Think an online rendezvous may involve physically 'safer' sex?
Find out what the consequences can be.
By Ian Mulgrew
The family computer - purchased to help the kids with their education, or to help a stay-at-home partner with his or her small business - is quickly becoming a conduit of temptation for the lonely, the unhappy, the bored and dissatisfied.
Among the estimated 90 million or so North Americans who log on daily, increasing numbers are actively exploring sexuality in ways that were unheard of until now. The workplace, where temptation is just a click away, is a particular hotbed of activity: recent data indicate that 70 per cent of the traffic to sexually explicit sites occurs between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. In fact, 20 per cent of men and 12 per cent of women online in the workplace use the Net for sexual pursuit.
Basically, cybersex is like phone sex: flirtation leading to arousal leading to masturbation. But with way more bells and whistles: there are chat rooms for every type of sexual proclivity, including "married but sinful," and cheap, digital see-you, see-me technology to satisfy the most ardent voyeur. You can do just about everything on the holodeck of online lust that you can do in person - send virtual flowers or a cyber-kiss, commit to each other in an electronic wedding, honeymoon in a cyber-dungeon in front of an e-family. In the works are full-immersion sex suits transmitting sensory information back and forth between or among partners. With new scent-emission technology, the online sexual experience will be heightened even further.
The new technologies have made it easier to find a date, begin an affair and engage in great sex. But what Hollywood has presented as a cute lure for attracting a mate - even Ally McBeal succumbed last year - also has a seamier side. Those who study and treat the survivors of adultery say the Internet is a breeding ground for cyber-infidelity. Online cheating is mentioned in a growing number of divorce cases, and therapists say the nature and scope of marital collapse are caused by virtual infidelity is greatly underestimated.
The powerful draw of online sexual relationships can easily scuttle a relationship drifting toward the shoals, but it also threatens stable marriages and people with no history of dysfunction. Women appear to be at the greatest risk because they've found a private, anonymous and safe place to look for company in the new millennium. They're trying all kinds of sexual behaviour that they would never engage in off-line. And those who find themselves online for more than 11 hours a week (the putative threshold for addiction) may face even greater risks than men do. Data suggest they are more likely to progress toward consummating the cyber-affair with an old-fashioned, off-line rendezvous.
Online romances can also lead to cybersex addiction. At first, only one or two people in a hundred were thought to be at risk, says Dr. Kimberly Young, founder of the Center for Online Addiction (www.netaddiction.com) in Bradford, Pa. But, she says, the most recent studies indicate a much higher figure: eight to 10 per cent, or maybe even more. "Whether or not this is a big phenomenon, whether or not there are hundreds of thousands of people involved and it's ruining lives - there's no question about that," says Dr. Alvin Cooper of Stanford University, Ca., who led the research team on the Net study. "We suspect that those numbers will only increase over time."
Dr. Jennifer Schneider, a physician and researcher based in Tucson, Ariz., recently conducted a survey among the partners of cybersex addicts. "I asked about what's the big deal with online sex - each person is sitting masturbating, talking online. Almost all the respondents to my survey said that's as much cheating as if they are having physical sex.
To women, at least, it's not the physical sex that matters, it's this relationship thing. It's the intimacy, spending time with somebody else. It isn't about sex, it's about the betrayal of intimacy."
The specialists say anyone contemplating a cyber-affair should remember that it can be much harder to survive than a conventional affair because it reaches into the home, perhaps even into the bedroom itself-while the partner lies sleeping.