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February 13, 2004

Stupid Cupid! Karen Gold searches for the e-spot

From: Gold, Karen

To: Ben-Ze'ev, Aaron - psychologist, philosopher and author of Love Online: Emotions on the Internet

Subject: Does cybersex count as cheating on your partner, or is it just an adolescent game sustained by chocolate pixels?

KG: If we were doing this interview face to face, you'd know if I was a 50-year-old man pretending to be a 22-year-old lesbian. We're not, and so you don't. Does that make it impossible for either of us to believe anything the other is saying?

AB: One paradoxical feature of online romantic relationships is that they encourage deception and sincerity. The anonymity of cyberspace and the voluntary nature of online self-presentation allow people to present themselves inaccurately. In one survey, 48 per cent of users said they changed their age "occasionally" and 23 per cent did so "often".

Furthermore, 38 per cent changed their race online, and 5 per cent admitted to changing their sex occasionally.

But online relationships also encourage many people to present a more accurate picture of their true self. People can express themselves more freely because they are more anonymous and hence less vulnerable. Many people present themselves honestly online. This is especially true if the relationship grows.

KG: Are the emotions people feel in online relationships the same as the ones they experience face to face? Is the experience of cybersex comparable to real sex?

AB: The emotions are similar, but the role of imagination online is greater. Many people testify that their online sexual experience has been the most intense and wild sex they have ever had. One 32-year-old woman, married for the second time, claims: "The sexual release from cybering has been a great experience and the arousal factor is just magnificent."

Emotions in online relationships incorporate more intellectual elements.

The weight of conversation is far greater in online relationships than in offline relationships.

A woman who has participated in cybersex writes: "The best sex, obviously, is with someone literate enough to 'paint a picture' describing activities or thoughts. I suppose that in face-to-face activities, someone stupid could still be extraordinarily sexy. But stupid doesn't work online, at least not for me."

KG: What kind of person seeks love online? What kind of person finds it?

AB: All kinds. Online relationships increase your chances of finding a more suitable and exciting partner because it's easier to identify willing people and cheaper and less risky to conduct the relationship. The computer's ability to sort people by characteristics is much greater than in offline circumstances, so it's easier to find people with attributes you like.

For example, an obese woman who feels insecure approaching new people face to face because of her weight may interact online with people who share her interests. When she reveals that she is overweight, some people may not want to continue the correspondence. But others may find her physical size irrelevant or her other characteristics very attractive.

For such people, who have to break a lot of eggs to make an omelette, cyberspace provides many eggs. Millions of people eagerly wait for you on the net every moment of the day.KG: You say cyber relationships last a few months on average. Is there a pattern to them?

AB: There are many types of online relationships. It's hard to find a pattern, but I distinguish three major types:

* relationships intended to find an offline sexual or romantic partner

* cyberflirting and cybersex

* profound online-only romantic relationships.

KG: Do women have an advantage in online relationships? They're generally better communicators than men, and you say in your book that they feel less inhibited - raunchy even - online than in person. They're not being judged on how they look, though that might be an advantage for some men, too. What difference does all this make?

AB: Online relationships are advantageous for all people whose communicative and intellectual abilities are better than their looks.

Because external appearance generally has more weight in men's judgement of women than in women's judgement of men, it does benefit women. It lets people get to know each other without the heavy burden of the attractiveness stereotype.

Thus, someone writes about his online girlfriend: "She is not even my type when it comes to physical attraction, but she is now the most beautiful girl I have ever met and will ever meet." The reduced concern about external appearance allows women to enjoy sex more and to be much freer in this respect. As one woman said: "It was great not having to worry about being unattractive."

KG: The way you describe online affairs - more soul-searching, more intense, more fleeting, easy to switch off, easy to replace - makes them sound... well... rather adolescent. Aren't the people engaging in them just avoiding grown-up relationships?

AB: Online interactions might be considered a kind of virtual laboratory in which people can explore each other and experiment. In this sense, they are similar to the games that children play that allow them to develop, in a relatively safe and benign way, social skills for adult life. Indeed, cyberspace has been characterised as an amazing sex toy.

There's nothing wrong with playing the way children do as long as we know the boundaries between the game and reality. In cyberspace, such boundaries are often blurred.

KG: Isn't it dangerous when they are? Fantasy can be addictive. If people confuse fantasy with reality - if they talk about being more profoundly satisfied by virtual sex and virtual relationships than by real sex and real relationships - aren't they losing touch with reality? And where does this leave their real-life partners and spouses?

AB: You're absolutely right. There is such danger. The great seductiveness of cyberspace and the ease of becoming involved in online affairs bring risks. People are easily carried away.

Moreover, cyberspace doesn't merely satisfy needs, it creates new needs that often cannot be met. Thus, the apparent ease of finding true and everlasting love in cyberspace creates the need to have such "perfect" love. Of course, that is far from simple to achieve. Online affairs are like a new toy with which the human race has not yet learnt how to play. People may confuse the toy with reality and ruin their life.

Cybering is similar, in some senses, to taking drugs. Both provide easy access to pleasure that is often based on virtual realities. Whereas drugs artificially stimulate pleasure centres in the brain, online conversations artificially stimulate pleasure centres in the mind. The price can be high for our overall performance and for those close to us in our offline lives.

KG: How widespread do you think cyber relationships will become? Have you ever had one? Will all this be contractualised some day: in marriage perhaps we'll promise to forsake all others, online as well as off?

AB: I know many people who have had online relationships. I haven't. The internet has changed the romantic domain, and this process will accelerate.

It will modify social forms such as marriage and cohabitation, and romantic practices relating to courtship, casual sex, committed romantic relationships and romantic exclusivity.

I think we can expect more relaxation of social and moral norms concerning romantic exclusivity. It will be difficult to avoid the vast amount of tempting alternatives entirely. The notion of "betrayal" will become less common. But I think the values placed on stability and stronger commitment will increase as well.

By the way, are you a 50-year-old man or an attractive 42-year-old woman, as it seems from your questions?

Aaron Ben-Ze'ev is a psychologist, philosopher and rector of the University of Haifa. Love Online: Emotions on the Internet is published by Cambridge University Press on February 14, £18.95.

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