Paper presented at the 4th Annual Qualitative Methods Conference: "Histories of the present"
3 & 4 September 1998, Johannesburg, South Africa

Cybersex: It's Life Jim, but not as we know it.

Deverell, A., Thatcher, A. & Katz, L-A.

Psychology Department, University of the Witwatersrand


The cybersex phenomenon continues to grow as more and more people gain access to the internet. While technology is rapidly progressing, the most popular form of social interaction on the internet, remains the verbal, written form. This paper examines the interactions and reactions to "fantasy" cybersex partners. Three fantasy (and disadvantaged) persona were developed and then used to facilitate cybersex encounters in online chat rooms. This paper will show how people reacted to these three different persona. The researchers' observations, introspections and ethical concerns are also outlined in the paper. Our results indicate that the disadvantaged persona do not stand a chance against the idea of Westernised, physical perfection.


Five years ago one would be quite justified in asking what one meant if we mentioned the Internet. Nowadays the word is so pervasive that you just haven't "arrived" unless you have your own email address, web page, and converse with the global community on a daily basis. As was predicted by Reeves (1997), the influence and presence of the Internet has increased and expanded and continues to do so (Kehoe, Pitkow & Rogers, 1998). Current estimates put the number of people with Internet access as somewhere between 100 and 150 million worldwide, the majority of whom (about 90 million people) are English-speakers (Global Reach, 1998). In our last paper (Thatcher & Feldman, 1997) we defined carnal cybersex in the virtual realm as "written sexual interactions, with a stranger, where sexual acts are described and participants engage in fantasy physical encounters. This can range from kissing, fondling or touching to licking, sucking, fornication or more. This does include spoken or physical encounters or sexually explicit pictures" (pg.37). For reasons of brevity in this paper, when we refer to cybersex, we are in fact referring to carnal cybersex as defined here.

In this research we limited our investigation to chat rooms using IRC. IRC stands for Internet Relay Chat, which allows computer mediated communication with other users in real time. Users communicate through the exchange of sentences and emoticons which are typed into the computer and appear almost simultaneously on other users computer screens.

It is entirely possible that the strangers with whom we interacted, could have been dishonest about their physical characteristics, age and gender. For this reason we have termed them "cybermales", or apparent males in the virtual realm.


Cyberspace is a place where people can be anything and anyone they want. When one hears a statement like this, fantastical images come to mind - size 34DD breasts, long glossy blonde hair, sparkling green eyes, a 12 inch penis, washing board stomach, etc.. It's almost predictable that people would conceptualise themselves as improved and attractive. But when we say attractive, we are really referring to the westernised, physical ideal of beauty. Slim bodies, toned muscles, large breasts with minuscule waistlines and so on.

We freely acknowledge that these images are appealing to the vast majority - evidence of this is apparent in just about every magazine, television program and advertisement. What we were interested to investigate, was whether one needs to project this same westernised ideal on the internet to achieve "cybersatisfaction".

Our previous research (Thatcher & Feldman, 1997) demonstrated without doubt, that it is easy to find sex on the net. Cybersex in real time is just as easy, if you are female. All you need do is log on with a female name and announce that you are looking for love, handsome men or sometimes even a simple "hello" will suffice. We wanted to investigate a slightly different scenario : would we still be attractive to "cybermales" if we presented ourselves as real people? Would cybermales still want to have cybersex with us, if we did not meet these traditional ideals of beauty?

The answers to these questions would contribute to a greater understanding of the type of people who engage in cybersex. Do cybersex participants purposefully enter a world of fantasy when they log on? Are they looking to escape the reality of their partners as well as the reality of themselves? If so, cybersex is really just a type of mutual masturbation and wish fulfillment. Neither partner would be interested in their lover, it is more the idea of the lover, what they picture when they close their eyes that appeals.

This would invariably mean that if one is looking for cybersex, it would be necessary to create a false persona for yourself, unless of course you are the proverbial bombshell or hunk. Real people with real bodies would not stand a chance.

