Online Love :) & Lies :(
My outlook on it is it's the same as line personal ads. There are people who get married through the Internet and people who meet stalkers. I don't blame the medium. -- Sally, New York CityThose of us who are online junkies don't have to go out of the house to fulfill our fantasies. We can get anything we want -- on the Internet. We can post on boards about books, movies, music or politics; make friends with people who share our intellectual interests; shop for books at amazon.com; get the latest news without watching CNN; attend an online cancer survivors support group; and if we're so inclined, have cybersex in private chat rooms. I admit, I adore my online life. After 15 years in Cleveland, I have finally met folks from coast to coast who read as widely as I do. I am completely hooked on the book and movie message boards. Every day we members of one popular online book group post chatty letters about our reading, book-buying, and life adventures with our husbands, kids, cats, and dogs. A twentysomething woman in Denver posts about reading Jane Austen while waiting to meet her blind date. Rita in Milwaukee got me the autograph of my favorite writer, Ron Hansen, when she attended his reading in Milwaukee. Once when I was flamed (attacked in writing) by a stranger who gate-crashed our board to pick a bone with me, all the posters and "lurkers" (people who read but do not post on the boards) rallied to my defense and restored harmony to our cybercommunity.Although I have not attended the group's organized face-to-face meetings in New York, Chicago and San Francisco, I have met book group members who are passing through town on vacation. These are not the stalkers, sex addicts, pedophiles and cyber addicts you hear about on trash talk shows on tabloid TV. Most of us quickly learn to steer clear of the bad element in cyberspace just as we've learned to in the real world. If a stranger sends us an instant message asking us for a little cybersex or phone sex, we ignore it and it goes away. It is also possible to turn off the Instant Message feature or to block people you don't want to find you online.So why does it have a bad rep?"The Internet has come under increasing scrutiny as it mutates from an obscure freewheeling web of computer networks used by a small elite of academics, scientists and hobbyists to ... well, nobody seems to know what," writes Laura Miller in "Women and Children First: Gender and the Settling of the Electronic Frontier," an essay in the 1995 anthology, "Resisting the Virtual Life: The Culture and Politics of Information.Miller points out that "the imperiled women and children of the Western narrative make their appearance today in newspaper and magazine articles that focus on the intimidation and sexual harassment of women on line and reports of pedophiles troling for victims in computerized chat rooms...."And she resents the implication that she as a woman is too delicate to stand up for herself against written messages on a screen. "If I ever need a phone-sex partner, I now know where to look, but until then I probably won't frequent certain chat rooms."But online life can be schizoid, a two-faced mirror that has healing potential and also the potential to deceive and con the unwary. Although the extreme cases highlighted by the media emphasize the perils, no statistics have been compiled. I talked to a number of people online who went seeking everything from intellectual stimulation to pen pals to romantic love. Psychologists, attorneys and spokespersons for online companies also shared their perspectives. As an online friend of mine speculates, "Ten years from now we'll look back at this time and laugh."Making FriendsJulia, a 28-year-old graphic designer in Baltimore, says going online breaks up the isolation of working out of her home. "You make a distinction between the people you know in your real life and your online buddies. I work alone all day and when I do get out I'm with clients and I have to perform. So this is how I unwind . ...Years ago when people were isolated they had correspondence across seas and they had amazing friendships. It's a lot of fun." Recently she and her friend Richard had a face-to-face meeting with Donna, from L.A. who serves as a group moderator for a video chat room they frequent."We told her we would meet in the film section of a bookstore. I'd say, 'I think that's her.' And he'd be 'God, no way, that's not her!' So she did walk in and we made eye contact for a second. We knew right away. We did really click. The entire day was a blast. We had coffee and talked for an hour and a half. We actually did not want the day to end. It was sort of sad because we'd met this really great person, and we knew we wouldn't see her again for a long time, if ever."Humphrey, a baby boomer and single parent in Northern California, says his expectations are very low when he meets people from the California contingent of a popular online book group. But many low-key friendships have developed as a result."There are people who are intuitive and people who aren't. I think I'm intuitive. I could be meeting people online or in person and look at the same things. How am I stimulated by this person? What kind of conversation are we having? What basic level of attraction is there? If there is no affinity, I'd probably never see them again. But if you have a common interest, particularly with the book group, it brings you back into the same forum."Carol Glassman, 57, a retired teacher from San Marco, Florida, says her activity in AOL's Online Book Group at Critics' Choice has lessened her isolation in a community of