Chat rooms provide a form of online communication where people interact on a one-to-one or many-to-many basis in real time (synchronously). Chat rooms have been a popular form of online communication since the early days of the Internet. Individuals can chat using special programs (e.g., Internet Relay Chat) or servers may offer chat rooms (e.g., America Online [AOL]). However Web-based chat rooms are also increasingly available, so that users do not need a special program to enter them. Some chat rooms require registration, others are open. There are chat rooms to cover practically any topic, from gardening to politics, as well as for particular demographics, such as children or teens. People may start chatting in a general chat room and after introduction and flirtation split off to a private room in which the participants are limited. A significant number of chat rooms cater to people who specifically want sexual encounters.
According to Aaron Ben-Ze'ev, who does interdisciplinary work on emotion, people coming to chat rooms for sex are looking for the following: to experiment with online sex within an existing relationship; to develop an online relationship that could transfer into an offline relationship at some point; or to have short online affairs. Sex online is known as cybersex or cybering. During cyber-sex, two or sometimes more people exchange messages describing sexual acts and their own feelings, which are aimed at evoking both self-arousal and that of other parties. Often partners masturbate while exchanging text messages. Advances in technology are making voice and video chat increasingly available and affordable. This development may replace text chat, and chat rooms may become areas in which participants watch something captured on a single webcam, or where two people in a private chat watch each other via webcam. However in his essay "Text Talk" (1997), John Suler, a clinical psychologist of cyberspace, makes the case that text chat has some characteristics that will ensure its ongoing popularity, such as its anonymity and minimalism, which allow for creative solutions like emoticons and for a communication that feels like it connects speakers very directly.
One of the positive characteristics of cybersex in chat rooms is that a number of the offline obstacles that restrain people from engaging in sexual relations do not exist. Text chat does not communicate physical appearance or disability (or a person's age or gender). Ben-Ze'ev comments: "If, in the good old days, an ideal desired person was tall and beautiful, in cybersex the ideal is a smart person who can type fast with one hand" (Ben-Ze'ev 2004, p. 11). Thus all one needs to be attractive in a chat room is a way with words and good typing skills. Sociologist Mary Chayko and Ben-Ze'ev also cite the anonymity of chat rooms as a benefit. People who otherwise might feel inhibited often feel sexually liberated in chat rooms because no one knows who they are offline. Another advantage of sex in chat rooms is that, while cybering allows for many casual encounters, becoming pregnant and acquiring sexually transmitted infections are not possible.
The anonymity and casual nature of contacts in chat rooms also form their greatest disadvantage or danger. While the sex online is virtual, real emotions are involved. Ben-Ze'ev gives numerous examples of heartache caused when individuals involved in romantic relationships developed in chat rooms were suddenly abandoned by their online partners. The anonymity of the chat room allows participants to keep other online or offline relationships secret, so deception is not uncommon. Anonymity also allows people to lie about their gender, and permits sexual predators to lure vulnerable parties, especially children, into dangerous offline situations.
Chayko, Mary. 2002. Connecting: How We Form Social Bonds and Communities in the Internet Age. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Suler, John. 1997. Text Talk: Psychological Dynamics of Online Synchronous Conversations in Text-Driven Chat Environments. Available from http://www.rider.edu/∼suler/psycyber/texttalk.html.