Our main aim was to determine if this scenario is indeed the case.


As with a lot of qualitative research it is quite difficult to put the research methodology into a neat category. This research falls somewhere between participant observation and ethnography. In the strictest sense the actual research that we are reporting here forms part of a participant observation process. Participant observation can be defined as "a method of observation in which a group or a community is studied from within by a researcher" (Rosenthal & Rosnow, 1991, p.625). In order to understand and report this we have had to draw on our previous experiences and interactions in the culture of online real-time conversations - a form of ethnography (ibid.). Also, in the research itself we have performed a great deal of introspection, reflecting and examining the impact of these interactions on ourselves, the researchers.

Step 1: Development of the persona and guidelines for interactions

In order to address the research questions we created three persona, each of which would have a disability representing a deviation from the westernised ideal. While the list of physical problems is seemingly endless, we chose three quite diverse problems; namely obesity, physical disfigurement and physically disabled. We chose to go to the extremes in order to account for the fact that ideal of westernised "beauty" is actually quite broad. Developing persona for these three characters was not an easy task, since not only did we have to develop a fairly neutral physical appearance (apart from the physical problem), but also a fairly detailed "sexual" appearance (eg. breast size and erogenous zones) and the development of a personal history and present for these cyberwomen. We had to explain for example how a person was physically disfigured or how they came to be in a wheelchair, as well as an idea of what work they might be performing and what hobbies and interests they might have. Most of this had to be standardised before the actual participant observation in order to prevent confusion and to speed up the interactions. Our previous encounters in this medium gave us some idea of the types of questions that would probably be asked.

In addition to developing the persona we also agreed on set guidelines and rules for initiating and continuing with cybersex interactions. We decided not to initiate private conversations, and to introduce the physical problem only once a person was "hooked". We also decided to limit ourselves to five or fewer private conversations at a time. We limited each persona to one hour of interaction time for each session and only to continue longer than the hour if a sexual encounter was not ended. Finally we also agreed to see all sexual encounters through to the end and not to engage in virtual coitus interuptus.

Step 2: Participant & non-participant observation

Once the persona and guidelines had been set up we were ready to go online using software called Mirc 3.0. Once we had logged on to a server we joined a channel with fifty or more people, opened with the line: "Hi, any guys out there want to chat ?", and waited for private conversations to be initiated. The interactions took place on two evenings (the time in South Africa when there is a great deal of activity on the IRC). Each interaction involved one researcher who role-played the persona (the participant observer), and the two other researchers who acted as non-participant observers (taking notes on the number of interactions, the nicknames of the participants, and important details of the interactions). The non-participant observers also served as watchdogs ensuring that the persona were role-played consistently. In addition, the private conversations/interactions were logged for analysis at a later stage. The ordering of the persona during the evening and the researcher who role-played a persona was randomly assigned. Hence, each persona was role-played twice over the two evenings, each time by a different role-player.

Stage 3: Debriefing and reflecting

After each evening's session we engaged in a debriefing, where we discussed the interactions and the impact that these sexual interactions had on the participants and non-participants. Each researcher commented on how people interacted with each persona and how these interactions affected them. We also discussed and reflected on any particular incidents that may have affected the session, and how the other cybermales may have felt about these interactions (i.e. were they satisfied, turned-off, angry, etc.).

Stage 4: Analysis

The analysis has been two-fold. Firstly a self-analysis, or introspection, of the impact of this type of interaction on our own lives and opinions. Being intimately involved in the persona and in the sexual interactions some of who we are and who we role-played is contained in the analysis. We sought to deconstruct the situation and how we reacted to it. Secondly we have performed a protocol analysis of the interactions that took place by carefully examining the notes of the session, the logged files and the notes of the debriefing. These results are presented as the three different persona detailed below.



