UNB psychology graduate student Krystelle Shaughnessy’s work is helping
define the concept of cybersex.
Shaughnessy, a PhD candidate in clinical psychology at the
University of New Brunswick, has been navigating her way through the complex
world of cybersex for more than four years now.
She has published two articles on the topic, including one
on the definition of the term.
“My interest in studying cybersex came almost solely from
the fact that when I used the word, people would automatically say something
about cybersex addiction, or cybersex as a deviant behaviour,” Shaughnessy
“The more I pursued
this research topic, the more fascinated I became with peoples’ preconceived
notions of cybersex.”
In 2005, Dr. Sandra Byers, Shaughnessy’s supervisor, began
collecting data from heterosexual students about their perceptions of cybersex
and the implications that surrounded the term.
Shaughnessy published two articles that stemmed from the research: “What
is Cybersex? Heterosexual Students’ Definitions” and “Online Sexual Activity
Experience of Heterosexual Students: Gender Similarities and Differences”, both
published online in 2010.
Shaughnessy won the 2010 International Academy of Sex
Research’s best student manuscript award for the online sexual activity article
as well as a student presentation award from the Canadian Sex Research Forum
for a 2008 presentation she gave based on this article.
In 2008, she was nominated for the student award from the
Society for the Scientific Study of Sex for her paper on cybersex
“The awards and the nomination have had a huge impact on my
self-confidence as a researcher,” Shaughnessy said. “Moments like those give me an extra boost of
Shaughnessy’s research is also supported by a graduate
fellowship from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) and
various awards given by UNB.
Given the nature of her research, Shaughnessy found some
interesting results from both of her studies.
“When I was analyzing the data in the definitions study, I
was surprised to learn that not everyone included sexual arousal or pleasure in
how they defined cybersex,” she explained.
“It’s surprising because it means that, for some people, it
doesn’t matter what you ‘get’ out of cybersex, it is more about the fact that
you are communicating with someone about sexual activities than whether you are
Cybersex is a sexual communication between at least two people
that is focused on sexual relations and occurs via synchronous Internet
“In general, people talk about the Internet as being a place
you can behave however you want because of the anonymity,” Shaughnessy
said. “So I found it interesting when I
found evidence of gender roles online.”
Shaughnessy said the findings suggest that both men and
women will revert to their traditional gender roles when they are aware of
their gender in relation to the other person.
“Gender roles and heterosexual sexuality are extremely
intertwined; basically they are ingrained within each other,” Shaughnessy
said. “It is possible that as soon as a
situation involves sexuality, it makes one’s gender salient, then drawing out
the gender role.”
The prevalence of gender roles in online sexual experiences
is something that Shaughnessy wants to further research in the future.
A mentor from UNB
Shaughnessy’s unique research into cybersex may never have
happened had she not come to UNB. She
said her decision to come to UNB was inspired by a member of the psychology
“I decided to come to UNB for my PhD mostly because I wanted
to work with Dr. Sandra Byers and study human sexuality from a social and
clinical psychology perspective,” she explained.
Byers is known internationally for her extensive research
and work in the area of human sexuality.
“Before meeting Dr. Byers, I hadn’t given much thought into
thoroughly researching cybersex,” Shaughnessy said. “I have no doubt that my research would be in
a completely different area of human sexuality had I not started working with
Dr. Byers or gone to UNB.”
If you are interested
in participating in Shaughnessy’s current study, “Sexuality and Intimacy on the
Internet”, please visit www.unbstudy.com.
Contributed by Alanah Duffy, UNB Communications & Marketing. This story made possible thanks to the support of the UNB Associated Alumni.