MAKING love in cyberspace

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Note the symptoms: bleary eyes, stiff neck, working into the wee hours at the home computer while the family sleeps; runaway phone bills. Could it be that your spouse is having an affair?

Forget lipstick on the collar. That trail of treachery belonged to the age when lovers had to meet in the flesh in order to betray anyone. Today, sitting alone in the study, with the family snaps next to the PC, it has never been easier to fall in love with someone you have never met - a spirit with no body to distract you - your virtual soulmate. Is this love real? It's as real as any fantasy.

The Internet has become the planet's most volatile meeting ground, an alternative landscape of virtual intimacy in which even "happily married" people spot Mr or Ms Right across a crowded screen. The world woke up to the power of virtual attachment in early 1996, after a much-publicised case of cyberdivorce in New Jersey, in which a husband claimed that his wife was "adulterous" even though the act was only ever performed in her mind. But attorneys in New York had been seeing "cybercontact" as an issue of marital dispute for many months before that. "In 1994, I started to see it all at once," says Steve Paganuzzi, a New York matrimonial attorney, "two or three cases at a time. Typically it was a woman leaving her husband for someone she'd met online - the kind of situation where a wife who stays at home with the kids complains she's bored. The husband spends $1,000 on computer equipment so she can stay in touch with the outside world. The next thing he knows she's having `conversations' with someone, the phone bills go through the roof, she's not making dinner when he comes home. That's the nature of the complaint. It's readily acknowledged she hasn't met this person, or had sexual relations, but the husband is wildly jealous."

The unlimited social possibility of the global village, long promised by the Internet, has hit home as unlimited romantic possibility. "It's no longer a matter of where you go, which restaurants and clubs," says Paganuzzi. "Everybody's in the privacy of their own home. Everyone's equalised and available." The surge in cyberadultery - one of the most popular forms of cybersex - overlaps exactly with a boom in subscribers to commercial online services such as America Online (AOL) and CompuServe (both now available in Britain). Between August 1994 and February 1996, AOL's subscriber list jumped from 1 million to 5 million users worldwide. Even Ann Landers (the papal eminence of advice columnists, syndicated in 1,200 newspapers around the world) has had to weigh in on the subject. An on-line love triangle first appeared in her column in November of last year. By June, the issue had come up a dozen times. The problem, often, is how virtual sex impinges on real-life relationships, especially marriage. "I don't think it is adultery," says Landers. "But it is trouble."

The trouble with this trouble is that it is entirely subjective. When love comes through a blank screen - whether as mere cybersex (erotic chat) or as cyberlove, which has Real-Life (RL) consequences - it is only what you think it is. "The concept of transference, putting on to someone the characteristics of someone in your past, gets a real workout on e-mail," says Avodah Offit, a psychiatrist and novelist who runs an electronic bulletin board on America Online called "Virtual Love". "I've seen people become quite depressed over what should have been ephemeral relationships with people they've never met, who suddenly dump them on e-mail. They have every bit as much emotion as if they'd met and had a torrid relationship."

The American actor John Barrymore once said: "Love is the delightful interval between meeting a girl and discovering that she looks like a haddock." The interval is prolonged if you never lay eyes on the lover in the first place. Online, it can extend to include 70 hours of rhapsodic chat per week, and $300 a month in phone bills for time spent online.

To promote this lucrative intercourse, commercial service providers such as America Online, Prodigy and CompuServe make it easy to meet in chat "rooms", or live forums, that operate very much like a backyard fence or a local bar. In them, as many as 21 people can talk at once, in a shower of typed text known as "conferencing". Alternatively, you can conduct a one-on-one dialogue, in real time, in a private "room". The gambit "Do you wanna go private?" is the equivalent in this environment of "Do you want to see my etchings?"

With the aid of GIFS, or Graphic Interface Formats, would-be lovers can scan their images, real or falsified, into the computer. Online relationships often move to the telephone, too. But until these senses intervene, focus on the word is all. This is the rare dating environment in which verbal dexterity and communication skills count for more than bright eyes, long legs and lashes. "She could type perfectly phrased sentences without a typo!" swooned one cyberadulterer. Anonymity, paradoxically, is at the root of this intimacy, and makes the spirit as romantically dangerous as any flesh.

The flesh is certainly involved. The glands do engage in cybersex, even if bodies never do. And where endorphins go, attachment follows. Cybersex generally involves the exchange, via PC, of descriptions of physical actions between two or more people. It is a fantasy composed, most often, a deux, in real time. According to one survey, by Prodigy, 52 per cent of PC users say that they have had cybersex. (Of these, 36 per cent said that they had reached orgasm and 25 per cent said that they had faked it.)

