Paper presented at the 3rd Annual Qualitative Methods Conference: "Touch me I'm sick"
8 & 9 September 1997, University of South Africa Regional Office, Durban

Cybersex: No mess, No Fuss? The search for the virtual orgasm
Andrew Thatcher & Andee Feldman

Psychology Department, University of the Witwatersrand

[email protected]

Our world is shrinking. One hundred years ago it would take a person months to travel from England to the shores of South Africa, now it takes about ten hours. Our "bodies" are expanding. Twenty years ago we actually needed to be in the same room to have "sex", now we can be on opposite sides of the world. The Internet, the World-Wide Web (WWW) and Internet Relay Chat (IRC) in particular, is changing the way we interact with one another, at a fraction of the cost. This paper investigates how the Internet is altering our perception of that most intimate of physical acts, "SEX". Responses to questions related to respondents' perceptions about their online sexual experiences were obtained from 23 email respondents with different cultural backgrounds and sexual orientations. The questions probed respondents about their reasons for indulging in, or their abstinence from, such electronic activities, their preferences for physical and emotional contact and support, and the advantages and disadvantages of cybersex. The implications for future social interactions are discussed.


The Internet

Floridi (1995) defines the Internet as the "international system of digital communication, emerging from the agglomerate of thousands of networks that interact through a number of common protocols all over the world" (p.263). In recent years there has been a rapid expansion in the number of people accessing the Internet, with rough estimates putting the number at anywhere between 30 and 50 million users world-wide, and that estimate for the World-Wide Web (WWW) alone (Kehoe & Pitkow, 1997).

The Internet was originally conceived as ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) in 1969, as a computer network that would be independent of normal communication systems, as well as of its individual components (Goldstuck, 1995), that would allow groups of collaborators in remote sites to share ideas on research issues (Berners-Lee et al, 1994). Each component would be connected to every other component, not through one connection, but through numerous alternative routes. Since 1969 the Internet has expanded into a global network with USENET (consisting mainly of bulletin boards with news groups and discussion forums) and the WWW being the most widely used (and most recognisably known) part of the Internet. The Internet itself consists of the WWW, bulletin boards, Internet Relay Chat (IRC), email (although this is generally not seen as something separate), and gophers and file transfer protocols (FTP) (the predecessors of the WWW).

South Africans have not been left behind (this time) in the quest for the globalisation of knowledge. Currently South Africa is one of the top twenty users and providers, by country, of the WWW (Network Wizards, 1997), and our influence and presence is expected to increase in the near future (Reeves, 1997). South Africa's previous isolation has probably meant that South Africans have embraced this opportunity for international socialisation with open arms. Where does this leave South Africans in terms of relationships with people from around the globe?

The Development of Cybersex

In the 1970's we had Single's Bars, in the 1980's we had Dating Agencies, and in the 1990's we now have Cybersex. Cybersex is the new way of meeting and dating someone. This is not to say that the traditional face-to-face encounters still do not predominate, but rather that people are utilising a relatively new technology to meet, date, and mate with new people. This medium allows users to interact with people they have never met, seen or heard before. Cybersex thus provides users with unprecedented anonymity and distance which goes hand-in-hand with an increased feeling of safety and security. This has many advantages such as not having to worry about your physical appearance, not having to "dress up", and most importantly an ability to log off when feeling bored, threatened or tired.

It is important to draw the distinction between cybersex and cyber-romance. This is not an easy distinction to draw as in many instances the two concepts overlap. The difficulty in drawing a distinction is reflected in the lack of consensus (on-line) about what various terms actually mean. Cyber-romance includes cyber-flirting, cyber-foreplay, and general "getting to know" your cyber-partner. Cybersex in its strictest sense is concerned with physical sexual interactions (or descriptions thereof) in a virtual sphere. In many instances of cybersex partners make no attempt to identify with one another, discuss common interests, or even exchange names. While in other scenarios flirting and foreplay can extend for many months before any sexual endeavours are attempted. In yet other instances of cyber-romance partners do not engage in sexual contact at all.

There is much complaint from women that men are not as interested in cyber-romance as they are in cybersex. This phenomenon is easily proved. All you need to do is enter a chat room with a female persona, and wait. Within seconds greetings flash on your screen. Before you have had a chance to exchange ages, star signs and common interests, you are invited to a "private chat room". Here you are able to interact privately with individual users as opposed to remaining in the general chat room. There is no courting, no flirting. Graphic, physical descriptions appear straightaway, and if you show any disinterest, you are unceremoniously dumped. The overriding attitude seems to be one of shameless hedonism in the form of sex. If you don't want to play, you are wasting the time and effort of other "serious" users.

What is Cybersex?

For the purpose of our survey we defined cybersex as :

"written sexual interactions, with a stranger, where sexual acts are described and participants engage in fantasy physical encounters. This can range from kissing, fondling, or touching to licking, sucking, fornication or more. This does not include spoken or physical encounters or sexually explicit pictures."

This specific interpretation we have termed carnal cybersex (in the virtual realm). Cybersex is in no way limited to the abovementioned activity and many other forms of interaction exist. The main categories of cybersex are described below.

