CROSSING THE LINE - ON LINE
by David N. Greenfield, Ph.D. and Al Cooper, Ph.D.
In the ever-increasing complexities of cyberspace
hides a new and more anonymous method of sexual interaction. As impersonal
as it may seem, the anonymity, immediacy and accessibility of flirting,
sexuality, and romantic contact on-line has become an almost overnight
epidemic. In the course of our work as psychologists and marriage and
family the rapists, we have seen a number of couples who have presented
with symptoms ranging from cyber-flirting to full blown on-line affairs.
In some cases these affairs have left the screen and wound up in motel
New questions arise, such as, "Where is
the line between on-line flirting and an affair?" (easy to determine
in real time) and "How can one figure out when one is in danger of crossing
the line on-line?" Never before has this issue been more intensely debated
and never before has it been more unclear. It seems that on the Internet
the boundaries of sexuality are becoming more and more blurred. Like
Playboy magazine, adult videos, and 900 numbers before it, the Internet
raises questions about the very nature of interpersonal and sexual interaction
"What is flirting?" The idea of flirting
seems to have an element of "innocence" imbedded in it. In the course
of face to face social interaction, flirting might consist of a nod,
a glance, casual words, compliments, some discussion, including mild
sexual innuendo, gesturing, or joking. However, on-line interactions
appear to become far more intense more quickly. Direct and explicit
comments regarding sexual behavior can create a hyper stimulating effect
and cross the line between innocent flirting and overt sexual interaction
almost immediately. The progression between flirting and sexuality becomes
accelerated and the typical warning signals that alert one to infidelity
go unrecognized in cyberspace.
Flirting suggests a limit or boundary is imbedded
within. An overt or covert meta-message lets the couple know
"this will only go so far." The tacit boundary is reinforced by the
social context in which the flirting occurs. Concerns about the possibility
of rejection and embarrassment about seeing the person again tend to
make individuals cautious and slow to move to a more serious level.
However, in cyberspace the usual markers are absent. The nonverbal signs
of discomfort, smiles or laughter are not available to blunt the force
of sexually suggestive comments. Instead, an amorphous uncharted psychosocial
vacuum exists which offers no resistance to the imaginative sexual impulse,
such that flirting can rapidly escalate to overt sexual interaction
with little awareness on the parts of either member of the couple.
There is power in the written word (typed)
word--especially when it involves sexual innuendo. Writers can take
time to craft the message--maybe even write multiple drafts, if necessary.
They can create personae who appear confident and assertive or sensitive
and romantic when in "real time" they might blurt, stammer or have a
crack in their voices. These very reasons have made poetry and love
letters potent aphrodisiacs. Never before has this mode of communication
been so instantly accessible to so many via the Internet. The perception
of anonymity facilitates a kind of daring than most would be unable
to recreate in a more "visible" context.
Internet users are creating their own social conventions
and are thus in the process of defining their own set of ground rules
for social and sexual interaction. The private member/chat rooms have
become electronic bedrooms where people can engage in their wildest
fantasies without ever leaving their homes (or taking their clothes
off). Sitting in a familiar chair, in everyday surroundings in front
of a computer screen, one has the illusion of the kind of safety and
security--perhaps analogous to sitting behind the wheel of the family
car--that promotes greater risk-taking and even extreme behavior. In
cyberspace there is no need to fear AIDS, pregnancy, or lipstick stains
on the collar. Some people feel emboldened and experiment with their
sexuality in ways they would likely avoid in the real-time, consequence-filled
In this uncharted territory people often
begin Cyber-interaction and relationships with very little, if any,
forethought and usually with only the most innocent of intention. However,
when the subtle power, instant gratification, and almost universal wish
to be found interesting, attractive, and desirable converge the unsuspecting
user might find themselves in a rapidly accelerating relationship with
a momentum and life of its own. Participants may find themselves somewhat
disoriented and caught up in a very powerful on-line relationship before
they realize it. However, with some warning and awareness the person
is more likely to be able to pull themselves back far enough to make
a conscious decision as to whether or not this is a path that they are
interested in traveling.
Here are 11 warning signs of becoming over-stimulated
and crossing the boundaries from flirting to overt sexuality on line.
- You spend an excessive amount of time in the on line chat rooms or in private member rooms, particularly those having to do with sex and sexuality.
- You think about using the Internet for purposes of making sexual
- You were, at first, "accidentally" stimulated in these situations but
now actively seek them out each time you log on.
- You are aroused by the anonymity of the interaction--perhaps more so
than in personal interactions.
- You engage in masturbatory fantasy or active masturbation while on
line (not an easy feat while typing on a keyboard).
- You have difficulty not logging on and conducting sexual
- You gravitate towards one or more individuals with whom you have
regularly scheduled or unscheduled contacts.
- You become overtly sexually aroused during these interactions.
- You make attempts to contact with this individual either by phone, in
writing or in person.
- You hide this information from your spouse or significant other.
- You experience guilt or shame from your on line use.
What can you do if you find yourself excessively
flirting or having an online affair?
Try some of these tips:
- Consider what may be going on in your life that may be prompting you
to seek the emotional and sexual attention from outside of your
- Consider speaking with a friend or friends about your concerns.
Explain to them what you are doing and ask them if they think that you
have crossed the line. Ask them for support.
- Attempt to break off contact with the individual(s) as you would a
- Consider speaking with your spouse about your feelings and areas that
you do not find satisfying in your current relationship.
- Consider marital/sexual counseling to assist you in improving your
marriage and relationship--which can almost always be improved
- Consider a support group for "cyberholics."
- Consider taking a moratorium from your computer and the Internet.
Technology can be addicting and at times you must engage in an "electronic cold turkey" to regain your senses.
David N. Greenfield, Ph.D., specializes in addictions,
family psychology, and forensics. He writes and presents on solution-focused
psychotherapy, EMDR, and internet addiction. He is a partner at Psychological
Health Associates in Connecticut and is Director of Practice Development Consultants.
He can be reached at (860) 233-9772.
Alvin Cooper, Ph.D., is the Clinical Director
of the San Jose Marital and Sexuality Centre and runs the training program of
the Counseling and Psychological Services at Stanford University. He can be
reached at (408) 248-9737.