continued "So what do I think of cybersexual affairs? Are they dangerous? Yes. They are real emotional affairs, although it took one risking my marriage to realize this was no game I was in. This could hurt people. So I stopped my two-year on-line relationship with my e-lover, and it felt like someone died, but I couldn't even show my pain to my family or friends because it was so secret.... I can still say I've only slept with one man. But I have certainly been made love to by others. Is it bad? Heck, no. I would have maybe had a physical affair without it. Is it good? It's another chance to learn about oneself in relationships with others. But a deceptive one because it is not as safe as it appears."
MALE: "I had a monogamous married relationship for almost 25 years when I subscribed to a computer service provider and discovered the Gay and Lesbian Community Forum and also the various gay and lesbian chat rooms. One thing led to another, exchanging male homoerotic gifs [graphic interface files], meeting, having sex with other men at a local motel. So far I've not fallen in love with any man. I am, however, worried that my wife will find out and that our marriage will be jeopardized."
FEMALE: "What exactly is it they are trying to accomplish [online]?... I think such games are somewhat dangerous because both the real rewards and the real consequences of a behavior are avoided.... To truly learn, grow, and live, isn't it required that some part of our 'real' self be involved?"
MALE: "There's no touching [on-line] to convey love...no kissing to convey emotion...no hugging to show one really cares.... I personally look to e-mail relationships for discussions of various subjects on an equal level with mine that my real-life partner is incapable of -- in intellect or interest. That is not to say that sexual innuendo or teasing or even discussions or stories or poetry hasn't happened more than once. ;+) [The 'emoticon' for a wink.]"
FEMALE: "This is a serious threat to marriages. It has affected mine tremendously. I had no idea what I was getting into and had no idea of the damage, especially since I never even had a desire to look at another person during my marriage of 18 years. It's addictive. I neglected my family. My husband wants to hear nothing about the good of Internet. All is bad to him. It's affected his sleep. But I have stopped "chatting." Matter of fact, you are the first e-mail I have done since November '95, and it is without my husband's consent or knowledge [that] I write. It's just so important to get out the word of the damage that can be done. I would like to see more...on this subject of 'emotional adultery,' as I've heard it's called."
* * *
But cybersex has a future. Maheu says that future -- as outlined by Michael Dertouzos, director of the MIT laboratory for computer science, in his book What Will Be -- is awesome and not a little scary.
"Dertouzos talks about body suits people will be able to purchase," Maheu says. "What if you have a live person up there [in some Internet-connected studio] who also has a body suit on, and for every gyration of their pelvis, you can feel something in your body suit? What if now we make this person your favorite rock star? And what if a million people can watch this fellow at the same time, all wearing Net-connected bodysuits? All over the world they could plug into this experience, for money -- you see where this is going?
"What will that do to our concepts of sexuality, of fidelity, and just relating in a healthy, real way? What does that do to the next time you make love to your partner? You've just made love with Elvis. This is not just conjecture. This instrumentation exists today. We need to be prepared for it."
The other problem is that the Internet is infiltrating societies across the world with vastly different takes on the nature of relationships. "Let's say I offer psychotherapy via e-mail to a woman in India who's being battered by her husband; if I tell her to go ahead and leave him, and then she gets doused with gasoline and set on fire, what responsibility do I have in that, because I did not understand her cultural context when I'm giving her advice? It's that kind of thing that as a profession we need to look at: what is the extent of our expertise? -- and the reader's understanding of what we're telling them."
Yet Maheu sees good in Cyberlove too.
"I remember reading one e-mail by a teenage girl who said she prefers to meet boys online because they're forced to talk to her. She can get to know them, and know how they feel about things, and what they value, and then she can make a better choice about who she wants to see face-to-face. And she doesn't have to worry about groping or the goodnight kiss."