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University students' uses of and reactions to online sexual information and entertainment: links to online and offline sexual behaviour.

ABSTRACT: This survey of 760 university students assessed their online sexual activities pertaining to dating, education and entertainment, the associations of these online activities with offline sexual behaviour, and their reactions to the sexually explicit material (SEM) they encountered online. Half of the respondents used the Internet to obtain sexual information and said they benefited from it. About 40% went online to meet new people, and to view SEM. Sexual entertainment activities were frequent both online and offline with more men than women engaging in them. A factor analysis identified four clusters of online and offline sexual activity: seeking partners; entertainment; sexual gratification; and in-person exploration. Masturbation while online was more common among those who reacted favourably to online SEM than those who reacted unfavourably. Those who found SEM disturbing or boring were less likely to have masturbated while online although whether or not respondents found online SEM arousing best distinguished between those who did or did not masturbate while online. The implications of the findings for sexual health education and future research are discussed

Key words: Sexuality Internet Sex Education Sexually explicit material Masturbation


Despite the widespread public use of the Internet for sexual information, entertainment, and other sex-related purposes, researchers have only recently begun to gather empirical data concerning online sexual activity (OSA). As defined by Cooper and Griffin-Shelley (2002), OSA refers to use of the Internet (including text, audio, graphic files) for any activity that involves sexuality for the purposes of recreation, entertainment, exploration, support, education, commerce and/or seeking out sexual or romantic partners. The term cybersex, which describes a sub-category of OSAs focusing on sexual gratification (Cooper & Griffin-Shelley, 2002), involves activities such as looking at pictures, participating in sexual chat, exchanging explicit sexual images or emails, sharing fantasies, and other such activities that may include masturbation while online either by oneself or with another or others. The recent advent of the web camera, allowing individuals to engage in live two-way audio-visual interactions, has increased the variety of sexual expression available on the Internet. To date, researchers have sought to gather information on the variety of OSAs (Cooper, Scherer, Boies, & Gordon, 1999; Greenfield, 1999), to categorize them (Cooper & Griffin-Shelley, 2002), and to determine how OSAs relate to offline sexual behaviour (Klausner, Wolf, Fischer-Ponce, Zolt, & Katz, 2000; McFarlane, Bull, & Rietmeijer, 2000). How Internet sexual behaviour fits into people's overall sexuality is largely unknown. The topic is thus ripe for speculation about the possible harm and benefits of different types of such involvement. The present study analyzes university students' experiences of and reactions to various OSAs and assesses the association of their online activities and offline behaviour. The literature review that follows provides background and context for this research.

Online Sexual Activities

In a survey of more than 9,000 MSNBC website users who had gone online at least once for sexual pursuits, Cooper, Scherer et al. (1999) found that the vast majority of respondents spent a small amount of time involved in what appeared to be mostly recreational OSAs (usually in the "cybersex category" described above). Although caution is warranted in extrapolating the findings of this self-selected sample, the. authors estimated that 17% of respondents showed signs of sexual compulsivity; and approximately 8% were labelled sexually compulsive. This interpretation was based on measures of propensity to engage in novel or risky sexual behaviours and on the amount of time individuals engaged in broadly defined behaviours such as "searching the Internet for sexually-related material" or "going online for sexual pursuits". Since specific online sexual behaviours were not identified, the conclusions should thus be viewed with caution.

With respect to Internet use for seeking and establishing relationships, Brym and Lenton (2001) found that 60% of a large Canadian sample of Internet dating service users (N = 65,000) were looking for a serious relationship, and 3% said they had married someone they met through an online dating service. In this study, the male-female ratio of users was 2:1. Parks and Roberts (1998) found that 90% of respondents to a survey of Multiple User Dimensions (a real-time text-based Internet environment similar to chat rooms) had formed personal relationships. About one third of those relationships had resulted in face-to-face meetings and 25% were of a romantic nature.

Goodson, McCormick and Evans (2000) documented three main categories of sex-related Internet use: establishing and maintaining relationships; obtaining information/advice related to sexuality; and sexual gratification (arousal and entertainment). Using Social Cognitive Theory (SCT) as a framework for their study, they designed a descriptive (versus predictive) questionnaire to assess university students' perceptions and behaviour when searching the Internet for sexually related reasons. SCT proposes that the media's effects are necessarily mediated by the consumer's cognitive abilities, reinforcement history, and outcome expectations regarding the images they sought out or encountered. In this respect, their work extended the study of OSA beyond entertainment into relationship and educational domains and the consumers attitudes and experiences in relation to these pursuits.

While the quality of sex information on the Internet depends on the credibility of the host site, it is clear that many people use the Internet for sex education. Indeed, Barak and Fisher (2002) argue that the Internet's core characteristics are particularly well-suited to the delivery of sexual health education in many formats. They propose that age-appropriate and non-traumatic exposure to sexuality information on the Internet can promote the development of positive attitudes toward sexuality. The range of online sexuality education activities geared to different audiences includes advice columns, web sites that disseminate sexual information, moderated chat rooms, and online delivery of professional mental health services (Cooper, Boies, Maheu, & Greenfield, 2000). The Internet is used to address a range of sexual issues in society and to create communities for disenfranchised groups, including sexual minorities, persons with disabilities, etc. (Cooper, Scherer et al., 1999). Data are needed to assess the potential of legitimate online sexuality education programs to help individuals develop sexual self-esteem, gain insight about sexual behaviours, clarify questions, and correct misinformation.

