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In the cyberfling, finding all the thrill, none of the guilt

DAVE SCHEIBER
Published July 28, 2003

Some online chat rooms increasingly are turning into online cheat rooms.

That's the recent finding of University of Florida doctoral student Beatriz Avila Mileham. Last year, for her dissertation, Mileham surveyed married people who, complaining they feel neglected by spouses, secretly seek emotional and sexual gratification with strangers on the Internet.

She witnessed a world of third-rate romance and high-tech rendezvous.

While many of the cyberflings remain anonymous, some lead to affairs offline. And all begin with the click of a mouse.

As one 41-year-old married man told Mileham: "All I have to do is turn on my computer and I have thousands of women to choose from."

Mileham, a native of Brazil who earned her undergraduate degree at the University of Sao Paulo, conducted online interviews with 86 people. Seventy-six identified themselves as men and 10 as women. They represented every state, claiming to be engineers, nurses, corporate leaders, construction workers and stay-at-home moms.

She contacted them in Yahoo's "Married and Flirting" and Microsoft's "Married but Flirting" chat rooms. Among her conclusions:

* Twenty-six percent of respondents wanted more than cybersex; they wound up meeting the person with whom they had formed a Web relationship. All but two of those cases resulted in actual affairs.

* A 66-year-old man claimed to have had 13 affairs through online chats.

* Eighty-three percent did not feel that online romance meant they were cheating on their spouses; the rest viewed it as minor, justifiable infidelity.

* All but two respondents hid their Internet activity from their spouses.

Mileham, 36, has apparently touched a nerve with her study, which underscores the concerns of couples counselors that chat rooms are a major cause of broken relationships. Since the survey was announced July 17, she has been deluged with requests for radio, TV and newspaper interviews.

"I've probably done about 30 interviews in the first five days alone," she says from her home in California. "I've gotten calls from Australia and Canada. Even the BBC called me for a TV documentary."

She spoke with the St. Petersburg Times last week.

Times: What gave you the idea to do this?

Mileham: At first, I wasn't sure what to do. I was thinking of doing something with the psychology of homeless children in Brazil. But I'd have to spend so much money on travel, a hotel, food. Then one day, I was on a Web site in Brazil, and I saw there were chat rooms, and I thought, what is this? Can you talk with people here? So I went in the chat room and it was really weird. I quickly realized it was becoming very sexualized, very soon. Too soon.

People asking what do you look like? What is your age, your sex, are you married? I thought, maybe it's just this chat room. So I went to another one and started exploring. Then another and another, and the same thing was happening. So I said, this is it. I can do this for my dissertation.

I was afraid that (my professors) weren't going to accept it because I wanted to conduct it inside the chat rooms, all online. What if people lie? That's always been an issue. I cannot guarantee 100 percent that people were not lying. But I can also say that I spent the time necessary to get to know people. I felt that they were being honest. And I also talked for an hour, sometimes two. And I think people felt protected by the anonymity of the Internet. So people revealed things very candidly. I do think they were being honest.

Times: Are you surprised by the reaction to the survey so far?

Mileham: Definitely. It's a good study. It's kind of small scale, but the response has been overwhelming. I really didn't expect anything. I was thinking maybe the Gainesville Sun might possibly pick it up. But it's been all over the world. When I had the idea, I thought, this is a hot topic. There hasn't been much research. But I didn't know it was this hot.

Times: What's the definition of cybersex?

Mileham: The profession, psychology and counseling, doesn't have an official definition of cybersex. I saw one definition that says it can be just sexy chat, with sexual innuendoes, and no touching of yourself or anything. Other research says that cybersex is masturbation while you exchange sexual content on a computer. And I use the second definition.

Times: Just as you couldn't be sure if people were being truthful, how do those chatting know if the person they're having a cyberfling with is being truthful about their background, even their sex?

Mileham: There's no guarantee. There's no way you can know, even though some people put their picture on their profiles. And I think some people don't care, actually. Because you have a whole range. Some people are there for just a sex fix for the day, as they call it. Hop online, get someone, have cybersex and then, goodbye, I'll never see you again or talk to you again. They're just having some fantasy. They imagine someone attractive, and that's it for them. But some people do have more emotional contact, a deeper connection. And they sometimes have regular contact. I found that to be true for a lot of people.

Times: It sounds as if anonymity is the key.

Mileham: Absolutely. Anonymity is the No. 1 motivator. It's very safe. And not only that, there is no touching (of another person). So I would say the anonymity coupled with the no-touching aspect. You're just a screen name. You're only exposed if you want to be. You control the interaction. And when you're done with it, click the mouse, goodbye. It's out of your life. People can brush it off much more easily than they might if they had met somebody face to face and liked them.

Times: Why did many more men respond?

Mileham: Women rejected me left and right, and I was curious why. And I still don't know why. But I asked some males in the chat room. They said women are bombarded with messages from males, and they can pick and choose, and they wouldn't choose to talk to a female researcher if they could choose some hot guy. And I do believe there are some hidden dynamics going on: the men talking with me, knowing that I'm female, even though they don't know what I look like. Sure, they did ask what I look like. But, of course, I didn't go into that. Maybe they thought, "Well, maybe it's a sexy female researcher" or something like that.

Times: What about the offline activity?

Mileham: I found that 30 percent of the people (in my study) go ahead and have offline affairs with people they met online, so the vast majority stayed online.

Times: What were the reasons men gave for doing this?

Mileham: Several reasons. The main one was lack of sex in their marriage. They complained that their wives were too involved in bringing up their children, and were always tired, so they neglected the sexual side of the relationship. Many men said, "I love my wife," so the connection is there. But they'd say, "I need something more. And so I go online and get it."

Times: Did they rationalize it as being okay?

Mileham: The rationalization is that, "I am not touching anybody, therefore this is okay." Eighty-three percent of the people truly don't believe that this is infidelity at all. They'd say, "How can I be cheating if I'm talking with a person 2,000 miles away?" The other 17 percent are worried about morality: "Technically speaking, sure this is infidelity, but it's a weak form." They would try to qualify it.

Mostly, people describe it as not real. It's just something you can click out, and it's gone. In my dissertation, however, I talked about medical and physics research that says that the mind and body are one. Are you not sharing your body (in cybersex)? I'm not sure. You have physical responses to what you're typing. With cybersex, people reach orgasm, but even if you don't go that far, you have emotions going on. You have the thrill of meeting a stranger. So in that sense, it is real. And the descriptions they give for it are real.

Times: What were reasons given by women?

Mileham: One woman said, "Well, my husband's busy." With another woman, her husband accepts she does this, because she said, "I talk with guys, I get sexually excited, and so when I make love to my husband, it's very good." So in this sense, it was helping her marriage. I'm not saying it's all bad. It can help. But it needs to be consensual. Both people need to know what's going on.

Times: What about the spouses who find out?

Mileham: I've been told that one-third of divorce litigation is due to online affairs. So this can be very, very serious if ever found out. And if it's not found out, it's detrimental because you're lying.

Times: Most participants hid their chatting?

Mileham: Oh yes. I only found two people where the spouse knew. One was the husband who was okay with it, because he was getting "benefits" from it. And the other was a woman who knew the spouse chatted and was very uncomfortable with it, but he didn't care.

Times: Is there a message in your study?

Mileham: I've really come to believe that young couples and even long-term committed couples, if they have a connection to the Internet, should discuss what the role the Internet plays in their life. Because definitions of cheating may be different from one person to another. So you have to be open to talk about it to prevent this. The consequences can be very serious. This is unprecedented. Never before have you been able to be married and on the dating scene so easily; all you need is a computer, and a connection to the Internet.

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