Love online

Cybersex: uncovering the secret world of Internet sex

Dr Kimberly Young<em> Carlton Books, 206pp,

"Cortigiana Onesta: 'my lips find that pool like a thirsted creature of the deserts, sucking it in, swelling from its desire, filling me, hydrating my soul . . .'

"Gate master: 'do your thighs tremble like harp strings at the touch of my fingers singing your wind song?'"

If your thighs tremble from a touch of the wind song, this might possibly be the book for you. Imagine, if you will, a series of overcooked sexual fantasies (most of them considerably less poetic than the Camelot fantasy cited above), which read as if they were written by 14-year-old boys who have never had sex but have studied a lot of pornographic literature at close quarters. Then give the steamy collection a stiff commentary by a relationship guidance counsellor, apparently touting for business from those who display "an unhealthy pattern of addiction" to this stuff. That's silly, you say? That's Cybersex.

The blurb on the back cover of Dr Kimberly Young's book acknowledges that it is modelled on Nancy Friday's My Secret Garden. The famous survey of female sexual fantasies may have been written as a serious contribution to feminist literature, but it has ended up under the beds of generations of adolescent boys. Cybersex is pitched at a similar market, but with a far thinner veneer of psychosocial analysis to get in the way of the action. There is a five-page introduction, and a cursory couple of paragraphs at the entrance to each section. Other than that, Young (who must have spent at least a week "writing" this book) lets the devotees of cybersex chatrooms speak for themselves, through transcripts of their shared online fantasies about everything from romping in a restaurant to doing the unspeakable down in the dungeon.

Much discussion of the internet is marked by an unhelpful "digital divide" between technophobia and technophilia. Both sides tend to see the net in fetishised terms, as if the technology itself could be either the cause of or the solution to society's problems. Thus many condemn the internet as a carrier of sexual depravity, infected by cyber stalkers and paedophiles, and in need of a cleansing dose of censorship. Others respond by claiming that sex online can be a liberating experience.

Cybersex wants to have it both ways (stop that sniggering at the back of the class). Young describes with enthusiasm how those who enter the chatrooms can "mentally transform themselves into an 'ideal' self" and "push the electronic envelope of their sexual image" (as in middle-aged white men pretending to be young and black in order to have cybersex with white women looking for a fantasy interracial fling). A flick through the transcripts suggests that the chosen chatroomers are generally having an uplifting time ("Thomas: 'will you explode in commingled flow? . . . Yes, my love, mew its cresting'"). But at the same time, the book tries to set cybersex in the context of our all-pervasive risk culture, warning that, while they "can allow people to spice up their sex lives in a disease-free way . . . both online infidelity and cybersex addiction may have a profound impact on our emotional and familial well-being".

If that were true, it would surely say a lot more about the fragility of interpersonal relationships today than about the power of the internet. From a distance, the cybersex chatroom scene, as with telephone sexlines before it, looks like a symptom of a fearful society in which many people shy away from genuine passion and commitment to others. It is a sad day for love and sex when Young can seriously claim that people find cyber-relationships more "intense" and "intimate" than real life. If some get their kicks by practising "sexual self-stimulation" while pretending to be "Lady Toad" or "Youngstud" with people they have never met, that is their business; but let's not pretend that this is making "an indelible change on the way we live and love".

In conclusion, Young puts her serious face back on to warn that, while the fallout from cybersex is "suddenly plaguing an increasing number of couples, neither they nor their counsellors are adequately prepared to deal with this new temptation". Oh, who will save us? Let us give thanks for the Center for On-line Addiction (executive director: Kimberly S Young, Psy D).

Mick Hume is the editor of the new online publication spiked