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"Many of them said their wife was so involved in childrearing that she wasn't interested in having sex." Because there is no touching involved in online chat conversations, married people often rationalize their behavior as harmless fun, Mileham said.

Eighty-three percent of the study's participants said they did not consider themselves to be cheating, and the remaining 17 percent deemed it a "weak" form of infidelity that was easily justifiable, she said.

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But some used this form of effortless escapism while their spouse was in the room, she said.

Said one such man, "While I'm on the computer my wife just assumes I'm writing a report for work." Another man said his wife, who knew what he was doing and didn't like it, looked over his shoulder sometimes while he was typing, Mileham said.

Females are usually bombarded with messages and can pick and choose which messages they respond to, she said.

Al Cooper, a leading expert in the field of Internet sexuality and the author of the book "Sex and the Internet: A Guidebook for Clinicians," said Mileham's research is important in helping to understand this increasingly common phenomenon.

"We are hearing from therapists around the country reporting online sexual activity to be a major cause of marital problems," Cooper said.

"We need to better understand the contributing factors if we are going to be able to warn people about the slippery slope that starts with online flirting and too often ends in divorce." With the exception of two of the study's participants, all hid their online activities from their spouses, often "chatting" after their husbands or wives had gone to sleep, Mileham said.

Other research has shown, however, that most spouses feel as betrayed, angry and hurt by online infidelity as they would if skin-to-skin adultery had taken place, she said.

The UF study found an escalating quality to these online contacts.

Much of the Internet's appeal to married people is the anonymity it guarantees, coupled with the no-touching aspect, which they view as a license to be sexual, Mileham said.

One can reveal the most intimate emotional and sexual details to an unseen stranger at any time of the day or night, she said.

There is always someone to talk to no matter the time and connections can easily be made.