How do people's online sexual activities relate to their offline sexual activities?

While it has been estimated that between 15 and 31% of web users visit sexually explicit sites (Greenfield, 1999; Egan, 2000), few research studies have examined both online and offline sexual behaviour in the same sample. Among those that have, one focus has been on transmission of STIs in networks of individuals who meet online (Klausner et al., 2000; McFarlane et al., 2000). For example, McFarlane et al. (2000) found that 15.8% of mainly white heterosexual male clients of a STI testing clinic had sought sex partners on the Internet and that of those, more than 65% had had sex with partners they met online. The association of sexual compulsivity and online and offline sexual behaviour has also been studied with some indirect evidence of a link (Cooper, Griffin-Shelley, Delmonico, & Mathy, 2001), although only 1% of individuals identified as sexually compulsive users of the Internet limited their behaviour to the Internet (Cooper, Delmonico, & Burg, 2000). Women identified as cybersex compulsives were reported to be more likely than men to seek offline sexual meetings as a result of their online sexual activities (Schneider, 2000).

How do males and females differ in online sexual activities (OSAs)?

Weiser (2000) assessed gender differences in OSAs using data from a 21-item Internet Attitude Survey administered to introductory psychology students for credit (N = 506) and from an online version submitted to numerous popular search engines (N = 684). Based on the class survey, male students were more likely to engage in non-directed OSAs ("just looking") and playing games than females. In the online self-selected sample, women were more likely to report going online to meet new people. Women seemed to use the Internet more for social support and in both samples online viewing of pornography was a more common activity among men than women. Similarly, Cooper, Scherer et al. (1999) found that men outnumbered women 6:1 in relation to use of the Internet for sexual entertainment and that women were more likely to favour chat rooms over other Internet venues. Self-selection bias may have affected this study since respondents were Internet users who accessed a specific news web site, had previously gone online for sexual pursuits at least once, and were predominantly professionally employed, married males. Based on the findings summarized here, it is difficult to draw broad conclusions about gender differences in OSA.

How do people react to sex educational and entertainment material found online and how do they assess its influence on their lives?

No study has targeted people's reactions to, or assessment of, educational material found online. Cooper, Scherer et al. (1999) measured use of sexually explicit materials online at the behavioural, cognitive, emotional and physiological levels using a factor analysis that differentiated four types of involvement: (1) action (downloading, chatting, etc.); (2) reflection (cognitive preoccupation); (3) excitement (sensation without arousal); and (4) physiological arousal. Most participants reported their online sexual experiences to be satisfying but not particularly arousing. That is, 88% were excited and 20% were both excited and aroused. Both men (84%) and women (80%) reported being satisfied to some degree with their online sexual pursuits. Most respondents (87%) reported not feeling shame or guilt about their online behaviour. However, 70% said they kept the amount of time spent online secret from others. This observation suggests that people's ability to assess their emotional reaction to sexual material may be influenced by complex interactions among a variety of currently unidentified factors. Indeed, the authors noted the complexity of users' emotional states in relation to their online activities.

Goodson, McCormick and Evans (2002) found that the respondents' attitudes toward sex information versus sexual entertainment on the Internet varied based on their frequency of use for those purposes. This suggests that people assess material more positively as they become familiar with it. Previous research has indicated that repeated exposure to an image of a sexual behaviour increases one's positive evaluation of that behaviour over time in people who do not already feel very negatively about it in the first place (Byrne & Osland, 2000). The relationship between familiarity (Goodson, McCormick, & Evans, 2002) and behavioural involvement (Cooper, Scherer et al., 1999) is yet another aspect of OSA that remains to be explored.

Goals of the Present Study

This study sought to: (1) provide exploratory descriptive data on online sexual activities among young adult university students; (2) document the associations between students' online sexual activities and their offline sexual behaviours; and (3) identify and compare students' reactions to material intended for information/advice and for entertainment/ gratification.

The study focused on OSAs associated with three types of pursuit: finding relationships and potential partners; seeking information/advice; and obtaining sexual entertainment/gratification. It was hypothesized that Internet use for relational and information seeking purposes would be reported more often than in earlier studies, that online viewing of sexually explicit material (SEM) would be more common than offline viewing, that online viewing for sexual entertainment would commonly include concurrent offline sexual activity, and that online and offline sexual activities would be correlated for all three types of OSA but particularly so for activities related to sexual entertainment or gratification. The study uses factor analysis of the intercorrelations between nine online and three offline sexual activities is the basis for a variety of such comparisons.

