Love Online: emotions on the internet
Aaron Ben-Ze'ev Cambridge University Press, 289pp, £18.
When I was about 14 and as pure as the driven snow, I was the recipient of a series (does three count as a series?) of smutty phone calls. I put the receiver to my ear, and there it was: a strange hiss of a voice that listed, very concisely, all the things its horrible owner wanted to do to me. Was I shocked? A little, I suppose. But my first instinct was to giggle; only once I had properly caught my harasser's drift did I slam the phone down. It was just so silly and embarrassing: the ugly, bald detail of it - all those consonants. Cowardly whisper apart, it was like listening to a very crude version of page 38 - at least I think it was page 38 - of the Nuffield biology textbook.
I have had a strong aversion to "dirty talk" ever since and this, perhaps, is one reason why I got along so badly with Aaron Ben-Ze'ev, professor of philosophy and co-director of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research on Emotions at the University of Haifa. For the title of his book, Love Online, is misleading. The professor, who has a moderately dry wit and a monstrous appetite for detail, is not, it turns out, much interested in hearts and roses and dinners at restaurants. Rather, his preoccupation is with virtual sex or, as its devotees prefer to call it, "cybering" - a distinctively (and depressingly) 21st-century kind of encounter that does not mess up one's clothes, sheets or lipstick.
Ben-Ze'ev neglects to inform his readers just how many people regularly indulge in cybersex but, judging by his tone, which is languidly accepting, there are lots of them out there. A few end by meeting their virtual partners out in the real world, with varying degrees of success ("He walked off the plane looking like he hadn't washed his clothes in a month," says one disappointed female); but most don't even so much as exchange telephone numbers. Is this the zipless fuck we see before us? Not a bit of it. While some cyber addicts are virtual swingers, in search of a little naughty relief from their marriages, others are deluded enough to think it is wrong to "cyber" on a first date. A handful go so far as to insist that their online relationships are "deeper" and more meaningful than those they have offline.
Ben-Ze'ev begins by explaining (with a straight face) the simple mechanics of the act itself. In virtual sex, the ideal partner is someone who writes well ("your lovely nipples are the colour of cherry lips" - that kind of thing) and who can type with one hand, fast. This sounds tricky, I know, but fear not. "It should be noted that most cybersex involves people typing and reaching orgasm sequentially," he tells us. "In such cases, fast two-hands typing will suffice." In addition, both parties must observe "netiquette". Do not type in capital letters (no lover likes to be yelled at). Do not make generalised remarks about the opposite gender. And do not forget to say a polite thank you once you are, well, done.
From here on in, Love Online is a wearyingly predictable mix of daffy academic verbosity ("interactivity is a crucial element in the psychological reality of cyberspace") and web looniness (I give you the Cyber Widows support group). Naturally, Ben-Ze'ev has cooked up a few theories but they are, alas, the psychological equivalent of Barbara Windsor sucking in her cheeks and blithely trying to pass herself off as Charlotte Rampling. Just imagine! Anonymity is a double-edged sword. It facilitates self-disclosure, but also provides an invisible wall behind which to hide. I could have told the good professor this right off and saved him a lot of effort with his mouse hand.
In the interests of research, after I had finished reading I decided to visit a few "adult" chatrooms myself. I wanted to see if they really are as sexy and life-changing as Ben-Ze'ev's interviewees insist. In a flash, I was back in my parents' hall, tittering at the rubbery, unfamiliar words, blushing hot crimson at my own (made-up) chatroom moniker flashing ridiculously as I browsed Married and Flirting or wandered casually through Rudeys Hareem (sic). But if the world of adult chat is not a place for prudes, neither is it one for pedants - or Lynne Truss. In Love Online, one fan of cybersex tells Ben-Ze'ev that he would never do it with someone who can't get their grammar or spelling straight. "Being able to write well is equivalent to having great legs or a tight butt in the real world," he says. On the evidence of my time online, he must be one very lonely bunny. Fanci sum reel good luv, anyone? No, me neither.
Rachel Cooke writes for the Observer