By Samantha Miller
April 01, 1996 12:00 PM

Last January, in what is believed to be the first case of its kind, a New Jersey man, John Goydan, sued his wife, Diane, for divorce after retrieving steamy e-mail messages in which she and a North Carolina man calling himself the Weasel exchanged erotic fantasies and “proxy kisses” and talked of plans for a real-life tryst.

Their relationship would have been transformed, of course, had they ever met. But before that, in what sense was their affair real? Is cyber sex the equivalent of reading an erotic novel, or is it tantamount to an actual rendezvous? As millions of people flock to the Internet and other online networks—where they are exploring simulation games and fantasy worlds, joining communities where they have virtual friends and lovers, and experimenting with assumed identities—these questions are cropping up for the first time. Notes clinical psychologist Sherry Turkle: “Computer screens are the new location for our fantasies, both erotic and intellectual.”

For Turkle, 47, professor of the sociology of science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Internet offers unprecedented opportunities for both freedom and harm. In her new book, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, she compares cyberspace to an analyst’s couch where people can give voice to different parts of their personalities. Turkle, who lives in Boston with her daughter Rebecca, 4, discussed virtual relationships with PEOPLE Online writer samantha miller.

How are online networks changing the way some people communicate?

Ten years ago our relationship with computers was one-on-one, person with machine. Now, with e-mail and the Internet, we’re using computers to develop new kinds of relationships with other people. In the early days of the computer; people thought of these machines primarily in terms of science and business. But no sooner do we have a technology than we turn it to profoundly personal purposes.

For example?

People are using e-mail in very intimate, very expressive and very family-oriented ways. Parents are writing e-mail to their children in college. People are opening up relationships with relatives that have been closed down for years. I’ve seen people develop social skills or become able to discuss emotional and physical problems—such as weight or disability—that they previously were unable to confront.

What is it about e-mail that often tends to relax inhibitions?

E-mail stands somewhere between speech and writing. It’s more spontaneous than writing—you can feel the presence of the person to whom you are sending a message—but it also lets you compose your words and say precisely what you want. And you’re alone when you’re writing, which creates a quiet space for self-reflection. It’s a very evocative medium.

Is online communication, then, likely to be more meaningful?

Not necessarily. You can chat with someone for 30 minutes and then just leave—as if you’d met on a bus and then gotten off. Or the conversation can become very intense, very significant. We are still in the early days of communication in cyberspace, so we’re still trying to work out what it means to have relationships divorced from our physical selves. And increasingly, people are experimenting with moving from virtual worlds into real relationships. Rush Limbaugh, you recall, met his wife on CompuServe.

Does it disturb you that people can assume online identities other than their own?

Sometimes these identities can be constructive. Life online gives people a new, relatively unconstrained place to play out aspects of themselves and sometimes work on important problems. The Internet encourages experimentation.

We will want to have places online where people are “themselves.” But there will also be places where people can go for recreation and for the serious play of exploring new sides of themselves. When they visit these places, they give expression to their hopes and fears. Ideally, people will use the virtual to improve the real.

Are they doing that?

Some are. Case, a young man whom I interviewed for my book, was uncomfortable being assertive. But when he played an assertive woman in an online role-playing community, he was able to become more assertive in real life. Some people seem to prefer the virtual world. Doug, who assumed the identity of a seductive woman in one online domain, a macho cowboy type in another and a rabbit of unspecified gender in a third, told me, “RL [real life] is just one more window—and it’s usually not my best one.”

Can’t virtual relationships be unhealthy, too?

Sure. People may act out the same problems they have in real life in their virtual lives. Many people who have pent-up hostility will “name”—exchange angry slurs—when they’re online. Some people who flame think their actions have no consequences, that they’re just words. It’s important to remember you’re not having a relationship with just a computer; there’s another real person involved.

What, if anything, can be done about adults who use cyberspace to lure children into sexual liaisons?

They should be prosecuted. The practice is illegal. Nothing in cyberspace gives the user a license to commit a crime.

Can the Internet become a political tool as well as a therapeutic tool?

It has already become an organizational tool for grassroots movements—both of the right and left. Additionally, the Internet is becoming a place for community building. For example, senior citizens are one of the fastest-growing groups online. They’re using computers to build new, supportive friendships. Conversely, I interviewed a man who said he was politically active in his online community but wasn’t registered to vote. I could have cried! If the politics of virtuality mean democracy online and apathy offline, there’s reason to be concerned.

How do you think people will use computer networks in the future?

Like the anthropologist returning home, the online explorer can return to the real world better equipped to understand it. In my experience, the people who make the most of their lives on the screen are those who approach the experience in a spirit of self-reflection. Computers and the Internet have created a new space for growth.