It was anticipated that the gender differences in OSA summarized above would be replicated (e.g. men would be more involved than women in online and offline sexual entertainment) and that the relatively large sample of women in the current study would clarify earlier findings on gender differences in chat room usage. Within the subsample of respondents who had viewed SEM online, the sexes were also expected to differ in their reactions to such material (e.g. aroused, disturbed, bored, etc.). Regardless of sex, it was anticipated that respondents who expressed more negative reaction toward the SEM they had seen on the Internet in the last 12 months would be less likely to have masturbated while online during that period.



The survey sample included approximately 1,100 legally adult (19 years or older) university students enrolled in an introductory psychology class who were invited to answer an online questionnaire for additional course credit. The setting was a medium sized university (17,000 students) situated in a long-established metropolitan area of 325,000, of mostly European descent. The university's research office granted ethical approval for the survey.

The research team leader solicited student participation during a brief in-class presentation. The survey appeared for five weeks on the university's Expefimetrix web site where interested students could sign up. Students were instructed to use any computer with Internet access either at the university or at home to complete the survey online. All respondents were volunteers and remained anonymous. Informed consent information included potential risks and benefits of participation and a clear declaration that participant's could withdraw at any time before electronically submitting the questionnaire.

A number of precautions were taken to avoid submissions of duplicated responses. For example, when students electronically filed their anonymous questionnaires, they automatically received a unique identification number that they could then use to confirm their participation for credit. The data file was reviewed to identify duplicates submitted in error or intentionally. Most duplicates appeared to be an incomplete version of an immediately preceding submission.


Students completed a 120-question online survey that had ten sections (four of which provided the data reported here).

Section 1 gathered information on 14 demographic variables. Behaviour-related questions asked about frequency in the previous 12 months (a time period intended to avoid responses that reflected a recent, unrepresentative change in behaviour).

Section 2 assessed frequency of Internet use in the last 12 months for three types of online sexual activity: (1) relationships/dating; (2) seeking information on sexual topics including problems or sexual practices; and (3) seeking sexual entertainment. For each type of OSA, respondents used a 6 point Likert-type scale to indicate the extent to which they felt they had received such benefits as increased knowledge, greater enjoyment of sex, or improvement in sexual relationships offline. The scale ranged from 1-6 on which low scores indicated that respondents completely (1), mostly (2) or somewhat (3) disagreed that they had received such benefits and higher scores indicating that they somewhat (4), mostly (5) or completely (6) agreed that they had benefited. Other questions in this section assessed the frequency of accidental versus intentional exposure to sexually explicit material through different means (e.g., sent by or forwarded to other users, sought/downloaded) including use of sexually oriented chat rooms.

Section 3 used the Likert-type scale described above to assess the degree to which the sexually explicit materials they had encountered online satisfied participants' curiosity, taught them sexual techniques, improved their offline sexual relationships, fulfilled their fantasies, disturbed them, bored them, or aroused and satisfied them.

Section 4 asked about sexual behaviour in the last 12 months, both online and offline, including number and type of partners, frequency of offline private and public viewing of erotic/X-rated materials, and frequency of masturbating while online.


The 760 respondents were predominantly young (mean age about 20 years) Caucasian, heterosexual single adults who were relatively new to the community, and living with roommates, family members or by themselves rather than with a romantic partner (see Table 1). Women outnumbered men at a ratio of 2:1, which is consistent with the gender distribution of both the first year class of psychology and the overall undergraduate population of 17,000 students.


In the 12 months prior to the survey, a minimum of 40-50% of respondents appeared to have engaged in one or more of the categories of OSA described in the literature as relationship-focused, information-focused, and entertainment-focused (see Cooper & Griffin-Shelley, 2002, and Goodson et al., 2002) (Table 2).


Overall 41.8% of respondents had sought connections with new people on the Internet in the last 12 months (spending an estimated average of 20 minutes a week to do so) and 12.5% had used online dating services. Men (48.2%) were more likely than women (38.6%) to seek new contacts online ([chi square](1, N = 740) = 6.1, p < 0.01) and to have used dating services ([chi square] (1, N = 740) = 10.4, p < 0.1). About 32% of respondents were currently dating offline and 6.5% of respondents who were currently in relationships indicated that they used the Internet, as opposed to telephone or in-person contact, as their primary mode of communication.


Among the 52.5% of respondents who had sought sexual information on the Internet in the last 12 months, 60% had done so once or twice, 27% once a month, and 13% once a week or more. Men were more likely than women to have pursued sexual information on the Internet (67.6% versus 45.1%) ([chi square] (1, N = 741) = 33.38, p < 0.001), a difference attributable to the fact that men were about twice as likely as women to have done so at each of the two highest frequencies. When respondents were asked about their past use of the Interact to obtain sexual information, women were more likely than men to report having done so ([chi square] (1, N = 739) = 6.5, p < 0.001).

Based on data not shown, it was noted that 21% of respondents had obtained their first sexual education material from the Internet. The average age at which respondents first used the Internet for sexual education was 18.5 years compared to 17.7 years for sexual entertainment and 15.47 years for general purposes. Women were more likely (67.8%) than men (32.2%) to have already consulted offline educational resources before they ever went online for sex education (Pearson [chi square] (1, N = 361) = 6.68, p < 0.01). Men went online for sexual entertainment at a significantly earlier age (17.1) than women (18.5) (t = 3.12 (317), p < 0.01). No significant differences were found in the age at which men and women started using the Internet for either general purposes or for sexual information. Seven and a half percent of people who used the Internet for sexual entertainment started doing so before age 14 and 44% started at age 16 or younger. Among those who started before age 14, 76.7% were men.