non-readers. "I've organized three OBG reunions in New York. Well, it's kind of like realizing some of your fantasies. Either they is or they ain't. It's a way of touching base with your intuition, but it isn't a game."Do face-to-face meetings interfere with virtual reality? Claire, a professional woman who is active on several book boards, thinks so. Although she enjoyed one OBG meeting in Chicago, she is not sure she wants to do it again soon."The funny thing is the people you click with in person are not necessarily the people you click with on the boards. I had corresponded with someone by e-mail every day, and when I met her she wasn't the way I'd pictured her."The person I really clicked with was someone I'd never noticed on the board. And though we all enjoyed ourselves, I've noticed we haven't really kept in touch much. So maybe because of all the confiding online, we're not as comfortable when we meet."Trawling for Sex"Whenever you hear a horror story, it starts the same way," says Sally, a 26-year-old personal trainer who lives in New York City. "'I met some loser guy over the Internet.' Big deal. I could have met one loser guy in a bar. I had slept with three guys in my life before I got on the Internet. Since I've been on the Internet, every guy I've slept with has been on the Internet."Sally, a giggly, energetic, twentysomething New Yorker who describes herself as a sexual late bloomer, has had 15 lovers she picked up in AOL chat rooms in the past three years. She also used to have frequent cybersex (sometimes called "one-handed typing," the experience of writing erotic messages back and forth in a private chat room), but the novelty wore off."The cybersex was a healthy thing for me. ... I've never felt confident about the whole intimacy thing, the sex thing. It's always been a scary area for me. Online, you can be whoever you want to be. It's not that I would pretend to be a different age or self, but I would say things I would never have the courage to say in person. Cybersex is total erotica. I'm a really good writer. You can be good at cybersex and you can be bad. 'Ooh baby baby' just doesn't work. Now I do it as teasing. 'Good night. What are you wearing? I'd like to take your boxers off.' It gave me the confidence and then what happened is I would meet the person, and because they had already made the decision 'she is hot, she is it,' it broke the ice and took away my roadblock."You need to set certain ground rules, says Sally. If you plan to meet someone face-to-face, always do so in a public place. She says you should also insist on phone contact within a week of embarking on a romantic online relationship. She learned through experience, after conducting a three-month intense e-mail affair with "Dick," who turned out to be a middle-aged woman signing on under her twenty-year-old son's name."I also met one loser in Olympia. He didn't do anything bad to me. He just freaked out. No one's hurt me except for this woman, who's just sick. I don't look on her as someone who really set out to hurt me."Others are less sanguine about online relationships, dismissing the phenomenon as a fantasy game. A professional man in his forties in New York City confesses he used to stay up till 4 am having cybersex with strangers. "There's a button called 'Rooms' and then suddenly you start seeing these room names like 'I love older men' or 'Blondes Have More Fun'.... It's pretty clear what these rooms are about. I don't know if everyone goes there with the express purpose of having some kind of erotic encounter, but that is a byproduct."He believes it's a drug and regrets the hours he wasted. "It's a novelty at first, but it wears off. When you realize you're sitting in front of this medium cool blue screen on your computer typing out things like 'I want to caress your breasts and suck on your nipples,' it's a hard return."But I suppose it's okay for some people who have physical problems or are in a bad marriage." But a 55-year-old engineer in Huntsville, Alabama, says meeting women online has helped him overcome shyness and gain confidence in his real-life relationships. "You're not distracted by looks, whether they be good or bad," he says. "You get to know the person's mind. It's a different type of relationship, because I have met some of these people in person and they're people I would never have been attracted to in real life. ... It takes away the visual cues and you get to know the person for who they are and what they represent and what they believe in. It's different from making friends based on someone who's just good-looking. Then when you see the person, they're not what you imagined but that friendship is there."Vince, a graduate student in Salt Lake City, met his significant other on a movie bulletin board on AOL. "Well, it all started with Sandra Bullock. I went to see "A Time to Kill" with a friend. I made some characteristically snide and sarcastic comments. She was visiting the film and video message board, and she posted in reply some comments that amplified my remarks about the general terribleness of the movie. After one or two exchanges on the message board, an e-mail was sent. We dispute over this. She said that I sent the first message. Okay, I'll go with what she says! And an e-mail correspondence developed from that. Because it was an e-mail introduction, it facilitated the development of conversational intimacy at a speed that would never have been normal in real life."Online services like AOL and Prodigy say their most popular features are the communication features: e-mail, instant messages, message boards and chat rooms. AOL's Love@AOL is visited by 