Modem Madness

The Panic Over Cybersex Addiction

A specter is haunting the Internet. It is the menace of cybersex. And according to a small army of researchers and therapists, it's creating a legion of funk fiends.

TWO MILLION AMERICANS ARE HOOKED ON WEB SEX, blared the front page of May 30th's Daily News. Never mind that this figure is based on a far-from-conclusive "estimate." The News had no qualms about hyping it, or warning that "thousands of spouses and employers . . . have found addiction to cybersex to be a debilitating obsession that has corroded marriages, wrecked careers, and left its victims isolated and ashamed."

Breaking free of this compulsion is "maddeningly difficult," noted the News: "A relapse is only a click away." And women are at special risk. Some "have been attacked by men they have met online, while others have abandoned spouses and families," dazzled despite the fact that the cyber suitor is "usually some 400-pound guy who lives in a basement."

illustration: Joseph Adolphe

Never mind that, as nearly every sex researcher admits, the phenomenon known as cybering is a positive experience for most people who try it. Indeed, the popularity of cybersex is a tribute to the erotic potential of the Internet. At least 12 million people use the Web for pleasures that range from viewing sexy pictures to "one-handed typing," as wanking while chatting is sometimes called.

But cybersex addicts "are likely to spend hours each day masturbating" on the Internet. So says New York Times health columnist Jane Brody in a story that buries the possibility of having a good time in the 18th paragraph, well below the opinions of experts who freely compare cybersex to heroin and crack. Brody has a long-standing bias against deviant sex. In the late 1970s, she did several front-page stories promoting therapies that claimed to convert homosexuals to heterosexuality. Now, she's publicizing treatments for so-called Internet abusers. And as the anxiety about this virtual orgy mounts, recovery programs are popping up everywhere.

The good news is that most people who surf for sex—between 83 and 99 percent in the best-known study—don't get hooked. But when it comes to erotic exploration, the bad news always leads the story.

Who can say how many virtual compulsives there actually are out there? The concept of cybersex addiction is so new that no one knows how to measure it. Anyone with a questionnaire can draw conclusions, as Al Cooper of the San Jose Marital and Sexuality Centre did from a survey he conducted on the MSNBC Web site. From some 9200 responses, Cooper estimated that 1 percent of cybersexers are addicted. But that's just the habituated hardcore. Cooper also claims that between 8 and 17 percent of his sample is "at risk." Adding it all up, he reckons that 200,000 Americans are cybersex compulsives. That's a tenth of what the News reported.

Cooper declined to be interviewed for this piece, but several clinicians objected to his methodology, especially the lack of scientific controls. "There are limitations to the research, certainly," admits Kimberly Young, the author of Caught in the Net and a colleague of Cooper. Still, Young maintains, his approach is "appropriate for a new field." And cybersex addiction is certainly that. "It's a catch-all term," Young explains. "It hasn't been clinically defined." The American Psychiatric Association has yet to include sexual addiction of any sort in its vast diagnostic manual. As Robert Forman of the Treatment Research Institute notes, this is "a frontier area. It's all guesswork."

In the gap between surveys and science, all sorts of assertions are possible. For example, Cooper believes anyone who spends more than 11 hours a week cybering is hooked. This is news to Forman. He has treated people who became dependent on sex sites not long after they began to surf them. "I don't think it's quantifiable," Forman says. "Sex addiction has more to do with circumstances."

Any horror story about cybersex will sell papers, if only because this new medium can provide instant arousal in the privacy of your computer nook. That's enough to make many people anxious, even as they can't resist checking it out. When you consider that among the cybering masses there are lonely and isolated individuals, unhappy in their relationships or just beginning to explore their sexuality, it's not hard to see why surfing for sex can bring on guilt. And where there's guilt, there's gelt.

"Sex sells," says Paul McMasters, First Amendment Ombudsman at the Freedom Forum. "So if you're not in the business of selling sex, you certainly have a ready market for proclamations against sex."

When it comes to this new addiction, there's a significant crossover between experts and entrepreneurs. Consider Kimberly Young's Virtual Clinic at the Center For Online Addiction. If you visit, you'll be asked to take an elaborate quiz, and if your answers add up to addiction, you can buy time in her "private chat room" at $75 for 60 minutes (or $210 for a "counseling package" of three sessions). E-mail exchanges cost "just $15" or $35 for three. Young boasts of rates that are "much more cost-effective than office visits." That may be true, but many counselors insist that virtual therapy is far less useful than face time. "We have no idea how effective these online treatments are," says Forman. "My guess is that they're not doing real well. But they stay pretty busy."

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