FOXSexpert: Cybersex -- Taking on a Whole New 'Life'

Want to be a dragon, a superhero, or a member of the opposite sex the next time you have sex? In the world of virtual intimacy, you can. Interactive modes of sex are all about fulfilling your every cyberspace desire.

You can live out the unimaginable. You may dabble in the oft-deemed damnable. And it’s all perfectly harmless since it’s not “real,” right? With multi-player online role-playing games (MMORPGs) called “Evercrack,” many are asking: Is there a price to pay in such carefree pursuits?

Cybersex used to be so simple. If people wanted to have sex online, they got their thrills by passively watching movies and looking at dirty pictures.

Now, there are more sophisticated sex-oriented computer games that required users to get active. The game Virtual Jenna, for example, enables any PC user to actually “toy” with a 3-D version of porn star Jenna Jameson.

Interactive modes of cybersex, like Second Life, have soared in popularity. When I first heard of Second Life, I thought that it was some religious cult.

I’ve never been terribly tech-savvy (it was a huge leap for me to go from the Walkman to an iPod a couple of years ago), and quite honestly, I have no interest in virtual sex beyond it being a sociological phenomenon. (I haven’t been into a video game since PacMan was all the rage.) So you can imagine that I felt a bit sideswiped when I learned that cybersex is the latest craze.

And, far from “in the know” on this topic, I felt like the odd woman out when I learned the numbers. Second Life boasts 10 million users (though that figure includes people with more than one identity).

Anywhere from 40,000 to 50,000 users are active at any time. Billing itself as “your world, your imagination,” Second Life claims to offer users a more immersive, expansive experience given its greater complexity even if, at the end of the day, it's all just make believe.

So what is this experience?

In entering this cyberworld, you create what’s called an avatar. This avatar is the comic book-like character that becomes your online persona. You can choose its gender, sexual orientation, clothing, body shape, skin, hair, eyes, lips ... You’re limited only by your imagination. And this goes with what you can do in virtual reality as well.

You also can buy currency, shop, buy your very own island, create your dream home, sleep, talk, fly, dance, go to a nightclub — do just about anything you can in real life.

But here, there are no laws (though you can report abuse to the site’s administrators for investigation). And that makes for a Wild West of sex.

Funny enough, Second Life wasn’t created specifically for sexual purposes. Is it any surprise, however, that humans tend to go that route?

Drawing singles and married people alike, players can send instant messages to other avatars. Such interactions often become flirtatious, if not explicit in a matter of minutes. Virtual people start having virtual sex, with one unpublished study finding that 13.6 percent of users often or always engage in cybersex on Second Life.

Part of the draw — there are no physical laws in this world. You can, for example, have sex on a cloud. Avatars can mimic 100 sexual positions — a feat complimented by a “moan button” no less. You can also “marry,” pay for virtual escorts or prostitutes, get a lap dance, engage in group sex, or visit sex clubs and BDSM (bondage, discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism) bars.

Basically, you can live out any sexual fantasy, which is a major reason these online role-playing games are so huge. The claimed benefits include the fact that users can experiment with various sexual behaviors — both realistic and purely fantasy — regardless of sexual orientation. Furthermore, they can also do things safely, like hiring a sex worker without the worry of a sexually transmitted disease.

So what are the dangers to this Disneyland of sexual desires?

Experts warn that it can become a self-focused, compulsive behavior. Longing for social interaction and emotional connectedness, users may become more isolated and less engaged in the real world. They are known to put off sleeping, eating, work, school ... One survey of 30,000 virtual reality users found that the average player spent 22 hours online every week!

The emotional weight of having online sex also can be problematic for some.

Is it healthy for people to get sucked into fantasy relationships that can affect their real relationships, especially romantic ones? And what constitutes cheating?

There’s a lot to navigate beyond the cyberworld. What’s good for you, what’s good for your relationships, all comes down to two things: (1) your values; and (2) how much cybersex is preventing you from accomplishing daily tasks or from being intimate with a real person.

To keep yourself in check, don’t be afraid to step away from the keyboard on occasion. Some of you may just realize that you need to get a life.

In-the-Know Sex News …

Parent-child sex communication lacking in China. A survey published by the All-China Women’s Federation found that sex education in the home is “seriously deficient.” As reported by China Daily, the poll of more than 5,000 youth ages 6 to 17 and about 6,500 parents revealed that parents are too embarrassed to answer their children’s questions about sex.

And now there were 17. Iowa becomes the 17th state to refuse Title V funding, the U.S. government’s abstinence-only grant program. At the moment, there is no federal funding available for comprehensive sex education programs. The federal government has, however, spent more than $1.5 billion in unproven abstinence-only programs since 1982.

HIV cases up in Ireland. As reported by the Irish Examiner, Ireland’s new HIV diagnoses were up in the first half of 2007, showing an increase of 21 percent, according to the Health Protection Surveillance Center. Most of the new cases were due to heterosexual contact, followed by injection drug users, and then men who have sex with men. The average age of those newly diagnosed with HIV was 33.

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Dr. Yvonne Kristín Fulbright is a sex educator, relationship expert, columnist and founder of Sexuality Source Inc . She is the author of several books including, "Touch Me There! A Hands-On Guide to Your Orgasmic Hot Spots."