By Matt Russell
Beatriz Avila Mileham has searched and lurked and found a world of cheating husbands and wives, hidden romance and anonymous sex.
It's a world, she's found, where relationships go very far, very fast. Afterward, people feel little guilt about what they have done.
These are chat rooms set up for married people searching for a quick fix of romance or sex with strangers. There's dozens, maybe hundreds of these Internet discussion forums, says Mileham, who thinks online affairs soon will become the most common form of infidelity, if that hasn't happened already.
"It's very, very alluring when you get into it," said Mileham, a doctoral student who recently conducted research on chat rooms at the University of Florida.
Adultery is a serious offense in major world religions, but the question of whether online conversations culminating in masturbation, or "cybersex," count as adultery highlights differences in exactly where different faiths draw the line.
At the same time, the flourishing of cybersex shows the kinds of issues the Internet is raising for religious leaders, many of whom might not even know what cybersex is.
"The Internet has opened up a whole 'nother realm of pastoral concerns and issues," says the Rev. Andy Lindahl of Westminster Presbyterian Church Of Austin.
Drawing the line
Cybersex isn't adultery because there is no physical sex act involved, said Rabbi David Greene of Chabad-Lubavitch, a Rochester synagogue and Jewish hospitality center.
Islam would consider cybersex a sin, but a lesser sin than engaging in physical intercourse, said Zaid Khalid, a spokesman for Rochester Islamic Center. He placed cybersex on the same level as looking at a person of the opposite sex lustfully, or "adultery of the eye," or speaking lustfully, "adultery of the tongue."
Using the words of Jesus Christ in Matthew 5:28 ("But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart"), Lindahl said cybersex should be considered adultery even though there is no physical sex act involved.
"You know, it's kind of the old second-glance idea," he said. "It's one thing to look; it's another thing to have a sustained gaze. Perhaps it's one thing to be curious and another thing to take the second step. I think that's why Jesus used a broad stroke in (defining) adultery. We tend to put grades on it."
Greene and Khalid might not have placed cybersex on the same level as a physical sex, but both agreed with Lindahl that cybersex was best avoided.
"It can corrupt the soul," Greene said. "Obviously, getting involved in this type of immodest activity is a violation of trust for people who are married to each other."
Even though cybersex is a lesser sin, Islam would discourage it because it could lead to the major sin of physical adultery, Khalid said. "In Islam, the basic philosophy is prevention rather than cure," he added.
Islam also forbids men and women who are not married from having private, unchaperoned, conversations, and chat-room conversations would fall into that category, Khalid said.
What people said
Raised Catholic but not a regular churchgoer, Mileham considers cybersex to be adultery because it involves lying, betrayal and channeling time as well as emotional and sexual energy away from a spouse. "It's like detaching yourself," she said in an interview.
Conducted in 2002, Mileham's research includes 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" chat rooms.
Most of those Mileham interviewed -- 87 percent -- said online sex isn't adultery. And even the 13 percent that do believe online affairs count as adultery consider it a lesser transgression.
"They said technically this is adultery in the world of morality, but they minimalized it," Mileham said. "They said it is a weaker form of adultery, so its OK."
Though 24 of the people Mileham interviewed had physical relationships with people they met in chat rooms, others said cybersex actually helped them stay true to their spouses. "They said when you go online and you're sexual and you're flirting then you take care of the urges to go out and meet someone," Mileham said.
Because of the ease of online adultery, Mileham thinks couples should start talking about the role the Internet plays in their relationships. She also thinks churches can play a role in making people aware of cybersex and its consequences.
"This is going to continue to go on behind the scenes behind people's backs unless people talk about it," she said.
More information on Beatriz Avila Mileham's chat room research is available at www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2003-07/uof-uso071703.php