Paper presented at the 4th Annual Qualitative Methods Conference: "Histories of the present"
3 & 4 September 1998, Johannesburg, South Africa

Cybersex: It's Life Jim, but not as we know it.

Deverell, A., Thatcher, A. & Katz, L-A.

Psychology Department, University of the Witwatersrand

[email protected]


The cybersex phenomenon continues to grow as more and more people gain access to the internet. While technology is rapidly progressing, the most popular form of social interaction on the internet, remains the verbal, written form. This paper examines the interactions and reactions to "fantasy" cybersex partners. Three fantasy (and disadvantaged) persona were developed and then used to facilitate cybersex encounters in online chat rooms. This paper will show how people reacted to these three different persona. The researchers' observations, introspections and ethical concerns are also outlined in the paper. Our results indicate that the disadvantaged persona do not stand a chance against the idea of Westernised, physical perfection.


Five years ago one would be quite justified in asking what one meant if we mentioned the Internet. Nowadays the word is so pervasive that you just haven't "arrived" unless you have your own email address, web page, and converse with the global community on a daily basis. As was predicted by Reeves (1997), the influence and presence of the Internet has increased and expanded and continues to do so (Kehoe, Pitkow & Rogers, 1998). Current estimates put the number of people with Internet access as somewhere between 100 and 150 million worldwide, the majority of whom (about 90 million people) are English-speakers (Global Reach, 1998). In our last paper (Thatcher & Feldman, 1997) we defined carnal cybersex in the virtual realm 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 include spoken or physical encounters or sexually explicit pictures" (pg.37). For reasons of brevity in this paper, when we refer to cybersex, we are in fact referring to carnal cybersex as defined here.

In this research we limited our investigation to chat rooms using IRC. IRC stands for Internet Relay Chat, which allows computer mediated communication with other users in real time. Users communicate through the exchange of sentences and emoticons which are typed into the computer and appear almost simultaneously on other users computer screens.

It is entirely possible that the strangers with whom we interacted, could have been dishonest about their physical characteristics, age and gender. For this reason we have termed them "cybermales", or apparent males in the virtual realm.


Cyberspace is a place where people can be anything and anyone they want. When one hears a statement like this, fantastical images come to mind - size 34DD breasts, long glossy blonde hair, sparkling green eyes, a 12 inch penis, washing board stomach, etc.. It's almost predictable that people would conceptualise themselves as improved and attractive. But when we say attractive, we are really referring to the westernised, physical ideal of beauty. Slim bodies, toned muscles, large breasts with minuscule waistlines and so on.

We freely acknowledge that these images are appealing to the vast majority - evidence of this is apparent in just about every magazine, television program and advertisement. What we were interested to investigate, was whether one needs to project this same westernised ideal on the internet to achieve "cybersatisfaction".

Our previous research (Thatcher & Feldman, 1997) demonstrated without doubt, that it is easy to find sex on the net. Cybersex in real time is just as easy, if you are female. All you need do is log on with a female name and announce that you are looking for love, handsome men or sometimes even a simple "hello" will suffice. We wanted to investigate a slightly different scenario : would we still be attractive to "cybermales" if we presented ourselves as real people? Would cybermales still want to have cybersex with us, if we did not meet these traditional ideals of beauty?

The answers to these questions would contribute to a greater understanding of the type of people who engage in cybersex. Do cybersex participants purposefully enter a world of fantasy when they log on? Are they looking to escape the reality of their partners as well as the reality of themselves? If so, cybersex is really just a type of mutual masturbation and wish fulfillment. Neither partner would be interested in their lover, it is more the idea of the lover, what they picture when they close their eyes that appeals.

This would invariably mean that if one is looking for cybersex, it would be necessary to create a false persona for yourself, unless of course you are the proverbial bombshell or hunk. Real people with real bodies would not stand a chance.

Our main aim was to determine if this scenario is indeed the case.


As with a lot of qualitative research it is quite difficult to put the research methodology into a neat category. This research falls somewhere between participant observation and ethnography. In the strictest sense the actual research that we are reporting here forms part of a participant observation process. Participant observation can be defined as "a method of observation in which a group or a community is studied from within by a researcher" (Rosenthal & Rosnow, 1991, p.625). In order to understand and report this we have had to draw on our previous experiences and interactions in the culture of online real-time conversations - a form of ethnography (ibid.). Also, in the research itself we have performed a great deal of introspection, reflecting and examining the impact of these interactions on ourselves, the researchers.

Step 1: Development of the persona and guidelines for interactions

In order to address the research questions we created three persona, each of which would have a disability representing a deviation from the westernised ideal. While the list of physical problems is seemingly endless, we chose three quite diverse problems; namely obesity, physical disfigurement and physically disabled. We chose to go to the extremes in order to account for the fact that ideal of westernised "beauty" is actually quite broad. Developing persona for these three characters was not an easy task, since not only did we have to develop a fairly neutral physical appearance (apart from the physical problem), but also a fairly detailed "sexual" appearance (eg. breast size and erogenous zones) and the development of a personal history and present for these cyberwomen. We had to explain for example how a person was physically disfigured or how they came to be in a wheelchair, as well as an idea of what work they might be performing and what hobbies and interests they might have. Most of this had to be standardised before the actual participant observation in order to prevent confusion and to speed up the interactions. Our previous encounters in this medium gave us some idea of the types of questions that would probably be asked.