In her book The Forbidden body, Shelly Bovey (1989) writes that because there is no way to hide being fat, except by staying indoors, most fat women exist within a tense and stressful straightjacket, unable to be freely themselves, circumscribed by social censure, aware everyday in everything they do that they are being defined by their body size. This, she refers to as "fattism".

Although there has recently been much media hype about the rejection of the heroin-chic, waif-like model, there is still no doubt, that in Westernised society thin is beautiful. Prejudice is something children learn at an early age. A study was conducted in America in which children are presented with 6 drawings (Goodman, Richardson, Dornbusch & Hastorf, 1963). These drawings depict a normal child, a child with crutches and a brace on one leg, a child in a wheelchair with a blanket covering both legs, a child with one hand missing, a child with a facial disfigurement and a fat child. The children were asked to rate the drawings stating which one they liked most and then least. Results were almost unanimous - the normal child was picked as best and the fat child as worst.

This kind of response is not surprising considering the multitude of socialisation agents that depict fat people as unattractive, stupid, lazy, incompetent and deviant. Even books written for young children contain elements of these social stereotypes : A book called "Mrs Circumference" by Catherine Storr (1989) is written in the form of a rhyme and begins -

"As fat as a pig?...Three times as big, she was as large as a hot air balloon"(pg. 1).

The book continues to ridicule the fat woman, but has a "happy" ending - Mrs Circumference loses weight and obviously lives happily ever after.

Considering the sizable amount of literature that exists about fattism and prejudice toward fat people, we hypothesised that cybermales would not be keen to enter into cybersexual relations with us, if we admitted to being drastically overweight. We therefore devised fat Mandy and fat Gina.

Mandy and Gina are the same character, but were played by two different researchers on two separate occasions as was outlined in the methodology. This was done to determine whether cybermales were responding to the researcher's personality and turn of phrase, or the made-up character.

Mandy is 25 years old. She is 5'5" and has brown eyes, shoulder length reddish, brown hair, a fair complexion and weighs 140kg. She has a BA with majors in Psychology and Sociology and currently works in the public relations department of a large insurance company. She wears a size 48DD bra and has a lot of self-confidence. She is sexually charged and believes she has a lot to offer.

Despite our reservations, and pre-conceived ideas - Mandy was, on the whole, a raving success. She had men eating out of her ample bosom at a rate of knots. Not only did she disclose her weight, she made constant references to it - she compared her breasts to melons (watermelons), she described her nipples as butternut, she even commented that she could not realistically describe her vagina as she had difficulty seeing it. It obviously was not a problem to most cybermales.

One of the cybermales commented that he liked fat women as they were soft. Another stated that he liked fat women as long as they were sexy. Out of ten encounters, only one cybermale logged off after hearing of Mandy's size. This particular cybermale was overtly sexual and seemed keen to engage in cybersex, until he read Mandy's physical description. At this point he did not pass any nasty comments or even make feeble excuses, he simply disappeared.

During another encounter, Mandy disclosed her weight to a cybermale, who then continued without mentioning her size at all. Before things got too steamy, Mandy pushed the issue. "Does fat turn you on?" she asked. The answer was a stark - "no". "Does fat turn you off then?" . "Yes". "Well in that case, why are you interested in me?". The cybermale then stated that Mandy had not mentioned she was fat. She told him to check the recorded conversation again. At this point, the cybermale stated that he only wanted to talk anyway and soon logged off, obviously in search of thinner, less meaty "cybergals".

Although Mandy was rejected twice, they were, in a comparative sense, gentle rejections. She was never insulted nor criticised.

One of four possible conclusions can be drawn from Mandy's experience.

  • That fat is not an issue for cybermales.
  • That cybermales do not internalise or visualise their cyberlover's physical characteristics and therefore gloss over the fact that Mandy is fat.
  • That cybersex is cybersex and it doesn't matter who or what is on the other end of the connection. or.....
  • That fat woman are actually sexually appealing to cybermales.

