The new flowers of evil: bad news is, they don’t stink

by Yule Heibel on April 18, 2004

BBC News World Edition carried this item yesterday, Online affairs ‘are infidelity’, which refers to a study by Dr. Monica Whitty of the Psychology Department at Queen’s University in Belfast, Ireland. It was published in the November 2003 issue of CyberPsychology & Behavior. The abstract of Whitty‘s article, called “Pushing the Wrong Buttons: Men’s and Women’s Attitudes toward Online and Offline Infidelity,” states:

Despite current researchers’ interest in the study of online sexual addiction, there is a dearth of research available on what constitutes online infidelity. This paper attempts to redress this balance by comparing 1,117 participants’attitudes toward online and offline acts of infidelity. A factor analysis was carried out that yielded three components of infidelity: sexual infidelity, emotional infidelity, and pornography. More importantly, this study revealed that online acts of betrayal do not fall into a discrete category of their own. A MANOVA was performed and revealed a statistically significant difference on the combined dependent variables for the interaction of gender by age, age by relationship status, and Internet sexual experience. The hypotheses were, in part, supported. However, counter to what was predicted, in the main younger people were more likely to rate sexual acts as acts of betrayal than older individuals. It is concluded here that individuals do perceive some online interactions to be acts of betrayal. In contrast to some researchers’ claims, it is suggested here that we do need to consider how bodies are reconstructed online [emphasis added]. Moreover, these results have important implications for any treatment rationale for infidelity (both online and offline).

This is interesting, especially the bit that we need to be aware of how bodies are reconstructed online. For if it holds that “we write ourselves into existence” (attributed to David Weinberger, author of Small Pieces Loosely Joined), it seems also fair to say that we visualise ourselves into existence. And perhaps also into trouble. Maybe into calm freedom; who can say. But the visualisation of images can have an effect as effective as words: why else would entire industries be built on PR, marketing, and advertising? I found it interesting that Whitty‘s report doesn’t focus on cyberpornography as such: she instead analyses the data on reported effects (and how these effects are perceived in partnerships) of online flirting, cybersex activity, and “hot chatting.” (But here, too, images rule; it’s like the difference between reading Philosophy and seeing it on Triple-XXX tape.) It seemed to me that Whitty is pointing to this woven construct of words and voice coupled with visualisation and actual body-sense (the surfer’s or hot-chatter’s, recursively imagined in the cyberpartner[s], and so on, endlessly). It’s a construct that’s perceived as real, activated in the betrayed partner’s perception as “online infidelity”: the betrayer has flirted and orgasmed him- or herself cybernetically into a relationship with another cyber-“friend” or online lover. From p.8:

The findings from this study challenge the notion that acts that occur in cyberspace cannot have a “real” impact on an individual’s life. Many theorists have placed a strong emphasis on the absence of the body in cyberspace [2 footnotes here], focusing on cybersex as an action that does not involve the “real presence” of bodies. Such researchers focus on the importance of a “meeting of minds.” In contrast, this study found that individuals separate disclosing intimate details with another online (emotional infidelity) and engaging in sexual activities (sexual infidelity) online with another. This current study suggests that people at least perceive online acts of infidelity as authentic and real as offline acts. Certainly, there are no physical bodies present online; however, this in turn does not mean that the action is “unreal.” Instead, Internet relationships are better understood if we focus on the reconstruction of the body online, which is imperative to the success of many online interpersonal interactions.[1 fn] In line with this view, engaging in virtual erotic communications online with someone other than one’s partner can pose a real threat to couples.

Bodies reconstructed online, eh? Oy! Lads and lassies, this is a strange new world. I didn’t actually come across BBC or Whitty’s study first — I only found it because of something I read in my local weekly paper, The Victoria News, specifically yesterday’s Weekend Edition, which cited a parallel-in-topic study that was published by the same journal in which Whitty’s study appeared. The article in the local paper, by Mark Browne, is called Surfing sex not healthy — study. It reported on a paper by Sylvain Boies, Alvin Cooper, and C.S. Osborne, with the heady title, “Variations in Internet-Related Problems and Psychosocial Functioning in 207 Online Sexual Activities: Implications for Social and Sexual Development of Young Adults.” I can’t link to it except to CyberPsychology & Behavior‘s table of contents page for April 2004 where you can see it listed at the bottom of the first page. There is also another study by Boies available here, and this press release from UVic, where Boies works, gives a few more details. The study’s basic finding, cited in the press release, is this:

Respondents who did not use the Internet for arousal or information about sex were more satisfied and connected with their offline life than other groups. Students who only sought sexual information online had strong offline affiliations and those who only viewed porn or sought sexual arousal online didn’t show signs of being dissatisfied with their offline life either. However, students who used the Net for both types of activities found that their real-life relationships and overall functioning suffered.

