Is cybersex a replacement for real sex, or just a new and different form of sexual communication? Is virtual intimacy really satisying, and how can it hurt or harm you compared to the real thing?

Chat Rooms

Online chat rooms where people engage in cybersex are found on most online services as well as on the Internet. According to Jack Richard of Boardwatch magazine, 50,000 people engage in daily cybersex using up to 700 real-time chat rooms.

"It fits in with something we have been talking about for years," says Marlene Maheu, PhD, a Los Angeles-based psychologist who is among the first researchers to look at the issue. "And that's something called cyborg theory. It asks the question: 'What happens when a person would rather have sex with a machine than with another person?'"

Before digital technology, this was a moot point. There just weren't that many opportunities. But today, with real time chat rooms and messaging, interactive web sites, and do-it-yourself CD-ROMs, it's entirely possible for someone, in the privacy of their home, to have an orgasm with a computer substituting for their sexual partner.

There are two forms of cybersex that originate in online chat rooms. The first form is computer-mediated, interactive masturbation in real time. In this form of cybersex, users type instructions and descriptions of what they are "doing" to each other and to themselves while masturbating.

The second form of cybersex is the computer-mediated telling of interactive sexual stories (in real time) with the intent of arousal. Users who take part in this form of cybersex tell each other sexual stories online with the intent of arousing themselves and other users. According to Dan Thu Nguyen and Jon Alexander in The Coming of Cyberspacetime and the End of the Polity , cybersex is often satisfying enough to evoke physical orgasm in the participants.

Why Cybersex Instead of the "Real Thing"?

In and of itself, says Dr. Maheu, cybersex is not necessarily a bad thing. As an example, she points out that most heterosexuals who have a homosexual relationship in prison aren't homosexuals. They take what they can get, given the circumstances. The same holds true for cybersex, says Gerald Melchoide, MD, a clinical professor of psychology at the University of Texas-Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

According to Sandy Stone at the University of Texas, "Reality is wide-bandwidth because people who communicate face-to-face in real time use multiple modes of communication simultaneously—speech, gestures, facial expression, the entire gamut of semiotics. Computer conferencing is narrow-bandwidth because communication is restricted to lines of text on a screen."

In narrow-bandwidth computer mediated communications, important information is missing. Smiles, frowns, tones of voice, posture, and dress tell us more about the social contexts we are placed in than do the statements of the people we socialize with.

Anonymity Encourages Experimentation

Online anonymity, made possible by this narrow-bandwidth, offers people the opportunity to experiment. The attraction of chat rooms is that they offer a combination of real time interaction with people, anonymity (or, in some cases, the illusion of anonymity), and the ability to assume a role as close to or as far from one's "real self" as one chooses. This loss of inhibition allows people to more freely experiment with their online selves.

Weighing the Pros and Cons of Cybersex

If you want to have sex and your partner is gone, or if you don't have a partner, a cyber partner may be better than none at all and doesn't necessarily imply that you've gone off the deep end. However, it could also be a symptom of a troubled marriage, something Dr. Melchoide says he sees in his practice. And it just may mean, he says, "That when you have cybersex, you don't have to pay for dinner."

The problem develops when you decide you don't want to have dinner at all, and you prefer to have sex with a machine instead of another person because you enjoy it more. Throw in gender swapping—45-year-old men pretending to be 17-year-old women—and situations where spouses sneak off to the computer after their partner goes to bed, and you can see why researchers like Dr. Maheu are venturing into waters that are not only uncharted, but that few even thought existed.

Obviously, if someone prefers to have sex with a machine rather than with a partner, that fits the clinical definition of a disorder, she says. "But you have to remember that men who would never go down to the local topless bar can have cybersex, and no one will know about it. And if that's all they do, then that may not be any worse than going down to the topless bar. But no one knows where to draw the line with cybersex. So this is quite a complex subject."

Who's Having Cybersex?

Making it even more complex is that there are almost no reliable statistics on the subject. Researchers say cybersex seems to be more popular with men, but just how popular is anyone's guess. Not only are people reluctant to discuss sexual issues, but the inherent anonymity of cybersex clouds the issue even further. Does this mean that men may be having cybersex with other men, thinking one of them is a woman? It's possible and may even be fairly common. No one knows for sure.

Combining the results of a number of studies may shed light on the characteristics of the most common cybersex participant. These numbers seem to say he's a heterosexual male, between the ages of 18 and 34, who visits chat rooms and isn't as likely to send e-mail looking for cyber partners as older men. He may be fairly well educated, and he may be a middle-class professional.

But then again, he may not.

"There's a definite bias against discussing these sorts of things," says Dr. Maheu. "When people consider what they're doing to be atypical—or maybe even perverted—they have more of a reluctance to discuss it."

And, for the most part, cybersex—despite the publicity—is still considered to be atypical, something nice people don't talk about.

The Future of Cybersex

"What we're looking at here," says Dr. Melchoide, "is an entirely new set of problems because cybersex is available at home to anyone with a computer and a modem. In the old days, you had to go to a store to get erotic material. Now all you have to do is go to your computer. I don't think anyone knows what that will lead to yet."

In Japan, it's leading to software that allows users to create their own virtual girlfriend. Over one million computer users have purchased one such program. Stories about the software claim that "Japanese women may be under threat from the booming market in computer girlfriends." When accused of sexual deviance because they have turned away from real women, Japanese men have countered that they are using virtually simulated women in an attempt to feel what it is like to be loved by a woman. It is not the simulation they desire, it is a real girlfriend and the accompanying feelings of love.

Outfitted with the latest in high-tech goggles and movement sensitive body suits, a person can now have sex in virtual reality. Its purpose appears to be to test the imagination of programmers and the capabilities of computers, not to replace real life sex.

Cybersex is here to stay. It's cheap, it's easy, and it's (usually) anonymous. But remember: "Work there, play there, love there—but if you have sex in cyberspace, be sure to always use a modem."