About 40% of respondents had viewed SEM online (Table 2) and 5.92% (N = 45) reported doing so daily. Men were more likely than women to engage in online viewing ([chi square] (1, N = 741) = 156.80, p < 0.01) and forwarding ([chi square] (1, N = 740) = 18.390, p < 0.001) of SEM. The male-female ratio for viewing SEM online was 3:1 versus 2:1 for forwarding SEM. Men were also more likely than women to report masturbating while online (71.6% versus 22.1%) ([chi square] (1, N = 738) = 170.12, p < 0.001) and also to report visiting sex chat rooms (13.4% of men and 7% of women) ([chi square] (1, N = 740) = 8.01, p < 0.01). Less than 0.7% of the sample (N = 5) reported daily use of sex chat lines. Men and women did not differ in their reports of having had online sex partners in the past 12 months (9.9% and 7.3% respectively) (see also offline and online sexual behaviour below).


A number of intercorrelations were noted both within and between the nine online and three offline activities listed in Table 3. For example, going online for the purpose of seeking new people was positively correlated with the use of online dating services, seeking sexual information, and visiting sex-oriented chat rooms. Looking for sex information online was positively associated with frequency of masturbating while online which, in turn, was strongly related to viewing of SEM online and moderately related to viewing of SEM offline.

In order to clarify the intercorrelations between online and offline sexual activities, a factor analysis was performed on the 12 items listed in Table 3. Principal components analysis and varimax rotation revealed four factors that had eigenvalues greater than 1.00 and accounted for 59,76% of the variance (Table 4). These factors were named according to their apparent association with one or more of the three common categories of OSA identified in the literature and employed in Table 2. The cluster associated with seeking relationships and partners online (eigenvalue = 2.21, 18.42% of variance) included seeking new people online, use of online dating services, use of chat rooms, and number of online sexual partners. The cluster labelled sexual entertainment (eigenvalue = 2.15, 17.91% of variance) included receiving and forwarding SEM online, viewing SEM offline and visiting offline sex venues. The sexual gratification category (an aspect of entertainment-focused OSA) (eigenvalue = 1.73, 14.44% of variance) included viewing of SEM and masturbation online. The cluster labelled "sexual exploration offline" (eigenvalue = 1.08, 8.99% of variance) included number of sexual partners and searching the Internet for sexual information. The association of information seeking with this cluster is of interest given that 52.5% of respondents identified seeking information/advice as one of their OSAs (Table 2). The factor analysis revealed no cluster that pertained specifically to the seeking of sexual information per se and that could thus be distinguished from information seeking associated with the pursuit of partners/relationships, sexually explicit entertainment, and/or the associated sexual gratification.


It was hypothesized that the frequency of viewing (SEM) would be higher online than offline, mainly because of the ease of access of such material. Table 5 presents an analysis of the frequency of SEM viewing in the subsample of respondents (N = 336) who had gone online to view SEM, had visited sex-oriented chat rooms, or had viewed SEM offline. Since 6% of this subsample had not viewed SEM at all and 4.2% had done so only offline, it would appear that about 10% of respondents who were included in the subsample based their use of chat rooms or their offline viewing of SEM and had not viewed SEM online in the last 12 months. With this offline only group included in the analysis, 37.8% had viewed SEM both online and offline once a month or less and 11.6% had done so offline once a week or more. The latter "frequent viewers" were more highly represented among online viewers of SEM (36%) than among offline viewers (19.6%).

Some activities appeared to be more frequent offline than online (data not shown). More students had viewed SEM offline than online in the last 12 months. Among the 63% who viewed SEM offline, about 59% had done so only once or twice with 16.9% more than once a week (including 3.5% who viewed SEM daily). Almost half (43%) of the sample had gone to an offline public venue offering erotic entertainment at least once in the last year. Of those, 19% had done so at least once a month.


For the purpose of this study, having "Interact sex" was defined as "engaging in consensual and explicit chat on the Internet with the main objective of achieving sexual arousal and/or orgasm". With respect to offline sexual behaviour, "having sex" meant "consensual physical touch with the objective of achieving sexual arousal and/or orgasm (usually involving genital contact). It excludes sexual experiences on the Internet or the telephone". With respect to sexual behaviour offline, 27% of all respondents said they did not have sex with anyone in the last twelve months, 44% reported one partner, 13% two, 12% three to five, and 3% more than five sexual partners. A small percentage (8.1%) of the total sample had an online sex partner in the last 12 months and for most of these (82%) it was, in fact, one partner. None had more than 5 online partners (data not shown).


