Is cybersex an act of betrayal?

Date: 08/05/2002

So you think Internet flirting and cybersex is a bit of harmless fun? Think again. Chances are your partner considers your online dalliances to be an act of betrayal according to new research by the University of Western Sydney.

Dr Monica Whitty, lecturer in the College of Social and Health Sciences, surveyed 1117 Internet users to compare their attitudes towards online and offline acts of infidelity.

She found the majority of participants considered cybersex and 'hot chatting' -- online socialising with a member of the opposite sex that has moved beyond light-hearted flirting -- to be forms of cheating.

"Most people believed engaging in sexual encounters and sharing intimate information with others online were indeed acts of infidelity," says Dr Whitty.

"What it shows is that unfaithful acts carried out via the computer are just as much an act of betrayal and an abuse of a partner's trust as those carried out offline.

"In fact, many participants considered online acts to be a greater betrayal than some offline acts of infidelity. The second highest-ranking item of infidelity was cybersex, which actually rated higher than offline acts such as going to strip clubs and viewing pornography."

In a comparison of online and offline infidelity, 54% of participants said cyber-cheating was the same as offline betrayal - with more women (62%) believing this to be the case compared to men (43%).

When asked which type of betrayal was worse, 56% believed an offline affair was more damaging, while 41% stated there was no difference. Again men and women varied in their views, with 65% of men saying an offline affair was a greater form of infidelity, compared to 50% of women.

According to Dr Whitty, women are less likely to differentiate between online and offline acts of infidelity compared to men.

"Having an affair is certainly not the only demonstration of infidelity. Emotional fidelity and mental exclusivity is a big issue in partnerships, particularly for women. It's almost as important as sexual exclusivity," she says.

"Over one third of participants admitted to hot chatting online - an act which often progresses to exchanging names, photos and more personal details. The study showed that women in particular found this kind of online exchange of emotional and intimate information to be a significant form of betrayal."

Dr Whitty's study also revealed younger people were surprisingly more conservative in their views about infidelity compared to older participants.

"We thought that older people would be more likely to consider acts such as viewing pornographic material on websites as violations of fidelity compared to younger participants, but it proved to be the opposite," she says.

"This conservatism may be due to the fact that younger people have less experience with romantic relationships. Courtship is like a 'trying-out' period, used to assess each other's qualifications as a more permanent mate. Younger people are more likely to be in a trying-out phase of a relationship and are perhaps less tolerant of any form of betrayal."

Dr Whitty says the study dispels the myth that online flirting is harmless.

"Engaging in erotic communications online, while not as threatening as offline sexual encounters, does pose a threat to couples," she says.

"Online actions can have a real impact on relationships, despite the absence of physical bodies. The research highlights how individuals perceive the act of infidelity differently depending on their gender, age and experience.

"More research is needed to fully comprehend the complexity of online infidelity, but it's research that is imperative if psychologists are to successfully counsel partners who believe they have been betrayed by an online affair."

For more information or requests for interviews:
Amanda Whibley
Media Officer
Phone: 9678 7472
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