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Anonymity fuels the paradoxical growth of cybersex

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VICTORIA -- A cybersex revolution is upon us. The recent, but thoroughly popular phenomenon is sweeping across college and university campuses, according to research at the University of New Brunswick.

Online sexual communication has increased vastly, and the prevalence of the behaviour among students is linked to their tenacious attachment to computers.

According to UNB researcher Krystelle Shaughnessy, more than 70 per cent of students engage in cybersex activities, about three times more than five years ago.

"The Internet is increasingly used as an outlet for sexual activity," confirmed researchers Delores Rimington and Julie Gast in the American Journal of Health Education. "College students appear to be at particular risk for developing cybersex-compulsive behaviour... but adolescents are also engaging in cybersex."

"Cybersex must be seen as a new form of social and human interaction," explained researcher Pramod Nahor. "Cyberaffairs and cybersex are examples of online role-playing for the purpose of sexual gratification."

According to researcher Peter Wardle, digital life cannot be as satisfying as real life. Nonetheless, cybersex is fast catching on.

"It alters the nature of interactions with the complete absence of face-to-face meetings and ensuing (complications)... such as disease, pregnancy and responsibility," Nahor explained. "Anonymity in chat rooms and online communications serves as a 'disinhibitor' and augments sexually explicit behaviour."

That augmentation generates what Nahor calls "accelerated intimacy".

"The accessibility, affordability and anonymity of the Internet make it highly appealing to users," Rimington and Gast reported. "But, this poses a threat to relationships."

That threat derives from a lack of face-to-face contact. Researchers have concluded that up to 90 per cent of bonding interpersonal communication is based on visual cues that cannot be transmitted by means of a computer screen.

That is one of the reasons why opponents are critical of cybersex.

"They argue cybersex is wrong, that it is anonymous, superficial, artificial and unnatural," Wardle confirmed. "These are the very characteristics that add to its appeal."

According to Shaughnessy, cybersex is "safer" than other sexual activities because "there is no risk of pregnancy (or disease), decreased risk of harassment, assault or rejection. If things do go wrong, you just shut off your computer."

Critics claim cybersex is unreal and distancing. It makes in-person relationships almost irrelevant, which fits in nicely with recent research indicating an increasing number of college and university students want their own space rather than being socially and otherwise tied to partners.

But there is a risk in "transforming sex into game-playing," Nahor warned. "That translocates sexual activity to the realm of game-worlds."

A 2002 study in Sweden concluded 35 per cent of men and 40 per cent of women who initially met online later became offline sex partners.

"Recent years have seen the development and increasing use of online... relationship formation," confirmed Martin Graff at the University of Glamorgan. "This has made relationship infidelity more likely."

According to Graff, before the days of cybersex, 60 per cent of men and 40 per cent of women tried to pursue and snatch another person's partner, and 60 per cent of the men and 50 per cent of the women who tried were successful. With cybersex available, he suspects those figures will increase.

Robert Alison is a zoologist

based in Victoria, B.C.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 23, 2011 A15

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