Sex and the Instant Message

Geri posts a note at least once a day to the chat group. "Popping in to say hi," the 52-year-old married grandmother recently typed in cheery all-caps, "Hugs and kisses." Psychotony777 seemed equally cheerful, but was writing for different reasons. "Looking for ‘safe' erotic fun," the self-described "always horny, but always tasteful" married 37-year-old wrote.

So goes a typical morning on Yahoo!'s Married_Flirting e-mail group, just one of the scores of Web resources set up expressly to help everyone from the very lonely to the very amorous make passes at people who aren't their spouses.

Beatriz Avila Mileham, who studied online infidelity at the University of Florida, thinks the convenience of computers has changed the way people cheat. The interactive nature of chat rooms makes participation more serious than simple escapist fantasy, Mileham says. She conducted a qualitative study over the course of one year, recruiting subjects from chat rooms such as Yahoo!'s and Microsoft's Married but Flirting. In all, 76 men and 10 women participated.

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Initial online flirtation doesn't count as cheating, the subjects told Mileham. More than 80 percent felt it was just "talking with a computer." But online dalliances have a tendency to escalate, Mileham found: 30 percent of those she spoke with—26 people—went on to a face-to-face meeting with someone they met online. And all but two ended up having an old-fashioned affair.

Despite the aggressive, sex-drenched atmosphere of these chat rooms—Mileham herself had to deal with persistent suitors—it remains unclear if online flirtation is leading more people to cheat. Jennifer P. Schneider, a Tucson, Arizona, doctor specializing in addiction medicine and co-author of Cybersex Exposed: Simple Fantasy or Obsession?, said there have been no studies to demonstrate that chat-room use leads to more affairs.

Schneider did warn, however, that the Web can normalize taboo behaviors. "On the Internet you can find a group of like-minded people who are attracted to anything," she said.

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