In addition, 39 per cent had pretended to be someone or something they were not.

"Virtual sex poses the question of what is at the heart of sex and fidelity," according to Sherry Turkle, Professor of the Sociology of Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a clinical psychologist whose observations of the effects of the computer revolution on the individual have been widely circulated in the books Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet and The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit. "To what extent and in what ways should it matter who the virtual sexual partner is in the real world? The fact that the physical body has been factored out of the situation makes these issues both subtler and harder to resolve."

The implications go beyond relationships. Without a body to blame, identity, as well as adultery, gets called into question. This is the great creative opportunity of online communication. Morphed identity offers a new experience of libido - of life force as invented character. On AOL, for instance, five different screen names allow each user as many identities. Member "profiles", giving whatever information or disinformation one cares to reveal about locale, age, gender and marital status, are constantly cruised. Robot, or "bot", artificial intelligence software has been created to be so convincingly adept at real-time chitchat that one can be fooled into making a pass.

"We are writing ourselves into existence," says Turkle. She suggests that computer chat is preoccupied with the body for good reason: this medium begs the question of where the mind leaves off and the body begins. The post-modern notion of the self as a malleable entity, as an amoeba of multiple personality, has become eerie fact. Hence the compulsion to mate online: the slipperiness of this new self is so disturbing that the mind rebels - by becoming obsessed with the body, the single irreplaceable thing with which one moves through life. The more that tactile "reality" is cut out of the interaction, the more the body intrudes - with thoughts of carnal connection.

Judging by the opening gambits one comes across online - "R U nakid?" being not uncommon - many are more concerned, in the immediate present, about procuring multiple sex partners than multiple selves, even though in the process alter egos are unleashed. (Swinging, group sex, and other pastimes made moribund by Aids have new life online.) Typically, online flirtations are nurtured with steady streams of e-mail, love letters composed and read at leisure, interspersed with the more excitable IM, the instant message, tapped out two lines of dialogue at a time. It's in this real- time meeting that cybersex occurs, floating in free fall down the page as the page scrolls up. "It's very staccato. It's like verse where people finish each other's sentences," says a novelist who has amused himself as a kind of lit-crit-pimp of the cybersexual genre.

When the tension of disembodiment can be stood no longer, the fateful F2F, the face-to-face encounter, is arranged. If all signals are go, after so much lengthy electronic foreplay, couples tend to go directly to bed.

"Some people are doing it all just for the thrill of it, holding back and finally meeting, which can be incredibly exciting," says Dr Offit of this kind of romance. "But it can also be disastrous. The other person can be nothing like what you imagine them to be; they may be enormously fat. They hadn't told you and hoped that you would love them anyway."

IRL (in real life), Kerry (not her real name) roller-blades into the Bowery Bar, a cool downtown restaurant in New York, to tell me her story. She is not fat. She is not ugly. She is attractive - a stage performer who moves in arty circles. She left her husband of five years for Jim, whom she met online. He enters, tall, dark and handsome. Both say they were unaware that they were looking for something outside their marriages; their lives seemed full, personally and professionally. But, in retrospect, they realise that "subconsciously" they were searching for a soulmate."To anyone who thinks these relationships aren't real, I'd say you underestimate the power of mental attraction," he says.

The power of the unseen paramour is not new. The traditional love letter between couples kept apart was born of the same longing, distance and the linking of kindred spirits. But this is something else. "Two weeks of corresponding online is like two years in real life," says Melanie Tierney, a self-styled specialist in online love who has surveyed Net users, in depth, for a forthcoming book. "There is some kind of fantastic amplifier in the process," says another expert, Dr Ivan Goldberg, a psychiatrist at Columbia University. "Everything gets turned into fantasy. It's a regression to a childhood mode of interaction. When you have communication with very few kinds of feedback you have great potential for misinterpretation. People project their fantasies, emotions get heightened and they behave in a primitive way." They do indeed. The flip-side of cyberlove is the "flame" - an e-mail hate message so scorching it seems to burn the skin with unexpurgated invective.

A writer on America Online comments: "Online romance is both better and worse than real-life romance. The trouble is we're not ready for this new kind of intimacy." It slips in on the whisper of the word, transported by anonymity and the promise that it can thrive with- out ever leaving the psyche. And then, just as instantly, it aches to take form. It is the word made flesh all over again: big trouble.