Understanding cybersex

UNB psychology graduate student Krystelle Shaughnessy’s work is helping define the concept of cybersex.

Krystelle 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. Submitted photo.

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 said.

“The more I pursued this research topic, the more fascinated I became with peoples’ preconceived notions of cybersex.”

Defining 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 definitions. 

“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 motivation.”

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. 

Intriguing results

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 getting aroused.”

Cybersex is a sexual communication between at least two people that is focused on sexual relations and occurs via synchronous Internet modes.   

“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 faculty. 

“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.