The subsample of respondents who had viewed SEM online used a six point scale to register various levels of disagreement (1-3) or agreement (4-6) with eight statements describing their reactions to this material. Given a theoretical mean score range of 1 to 6 (midpoint of 3.5), the actual mean score range (2.2 to 4.24) (Table 6) reflects notable differences of opinion according to the type of reaction cited. For example, based on combined responses on the agreement side of the scale, most found the material sexually arousing (82%) although sometimes boring (40%), fewer, felt that it satisfied sexual curiosity, taught them new sexual techniques, or fulfilled sexual fantasies (54.7%-65%), and fewer still agreed that it improved their sexual relationships (44%) or satisfied their sexual needs (20.5%).

Despite the arousal and curiosity value reflected in these responses, a sizeable percentage encountered material that they found disturbing (57%), an experience that was shared by both males (54%) and females (61%) (Table 6). Men and women were also similar in finding some SEM boring (36.5% and 43.2% respectively) but in all other cases men agreed significantly more often than women. However, in some cases these differences still left both sexes at the agreement end of the scale (arousal, curiosity, technique), in others they were on different sides of the agreement/disagreement scale (fantasy, improved relationships), while in the case of online SEM satisfying their sexual needs neither men (25.9%) nor women (16.6%) agreed although they differed statistically in their level of disagreement.


The findings in Table 7 show that learning new techniques was most highly correlated with improving sexual relationships offline (r = 0.69) and also with fulfilling sexual fantasies (r = 0.50), and experiencing sexual arousal (r = 0.48). Fulfilment of sexual fantasies was positively correlated with being aroused by SEM (r = 0.61) and satisfying sexual needs (0.54). In contrast, being disturbed by online SEM or finding it boring were positively correlated with each other and negatively correlated to varying degrees (r = 0.21 to r = 0.38) with all the others reactions. Sample size precluded separate analyses for each sex. Although men were three times more likely than women to have viewed SEM online in the last 12 months) (Table 2) and hence predominated in the sample, it should be noted that there was no sex difference among those who found online SEM disturbing (57%) or boring (40%) (Table 6).


Although the data do not permit direct assessment of which online activities were associated with masturbating while online, an association was expected between online viewing and sexual gratification. As expected masturbation while online was more common among those who agreed that online SEM was arousing, satisfied curiosity, aided fantasy, improved relationships, satisfied sexual needs and taught new techniques (79.6%-92.8%) than among those who disagreed (24.6%-64.4%) (Table 8).

Those who found online SEM disturbing were less likely to have masturbated while online than those who did not, although a sizeable percentage of both groups had masturbated while online (61% and 82.2% respectively). Similar percentages were found for respondents who did and did not find online SEM boring (63.9% and 77.7% respectively). In contrast, 24.6% of those who did not find online SEM arousing had masturbated while online compared to 80% among those who did find it arousing (Table 8). It would have been of interest to assess likelihood of masturbation according to each level of agreement/ disagreement reported for arousal, boredom and disturbance reactions but the small sample size precluded this analysis.

Within the subsample in Table 8 who had viewed SEM online, 82.8% of the men and 54.5% of the women had masturbated while online (data not shown). In most other respects women and men were generally similar in the direction of their reactions to online SEM and the likelihood of having masturbated while online. Among the 17.2% of men and 45.5% of women in the subsample who had not masturbated while online, women were significantly more likely than men to find the SEM they viewed to be disturbing ([chi square] (1, N = 341) = 7.15, p < 0.01) and less likely to fulfill their fantasies ([chi square] (1, N = 340) = 10.15, p < 0.001) and men were more likely than women to have found it arousing ([chi square] (1, N = 340) = 10.15, p < 0.001).


This study sought to further characterize the online sexual activities of young adults based on the three common categories of OSA described by Goodson et al. (2002), namely relationship seeking, information seeking, and entertainment/gratification seeking. Among the survey's respondents, 41.8%, 52.5%, and 40.1% respectively had engaged in types of OSA in the last 12 months that were consistent with these categories.

Use of the Internet for seeking new people and dating was more frequent in this sample of the first generation to grow up with the medium than in previous samples. This was particularly true for men, which is consistent with findings in an older sample (Brym & Lenton, 2001). As hypothesized, Internet use for educational purposes was found to be a common, yet relatively new practice as the vast majority of young adults had already sought sexual information offline before ever using the Internet for that purpose. Despite the low frequency at which most students sought online information and guidance about sexual matters, they evaluated their activities as beneficial; specifically in regard to increasing their knowledge and improving their intimate relationships. Men's interest in online sexual information manifested itself later than women's but was higher in the last year. This might be related to men's earlier and greater involvement in online sex entertainment activities and be subject to a gender variation in defining what constitutes educational material. We know that most online sexually explicit material is designed and developed for men.

While the Internet appears well suited to the delivery of sexual health education (Barak & Fisher, 2002), research is needed to explore the relationship between the above-noted trends and the nature, characteristics and quantity of the educational and entertainment material available online. Gender differences in physiological development and socialization should also be considered. Researchers and educators have traditionally distinguished between educational and entertainment-related sexually explicit material. The Internet might present a unique opportunity to build on people's attraction to erotica to educate them. Similarly, age-appropriate "sexy" educational material online could satisfy what seems to be, especially for men, a pervasive curiosity about sexual images and practices.

