"Never before has the dating world been so handy for married men and women looking for a fling," said Beatriz Avila Mileham, who conducted the research for her doctoral dissertation in counselor education at UF. "With cybersex, there is no longer any need for secret trips to obscure motels. An online liaison may even take place in the same room with one's spouse."
In the words of one 41-year-old man in the study, "All I have to do is turn on my computer, and I have thousands of women to choose from. (It) can't get any easier than that."
Counseling organizations report chat rooms are the fastest-rising cause of relationship breakdowns, and the problem only stands to get worse as today's population of Internet users, estimated at 649 million worldwide, continues to grow, Mileham said.
"The Internet will soon become the most common form of infidelity, if it isn't already," she said.
Unlike some fatal attractions, a simple click of a mouse button ends contact - should the person want to break it off - without any explanations or apologies, she said.
In 2002, Mileham conducted in-depth online interviews with 76 men and 10 women, ages 25 to 66, who used Yahoo's "Married and Flirting" or Microsoft's "Married But Flirting," Internet chat rooms geared specifically for married people. The study's participants, who represented every state, included stay-at-home mothers, construction workers, engineers, nurses and presidents of large corporations. Some went online for a quick "sex fix," while others established more meaningful connections where they talked about personal problems, marital issues and things like that, Mileham said. Others hoped to have a real-life affair. Still others wanted to engage in cybersex, exchanging sexual fantasies with someone while masturbating, she said.
The vast majority said they loved their spouses but sought an erotic encounter online because of boredom, a partner's lack of sexual interest or the need for variety and fun, Mileham said.
"I'm not going to cheat," wrote one married man. "I'm just capturing back some of those butterflies we feel when we're young and start flirting and dating."
"The No. 1 complaint from men was lack of sex in the marriage," Mileham said. "Many of them said their wife was so involved in childrearing that she wasn't interested in having sex." Because there is no touching involved in online chat conversations, married people often rationalize their behavior as harmless fun, Mileham said. Eighty-three percent of the study's participants said they did not consider themselves to be cheating, and the remaining 17 percent deemed it a "weak" form of infidelity that was easily justifiable, she said.
Other research has shown, however, that most spouses feel as betrayed, angry and hurt by online infidelity as they would if skin-to-skin adultery had taken place, she said.
The UF study found an escalating quality to these online contacts. Many reported that what started as innocent, friendly exchanges progressed quickly to strong desires for sexual relationships, she said.
Twenty-six of the 86 study participants went on to meet the person whom they had been engaged in an online relationship with, and of these, all but two ended up having a real-life affair. One 66-year-old man ended up having 13 affairs this way, she said.
Research shows that more males than females use chat rooms, said Mileham, who found it difficult to get women to respond to her survey. Females are usually bombarded with messages and can pick and choose which messages they respond to, she said.
Al Cooper, a leading expert in the field of Internet sexuality and the author of the book "Sex and the Internet: A Guidebook for Clinicians," said Mileham's research is important in helping to understand this increasingly common phenomenon.
"We are hearing from therapists around the country reporting online sexual activity to be a major cause of marital problems," Cooper said. "We need to better understand the contributing factors if we are going to be able to warn people about the slippery slope that starts with online flirting and too often ends in divorce."
With the exception of two of the study's participants, all hid their online activities from their spouses, often "chatting" after their husbands or wives had gone to sleep, Mileham said. But some used this form of effortless escapism while their spouse was in the room, she said.
Said one such man, "While I'm on the computer my wife just assumes I'm writing a report for work." Another man said his wife, who knew what he was doing and didn't like it, looked over his shoulder sometimes while he was typing, Mileham said.
Much of the Internet's appeal to married people is the anonymity it guarantees, coupled with the no-touching aspect, which they view as a license to be sexual, Mileham said. One can reveal the most intimate emotional and sexual details to an unseen stranger at any time of the day or night, she said.
Several participants indicated they divulged more about themselves to online partners than to their wives or husbands. "We started chatting about life, our marriage, what we like to eat, what sexual positions we like the best," wrote one man to Mileham. "I felt like I've known her in another life."
Mileham believes the time has come for the Internet to become as essential a part of pre-marital discussions as is whether or not to have children. "To prevent future problems, young couples, as well as long-term committed couples, need to talk about what role the Internet will play in their relationship."