Do you enjoy showering with men and picking on sissies? Join the military

Cyberspace is, to coin an old-fashioned phrase, "no place for a lady". Behind the thin veneer of science, entertainment and shopping online, there hides a clandestine world of compulsive hedonism and crass sexism.

Joanna's 25-year marriage has disintegrated since her husband discovered a chatroom for fortysomethings where "normal" men and women go in search of "fun and friendship".

Theirs is a fairly run-of-the-mill story. Dad goes online and chats up a woman. Then Dad meets lots more women and hosts dirty weekends for them in his new flat just minutes away from the family home. Every Friday night, two or three new women turn up on his doorstep dressed (according to Joanna) like "fat, dirty tarts" and stumble, giggling, into his front room.

Before he left home for good, Jo "hacked" into his e-mails to find out what was going on. Unbeknown to her, so had her teenage sons. "The words he used . . . I didn't know he knew them," she said. His sons don't speak to him any more.

For weeks, I had lost touch with Joanna because her phone was constantly engaged. BT reported no fault, and I was worried. Had she had a breakdown, or gone abroad? Eventually, I got through.

"I've been going to that site every night," she told me. "You get them to trust you - then you have a p2p (person-to-person) chat with them. It's disgusting some of the time, so I just turn the computer off. But one of the men seems really nice. He wants to meet me."

She laughed girlishly.

Forget Timothy Leary's invitation to "tune in, turn on and drop out", nowadays logging on to the net or playing computer games poses more of a threat to the employed males in our society than do any drugs from Afghanistan. The after-effects of what happens online are real and, for some thirty- and forty-something males, it is becoming harder and harder to separate reality from fantasy.

At the weekend, Ryan dragged me along to Games Boutique to bear witness as he fulfilled his fantasy of owning a PS2 (PlayStation 2). This was bought with his bonus money from work, and at the expense of a holiday with his girlfriend. We elbowed younger boys aside to peer at the games on offer. The only woman allowed on these hallowed shelves was the half-naked, computer-enhanced Lara Croft, a gun-toting macho murderer, who is basically a bloke with breasts. I looked in vain for a girl's game. One with a female heroine, perhaps? There were men playing sports: Fifa, PGA Golf, motor racing and basketball. Then there were "men having adventures": knights fighting wizards, space missions and war games. Finally, we got to the really hard-core, class-A stuff: the "shoot 'em ups". Here, Ryan pounced on Grand Theft Auto 3, a game so violent that children are banned from playing it. It has an 18 certificate.

"Liberty City, USA. The worst place in America", the sleeve boasted. Greg excitedly started the game. He thrust the controls into my hand and urged me to "let rip, have some fun". On screen, the gangster/me strolled down the road, baseball bat in hand. I came across a pimp, who had been hitting a woman, and beat him to death and stole his cash. Morally fair enough in this world. Careering along, I killed a couple of ambulance men attending an accident. Within an hour, I was punching old ladies in the face on screen and shouting expletives on the sofa.

The games for adults are quite brilliant in their way. The soundtrack and instructions are unsubtly subversive and offensive, and give you the idea that you're fighting a corrupt, violent society at the same time as joining in wholeheartedly. As a mock ad on the radio station on the soundtrack said: "Do you enjoy showering with men, but feel the need to pick on sissies? You just might be perfect for the military."

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Special Report - The SAS story they want to suppress