The cyberbirds and the cyberbees

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Cybersex may be a taboo subject for some, but in academic circles, no issue is off the table. Post-Doctoral Fellow Krystelle Shaughnessy, of the Department of Psychology and the Centre for Mental Health Research at the University of Waterloo, is seeking to educate people on cybersex through her research.

For Shaughnessy’s purposes, cybersex is defined as “a real time communication with another person that occurs through a device connected with the Internet (e.g., computer, cellphone, smart phone) in which one or both of you describe or share in other ways sexual activities, sexual behaviours, sexual fantasies, or sexual desires that may lead to feelings of sexual pleasure or physical intimacy. You and your partner may or may not be stimulating yourself/himself/herself sexually during this conversation.” Shaughnessy and others conceived this empirically derived definition during a study in 2011.

“When I first started to study cybersex, there were two stereotypes or preconceived notions about cybersex that I regularly encountered in both my academic and public discussions about this topic,” says Shaughnessy, who answered questions by email. “The first was that people who engaged in cybersex were abnormal or antisocial, even criminal in some way.” Negative assumptions about cybersex in this case included the idea that it was mostly used to exploit children or conduct other illegal activities online.

The second stereotype Shaughnessy found was an assumption that cybersex was frequently used as a form of infidelity—that participants in cybersex would have a romantic partner who was not aware nor involved in their Internet activities.

Shaughnessy doesn’t deny that the negative aspects, such as infidelity and other illicit activity, do occur. “The point is that many people have ideas about what cybersex is. These ideas can be negative and likely do not capture the full scope of people’s experiences with cybersex.” Shaughnessy feels that such stereotypes can hinder a person’s willingness to talk about their experiences, or even to call their experiences “cybersex.”

Shaughnessy’s most recent study focused on the relationship context of cybersex. Participants in the study were asked if they had engaged in cybersex activities with a stranger, someone who was not their partner, or a primary romantic partner. Shaughnessy was not surprised by the results of this study. “As I expected, we found that most heterosexual men and women who reported at least one cybersex experience in their lifetime reported having engaged in cybersex with their primary romantic partner. In fact, over 80 per cent of participants had engaged in cybersex with a primary romantic partner, and 37 had only ever had cybersex in this context.”

However, the study showed that participants had a low frequency of engaging in cybersex or the desire to. “So what this research tells us first and foremost is that a lot of people have cybersex with a primary romantic partner. It also tells us that cybersex with a stranger likely is the least common, least frequent, and least desired form of cybersex. Finally, the results of this study tell us that there is a good chance that many people engage in cybersex as a supplement to their sexual lives offline, in recreational ways (as opposed to problematic, compulsive, or addictive ways), but do so fairly infrequently.”

Despite Shaughnessy’s recent study suggesting that cybersex was an infrequent activity for those that did participate in it, it also suggests there are numerous forms that cybersex can take. “Additionally, our research consistently points to the lack of a specific forum, mode, or device for cybersex to occur. That is, cybersex can be via Skype, instant messenger programs, video chats, chat rooms, virtual worlds, etc., etc., and it can occur with all kinds of different partners. The key aspect is that it involves two people engaged in some kind of sexual interaction that is in real-time or synchronous.”

It remains to be seen whether attitudes towards cybersex will continue to change. Shaughnessy says that there are not enough studies on the subject to say for sure whether it will become better understood or more socially acceptable. However, her investigations have found generally neutral attitudes towards partnered online sexual activities, and more positive attitudes were seen in regards to less explicit activities such as seeking sex-related information, or materials for solitary sexual activities, such as pornography. “In contrast, previous research has found that students tended to report slightly negative attitudes to online sexual activities,” adds Shaughnessy. She goes on to say that the participants represent a relatively small group, and more research needs to be done.

Shaughnessy has yet to delve more into precisely why people engage in cybersex. However, she says that, just like offline sex, there are likely a wide variety of reasons. “Just as an example, people engage in sexual activity of all kinds for intimacy reasons—cybersex may also be an activity that people engage in to build and feel a sense of intimacy with their cybersex partner. But there are many more possible reasons and some of these likely are different from offline sexual activity,” says Shaughnessy. She is continuing her research on cybersex, and hopes that it will depathologize, destigmatize, and normalize what she calls “an activity that I believe can be and is used in a healthy, relationship maintaining and building kind of way.”