For women who want sex without the strings, a click of the mouse now offers a whole new world of possibilities – real, virtual or a bit of both. marie claire reports on the growing trend of single women going online to get off.

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It’s after midnight and Sydney marketing manager Ella*, 32, lies in bed, the solitary glow of her laptop lighting her face. After a night out, she’s come home alone and is pretty turned on. Not so long ago, her only option would have been her imagination and her vibrator, but now all she has to do is open her laptop to access a quick, anonymous sexual experience.

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Welcome to the age of the technological turn-on, where finding a sexual partner is as easy as ordering pizza.

The internet has facilitated a sexual revolution for single women whether they want to get laid, talk dirty in a chat room, masturbate in front of someone on Skype, play out their S&M fantasies from the safety of their bedrooms, or have virtual sex on their virtual bed in their virtual house in a virtual world. It’s all just a mouse click away.

Once the domain of gay men, using the web to search out a casual hook-up is now a reality for many single women.

AdultMatchMaker.com.au, an Australian “adult” dating site, has more than 2.1 million registered members, while RedHotPie.com.au has some 2.8 million member listings. Consider this: daily search requests involving porn range to 68 million worldwide – that’s 25 per cent of total search engine requests. A study of 2000 women conducted by Joan Sauers for her book Sex Lives Of Australian Women (Random House, $34.95) found that one in five Aussie women has admitted to having a sexual encounter in an internet chat room.

But back to Ella. In the past five months, her Adult Match Maker inbox has received thousands of messages from guys looking for a sexual encounter. Tonight, she has the pick of 15 men vying for her attention. Ella satisfies her desires in a chat with Tradie84, who displays a picture of himself showcasing his toned, white bottom reflected in the mirror of a stylish, black-tiled bathroom, which, says Ella, suggests he has taste.

Their hour-long chat is punctuated by risqué picture-swapping, full-face shots and hot, sexy intentions for the date they’ve organised for the next afternoon in a local bar, where Ella will decide whether she wants to take it further and have actual sex with him. In her experience, guys are never so picky.

There was once a time when it was assumed that ladies found the whole experience of sex disdainful. In fact, in the 19th century it was thought that “normal” women couldn’t experience arousal – that it was only the domain of prostitutes. Now we’re free to own our sexuality and many of us are ready to admit we want sex just as much as our guy friends do. A 2010 survey† of 10,000 Australian men and women found that almost a third of women want sex every day; the figure for men is 40 per cent.

“We now recognise that our sexual identity is a fundamental driver for women as much as it is for men,” says sexologist Dr Nikki Goldstein. “However, there is an inherent belief that women don’t need and desire sex like men do. There are women not ready to settle down, or can’t find somebody to settle down with, who still have sexual needs.”

And for many women, needs must. The fact is we’re staying single longer, marrying later, or not at all. The Australian Bureau of Statistics’s 2011 Census concluded that only 49 per cent of Australian adults are married. Nowadays, it’s pretty standard for a woman to spend years on her own – having a career, socialising, dating, and wanting, desiring and having sex.

While the girls in TV show Girls and the women in Sex And The City portray single life as all designer shoes and sex on tap, life in the real world isn’t always like that. So many women are taking a more pragmatic approach by going online.

According to Dr Goldstein, the internet is opening up new ways of exploring sexuality. “Technology is broadening the horizon of potential sexual encounters, whether that is physically meeting someone or making contact through a forum,” she asserts. “Women are discovering there doesn’t have to be love involved; there doesn’t even have to be the physical presence of another person. Some people would argue that it is teaching us that sex is very different from love. I think it is teaching us that we can own our own sexual pleasure.”

And sometimes you don’t even have to leave your bedroom – hello, remote sex, which just might be the new one-night stand. While Skype’s SkypeMe! mode and Chatroulette are meant for strangers to be able to chat to one another, they are often used by people looking to hook up with masturbation partners. Unsurprisingly, these sites are heavily populated by men and teenage boys, neither of whom find it hard to separate their physical and emotional needs. Are modern women simply following suit?

Caroline*, 29, a real estate agent from Brisbane, is a bisexual woman who admits to regularly having Skype sex. “I’ve been single for four years. I still hook up in real life, but there are months of drought. I have a high sex drive but, to be honest, I can’t be bothered with all the hard work that picking up entails – drinks, chatting, the seduction, then not wanting them to stay over.

“I have about a dozen men and women that I regularly hook up with. It’s almost like a club. My contacts are all over the world and are people I can trust not to film me. We share contacts and add them to our group.

It’s sexy being able to interact with another human being. I like seeing a visual image of a guy masturbating as he watches you and vice versa. Then once you’ve both come and are satisfied, you say goodbye and log off. Easy.”

