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Professor Waxes Philosophical on Online Intimacy

In the course of researching his new book about cyber sex and online relationships, Haifa University philosophy professor Aaron Ben-Ze’ev came across a couple who had reached an unusual understanding.

The husband discovered that his wife was having cyber affairs. She and her virtual partners would exchange amorous (and sexually explicit) messages on the Internet, and he began to worry that her virtual desires might end up leading to real-life attractions to these dot-com Don Juans.

The husband laid down a rule. “Okay,” he said. “You can have cybersex with somebody, but not more than twice with the same person.”

Is it considered adultery to have a one-time cyberfling with a stranger?

What do you say to your husband when he spends more time with some cyberfloozy whom he met in a chat room than he spends with you? Have you ever caught your wife stroking her keypad late at night when she thought you were asleep?

Virtual sex and other forms of Internet intimacy have serious implications — sometimes leading to dire consequences. Their prevalence has prompted some to think seriously about the moral and religious implications of new technology. Ben-Ze’ev, author of “The Subtlety of Emotions,” examines these questions in “Love Online: Emotions on the Internet” (Cambridge, 2004).

Ben-Ze’ev, who says he has been happily married for 19 years, has never been a party to cyber flirtations or flings. He began thinking about such things in 2001, when Oranim College in Tivon, near Haifa, asked him to give a lecture about the emotional implications of Internet usage. Ever since, he has been examining literature about the psychological and emotional effects the Internet has on its users. He drew most of his conclusions from this extensive research, as well as several cybercouples. Heavily peppered with adages and quotes drawn from personal ads, celebrities, literary icons and others — among them Mae West, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Mark Twain, Goethe, Steve Martin and Yogi Berra — his decidedly secular book explores current practices in Israel, the United States and continental Europe.

While many find it exciting, online intimacy has its dangers.

“Internet affairs are a new toy that the human race has not yet learned how to play with,” Ben-Ze’ev told the Forward. Just as “drugs artificially stimulate, cybersex stimulates pleasure in the mind. Both are very dangerous,” he said, adding that the temptations of the Internet are ignited by four factors: imagination, availability, interactivity and anonymity.

This anonymity often elicits dishonesty. “According to one survey, 48% of people admitted to changing their age occasionally,” Ben-Ze’ev said. Almost 40% admitted that they sometimes changed their race, and 5% claimed to have changed their gender.

But, Ben-Ze’ev said, such lies can only last so long. Ben-Ze’ev cited a flowering cyber-relationship that was cut short when one partner made a confession: “He” was a woman.

The online partner was devastated, writing, “How can you deceive me in this manner?” The two did not speak until a few days later, when the unmasked cyberlover received an e-mail. “I have something to confess,” it said. “I am not a woman. I am a man.” The two eventually married.

Yet the communication between online lovers, Ben-Ze’ev noted, is often more profound and honest than in their other relationships.

He discovered that, when a sincere bond has taken hold, the emotional attachments people form to online lovers sometimes trump their feelings for their real-life partners. The author spoke with a married woman who was devastated to find that her husband thought his cyber partner was “the most intelligent woman he’s ever talked to.” Ben-Ze’ev quoted a man who fantasized about his cyber partners when making love to his wife.

There is also the danger that online relationships can lead to offline relationships, making their way into real-life romances.

Ben-Ze’ev cited the Jewish state as an example. “Israel is a small country,” he said. “When your online partner is a few miles away, [the temptation] to meet them face-to-face” is huge.

Ben-Ze’ev is not the only Jewish thinker who has set his mind to work on the problem of the Internet’s lascivious underbelly.

In January, the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot reported that Shlomo Eliahu, chief rabbi of Safed, had come up with a prayer to protect pious Jews from the temptations of the Internet. “Please God, help me cleanse the computer of viruses and evil photographs that disturb and ruin my work, so that I shall be able to cleanse myself,” the prayer reads.

Eliahu says he came up with the prayer after being inundated by requests from Orthodox Jews who claimed that Internet smut was becoming a problem in their families.

Ben-Ze’ev has not, himself, encountered many observant Jews ensconced in the world of cybersex. While some of the people he interviewed for his book were strictly observant Jews, most were not. But he said that Eliahu’s prayer showed the problem existed, and he found the prayer encouraging.

“Praying before going on the Internet is much better than forbidding people to go on the Internet,” Ben-Ze’ev said. He added that the Internet “is such a useful, efficient tool nowadays; there is no way to go against it. Any prayer may help.”

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