“Young adults who overuse the Internet to a degree that limits their participation in real life appear to be at risk of developing sexual and relationship problems,” Boies explains. “This can delay or distort the development of their sense of who they are and their ability to form intimate and satisfying relationships.”

Browne interviewed Boies, and his remarks suggest a fascinating conclusion in which our “online reconstructed bodies” turn out to be excising us from our real embodiment — and just where does that leave actual sex?

Students who took part in the survey who “were doing the best, in terms of overall psycho-social functioning” weren’t using the Internet for sexual entertainment or advice. Boies said that would suggest that on-line sexual activities are actually not about sex [emphasis added].

“It’s not really what young people are looking for,” he said. “They’re trying to get a sense of being a competent person through their on-line activities, most likely because that’s something that they cannot do off-line.”

Young university students who have problems developing relationships and exploring sexuality “off-line” might be attracted to the Internet as a refuge for resolving the difficulties they’re having in those areas, he said. Those who sought both sexual entertainment and advice were negatively affected simply because they were so preoccupied with the Internet, Boies said.

“They wanted to go on the Internet all the time — it became their world,” he said.

Students who fell into that category, Boies said, didn’t have a strong sense of being competent people off-line. [More….]

What’s so odd, of course, is that a big source of this sense of incompetence in one’s offline life is fueled by the endless parade of manufactured, visualised bodies, legions of which are now headed our way via the Internet. And so it goes, everyone dancing virtually and actually in a chain of flowers without scent. (…How will you find your way home? Cyberspace has cut off your nose!) If we now think back to Whitty’s study, something else also suggests itself: in Whitty’s infidelity study, the betrayed partner, apparently more wedded to offline life with his or her partner than the always online partner is, seems to have a sense of real body (his or her own) and a sense of real grievance over the always-online betraying partner’s deliberate removal of his or her person into cyberspace. The betrayer, however, doesn’t seem to have a corresponding sense of having betrayed his or her partner. Does this mean that his or her offline coping capabilities are diminished, as per Boies study? Is “offline capability erosion” (let’s call it OCE, let’s say it’s a new psychopathology, let’s say I get to copyright the term!) linked to all kinds of other sociopathologies, like ethical deficits, body-image disorders, and various abilities to absent oneself from average life? I really wish that online activity and blogging and Voice and all that does have lots to do with writing oneself into existence, but what kind of meaning does it have for the so-called younger generation (god, that sounds so patronising!) in Boies’s study, given that so many are not going to the Internet for the privileged activity of honing their verbal skills? PS: I’ve fixed the Whitty link — it works now, opening the PDF to the article. Ditto for the April 2004 table of contents.


maria April 18, 2004 at 1:56 pm

Ah, Yule … what a fascinating post. Cyberspace may well have cut off our noses, but, from the studies you cite, it seems that our sense of smell depends on an altogether other organ anyway. I don’t know why, but as you were describing the study, I kept remembering former president Carter’s admission that he has lusted in his heart. Perhaps, he was prescient, or understood really well the core issue of betrayal more deeply than most of us could fathom before these kinds of studies came along.

That some of us champion the Internet as that next dimension into which we write ourselves, well, that may well have everything to do with us and nothing with the Internet as such. Even without the Internet, those of us who live by words, would be writing ourselves into existence anyway — in letters, poems, plays … or scribbles in the sand. Only with fewer chances to “embody” our ideas so that they could go forth and multiply among the other wordshippers [yes, a play on worshippers and also on cargo cults, if you like]!

Tom Shugart April 18, 2004 at 5:14 pm

Highly interesting post, Yule. And kudos for your wonderfully-coined new pathology.

You imply a generational divide here, but I’m not sure I see it. The younger folks who suffer from “offline incompetence” and are hooked on Internet titillation are, in my view, merely a latter-day incarnation of those who, in my youth, lurked around the girlie magazine stands and spent their allowances on peep shows.

Then there were those who wrote and discussed; who sought “Voice” and members of the opposite sex at poetry readings, improvisational jazz sessions and the like.

Plus ca change, etc. The divide is typological, not generational. The varied avenues of preference branch out in their usual directions. Only the pavement changes.

P.S.–humble thanks for including me on you distinguished list of bloggers!

Joel April 18, 2004 at 7:19 pm

It’s odd to think how willingly we become pornographic objects online. But as Stephen Marcus said, pornography is about lying: how many of us are the goddesses or gods we portray ourselves to be?

Check out the author photo at http://www.asmallvictory. What is this person trying to put across? (I have similar bare shoulder shots on my blog, but I hope the hair growing on my shoulders fends off any would-be lusters-after.)