From behind your keyboard, it’s easy to be anyone you want to be and lead the virtual sex life of your dreams. “Virtual sex is sex in a virtual world, where your avatar interacts with someone else’s avatar in a sexual manner,” explains Ross Dawson, publisher of FutureOfSex.net, a dedicated virtual and cyber sex blog.

According to Dawson, wherever there has been communication, there has been sex. “It started with the telephone, then people started talking dirty on adult chat lines in the ’90s. When we got a visual component with Second Life, people were pairing off to emulate the sexual experience, but there are limits to what you can do. The biggest adult-oriented virtual world is Red Light Social Center, where sex is the major part of the experience and gives you the opportunity to view X-rated film and art, and have as much sex as your avatar wants in different couplings as he/she goes to parties, clubs, bars, even orgies, to pick up.”

Meet Jenny*, 38, from Melbourne, who says she is in a committed cyber sex relationship and has spent the past six months under the guise of Bella exploring in a BDSM (bondage, domination and sadomasochism) chat room. “The idea intrigued me as I’ve always been into being submissive in the bedroom,” she reveals. “Typically, there are between eight to 30 people in the room, with lots of regulars like a female vampire and a cowboy.

“For the first month, I just watched as couples played out S&M scenarios in the room. Then the moderator, Tom*, who is based in London, and I started chatting via private messages. He’s a dom [dominator] and we started playing out scenarios. Eventually, he asked if I wanted to be his submissive and asked me to wear his collar, which essentially means I’m his and his alone. Ever since he collared me, we don’t scene, which means playing out bondage and discipline scenarios in the room.

“He has a cyber dungeon, which he takes me into,” continues Jenny. “He’ll send me pictures of certain machines and apparatus. You play out the whole thing virtually. We’ve progressed to having Skype sex and he’ll order me into the bathroom to shave my pubic area or to masturbate in front of him. While I’m enjoying being naughty, it’s my private fantasy world, a guilty pleasure. However, I do worry it could stop me meeting someone in the real world. If I met a partner, I like to think he’d be able to fulfil all my sexual needs and that I could give it up, but I’m not so sure.”

In nine months last year, Ella slept with 14 men that she’d met through Adult Match Maker. “I had just come out of a horrendous relationship,” she recalls. “I was happy just having lovers and not getting emotionally attached. Within the first hour, I had more than 60 guys contact me. I was so nervous at the thought of doing it, but once I got over the initial shock I had fun. I was getting some hot guys and hot sex. The more I did it, the more addictive it became. Not the actual sex but the attention.

“While there is a certain honesty in both of you knowing what you’re there for, you can still take it personally when a guy says he’ll call and doesn’t. There were certainly negative experiences. I met a guy I’d been chatting with for a while for drinks. He was smart and funny. After sex at my place, we ordered takeaway. I had to take a call and he went outside to wait for the food, wearing his jacket but leaving his T-shirt on the floor. Then the doorbell rang; it was the delivery driver. The guy had just disappeared. I was so devastated and humiliated. You have to develop a thick skin if you use these sites.”

However, Ella’s foray into casual sex ended very differently from how she had expected.

“After six months I got bored and was tapering it down when I met David*,” she says. “I wasn’t immediately attracted as he doesn’t take a good photograph, but I liked his profile. We had chatted online and he was really funny, but there was something holding me back. Eventually, we met up and had coffee three or four times. That was unusual. Most of the other men were like, ‘Wham, bam, thank you ma’am.’

“Sex was great, but we also got on incredibly well. Then, we decided to date each other exclusively and have developed a relationship. There’s a cheesy testimonial on the front page of the website from a couple, which I never believed, but that has actually happened to us. Not that we’d ever tell anyone that – we just say we met online.”

But before you rush online, remember there are other considerations involved in a virtual sex life, beyond the fact that you’re exposing a private part of your life to a very public space.

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“Essentially, you’re using a site like this to meet someone with a common interest, which, in this platform, is casual sex,” points out Dr Goldstein. “However, you need to go through the motions of a traditional date. Is there a connection? Do you feel safe with them? Do you feel comfortable? You should never give them your address and off you go.”

Emotional health is another consideration. “Often women aren’t aware that when you’re self-stimulating or having casual sex, you’re still producing the same pleasurable hormones, so it’s easy to attach those pleasure feelings with the person in front of you, whether they’re on the internet or in real life,” says Dr Goldstein. “Hence, you can get the same form of attachment. There is also a danger that if you tend to go online a lot, you can start to see this as the easy way out. There’s a risk of replacing a purely online sex life for real-life connections.”