Sex and the Instant Message

The convenience of computers has changed the way people flirt. And the interactive nature of chat rooms begs the question: Does Internet flirtation count as cheating?

By Chris Jozefowicz, published on November 1, 2003 - last reviewed on October 25, 2007

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.

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.