The last possible conclusion is an interesting one. In cyberspace there is no-one around to observe and pass judgement on issues such as having a fat lover. There is no doubt that in real life people do pass comments, stare openly, laugh and taunt couples who are sizemically mismatched. Perhaps men really don't mind fat women. Perhaps what they shy away from, is the social impact being attracted to a fat woman would create, and not the woman herself.


Images of the ideal body do not only include concerns around weight. Our ability to move and be active is a very important part of the way in which sexuality has been constructed by the media. Sporty, agile, supple, graceful, limber and athletic are all images of a sexy person. We add value to a normally functioning body in that it brings us independence, control and a certain degree of potency, both in our everyday functioning, but also as sexual beings.

Being physically disabled, and confined to a wheelchair, is an obvious violation of the ideal body. We therefore chose physical disability as one of our persona's characteristics.

Sarah/Andrea is 25 years old, and is confined to a wheelchair as a result of a mountaineering accident. She has blonde hair, blue eyes and has a slender build. She has size 34 B breasts. She would be of average height, if she could stand. She is paralysed, and has no feeling from the waist down. The way in which she became disabled was chosen as it still reflects a sense of vitality, an interest in sport and activity. It reflects someone who once was all of the things that are considered attractive, someone who is aware of what it is like to be able to do those types of things.

Reactions to Sarah were varied, ranging from acceptance to disgust and horror. The most notable encounter was with a cybermale called Bob (not his real IRC nickname). Sarah's disability was disclosed to Bob before any "cyberintimacy" began. He appeared to accept it, in a patronising manner, but continued the encounter, getting more intimate with Sarah and participating in "cyberforeplay". At one point, which appeared to the team to be quite suddenly and out of the blue, Bob began to react quite violently to Sarah.

" This handicap shit isn't working for me" he said.

" You're a fucked up woman."

" A whore, a South African slut".

" You should have been paralysed from the neck down."

He then terminated the encounter. The research team was taken aback, unsure of where this was coming from. After about half an hour Bob returned, apologising to Sarah and saying he loved her, asking her if he could "fuck her up the arse". The malicious and sarcastic undertones were clear, and it was decided not to pursue that encounter.

This very ambiguous response to Sarah seems to reflect the ambivalence people have, in general, toward physical disability. It is something we feel we need to accept, and evokes in us a sense of pity. Yet at the same time it repels us, threatening our sense of comfort, reminding us how fickle our bodies actually are. Physical disability cannot be blamed away with the ease that obesity can. It is not something we can accuse others of "bringing upon themselves". Therefore it can happen to anyone.

The fact that Sarah was confined to a wheelchair infiltrated every aspect of the cybersex encounter. " I can't feel that", "I can't move to do that" - her disability, unlike obesity or disfigurement, could not simply be brushed away or forgotten. It was in the face of the cybermale all the time.

Sarah had the fewest successful encounters - physical disability appeared to be too much for the "cyberuniverse" to contemplate.


Ugly, unattractive, repulsive, grotesque are all subjectively loaded adjectives describing someone who is aesthetically unpleasing to someone else. We wanted to create a persona who would encapsulate all these adjectives to the widest possible audience, and yet would still not appear to be over-the-top.

Kathy/Tash is an 18 year old, female, from Johannesburg; she is slender and slightly built (about 5'3; size 34D breasts), with a light complexion (from staying out of the sun); her hair colour is brown, but she wears a wig to cover the thin wispy hair that grows on her head; she works as a temporary secretary since completing matric at the end of last year. Tash was involved in an accident as a 6 year old, where a pot of boiling oil fell down from a stove causing extensive burns and severe scarring to her head, face, shoulders and chest; she is not "pretty" to look at and subsequently has a poor self image

We decided to settle on a physically disfiguring feature that would encapsulate the essence of ugliness, and that we could still plausibly explain. We acknowledge from the outset that this is still our interpretation of the loaded adjective "ugly", and that some people may still find someone with scar burns on such visible features as the head, face, neck and shoulders, physically attractive. We would also be the first to acknowledge that attraction between human beings is more than just a manifestation of their outward physical appearance. Nonetheless, we are researching in a cyberworld where the only limitations to how we wish to make ourselves appear are the imagination of those people with whom we interact, and our ability to describe ourselves in words.