Joel April 18, 2004 at 7:23 pm

One more thing: in my experience, the most promiscuous cyber-sex addicts are in their late thirties through fifties. Not the younger generation, but ~our~ peers.

Yule Heibel April 20, 2004 at 12:19 am

I agree, Maria, that some of us would be scribbling away in any medium. The internet lets us do it more ubiquitously, I guess, but it’s sure not going to work in that way for a lot of other people. I think this body-thing and visuality is important to try to figure out, or at least get a feel for.

Tom: “distinguished list of bloggers”? Where?? 😉 (teehee!) Yes, typological, not necessarily generational divide, that’s a good way to put it.

To both Tom and Joel, I did put some emphasis on generation because Whitty’s study does, and because Boies looks only at young people. Whitty suggests that younger people actually have a more stringent view of when infidelity has occurred, which is kind of interesting. Having said that, I also have to admit that I have no first-hand information on what older teens or 20-somethings are doing online vis-a-vis sexual information and/or porn. Boies’s study, which focussed exclusively on younger people, seems to suggest that individuals who use the Internet for both sexual advice and cyberporn stimulation are the ones with the “offline capabilities erosion,” and, by extension, that their sexual surfing isn’t really about sex at all, but about getting a sense of competency via online activity (when, in previous eras, they would have been getting it offline — perhaps from a book, or another person). My closing speculation finally speaks more to the fact that I really don’t know for sure how a generation with a very different receptor-set for new technologies is dealing with the digitisation of the physical world. I don’t know, maybe teens and 20-somethings generally walk around, inbetween rushes of pure physicality, in a hormone-induced stupor akin to a batch of bad dope. I know I did, and it took me a while to really get a hold of my body: it was the roller-coaster thing — “I’m alive!! I’m dead… I’m alive!! I’m dead….” But at the same time, I didn’t have to deal with all the GADGETS and their mediation of my life. I could get stoned or drunk, I could go dancing, I could listen to music, read, or make art, or write, but I couldn’t plug my brain into a computer. I didn’t have a relationship with an online community or an anime or an avatar. I don’t know how that really changes things. That’s what I was fumbling towards in that last bit. Things have changed for kids, in relation to the stuff we put in front of them and subsequently in terms of their peer experiences, and it’s really not completely the same for them, today, as it was for us, back then. Camille Paglia has this rather annoying article about “The Magic of Images; Word and Picture in a Media Age” (via Arts & Letters Daily), with which I disagree to about 78%, but while she’s coming at it from a very different angle, I do agree with her that we’re letting our kids today valorise a different style of attention. She says it’s because we’re flooded by pictures, don’t read long books, etc., but I think you have to differentiate between the ways of flooding, and the ways in which different types of people are affected, which in turn will affect your strategies for countering the flooding in your teaching. (She’s writing from a teacher/ professor perspective.)

Joel April 20, 2004 at 4:19 am

It was a lot more fun when you had to figure things out on your own….

brian moffatt April 20, 2004 at 10:10 am

Are youth wanking their way into existence?

Tom Shugart April 20, 2004 at 7:05 pm

Yule, your comments to your commenters are better than most people’s blogs. Your one above has inspired a new post in my blog.

Not sure I understand your question about “distinguished blogs.” I should have said “blogroll.” Yours is first class.

Yule Heibel April 20, 2004 at 11:14 pm

Brian, haven’t we always done that? Writin’ & wankin’ and the importance of a room of one’s own… 😉

Thanks Tom! I’ll have to check out what you wrote as soon as I have a minute! The giggle over “distinguished blogs” was because I remembered Brian Moffatt telling me that blogging was like joining the Mafia — once you join, you can’t get out (although he did, but he’s still commenting all over the place!). So I had this vision of distinguished mafiosi. It struck me as funny 😉 ……

Monica Whitty March 27, 2005 at 9:32 am

Only just came across this — nice to know people read your stuff. Loved the article and the comments. However, just to clarify, I actually did consider porn in the study (and it is written up in the paper) — it wasn’t ranked by participants as an act of betrayal — which does not,of course mean that people don’t get upset if their spouse looks at porn (online or offline). I have conducted a few more studies on internet infidelity since — which you can see on my web page — I’m happy to give out copies to anyone interested.


Yule Heibel April 17, 2005 at 9:26 pm

Thanks for stopping by, Monica. I see some links to your articles on your publications page, as well as the citations to articles not available online. And your webpage has your email link, so, if anyone else stumbles on this blog entry and needs more details, etc., go to Monica’s webpage.

My apologies for the way my page has somehow disintegrated in terms of formatting. If it’s completely illegible, try a different browser (Firefox, Safari, Opera), but it looks like the lines are going way beyond the margin, etc. Sorry about that… 😉

Anonymous September 17, 2005 at 5:23 pm

Thank you very much!

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