The art of online seduction

Perhaps you thought there could be nothing new in affairs of the heart. Think again. “Computers have changed not just the way we work but the way we love.’’

So declares Aaron Ben-Ze’ev in Love Online: Emotions on the Internet (Cambridge University Press), a study of online amorousness published on Valentine’s Day.

The men and women whose experiences Ben-Ze’ev, a professor of philosophy, chronicles spend their time “cybering’’ with each other. They conduct their most intense and intimate relationships with people they never see or meet.

It is not about Internet dating: it is about conducting “affairs’’ that begin and end at the keyboard.

Instant messaging means they can rouse each other as fast as they can type. “It’s nice to have that instant feedback from the woman,’’ one man explains, before adding, in an inadvertently comical parenthesis, “(God, I hope they’re women).’‘

Initially, it seems that what Ben-Ze’ev chronicles is “cybersex’’ rather than “cyberlove’‘.

Not one to flinch, Ben-Ze’ev soberly tackles the trial of manual dexterity to which the cybering enthusiast is put. “People get quite proficient at typing with one hand and masturbating with the other.’’ He does not say how he knows this.

Ben-Ze’ev is not convinced by those who think it a worrying sign when someone prefers Internet communication to real encounters with others.

Recent studies, he says, “indicate the profound nature of online relating’‘. And, though done up like disinterested academic research, this book keeps turning into a celebration of “a new kind of romantic relationship’‘.

By the book’s categories, lovers who see and touch each other are having an “offline relationship’‘.

Love Online is duly full of testimonies from individuals who say that “their virtual cybersex is much more active and intense than their actual offline sex’‘.

The author often concurs: this new kind of amorous fulfilment is sparkier than that quaint old business of meeting another person. You can “reap most of the benefits associated with offline relationships without investing significant resources’‘.

Ben-Ze’ev also points out, with the enthusiastic backing of some cyberlovers, that in this kind of exchange you can be whoever you want. Though he acknowledges that this might include a middle-aged paedophile pretending to be a child, he finds it difficult not to relish the liberation of the imagination that impersonation enables.

For online love, where the lovers are always alone together, is also uniquely “sincere’‘.

It is “lean communication’‘, stripped of eye contact, tone of voice, or body language, as if “love’’ were, as he says, “emotionally purer’’ without those distractions.

Ben-Ze’ev notes without irony that irony too is best omitted from online mating; in cold text, it is invariably missed or misconstrued.

Ben-Ze’ev tells us his previous book provided “a comprehensive framework for understanding emotions in our everyday life’‘.

It does not seem to occur to this expert on emotions that fantasy and deception might not be the best basis for “love’‘.

But then he thinks that lying about yourself means expressing a version of yourself denied in “offline life’‘.

“I would say that dreams, rather than deception, characterise online relationships.’‘

These relationships are described with unevidenced and unargued generalisations. When people are engaged in “cybersex’‘, “the kiss they may send is emotionally vivid and its emotional impact is often similar to that of an actual kiss’‘.

In an online relationship, “the emotion of love is experienced as fully and as intensely as in an offline relationship’‘. He just knows.

Yet, as you cannot believe any online lover, so you cannot believe much of Ben-Ze’ev book’s “evidence’‘.

Footnotes often direct us not to academic studies, but to websites. There Ben-Ze’ev found his nameless online lovers, ready to tell him all. How could he believe a word of what they say? He does not wonder.

“Online communication can be characterised as a social activity performed alone.’’

There you have it. A love life, without those awkward facts about yourself and another person that make it all so demanding.

He quotes one fan of cybersex explaining, “there are no unseemly smells or tastes or textures’‘.

If you think it too distant, he holds out hope. For porn aficionados, there is apparently already “a cybersex suit’‘, which interacts with a DVD to “deliver sensations to various parts of the body’‘.

Ben-Ze’ev claims that Nasa has developed a similar system for astronauts to have “virtual sex’’ with their partners. (Is this true? Where is that Nasa spokesperson?)

“Further developments’’ might soon “enable such sensations in one-to-one interactions’‘. Then there really will be no need to leave the keyboard. — Â

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