Seekers of online sexual entertainment were more highly represented in this sample than in groups of middle-aged adults (Greenfield, 1999; Egan, 2000). Four out often had viewed sexually explicit material online and masturbated to it indicating that this form of sexual entertainment is widely used to obtain sexual gratification. Future investigations could reveal how arousal and gratification are mediated by different online venues (e.g., viewing of pictures, live two-way audiovisual exchanges via camera, steamy chat room conversation).

Most expected gender differences relating to sexual entertainment were supported. Men's previously observed greater involvement in online sexual entertainment activities (Cooper, Scherer et al., 1999; Greenfield, 1999) was reflected in male students' viewing and forwarding of sexually explicit material and their online masturbation. Men were also more involved in offline viewing of material. The observed preference of women for chat rooms (Cooper, Sherer et al., 1999) was not supported in our younger sample. In fact, more male than female students used chat rooms. The ease of sexual exploration that chat rooms were believed to provide to women may be more a factor of age than of medium. The young educated women in our sample viewed sexual material in a higher proportion (male-female ratio: of 3:1) than women in the noted older sample (ratio of 6:1). Moreover, the ratio of female students who forwarded material was higher than that of those who viewed it. Younger women may become more visually inclined as they are exposed to explicit material. Finding out to whom women forward the material and their purpose in doing so, would increase our understanding of that aspect of their sexuality.

This paper identified, as expected, relationships between online and offline sexual activities, specifically those pertaining to cybersex. The correlation between online sexual information seeking and online seeking of new people and masturbation reflects a need to explore sexuality. The Internet seems to offer an additional avenue for such exploration. The factor analysis performed on online and offline sexual activities identified a cluster reflecting a desire to satisfy curiosity through offline sexual exploration with a partner (number of offline sex partners was negatively correlated to online sex information seeking). Moreover, online sexual exploration was almost entirely restricted to solitary activities as indicated by very few people having had online sex partners compared to offline. Online and offline sexual exploration complement the three other factors identified (seeking romantic and sexual partners online, entertainment, gratification) as means to engage in exploratory sexual and intimate behaviour--a development task in young adulthood.

The data did not directly support the hypothesis that more people would view SEM online than offline in the overall sample. Despite the ease of access that the Internet provides, more respondents had obtained SEM offline than online. The frequency of the behaviour was an important variable in measuring the interaction of online and offline sexual behaviour. Frequent viewers tended to seek material in both settings and to be more highly represented in the online viewers:

This study increased our limited knowledge of people's reactions to sexually explicit material. Most respondents found the material to be arousing and to satisfy their curiosity. This contrasts with previous findings in an older sample (Cooper, Scherer et al., 1999) where most participants reported their online sexual experiences to be satisfying but not particularly arousing. Our results also suggest that sexually explicit material can serve an educational function. Most respondents felt that viewing material had taught them new sexual techniques. The only gender difference reported by Cooper and colleagues was that more men than women were satisfied to some degree with their online sexual pursuits. People's reactions to SEM likely influence their experience of satisfaction. Male students agreed more than females with all but two of the reactive statements (boring and disturbing) to sexually explicit material. The most notable differences resided in men's greater agreement that the material fulfilled their sexual fantasies and improved their offline relationships. This suggests that women are less likely to experience their online activities as beneficial to their intimacy.

Students who were bored or disturbed by the material reported a negative assessment of all other reactions. This suggests that people are, to varying degrees, either enticed or repulsed by online sexual material. These erotophillic and erotophobic reactions were less distinguishable, however, when masturbatory behaviour was taken into account. A sizable percentage of people who found the material boring or disturbing had masturbated while online. The best predictor of whether or not respondents had masturbated while online was whether they found online SEM to be sexually arousing. It seems plausible that as people increase their familiarity with the material (Byrne & Osland, 2000) and their behavioural involvement (Cooper, Scherer et al., 1999), they adjust their reaction to the sexually explicit material (Goodson et al., 2002). This adjustment may be subject to a person's propensity to maintain arousal and excitement, namely physiological and psychological responses to masturbation and personality characteristics. Individuals subject to cognitive distortions and mood-altering reinforcement may be more at risk of developing sexual compulsivity (Cooper, Putnam, Planchon, & Boies, 1999). Further work is needed to investigate online sexual entertainment within the context of psychosocial functioning and personality.

Despite its high return rate, this survey is subject to the limitations of self-selected samples and retrospective reporting of behaviour. Responses requiring recall over the last year may have been reinterpreted by individuals' perception of their current Internet usage. The findings best reflect the behaviour and reactions of young educated heterosexual Caucasian individuals living in a conservative metropolitan area.