Firstly there is Cybersex in Chat rooms. The Internet Relay Chat (IRC) allows computer mediated communication with other users in real time. IRC users communicate through the exchange of sentences (although this also consists of new language conventions and emoticons - smiles, frowns, winks, etc.) typed into the computer which appear simultaneously (or maybe after a short time delay) on another user's computer screen. Hamman (1996a) distinguishes between two forms of cybersex in chat rooms; computer mediated telling of interactive sexual stories (in real time) with the intent of arousal, and computer mediated interactive masturbation (also in real time). While these two forms describe the intimate sexual nature of many cybersex interactions, they do not include cyber-flirting, cyber-foreplay or cyber-romance.

Then, we have Online Pornography. Although pornography itself is nothing new, its present availability and accessibility is unprecedented. With a good modem and reliable service provider, you can now see anything from nude pinups to hardcore porn clips, in the comfort of your own home. Gone are the days when you had to sneak a well-thumbed copy of Playboy into the loo. You can now sit at a computer terminal and even gain the respect of family and co-workers as a hardworking, committed individual, as you sit late into the day or night staring intently at your monitor. The advent of Microsoft Windows allows you to switch from "Lesbian Love in Lisbon" to company financial statements on an Excel spreadsheet at the touch of a button (click of the mouse).

A keyword search using the word "cybersex" on the major search engines reveals literally thousands of sites (4307 Infoseek sites, 13880 Altavista sites, 11894 Excite sites, 2840 Lycos sites and 26 Yahoo sites, on the 22 August 1997 - these numbers are likely to increase daily). The vast majority of these sites refer the searcher to online electronic pornography resources where one is able to find pictures, video footage, online telephone chat lines and home shopping. While many of these resources are only available to those people who subscribe to the particular services, many of the sites offer free previews and the chance to win free subscriptions.

Electronic Pornography is a form of cybersex similar to Chat room cybersex except that instead of exchanging written communications, people in the chat room exchange graphics files (Hamman, 1996b). The pictures are usually sent by email to whoever enters a particular chat room. Obviously this only qualifies as cybersex if the pictures are of a sexually explicit nature.

Email cybersex consists of trading sexually explicit stories by email. This is roughly the equivalent of exchanging sexually explicit letters through the conventional postage system, except that this method of communication allows the sender to deliver the letter to a recipient in a matter of seconds instead of days (or in some cases weeks). If two email correspondents are online simultaneously, it is possible to exchange email's in a similar way to the chat room scenario.

Rafferty (1996) describes new software, Software-based Cybersex, available in Japan, where users create their own virtual girlfriend. The software appears to be increasing in popularity as Japanese men become able to program their cyber-lovers to assume "traditional" (patriarchal) roles. Users of this technology either select a virtual partner from a range of pre-designed "partners", or design their "partners" from scratch (choosing shape, size, eye colour, personality, interests, etc.). Users then interact with these virtual partners according to their design specifications. Hamman (1996b) suggests that Japanese men are in fact looking for the experience of being loved by a woman, and not a virtual alternative. How they will use this experience to their advantage in later "real" relationships is questionable, considering the fact that they are building up preconceptions (and misconceptions) of their ideal women.

Virtual Reality Cybersex is also becoming more easily available. The current scope of this technology allows users to interact sexually in a virtual world with the use of high-tech goggles and movement sensitive body suites. Cybersex in virtual reality presents less of a threat to the development and maintenance of "real" relationships. It is highly unlikely that this form of sexual interaction will ever replace the "real thing", however, there are certain aspects which are certainly appealing. Imagine never having to suggest condoms. Never having to worry about AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. Never having to sleep in the wet spot. And most importantly, never being confronted with the spit or swallow dilemma!

Finally there are Multiple User Domains (MUDs). While this form of cybersex is not significantly different from chat rooms it does warrant a separate explanation. MUDs are virtual places where characters (users), objects, rooms and actions are all graphically represented. Users are required to select a character (or in some cases create a character) and enter graphic rooms where other users are present. Users manipulate their characters through typed commands, and to a limited degree keystrokes and mouse movements.

Carnal cybersex as defined above specifically excludes online pornography and electronic pornography. While these activities still fall within the realm of cybersex, the amount of social interaction with other users is limited (or non-existent). Since we were interested in looking at the impact of online social encounters, these forms of cybersex were deliberately excluded from our definition.

Aims & Rationale

The primary aim of this research was to explore this emerging concept of carnal cybersex on the Internet. We hypothesised that carnal cybersex (as well as other forms of cybersex) will have an impact on the development and maintenance of "real-life" interpersonal relationships now and in the future. The impact of these virtual interactions warrants further investigation as our concepts of courting, dating, and establishing long-term relationships evolves with technological advancement.


When looking for an appropriate methodology to investigate this phenomenon, we were presented with a number of alternatives. Our first choice would be to conduct face-to-face interviews with users. Face-to-face interviews usually allow the interviewer to establish a rapport with the interviewee which enables clarity of expression and a deeper understanding of the content matter and questions. In addition this methodology allows the interviewer to observe and i