Myth: People Who Enjoy Cyber Sex Don’t Enjoy ‘Real’

This myth is people who have cybersex have less real life sex. Now, it’s generally believed that people who spend time on the internet engaging in cybersex, which is a subcategory of online sexual behavior (or online sexual activity), are individuals who, for one reason or another, are less active sexually in real life. This may be because it is assumed that they are unable or unwilling to attract real world partners, or are afraid to do so.

Although cybersex appears to be a growing activity on the internet, research is just beginning to be conducted to describe it fully, and the individuals who engage in it. The little that has been done has focused primarily on high risk groups, rather than the general public, or the general kind of person that uses the internet. However, there have been a couple of recent large-scale studies carried out in Europe that shed some interesting light on those who participate in cybersex. And one of the problems we have in the United States is that our government doesn’t want to spend money on sex research unless it’s related to health issues, like HIV or STDs, and so it’s very difficult to do sex research on the healthy public, sex research on healthy sex, or in finding out what people are doing in general, because our government really isn’t interested in that.

Cybersex has been defined as when two or more people engaged in a sexual dialogue while online, for the purposes of sexual pleasure. (And again, our government, at least at this time, is not interested in sexual pleasure.) It may or may not include masturbation. Cybersex is primarily an activity taking place in real time, where the participants are typing messages to each other using some kind of chat program. In other situations, partners may find each other in, or create for themselves, a chat room in cyberspace where they meet and interact.

The sexual content, or cybersex conversations, can include flirting; erotic talking; detailed descriptions of sexual activities; sharing sexual fantasies; exploring behaviors not yet tried in real life; acting out scenarios one has no intention of enacting in real life (offline); acting out scenarios that one has done in real life, and might wish to do again; role-playing – including changing sex, or acting out an age that you have been or will in the future, but is not the age that you are at the time; gender-bending; or practicing coming-out activities – if you are a sexual orientation that you haven’t yet been in real life.

In addition, research has shown that individuals use their time during cybersex as a way to enhance their already existing real-life sexual relationship. So it can be a way of enhancing what you do in real life with your real life partner, and you can share it together. So that sometimes means that it’s not just two people – it may be you and your partner, and another person who is on the internet with you as a couple, or the other person may not know that your partner is there, or you both may have cybersex experiences and you then share what has happened together offline. It’s also a safe way of experimenting with the sexuality of a couple or an individual. Or, it can be a way for those individuals for whom finding a partner is either difficult or impossible, to enjoy an erotic connection. That can be people who have handicaps, or who feel that they are very unattractive, or who have experienced difficulty finding a partner for some reason or another – this is a way that they can experience their sexuality in a safe environment.

Most cybersex interactions involve typing conversations. However, it can also – and does – include the exchange of pictures, short videos, or movies found on the web, to accompany the text-based communications. Typically, individuals find each other on the internet and have not met prior to the beginning of their interactions. But people also have cybersex with people they have met, and then they add that to their relationship. Or perhaps they live far away from one another, and although they do get to meet occasionally, they continue their sexual relations through cybersex. So again, there are lots of ways that cybersex is part of people’s sexual lives. It can be a goal in itself, or it can be a first step on the road to a real life encounter. Individuals may not know what the ultimate outcome of their cybersex interaction will be. So their first conversation may start out as something that will just be a cybersex interaction, and then later on it turns out that they do meet offline. So you don’t know, necessarily, what the final outcome will be, although some people are very sure that all it will be is a one-time – or perhaps an ongoing – cybersex relationship.

The study I want to tell you about today – one of them – included 658 women and 800 men who reported using the internet for online sexual activities (that was a whole group of online sexual activities). 55% were men and 45% were women. Their average age was between 29 and 30. The youngest, however, was 18, and the oldest was 65. And this is true for online sexual activities and for doing cybersex – it’s a very large range, although the majority tends to be younger.

When it came to cybersex, there was no significant difference between men and women, with a little less than one out of three having engaged in cybersex at some time. So of those people who had tried online sexual activities of all different kinds – because there’s many things that you can do online that are sexual – one out of three in this group had tried cybersex; that is, interacting with one or more people in a real-time sexual interaction. For men, activity decreased with age, so the older the subjects were, the fewer of them practiced, or had been involved in, cybersex activity. For women, activity increased slightly with age, except in the oldest group, where there was a significant decrease.

Where do people have online sex, or cybersex? The most popular online locality for cybersex was chat rooms, where 72% of the interactions in this study took place, followed by real time chatting, where 52% of the cybersex took place. Now, if you add those up you’ll see that it adds up to more than 100%, and that’s because some people reported having cybersex both in chat rooms and during real-time chatting (that is, emailing or on chat programs). So that’s why it’s more than 100%. There were no sex differences with regard to the choice of locale – it was the same for men and women. And again, this is telling you that there are sort of equal things going on between men and women.

Of great interest, I think, is the contradiction of most people’s notions about people who engage in cybersex. There’s a lot of prejudice out there in the media, and I think in people’s minds, about cybersex – particularly when it comes to whether or not people who have cybersex are in committed relationships. The good news is, in contradiction to expectations from studies in the past that have focused on high-risk groups, is that there were no relationships found among online to offline dating, cybersex, and sexually transmitted diseases, or online sexual problems. The authors of this study concluded by saying “the results suggest that using the internet to find sex partners may be less hazardous to general internet users than pointed out by prior research about this behavior, often focusing on specific subgroups of internet users.” Now what do they mean by that? Well, what they’re referring to is that most of the previous research that said there were these incredible risks for meeting people on the internet and then dating them offline, relied upon groups that came from such places as STD clinics – so they went to a clinic where people had come because they had gotten an STD from their sexual behaviors, and then they asked them about their cybersex or online sexual activities. Or they were patient groups with pre-existing problems with internet sex, so they were people who had internet sex problems, and then they asked them about their health problems. In other words, they were not general public groups. And this study was looking at people that were from the internet, and then asking them about their cybersex activity and their offline dating activity. And what they found was that they were at no more or less risk than other people in the general public were. So this study was conducted with a convenience sample from the general public of internet users, who were not chosen because of a particular problem. And sure enough, they found that they were not at any more risk.

My advice, as usual, as I end this particular myth a month, is that however you meet somebody – whether it’s in a bar or café, at the library or at school, or through your best friend or a family member, or in cyberspace – get to know them well. That’s the first thing. And get to know them over time – that doesn’t mean a week, doesn’t mean a month – get to know them over time. Meet their friends – you can really get to know who somebody is through who their friends are, and how they treat their friends – because how they treat their friends will probably tell you something about how they’re going to treat you. And meet their family – because how they treat their family will probably give you some clue as to how they’re going to treat you – before you give them your heart.

And if you’re going to have sex with them, whenever that time is – whether it’s a short time after you meet them or a long time after you meet them – especially what I mean by “sex” is penile-vaginal intercourse or penile-anal intercourse – use a condom every time, until you know them very, very well, and you are absolutely convinced – that is, you’d bet your life on it – that they are both STD-free and exclusive with you. It may very well save your life, save your health, and it will certainly save you heartache. And that will make me happy!

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