More than 40 million Americans log onto personals sites each month in search of a serious love connection or a quick fix. But little is known about these modern mating rituals in which people are exploring every possible coupling and curiosity in the digital domain.
In February, we asked you to share your online sex and dating habits and over 15,000 of you responded. Your answers suggest that our society is in the midst of a new stage of the sexual revolution, one in which the rules of flirting, intimacy and commitment are being challenged -- and women are freer to control and explore their own sexuality more than ever before.
Find out more about the wired world of love and lust by reading the following excerpts from the Elle/MSNBC.com Cybersex and Romance Survey, written and analyzed by Janet Lever, a sociologist at California State University at Los Angeles.
You've got mail = you got lucky?
Among survey respondents, 58 percent of women and 55 percent of men have logged onto a personal site. Of these, roughly half of the women and 36 percent of men said that personals sites have made a positive change in their social life.
The sites are also impacting their sex life -- 73 percent of women who've gone on real dates with cybermates have slept with one or more of them.
Nearly half of the women and 36 percent of men who have logged onto personals sites said their real-world social lives have been jolted by their virtual networking, with women reporting more dates and men reporting more sex. At least 29 percent of women said "making friends" was their goal when logging on and 20 percent succeeded in making new cyberpals.
Curiosity was the top reason given by nearly 60 percent of men and women for pursuing love online — and many are freely exploring suppressed desires and hidden interests. Among survey respondents, 81 percent of men and 53 percent of women are sampling some kind of sex-related activity online, whether participating in adult chatrooms, posting to a sex newsgroup or interacting with someone on a live Webcam. Porn is also popular -- 41 percent of women and 75 percent of men who responded have intentionally viewed or downloaded erotic films or photos.
Pushing the boundaries
Of the 53 percent of women who have viewed online adult content, 35 percent say they've found "more ways to look or act sexy." At least 28 percent say it "pushed the boundaries of what I find erotic."
Just tell me
The Internet may also be helping to improve interpersonal communication -- 26 percent of women and almost 23 percent of men who have viewed adult material say it helped them to feel more confident talking with their partners about what they want sexually.
Among the respondents, 17 percent of men and women say looking at erotic material online with their partner has a "Viagra effect," that is, it enhances sexual arousal.
Flirting with disaster
But not everyone is basking in the digital afterglow -- 24 percent of women worry that their partner's online encounter will turn into an affair. And they should be worried since 29 percent of guys admit they go online intending to cheat. Meanwhile, 10 percent of women and 19 percent of men say they are single or available when they aren't.
Better than the real thing?
While some say the Internet has spiced up their sex lives, for others it's had a dampening effect -- 17 percent of men who are into computer sex say they are now less aroused by real-life sex, while 21 percent of women whose partners use sex sites say they feel they have to do more to keep them sexually interested.
Among women, 60 percent whose partner uses sex sites are concerned about his online habit. And 37 percent of women, compared to only 13 percent of men, worry they may not be satisfying their partner's needs. In addition, 17 percent of women and 7 percent of men say looking at adult sites makes them feel worse about their body.
Nothing compares to you?
Women's fears may not be unfounded. Nearly 1 in 10 men say they are more critical of their partner's bodies after looking at online porn. Only 2 percent of women say they are more critical of their partner's physique.
On the other hand, 25 percent of women and 20 percent of men say online erotic imagery had a more positive than negative impact on how they felt about themselves, offering them more ideas on how to look or act sexy.
You play, you pay
The world of Internet sex could pose a risk to relationships -- 32 percent of women and 13 percent of men consider their partner's online habits to be cheating. In addition, 30 percent of women and 30 percent of men feel hurt or betrayed by their partner's online activities.
Pulling the plug
And, a word to the wise -- one-quarter of divorced respondents say online porn or chat contributed to their split.
Who took the survey: 15,246 people, 25 percent women and 75 percent men, responded at either MSNBC.com or Elle.com over a two-week period in February 2004. Average age: women, 34; men, 38. Among the respondents, 55 percent are married; 92 percent straight; 60 percent college or post-grad educated. This survey should not be considered a scientific, random representative sample. To read more about the results, visit Elle.com.