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Modern Love : On-line romances can link kindred souls through heartfelt words, says author Avodah Offit. But beware of great pretenders surfing cyberspace.

October 17, 1994|REBECCA HOWARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In "Virtual Love," sex therapist Dr. Avodah Offit's novel of E-mail erotica, two psychiatrists kindle a transcon tinental cyberromance via computer messages.

Marc, on the West Coast, seeks professional guidance from Aphra, an older colleague in New York. Discussing Marc's feelings and treatment of a patient he is drawn to, the two gradually reveal more and more about themselves--and begin to fall in love in cyberspace.

"It's better you're on-line, you're in print, you hardly have a body anymore," messages Marc to Aphra. (Unlike many on-line lovers, these two have actually met--once.) "i still remember your body, though the memory is fading . . . i remember the frailness of your wrists and ankles, the adolescent chest, the whiteness of your skin under black hair. . . ."

The novel was inspired after Offit, an NYU School of Medicine graduate who explored human connections in her nonfiction works "The Sexual Self" (Lippincott, 1977) and "Night Thoughts: Reflections of a Sex Therapist" (Congdon & Weed, 1981), spent time exploring software given to her by one of the originators of America Online in the late 1980s.

"We had an E-mail correspondence, communicating every two to three weeks," she says. "He was so bright, so entertaining, so intellectually stimulating. That's what stimulated me to work on a novel in this form."

She felt freed to write the novel by what she calls the "talk writing" of E-mail, which is a nice pace "between conversation and written words."

While "Virtual Love" has a postmodern edge, Offit says its roots are in literature such as Samuel Richardson's novels of the mid 1700s, which were written as exchanged letters. Written correspondence has been recharged by E-mail, she says. She believes her novel may help bring on-line relationships "out of the computer."

In her role as sex therapist, Offit has counseled patients on their E-mail relationships. She said cyberlove has some definite advantages over the real-world version--as well as potential problems, such as deception and unrealistic expectations.

For example, in "Virtual Love" the two characters transfer physical and psychological traits onto each other more freely than they could in person.

"Love at first sight has a different significance in the era of cybersex. You've met each other's minds, now you see each other's faces and a lot more besides. What are the odds that it will be love at first touch?" she asks. "I know one couple who got along well on-line, but got together and were completely incompatible."

Yet overall Offit finds E-mail a positive movement in linking kindred souls, whether romantically or not.

"One of the great virtues of virtuality is that it brings out the best, most heartfelt, most verbal of people's selves," she says. "I think as many friendships are forged in the keystroke community as lovers are linked. Intimacy is the new goal, one that many are trying to achieve as they travel the intense and heated paths of the emotional superhighway."

Offit, formerly director of the Sexual Treatment Center at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, is also clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at Cornell University Medical College. She has been married to Sidney Offit for 42 years, and they have two adult sons.

In phone and E-mail interviews, Offit offered thoughts on the medium's development as a literary tool, as well as the expanding role of cyberspace as a backdrop for relationship development.

Question: What are the virtues of E-mail communication?

Answer: There is a human need to connect, to reach out. It's an intimate written correspondence and a form of literature. People love it because they're so hungry to be creative. E-mail encourages creativity and spontaneity.

I think too much is made of the phenomenon of cyberlove and cybersex as important only as the means for the unmet to meet or the unseen to perform their verbal antics. Cyberspace is very useful sexually and emotionally for people who know each other, who may want to have cybersex as part of their committed relationship.

Cybersex is anything cyber writers want it to be . . . loving, explicit, X-rated, fantasy coupled . . . with or without self-stimulation during the act. It has gotten to be quite an art. I know a couple who write to each other from different rooms in the same house because they find it an erotic means of communication.

Q: Does the immediacy of E-mail contribute to its popularity?

A: Yes. You have instant access to someone's mind. E-mail is an intense, immediate connection. And that intensity and immediacy magnify whatever you're doing. Although E-mail content may not be erotic, there is an erotic quality to it because of the magnification. When you get a message, it's like getting a message from God. But you have to be careful with that. The magnification element can be wonderful when you receive a compliment. But if the comment is nasty, it can hurt you--more than if it was said to you as a remark.

Q: Why is flirting on-line so titillating?

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