Much to our surprise many of the interactions showed that there was a great deal of sympathy towards her accident, and most of the people were willing, even eager, to look past her disfigurement and to engage in cybersex. One cybermale was actually quite surprised that we had even brought up the disfigurement issue at all, and questioned whether she was making a feeble attempt to get people to feel sorry for her. Generally there was a feeling that in this "cyberworld" one could look beyond your "real world" problems and be who ever you wished to be. These cybermales were probably doing just that, and imagining that Sarah was their ideal sex goddess. This persona did, however, produce the most violent reaction of any of the interactions, from a cybermale we called Jack (not his real IRC nickname). So vehement and malicious was the attack that it caught us quite undefended.



The whole mood in the research team changed quite dramatically after this incident, and we found ourselves more guarded in our interactions after this event. It is quite possible that attacks like this are not isolated events and given the number of people who utilise this medium of communication, it is possible that one will encounter such reactions on a regular basis. If this is the case, the interactions may not be as free, liberated and uninhibited imaginatively as we are often led to believe. This reaction also showed us that thrusting a physically unappealing persona into this "perfect" virtual world was more than some people are willing to allow. This concept made us examine our own feelings and interpretations about the cyberencounters. We will now share some of our personal reflections.



As Fat Mandy I felt good about myself. I was popular and appealing and was accepted openly. The two rejections were easily shrugged off as the quantity and quality of the good experiences dominated. After the encounters I was left with an overwhelmingly positive feeling, but also a sense of melancholy. If only real life was this accepting. If only physical appearances were this immaterial. It's a pity that a medium like the internet is necessary to elicit such feelings of warmth and self-worth. If I was Mandy, I would definitely use chat rooms again, for cybersex and casual, non-judgmental conversation.

I was not left with good feelings after playing the role of Disabled Andrea. Bob's vicious attack left me with a very bitter aftertaste. The other encounters were not generally positive either. Out of five encounters only two cybermales were prepared to have cybersex with me and accept me for what I was. Two cybermales logged off as soon as they heard I was paralysed and then there was Bob.... If I was Andrea, this man would have destroyed me. I doubt I would've recovered sufficiently to continue surfing the internet that night.

I felt hurt, sick and angry. The anonymity that the internet grants you, does not give you carte blanche to abuse people in this way. It struck me how completely vulnerable you are on the internet. You can bare your soul to a complete stranger who has to assume no responsibility for what he says to you. It is exposing...and very scary. I never picked this up before because I never felt I had anything to hide or be ashamed of. Being disabled showed me that cyberspace is even more cruel than reality. I sincerely doubt anyone would have the courage/audacity to say those things to Andrea's face, she probably would not have been exposed to this kind of cruelty if the internet did not allow for anonymity.

As Andrea I probably would not engage in cybersex again. If I did, I would definitely lie about my disability.


One of the things that makes me different has been the fact that I am a 28-year old, white, male role-playing persona who are both younger and more importantly a different gender from myself, apart from the physical maladies that we have created for them. I found that the initial interactions were quite easy to role-play, after all, introducing one's self and striking up a conversation is probably more about personal preferences than about one's gender. When it came to reciprocating sexual advances or carrying out sexual actions I found it increasingly difficult to relate to the persona that I was role-playing. I, after all, have no experience as a woman on the receiving end of a sexual encounter. I found myself looking to descriptions and reactions found in sex scenes of "pop" novels (which incidently are also sometime written by men) and to what I felt were stereotypical responses. It is also interesting to note that at some level I must have felt uncomfortable with the situation and, as the sexual encounters intensified I found that I was distancing myself by referring to the persona in the third person.