The Internet remains a largely untapped educational venue and it offers opportunities to study the educational needs of young adults. Sex educators and therapists who intervene with adolescents and young adults should consider how Internet usage shapes understanding of sexuality, sexual identity and the ability to develop and maintain intimate relationships. To that effect, they should update offline and online sex education programs to reflect the latest data on Internet sexuality. It is also important for them to consider the role of cybersex in the development of healthy and compulsive sexual behaviour. Researchers ought to formally investigate how reducing the traditional gap between sexually related material that is educational and entertaining may serve to develop programs that support the development of healthy sexuality.
Table 1 Characteristics of Respondents (1) to an Online
Survey on Sex-Related Uses of the Internet

 Male 32.4%
 Female 65.4%
 Average age 20.4
 Median age 19
 19 and 20 68%
 Under 25 years old 96%
 Caucasian 84%
 Other ethnicity/race 16%
Sexual orientation
 Heterosexual 95%
 Gay, lesbian, bisexual 5%
Student status
 Full-time 84.5%
 Part-time 9.2%
Relationship status
 Single 46%
 Dating casually 32.1%
Living arrangements
 With roommates 37.5%
 With family members 26%
 A romantic partner 8%
 By themselves 13.4%
 Other arrangement 12.6%
Time in community
 Median 1 year
 Mean 5.85 years

(1) First-year psychology students. Pool N = 1,100; total
responses = 800; eliminated responses = 40; final sample = 760.

Percentage may not add up to 100% due to incomplete

Table 2 Online Sexual Activities in the Last 12 Months: Frequency
and Gender Distribution

 (N = 740) Men Women
 (2) (N = 245) (N = 495)

Online Sexual Activity (1) N % N % N %

 Sought new people 310 41.8 118 48.2 * 192 38.6
 Used dating services 92 12.5 44 18.0 48 9.7
 Sought information/advice 389 52.5 165 67.6 * 224 45.1
 Viewed SEM 297 40.1 177 72.0 * 120 24.1
 Forwarded SEM to others 305 41.2 128 52.2 * 177 35.8
 Received SEM from others 644 86.9 216 87.8 428 86.1
 Used sex chat rooms 68 9.3 33 13.4 * 35 7.0
 Masturbated while online 284 38.5 175 71.6 * 109 22.1
 Had online sex partners 60 8.2 24 9.9 36 7.3

(1) OSAs were grouped according to their presumed association with the
three main categories of online sexual activity described in the
literature (Goodson, McCormick, & Evans, 2002; Cooper, 2002).

(2) Value of N varied from 735 to 743 (due to missing responses).
Percentages are based on actual N for the measure.

* Indicates a significant gender difference as measured by Pearson
[chi square] .01

Table 3 Intercorrelations Between Online and Offline Sexual
Activities (OSAs) (1)

 1 2 3 4

Online Behaviour

1. Sought new people --
2. Used dating services .347 *** --
3. Looked for information .358 *** .297 *** --
4. Received SEM (2) .071 .115 ** .188 *** --
5. Forwarded SEM .105 ** .152 *** .204 *** .394 ***
6. Viewed SEM .140 * .214 *** .280 *** .240 ***
7. Used chat rooms .332 *** .421 *** .147 *** .074
8. Masturbated online .222 *** .233 *** .380 *** .211 ***
9. Number of sex partners .305 .253 *** .213 *** .037

Offline Behaviour

10. Viewed SEM .075 * .154 *** .230 *** .330 ***
11. Visited sex venues .055 .070 .160 *** .240 ***
12. Number of sex partners .147 *** .148 *** .117 *** .077 *

 5 6 7 8

Online Behaviour

1. Sought new people
2. Used dating services
3. Looked for information
4. Received SEM (2)
5. Forwarded SEM --
6. Viewed SEM .208 *** --
7. Used chat rooms .070 .261 *** --
8. Masturbated online .243 *** .601 *** .095 --
9. Number of sex partners .063 .103 .471 *** .189 ***

Offline Behaviour

10. Viewed SEM .324 *** .314 *** .031 .417 ***
11. Visited sex venues .319 *** .173 *** .000 .254 ***
12. Number of sex partners .184 *** .069 .192 *** .165 ***

 9 10 11 12

Online Behaviour

1. Sought new people
2. Used dating services
3. Looked for information
4. Received SEM (2)
5. Forwarded SEM
6. Viewed SEM
7. Used chat rooms
8. Masturbated online
9. Number of sex partners --

Offline Behaviour

10. Viewed SEM .075 * --
11. Visited sex venues .046 .436 *** --
12. Number of sex partners .101 *** .147 *** .160 *** --

(1) Reported as Pearson product moment r values

(2) SEM stands for Sexually Explicit Material

*** Correlation is significant (2-tailed) at 0.001, ** at 0.01 and
* at 0.05.

Table 4 Factor Loadings of Items Relating to Online and
Offline Sexual Activities

Factors/Items Relating to Sexual Activity (1) Loading

Seeking relationships and partners - online
 Sought new people online .51
 Used online dating service .44
 Used chat rooms .67
 Number of online sexual partners .50
Sexual entertainment
 Received SEM online .54
 Forwarded SEM online .59
 Viewed SEM offline .56
 Visited sex venues offline .61
Sexual gratification
 Masturbated online .80
 Viewed SEM online .76
Sexual exploration - offline
 Number offline sex partners .73
 Searched Internet for sexual information .46

(1) Activities in clusters reflect all 12 items in Table 3.

