If you only use your computer to type term papers, e-mail friends and family, and buy cheap airline tickets, you may not be aware of the biggest development in "getting off" since the rise of phone sex way back in the 1980s.
According to a study published in the American Medical News (a publication of the American Medical Asociation), more than 20 percent of the 60 million people on the web engage in sexually explicit chat or visit pornographic sites -- that's at least 1,200,000 people. Cybersex is defined as the erotic exchange of fantasies for the sole purpose of arousal. It takes place in chat rooms, via e-mail, and via Instant Messaging services.
"Cybersex is not a fad. It's here to stay. The Internet relationship phenomenon has exploded, and it's going to continue to grow, as millions of additional people log onto the Internet," says Michael Adamse, Ph.D., co-author of Affairs of the Net: The Cybershrink's Guide to Online Relationships (Health Communications, Inc. 1996).
A Safer Alternative? Why look for love, or sex, online? For one thing, it's a relatively low-risk alternative to real world relationships. "People are cautious and paranoid today, with the growing occurrence of stalkers, AIDS, and other sexually transmitted diseases. The Internet is a safe outlet for many people," says Adamse.
Like certain types of real life sex, Internet sex is fast, cheap, and anonymous. The Internet offers immediate gratification and complete anonymity, so you can be whoever you want to be, without feeling self-conscious. It's cheaper than hiring a prostitute or going to a strip club. There are no physical barriers, no insecurities about physical appearance, and the action moves quickly from first I.M. to the chat room version of heavy petting and more.
Is Cybersex Cheating? Interested in getting busy online? One caveat: it's not always a good idea for those who are already in a real life relationship. Cybersex relationships have the potential to ruin "real time" ones. Some partners don't mind. They may even feel it enhances your relationship, but others do object. Make sure you and your real life significant other are on the same page about whether or not cybersex with others constitutes a breach of fidelity before you start an online relationship.
Cyber-relationships can and often do develop into something else. Many people explore a cybersexual relationship because something is missing in their own relationship, says Adamse. There are also ways to use the Net to enhance your sex life with your real life partner, such as by sending steamy instant messages to each other throughout the day.
"Whatever you do, don't jump in blindly. You're not just interacting with your computer-those are real people with real feelings out there," says Adamse.
If you do decide to get frisky online, here's what you need to know to stay safe:
Pay close attention to the content of the messages you're receiving. You can usually determine your correspondent's age by his or her writing and language. Most importantly, make sure your correspondent is an adult.
Stay on the same wavelength as your fellow cyberflirt. If you're being playful and casual, make sure the other person is, too. If you're just looking for an Internet quickie, you probably shouldn't get involved with someone who's looking for true love.
The Golden Rule applies online, just as it does in real life: treat others with respect. Don't be abusive, and watch your language.
Even though the Net offers anonymity, it pays to be cautious. Don't give out your personal information too quickly. Never give out a home phone number right away.
The same anonymity and freedom to be creative that makes cybersex so appealing can also foster predatory and unsafe practices online. While sex in cyberspace can't spread disease or lead to unwanted pregnancy, arranging for real sex through the web can be risky business. A recent syphilis outbreak in San Francisco, for example, was traced back to a singe Internet chat room in which people set up real life sexual encounters. The lesson: safe sex is as important in cyberspace as it is in the real world.