Perhaps it is this distancing which left me with the feeling that these interactions were entirely superficial and sexually unexciting. After the initial excitement that you are communicating in real time with several people from around the world simultaneously wears off, I couldn't help feeling that there was something missing from the interactions.


Despite having the double 'protection' of both physical distance and a false persona (which supposedly in no way related to my actual self), I found myself being personally affected by the experiences I had. In fact, I felt quite disturbed following both my cyberencounter sessions. I have come to understand this in two ways. Firstly, my opinion of myself as an open minded and highly tolerant person was quite strongly challenged, particularly when I had adopted the persona of Disfigured Kathy. My own discomfort with this persona came as a surprise to me, and I initially made sense of it in terms of discomfort with the notion of engaging in this type of research. My reaction, however, was very strong, and I felt a deep sense of discomfort both playing and talking about Kathy. It became apparent to me that I was having difficulty with the notion of her disfigurement, which in itself caused me a certain amount of shame.

The encounter with one cybermale, who reacted most violently to Kathy's disfigurement, thus became disturbing at two levels. Firstly it felt like a very personal attack and very difficult to differentiate from an attack on my actual self. Secondly at some very deep level it seemed almost understandable. I could, in some way, relate to this cybermale's absolute fury at being confronted with Kathy. This sense of ownership, of both my persona as well as the responses of the people I was interacting with, gives an indication to me the sense of meaning encounters with IRC can take on, however protected one imagines oneself to be.

Despite having a created persona, this seemed to only offer protection in terms of physical appearance. Every other aspect of the encounter felt very much a part of me, and very difficult to disengage myself from. The conversation, responses, and questions seemed to me to be very much myself, very much the kind of conversations I would have as myself. Thus there was a certain degree of personal investment in the characters. With this personal investment comes the risk of personal rejection, and I actually found myself becoming highly anxious about 'breaking the news' of my disfigurement or obesity, as it left me open to either rejection or abuse.

My interactions with my colleagues was also affected, primarily in two ways. On one level I was quite anxious to protect them from the kind of encounter I had as Kathy, and would therefore attempt to get them to tone down everything that was written when playing her. At another level I felt I had to protect myself from their insight, and became quite defensive and certainly highly sensitive, both when doing the actual research and when discussing it. What was just exploration of the emerging themes felt very attacking to me.

In conclusion, the entire experience was a very personal one, and was one that left me quite disturbed. This came as a surprise to me, as I expected it to be quite clinical, not because it was research, but because I had always imagined such IRC encounters to be absent of personal investment.


The initial mood with which the research was conducted was one of excitement, fun and joviality. There was an air of anticipation and an almost incessant background of nervous giggles. We chided each other as we took on the roles of active voyeurs. "Tell him to touch your breasts" ; "Make him come on your chest" , "Sis man, I wouldn't swallow it". It was crude and completely unrestricted. There was no shyness in front of one another, in fact there was almost a competitive air of who could obtain the most cyberlovers in the shortest time, despite the disabilities.

One thing was for certain, there was no sexual anticipation amongst ourselves. The encounters were almost clinical they were so emotionless. The thrill was in disclosing the disability and still hooking your man. Once things started to get physical it became boring, tiresome. On many occasions one of us would remark, "Ok, he's in. Now make him come and let's get on with it. Anyone for more hot chocolate?".

The entire mood changed with Jack. Jack rocked our very foundations. We expected rejection, but nothing as cruel, as blatant and as cutting. This was serious. This was sick and upsetting. We needed to talk it through. We spent more than four hours debriefing one another, but the feelings remained. We had stumbled into an arena in which we were no longer the aggressors, but instead the victims.

On the second night of field work, our attitude was still somber. We liked to think of it as more mature, although it possibly had more to do with fear. The ethical concerns were racing in our minds and we were uncertain whether we should continue. We decided that we had come to far to turn back and made numerous justifications to try and alleviate the insecurity we all felt.

Again we were shattered. This time by Bob. It was clear that this was no game. None of us shared the disabilities of our characters, but we were certainly sharing their feelings of pain and rejection.