In addition to developing the persona we also agreed on set guidelines and rules for initiating and continuing with cybersex interactions. We decided not to initiate private conversations, and to introduce the physical problem only once a person was "hooked". We also decided to limit ourselves to five or fewer private conversations at a time. We limited each persona to one hour of interaction time for each session and only to continue longer than the hour if a sexual encounter was not ended. Finally we also agreed to see all sexual encounters through to the end and not to engage in virtual coitus interuptus.

Step 2: Participant & non-participant observation

Once the persona and guidelines had been set up we were ready to go online using software called Mirc 3.0. Once we had logged on to a server we joined a channel with fifty or more people, opened with the line: "Hi, any guys out there want to chat ?", and waited for private conversations to be initiated. The interactions took place on two evenings (the time in South Africa when there is a great deal of activity on the IRC). Each interaction involved one researcher who role-played the persona (the participant observer), and the two other researchers who acted as non-participant observers (taking notes on the number of interactions, the nicknames of the participants, and important details of the interactions). The non-participant observers also served as watchdogs ensuring that the persona were role-played consistently. In addition, the private conversations/interactions were logged for analysis at a later stage. The ordering of the persona during the evening and the researcher who role-played a persona was randomly assigned. Hence, each persona was role-played twice over the two evenings, each time by a different role-player.

Stage 3: Debriefing and reflecting

After each evening's session we engaged in a debriefing, where we discussed the interactions and the impact that these sexual interactions had on the participants and non-participants. Each researcher commented on how people interacted with each persona and how these interactions affected them. We also discussed and reflected on any particular incidents that may have affected the session, and how the other cybermales may have felt about these interactions (i.e. were they satisfied, turned-off, angry, etc.).

Stage 4: Analysis

The analysis has been two-fold. Firstly a self-analysis, or introspection, of the impact of this type of interaction on our own lives and opinions. Being intimately involved in the persona and in the sexual interactions some of who we are and who we role-played is contained in the analysis. We sought to deconstruct the situation and how we reacted to it. Secondly we have performed a protocol analysis of the interactions that took place by carefully examining the notes of the session, the logged files and the notes of the debriefing. These results are presented as the three different persona detailed below.



In her book The Forbidden body, Shelly Bovey (1989) writes that because there is no way to hide being fat, except by staying indoors, most fat women exist within a tense and stressful straightjacket, unable to be freely themselves, circumscribed by social censure, aware everyday in everything they do that they are being defined by their body size. This, she refers to as "fattism".

Although there has recently been much media hype about the rejection of the heroin-chic, waif-like model, there is still no doubt, that in Westernised society thin is beautiful. Prejudice is something children learn at an early age. A study was conducted in America in which children are presented with 6 drawings (Goodman, Richardson, Dornbusch & Hastorf, 1963). These drawings depict a normal child, a child with crutches and a brace on one leg, a child in a wheelchair with a blanket covering both legs, a child with one hand missing, a child with a facial disfigurement and a fat child. The children were asked to rate the drawings stating which one they liked most and then least. Results were almost unanimous - the normal child was picked as best and the fat child as worst.

This kind of response is not surprising considering the multitude of socialisation agents that depict fat people as unattractive, stupid, lazy, incompetent and deviant. Even books written for young children contain elements of these social stereotypes : A book called "Mrs Circumference" by Catherine Storr (1989) is written in the form of a rhyme and begins -

"As fat as a pig?...Three times as big, she was as large as a hot air balloon"(pg. 1).

The book continues to ridicule the fat woman, but has a "happy" ending - Mrs Circumference loses weight and obviously lives happily ever after.

Considering the sizable amount of literature that exists about fattism and prejudice toward fat people, we hypothesised that cybermales would not be keen to enter into cybersexual relations with us, if we admitted to being drastically overweight. We therefore devised fat Mandy and fat Gina.

Mandy and Gina are the same character, but were played by two different researchers on two separate occasions as was outlined in the methodology. This was done to determine whether cybermales were responding to the researcher's personality and turn of phrase, or the made-up character.

Mandy is 25 years old. She is 5'5" and has brown eyes, shoulder length reddish, brown hair, a fair complexion and weighs 140kg. She has a BA with majors in Psychology and Sociology and currently works in the public relations department of a large insurance company. She wears a size 48DD bra and has a lot of self-confidence. She is sexually charged and believes she has a lot to offer.

Despite our reservations, and pre-conceived ideas - Mandy was, on the whole, a raving success. She had men eating out of her ample bosom at a rate of knots. Not only did she disclose her weight, she made constant references to it - she compared her breasts to melons (watermelons), she described her nipples as butternut, she even commented that she could not realistically describe her vagina as she had difficulty seeing it. It obviously was not a problem to most cybermales.

One of the cybermales commented that he liked fat women as they were soft. Another stated that he liked fat women as long as they were sexy. Out of ten encounters, only one cybermale logged off after hearing of Mandy's size. This particular cybermale was overtly sexual and seemed keen to engage in cybersex, until he read Mandy's physical description. At this point he did not pass any nasty comments or even make feeble excuses, he simply disappeared.

During another encounter, Mandy disclosed her weight to a cybermale, who then continued without mentioning her size at all. Before things got too steamy, Mandy pushed the issue. "Does fat turn you on?" she asked. The answer was a stark - "no". "Does fat turn you off then?" . "Yes". "Well in that case, why are you interested in me?". The cybermale then stated that Mandy had not mentioned she was fat. She told him to check the recorded conversation again. At this point, the cybermale stated that he only wanted to talk anyway and soon logged off, obviously in search of thinner, less meaty "cybergals".

Although Mandy was rejected twice, they were, in a comparative sense, gentle rejections. She was never insulted nor criticised.

One of four possible conclusions can be drawn from Mandy's experience.

  • That fat is not an issue for cybermales.
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