700,000 members monthly."Relationships that our members make on line can be very positive if they follow our rules, use moderation and a good dose of common sense," says AOL spokesperson Margaret Ryan. "You can go to areas online or clubs where people share your interests. Or you can keep in touch with relatives by e-mail."Carol Wallace, spokesperson for Prodigy Inc. in White Plains, New York, has a file of 300 couples who have met online and married. "It really is a sociologically interesting approach to people getting together. They go for months and months without knowing what each other looks like."And she says that complaints about marriages breaking up were more common when the technology was new, but admits that there are chat rooms with names like "Married But Flirting."Is It an Addiction?"There is no such thing as cyberaddiction," says Sheryl Kingsberg, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, sex therapist and assistant professor of reproductive biology and psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University. "You cannot get addicted to a computer the way you can get addicted to alcohol or drugs."She believes that the Internet cannot be blamed for adultery. "Everything in moderation. There is typically a problem in the relationship already if someone is looking elsewhere. On the Internet there may be a more insidious way of developing relationships, because it may start out innocently. There is not a whole lot of harm in it except for someone who is at risk for compulsive behavior."Kingsberg says that there probably are psychologists who specialize in so-called computer addiction, but she does not know any of them. "It's a market. Could you become addicted? You could use it as an escape. It is very anonymous. There is always more to find out and learn on the Internet. One of the nice things is you pick areas of interest. There's a chat line for menopausal women, and a chat line for young gay males might be a wonderful way for them to meet. But the computer can only be a stepping stone. It cannot be a substitute for real life."Too much time spent on the Internet can be a symptom of trouble in a marriage, says Maggie Weisberg, a licensed social worker at Jewish Family Services of Cleveland. "Anyone who's getting their primary satisfaction from the Internet is in trouble. It's like having pen pals and no friends." Because she counsels couples, she has seen cases where a spouse uses the Internet as a fantasy way of having fulfilling relationships. "When TV was new, we were all worried people would never read again and be corrupted forever. Sometimes a partner in a marriage has a whole fantasy emotional and sexual life without experiencing anything real. But it is not the technology that causes the problem."Can you lose your spouse to the Internet? A professional woman in Cuyahoga County claims that as her marriage was breaking up she discovered her husband had secretly racked up huge bills on pay-for-cybersex web sites. She believes baby-boomer men all over the country are getting addicted to cybersex. "It's a betrayal on every level. It doesn't matter if they stick their dick in the outlet or not. I think the boomer men are having an incredibly difficult time about getting older, too. Ward Cleaver encountered Wonder Woman twenty years ago and we've been having communication problems ever since. ....Not getting along with your wife? Go bond with a computer."According to Alice Rickel, a divorce attorney in Beachwood, clients are taking their spouses' computers in to hackers and retrieving messages as evidence of adultery. "Over the last three years, people have been bringing in printouts of messages from AOL and Prodigy they've found in their spouses' desks. They'll say, 'I don't know how to access my wife's computer, but I know there are love letters in there.'"Although Rickel has not yet introduced such evidence into courts, she hopes it will be admissible in the same way that diaries and letters are."What happens on line is that people have a false sense of security that no one will find out what they're doing. ... People who indulge in such behavior need to be aware that the delete button is not your friend.SIDEBARLove@AOL: Online Dating Do's and Don'tsEven though you may feel you've come to know that "special someone" through your on-line interaction:1. Do remember that the people you meet on line are in fact strangers.2. Don't give out your telephone number or address. Guard your personal information. We recommend using a service like directReach which provides you a personal, anonymous phone number so you can talk on your phone and protect your personal information.3. Don't believe everything you read. It's very easy for someone to misguide you via their on-line correspondence. Remember that the person at the other end may not be who they say they are.4. Don't respond to any correspondence that's lewd or crude or in any way makes you feel uncomfortable. AOL offers you the option of changing your screen name and having multiple screen names. Use a different screen name if you are feeling uncomfortable. Ignore obscene e-mails and Instant Messages. 5. Do report any obscene e-mails you receive directly to AOL. If you provide them with the users screen name, TOS will take appropriate action.6. Don't meet other members off-line. If, however, you choose to meet someone, use good judgment and common sense. Do meet in a public place, and, if possible, in a group setting.7. Do remember that your on-line interaction should be fun and entertaining. So use your good judgment and be sensible and just have a good time. We want you to enjoy our message boards.