The subject of cybersex is a complicated one to research. The most complicated area that confronted us was the ethical arena. It would be ideal to identify oneself before each sexual encounter is initiated. This would entail informing the cybermale that you are a researcher, that you are possibly male, that you are conducting research on cybersex, and that you do not really suffer from the chosen disability. It would then be entirely up to the cybermale whether he would like to continue.

This is obviously problematic. Despite the problems of observer bias, a volunteer sample and questionable honesty, it is doubtful whether anyone would agree to participate (Kerlinger, 1986). One is therefore left with two options. You could either debrief the subject after the encounter, or conduct the research in a completely anonymous fashion and allow the cybermale to believe he has participated in a genuine cybersex encounter.

In the first of these options it is very possible that the cybermale will feel humiliated, angry, ashamed, embarrassed. Perhaps he has just participated in a bondage scenario with a paraplegic. There is a strong possibility he will regret the encounter, think he is abnormal for having performed the act. He could feel used, even abused. He could be left with serious unresolved feelings about his behaviour, his motivation, his personality. None of this even takes into account the fact that he could have just had cybersex with a man. If this were not a problem for him, he would be looking for love in a blatantly homosexual channel, not the type we were frequenting. This does not appear to be a viable option.

In the second option, there are superficially few ethical problems. The subject remains completely anonymous. He is totally unaware of the deception. There is no reason why this "cyberencounter" should be any different from others he has had. The disability is always revealed before any sexual intimacy is initiated, giving him ample opportunity to log off or refuse sexual contact (which did happen is several instances). There is no evidence to suggest that these types of encounters do not happen regularly on the internet and that our presence was merely incidental in the lives of the cybermales.

This is plausible, but we cannot overlook the fact that the deception did occur. These subjects did not choose to participate in this research. They may very well have been affected by the research themselves. It is very possible that the cybermales regret their behaviour and comments. Their remorse may be very real and may lead to feelings of guilt, anxiety and depression. There is no way we could offer debriefing or counselling to any of them. There are those who would argue for a just world hypothesis - you get what you deserve. If they had not acted in such a shocking way, they would not have to bear the consequences of their actions. This may be what you believe, but it still does not absolve us from actually initiating the situation.

It is also possible that the cybermales who voluntarily participated in the cybersex are also left with unresolved feelings about their behaviour. Should they feel guilty or dirty for what they did ? Does it make them weird or in some way bad ? Again there is no way we can offer assistance in helping these people deal with their anxieties and doubts. Where does this leave us ? Was the research unethical ? Should further research of this kind be prevented ? Are we modern day Milgrams ?

If so, we are in good company. After all, how many researchers go back to their respondents to ensure that they have dealt with any unresolved issues after an interview or questionnaire ? As social researchers we are quite comfortable with the notion of administering hundreds of questionnaires with the impression that they have no impact on the respondents. Social researchers cannot ignore the fact that all research can serve to conscientise the respondents about sensitive issues such as racial prejudice, personality disorders or organisational injustice. But we cannot allow social research to grind to a halt because respondents may be emotionally exposed.

With this in mind one wonders why our respondents feelings are so important to us in this situation. After all, is it not our own unresolved issues and post research cognitive dissonance that we are projecting onto our respondents ? We feel that this is very much an issue which should be open for debate. The dilemma of covert research is not a new one (Berg, 1995). Berg (1995) leaves the covert researcher with this comfort: "the decision about whether to assume an overt or a covert researcher role, involves a negotiated and, it is hoped, balanced weighting of the potential gains against the potential losses" (pg. 211).


Fantasy is a powerful aphrodisiac. In the recesses of our minds our deepest wishes manifest themselves, and take on a powerful and invigorating life. We use them to feed our deepest desires, and engage them in order to satiate needs that we feel could otherwise not be met. At the same time, in face to face, actual encounters, our fantasies are forced to merge with elements of our reality. We can act out our fantasy's only as far as circumstances allow. With people who can see us, who know our history, and who know our present, our ability to actualise our fantasy selves is limited. Even when playing out fantasies in an intimate sexual encounter, the reality of our physical appearance is often something we are unable, or unwilling, to let go of.

