From flirtatious chat to erotic Webcam sessions, Internet dating and adult sex sites are forging a high-speed path to every possible coupling combination, curiosity and fetish.
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Among participants in a new ELLE/MSNBC survey of over 15,000 people, almost two-thirds of women and over half of men have logged onto a personals site. Not only are they exploring cyberhookups, they claim that the "pornosphere" is boosting their sex and love lives. Among e-daters, 44 percent of women and 33 percent of men say they're getting more dates, more sex and more lasting love as a result of using online personals.
In the survey, which was posted online at MSNBC.com and Elle.com for two weeks in February, 33 questions probed men and women's experiences and attitudes about their digital dalliances at personals sites and adult erotica pages.
What surprised Janet Lever, the survey's author and a sociologist at California State University at Los Angeles, is how positively women in particular view their interactions in the virtual adult world -- women seem to be reaping bigger rewards from online dating and mating than their male counterparts. Almost half of women, compared to 36 percent of men, note a positive change in their social life after sampling Web personals.
"After 40 years of women's liberation, women still don't typically ask men out," says Lever. "But in the virtual world, they do. It shows a huge shift in women's ability to initiate socially and sexually."
"This is working out a lot better for women than men," says Lever.
What's more, women in their 40s are having the most luck of all. In the real world, mature women often have a tough time finding the right someone. On the Net it's a different story. More than a quarter of women over 40 are finding a mate through online personals.
"The minute I went online, the stigma of 'Am I looking?' went away. Offline, too, I would go to parties and feel so liberated because finally I'd given myself permission to be in the game," writes Rose, a 40-year-old yoga instructor engaged to a man she met on Match.com.
"In cyberspace, women are freer to explore and are more in control of their sexuality than ever before," says University of Southern California sociologist Julie Albright, Ph.D., an expert on Sex on the Net who consulted on this survey.
We've heard the dark tales of cybersex addicts and people who pretend to be someone they're not at personals sites, but online sex and romance isn't just for the lonesome losers. Nearly 70 percent of men and women checking out adult content online are considered "light users" -- logging on for less than an hour a week.
While one in 10 women admit being less than truthful about their weight or appearance, a whopping 72 percent of men and women say they don't lie about their appearance at all.
Married, but looking
Men may not lie about their looks as much as women, but one in five guys say they have claimed to be single when they're not. While over half of the participants were married, that hasn't stopped them from actively pursuing sexual contact online. At least 29 percent of men say they go online intending to cheat.
A cautionary tip for women -- men who don't post a picture on their personals profiles are twice as likely to be married, says Lever.
Women are concerned about the Web's impact on their partner's faithfulness: one-quarter worry that their mate's online encounter could become a real-life affair, and one-third say their boyfriend or husband's virtual flirtations feel like cheating.
That might explain why one-fourth of divorced women said that Internet personals, chatrooms or adult sites contributed to the end of their marriage.
"I don't want to say I don't trust him, but I don't trust him," says Kelly, 31, a fitness trainer whose husband logs on almost every night after she goes to bed.
Infidelity is part of the tradeoff of the sexual awakening many say they get from online erotica. Damage to physical self-image is another downside. One in ten men say they are more critical of their partner's body -- and the same number of women say their partner is now more critical of their body -- after viewing cyberporn. Twice as many women as men say erotic imagery on the Net made them feel worse about the way they look.
Making virtual whoopee also dampens some men's enthusiasm for the real thing, with 16 percent saying that pornographic images on the Web and hot chat make real sex seem less arousing. Only 6.8 percent of women feel that way, but over one-third of females worry that they might not be satisfying their partner's sexual needs because of cyberporn.
A total of 15,246 people completed the survey. About three-fourths were men, with an average age of 38; the average age of women was 34. Almost two-thirds have a bachelor's degree or higher. Over 90 percent consider themselves straight.
Despite the potentially damaging effects of Internet sex, the survey's findings are largely positive.
"It's clear that the dire ill effects of Net sex we hear about happen to just a small percentage of Web-sex users," says Lever. Women are finding new ways to find romance and men are freely exploring their erotic fantasies.
A female survey participant who met her husband through an online service sums it up. "It allowed me to safely explore a side of myself I had kept hidden," she writes. "Exploring sexuality on the Internet has allowed us to feel better about ourselves. We would probably never would have met through conventional ways and both of us would still be single and lonely."
Elle's Diana Kapp and the magazine's editors contributed to this report.