Cybersex: Crossing the Line On-line

By Dr. Dave Greenfield, The Center for Internet and Technology Addiction


A major phenomenon that has occurred on the Internet is the occurrence of on-line affairs. I have treated and interviewed numerous individuals who have had on-line and real-time sex outside of their marriage or primary relationship that in all cases started as simple cyberflirting. Often they report tremendous excitement in their cybersexual encounters, which typically lead to repeating them. Many people question whether an on-line affair is cheating?” The answer to this question is somewhat complex; however I believe I’m able to distill it down to a very simple formula: Any time you spend a significant amount of intimate time with another person outside your primary relationship, you may be breaching intimacy rules in your relationship. A self-test might involve asking yourself if your spouse would be upset about your spending three to six hours a night on the telephone or computer talking to somebody using with sexually suggestive language? If the answer were yes, then they probably would have the same discomfort with your use of the Internet in the same manner. It’s not the medium of communication that’s relevant here; it’s the effect that such a detour from your primary relationship can have. If your spending many hours of a day or night having cybersex, or flirting, you cannot be engaging in those same behaviors within your primary relationship. There are undoubtedly many people who are not addicted and who occasionally flirt while on-line (about 22% of regular users report cyberflirting); it seems likely that there is probably little harm in this, provided it does not interfere with your marriage or relationship. This probably most analogous to flirting at work (barring any sexual harassment issues) and is a natural part of human interaction. However, one should always be mindful of the possible misinterpretation that flirting can have. This is especially true on-line as you are missing some of the more typical social cues that reinforce social boundaries.

Many individuals have stated that cybersex and on-line flirting is always harmful. Whether or not this is true, there are clearly some unique factors that make cyberflirting different than real-time flirting and therefore are worth noting. In normal human flirtation, there is typically an implicit, and sometimes explicit, implied boundary. The boundary states that this flirtatious behavior is pleasant but that it has a clear limit. There is an implicit distinction made that we may engage in casual flirtatious language, share a glance, make a sexual joke, or tease each other in a provocative manner, but that this is as far as it will go. Most of these cues are a complex combination of verbal and non-verbal communications, however many of which are not available on the Internet. Innuendo, exclamation, verbal punctuation, facial gestures, intonation are all absent on the Net. Combine these factors with the ease of availability, anonymity and the disinhibition that occurs on the net, and you have fertile ground for an intensely flirtatious experience without the boundaries found in real-time interaction. All this occurs outside of the normal social cues that promote reasonable boundaries. People easily become carried away very quickly. There have been numerous cases of which I am aware in which people started out on the Net only for the purposes of engaging in casual conversation, which ended up being highly sexual in nature, even without intending to. In addition, because of the accelerated intimacy that they experience they became more involved, more rapidly, then they intended. In some cases they may be experiencing levels of intimacy and self-disclosure that is unparalleled in their real-life relationships! Needless to say, this can be highly problematic to your marriage or relationship. Because of accelerated intimacy and disinhibition people will share information with their Net-mate that they would not ordinarily share in their real-time relationship and can represent a potential significant threat to any primary relationship or marriage. The ease of conversation, combined with the sexual themes that often appear in Internet communication, offer serious competition to sometimes-mundane real-life. After all how can everyday life compete with the intense, uninhibited excitement of relationships on-line? There is no way to compare the two types of relationships, a fair comparison could only be achieved by discontinuing the on-line relationship, if that relationship has becomes a significant one. After this occurred then perhaps a more equitable comparison could be made which is no different than what occurs in actual affairs when addressing the issues of the marriage versus the affair. To some extent however, you will always be comparing a fantasy to real life, which is tough comparison.

In some cases I have used marital counseling to assist couples in dealing with the negative effects of the Internet. More frequently however, I work with the couple to address the aspects that they are missing in their relationship that may be the probable cause for the on-line affair to begin with. It is difficult to directly address the impact that cybersex may have on a relationship as the effects can be insidious, and perhaps even harder to address due to the elusive nature of on-line relationships. However, it does seems clear that anytime you consistently remove physical or emotional energy from a marriage there has to be a negative effect. How and where that energy is transferred is less relevant, be it work, sports, or the Internet. What does seem to be critical is the fact that intimacy cannot be divided effectively between real-time living and the Internet.

The time that a spouse may spend on the Net may not be recognized as a problem for the Nethead. They may view the time they spend (or relationships they develop) as very significant, but separate. (This is often the rationale I hear when a problem arises) So significant, are the cyber-relationships, that they may feel more real to the Nethead than real-time contact. There is a tendency among spouses not using the Net to dismiss cyber-relationships as less real because they are not personal, and therefore less threatening. This may be a potential mistake, for many of these relationships prove to be quite significant in a Netheads life, and thirty one percent of the time cyber-relationships become real-time sexual one’s! This is more likely for Internet addicts and heavy Internet users, but even for more moderate users this occurs fourteen percent of the time!

In any case the power of the Internet and human sexuality should not be taken lightly. Although Nethead are involved in other areas of the Internet, there is clearly a significant sexual component for Internet addicts as evidenced by very high percentages of chat room, email, viewing pornography, and having both on-line and real-time affairs! There is significant and great potential in this new communications medium but this power needs to be recognized and understood before we can dismiss it as harmless. Because this newest mode of interaction is here to stay, we need to recognize it for the wonderful but complex form of human communication it is.

This story is excerpted from Dr. Greenfield’s book: Virtual Addiction: Help for Netheads, Cyberfreaks, and Those Who Love Them. Copyright ©1999 Dr. Dave N. Greenfield.