Reality, therefore, plays an important role in our fantasies. It is in fact enmeshed with the healthiness of those fantasies. Regardless of what they are, in reality, we, on the most part, function and interact with others, we create space and use that space for ourselves, and we get by with who we are - at some level our real selves are acceptable too. That becomes reinforced with real encounters. In turn our sense of possibility, our notion of fantasy is enhanced - fantasy and reality become a reciprocal dance, feeding into one another .

Cyberencounters in chat rooms, however, have made the promise of a clean slate, the opportunity to recreate yourself in any form you wish. And in turn they have promised the opportunity to live out your fantasy without the constraints of reality. For those who would rather be someone else, cyberencounters would appear to be the answer. But is cybersex the enactment of fantasy, or does it just reinforce our sense of how unacceptable reality is?

Part of how our fantasies are constructed relates to the person we envisage ourselves with. The person we interact with forms part of our fantasy. The fantasy reflects how we feel about ourselves when we are with someone we find attractive. Despite this, it became clear during our encounters, that people very seldom registered the appearance of the other person. This became most apparent when in one of our own encounters a cybermale described himself as 'not very skinny'. We did not even realise this until much further into the conversation, despite the fact that we were hyper vigilante about issues around physical appearance.

In essence, we were so concerned about how we were being portrayed, that the actual appearance of anyone else was irrelevant. Another incident highlighted this point. With one of the encounters, the cybermale was told that the character weighed 140kg. He appeared to accept this without much concern, in fact with very little reaction. Only when he was asked directly whether fat was an issue for him, did he actually look back at the conversation and realise that the person he was speaking to was obese. Perhaps this can be understood by the idea that the other person in a cybersex encounter, is merely a tool for the enactment of your own fantasy. The image of who you are talking to exists already, as part of your own fantasy, and therefore the details of their description become irrelevant - unless they are highlighted or extreme in some way.

Indications are that the important part of the fantasy with IRC is in how a person can create themselves and portray themselves to others, as opposed to the interaction itself. Who you are talking to appears to be of little consequence. The cybersatisfaction comes from turning yourself into your fantasy, and being able to act on that without any constraints. Reality has no place in this cyberworld. One cybermale, when informed of Kathy's deformity said "You're on the Internet now. Those things don't matter", and proceeded with the conversation, and the cybersex, with no further consideration of the issue. While this might indicate a certain tolerance, it is probably more indicative of the refusal to allow reality into a space that appears to have been created for fantasy alone.

Similarly, the very harsh almost violent reactions, as well as the ones where people completely disengaged from the conversation, can be understood as a response to being confronted by reality, when quite possibly you set out to look for just the opposite. The violation of your fantasy, where you are perfect, and therefore belong with someone perfect, can evoke a very strong rejection of reality, as well as a sense of having to reconnect with your own reality- a space where you feel you are not adequate enough for the perfect specimen.

Introducing elements of reality into a cybersex encounter is likely to leave one feeling inadequate. However it is put across, the message is quite clear, that "stuff" does not belong here. We are then left with a sense that it is not acceptable. The continual creation of fantasy personas, without the backdrop of reality against which our real issues are acceptable, can leave one with a very strong sense of not being okay. Even after the encounters that were "successful" (i.e. Where cybersex did take place) the sense of cybersatisfaction was remarkably absent. The whole hearted acceptance of our fantasy personas, with the rejection of our real "stuff", is more likely to highlight how unacceptable reality is, than to make fantasy enjoyable.

Cybersex - It's life Jim, but not as we WANT it!


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Paper presented at the 4th Annual Qualitative Methods Conference: "Histories of the present"
3 & 4 September 1998, Johannesburg, South Africa
critical methods society - -