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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 rooms.

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 and fidelity.

"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 world.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. You think about using the Internet for purposes of making sexual connections.
  3. You were, at first, "accidentally" stimulated in these situations but now actively seek them out each time you log on.
  4. You are aroused by the anonymity of the interaction--perhaps more so than in personal interactions.
  5. You engage in masturbatory fantasy or active masturbation while on line (not an easy feat while typing on a keyboard).
  6. You have difficulty not logging on and conducting sexual conversations.
  7. You gravitate towards one or more individuals with whom you have regularly scheduled or unscheduled contacts.
  8. You become overtly sexually aroused during these interactions.
  9. You make attempts to contact with this individual either by phone, in writing or in person.
  10. You hide this information from your spouse or significant other.
  11. 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:

  1. 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 relationship.
  2. 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.
  3. Attempt to break off contact with the individual(s) as you would a "live" affair.
  4. Consider speaking with your spouse about your feelings and areas that you do not find satisfying in your current relationship.
  5. Consider marital/sexual counseling to assist you in improving your marriage and relationship--which can almost always be improved significantly.
  6. Consider a support group for "cyberholics."
  7. 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.