Table 5 Frequency of Online and Offline Viewing of Sexually
Explicit Material in the Last 12 Months

 SEM Viewing Online
 and Use of Chat
 Rooms - % (N)

 Once a Once
 month a week
Offline Viewing Never or less or more Totals

Never 6.0 (20) 8.3 (28) 6.5 (22) 20.8 (70)
Once a month or 3.9 (13) 37.8 (127) 17.9 (72) 59.5 (200)
Once a week or more 0.3 (1) 7.7 (26) 11.6 (39) 19.6 (66)
Totals 10.1 (34) 53.9 (181) 36.0 (121) 100 (336)

This analysis is based on a portion of the sample made of respondents
who had gone online either to view sexually explicit
material or to enter sexual chat rooms.

Table 6 Reactions to Sexually Explicit Material Found Online

 % Who Agreement
Type of Reaction Agreed Score

Are sexually arousing 82.0 4.24
Satisfy my curiosity 65 3.73
Taught me new sexual techniques 63.2 3.59
Disturb me 57 3.44
Way of fulfilling sexual fantasies 54.7 3.26
Helped improve my sexual 44 2.86
 relationship(s) offline
Are boring 40 3.12
Satisfy my sexual needs 20.5 2.20

 by Gender

Type of Reaction Male Female [chi square]

Are sexually arousing 91.9 70.1 27.2 **
Satisfy my curiosity 71.1 57.8 6.6 *
Taught me new sexual techniques 71.0 54.5 9.8 *
Disturb me 54.0 61.0 1.7
Way of fulfilling sexual fantasies 65.2 42.2 18.09 **
Helped improve my sexual 50.8 36.4 7.13 *
 relationship(s) offline
Are boring 36.5 43.2 1.4
Satisfy my sexual needs 25.9 16.6 7.86 *

N = 341 who had viewed SEM online, * p < 0.01, ** p < 0.001

Table 7 Intercorrelations Between Reactions to Sexually
Explicit Materials Viewed Online (1)

Reaction 1 2 3 4

1. Satisfy my curiosity --
2. Are disturbing -.29 --
3. Taught me techniques .47 -.34 --
4. Improved my sexual relationship .40 -.30 .69 --
5. Fulfill my fantasies .41 -.32 .50 .44
6. Are boring -.38 .36 -.37 -.31
7. Are arousing .51 -.39 .48 .36
8. Satisfy my sexual needs .39 -.21 .32 .29

Reaction 5 6 7 8

1. Satisfy my curiosity
2. Are disturbing
3. Taught me techniques
4. Improved my sexual relationship
5. Fulfill my fantasies --
6. Are boring -.37 --
7. Are arousing .61 -.49 --
8. Satisfy my sexual needs .54 -.32 .41 --

(1) N= 348, all correlations are significant at 0.01

Table 8 Likelihood of Masturbation While Online Among Individuals
who Differed in Their Reactions to SEM Seen Online

 Disagreed Agreed

 % (N) % (N) % (N)
 Masturbated Did Not Masturbated

Satisfy my curiosity 48.7 (58) 51.3 (61) 81.5 (181)
Are disturbing 82.2 (120) 17.8 (26) 61.0 (119)
Taught me new techniques 53.2 (66) 46.8 (58) 79.6 (172)
Improved sexual relationship 58.9 (112) 41.1 (78) 84.1 (127)
Way of fulfilling fantasies 51.3 (79) 48.7 (75) 85.6 (160)
Are boring 77.7 (146) 22.3 (42) 63.9 (78)
Are sexually arousing 24.6 (15) 75.4 (46) 80.0 (223)
Satisfy my sexual needs 64.4 (174) 35.6 (96) 92.8 (64)


 Mean (1)
 % (N) Agreement
 Did Not Score

Satisfy my curiosity 18.5 (41) 3.73
Are disturbing 39.0 (76) 3.44
Taught me new techniques 20.4 (44) 3.59
Improved sexual relationship 15.9 (24) 2.86
Way of fulfilling fantasies 14.4 (27) 3.26
Are boring 36.1 (44) 3.12
Are sexually arousing 20.0 (56) 4.24
Satisfy my sexual needs 7.2 (5) 2.20

(1) See Table 6

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: This article was written based on data gathered by a research team headed by the author. The author acknowledges the professional contribution of Rita Knodel, Ph.D., Kazimiera Stypka, Ph.D., and Joseph A. Parsons, Ph.,D. to the end development of the survey questionnaire. Dr. Parsons also provided the technical expertise required for allowing participants to complete the survey online. This article is adapted from a paper presented at the Canadian Sex Research Forum meeting in Toronto, September 2002.


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Correspondence concerning this paper should be addressed to Sylvain C. Boies, Ph.D., Counselling Services, University of Victoria, P.O. box 3015, Station CSC, Victoria, British Colombia, Canada, V8W 3P1 or by electronic mail at
Sylvain C. Boies
University of Victoria
Victoria, British Columbia
COPYRIGHT 2002 SIECCAN, The Sex Information and Education Council of Canada
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2002 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Boies, Sylvain C.
Publication:The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jun 22, 2002
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