instant message-style of chat also available on AOL. But to let the men in the room know she's available for a sidebar, she must first announce her presence: "36F from Philadelphia," she types, followed by "Any PA/NJ/NY/DE men here?" She has just declared open season -- a woman who wants to chat trumps group discussions about lingerie every time. Within seconds, small IM windows pop up all over her screen.
None of the applicants make the cut. Some live too far away. Some are not her type. And one man makes the mistake of being too forward, too fast. After the customary chit-chat -- age, location and marital status -- he asks for Robin's description. When she includes her measurements as usual, he responds: "Hmmmmm ... god how I love a short woman ... with big" --Bzzzzzzzzz! Strike one.
He then asks her to describe what she's wearing. (Translation: "I hope you're naked.") Strike two. When he starts providing details on the way he likes to masturbate, Robin has had enough. She has become adept at spotting the ones who are only looking for cybersex. After all, for the first few months she was online, that was all she wanted, too.
Robin joined America Online in February, 1998, when a co-worker showed her how to use the site to conduct research for their boss, then detoured into one of the married chat rooms. "I was petrified," Robin says. "I was thinking, 'who are all these people out there?' and, 'can they see me?'"
But that weekend, while her husband was away on business, she took the office laptop home and had cybersex for the first time. "I thought it was so stimulating," she says. "I loved it." Over the next few weeks she began spending a few hours a day in the rooms. "I felt like a kid in the candy shop," she says.
The idea of actually meeting someone never even crossed her mind. At first. But her husband had always had a low sex drive -- even lower after the baby's birth -- and she began to feel that he "didn't want me, like maybe I wasn't attractive." She asked him to go to couples therapy but he refused. In the end, she was left with many evenings to explore her sexual needs online. And she was soon able to convince herself that she deserved a chance to meet some of the men she was chatting with so regularly.
ABOVE ALL, AMERICA ONLINE, YAHOO! and other chat areas provides instantaneous, round-the-clock access to massive numbers of people who self-select into easily recognizable groups. In these communities, whether the focus is gardening or sado-masochism, the possibility of meeting an affair partner increases exponentially. "There is already a basis of commonality," says Storm King, a Massachusetts doctoral candidate in psychology who has written extensively about Internet culture.
A different set of social norms undergirds these subcultures. Talking to strangers is encouraged; anonymity makes people less inhibited and more inclined to display secret sides of themselves. "Women clients say that men are so much more expressive about their feelings [online] and men say women are so much more adventurous and fun," says Dr. Staheli.
There's strength in numbers, too. "Certainly you wouldn't go to a neighbour and say, 'Oh gosh, I'm having an affair, how about you?'" says Dr. Debbie Layton-Tholl, a Del Ray Beach, Fla., psychologist who is conducting research into extramarital affairs. "But now you can go online and, literally, there is an unlimited number of people who will support you in what you are doing. So it becomes easier -- the guilt becomes lessened."
The human imagination also plays a significant role in helping online romances to flourish. "Your mind projects," says King, "and what you project depends a lot on what you want to see."
Robin, however, is no longer satisfied with her imagination. She also wants to see "the attention, the affirmation, the wanting to please and be pleased," in her partner's eyes. In the two and a half years since her first affair, she believes she has seen these things in the eyes of more than a dozen strangers with whom she has had intercourse or oral sex. Getting fired for downloading explicit pictures at work and the birth of a second child only slowed her down temporarily -- her most recent affair was less than a month ago. These encounters make her feel "sexy, wanted and needed."
Raised in a strict Roman Catholic home, she can't imagine getting a divorce. Besides, she says, her husband is "a good man, a good father, a good companion. Just one aspect isn't there."
"I can't see myself doing this forever," she says. But then she adds, "Do I see it continuing? Yes. I'm having fun."
(READERS - do YOU think this behavior is acceptable? We'd love your comments. - EOPC)