Modem Madness

The Panic Over Cybersex Addiction

Imagine the revenue if cybersex addiction enters the APA's diagnostic manual. The fight for certification has begun, aided by a profession that is creating research nearly as fast as it produces self-help books. Though these folks insist they aren't flogging any moral agenda, the terms they use and the remedies they recommend fit all too snugly into the Christian right's worldview. They have no compunctions about labeling online flirting by married folks "virtual adultery," even if it never leads to physical contact. They urge employers to adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward cybering, and colleges to monitor their students' computers. They want sex sites to feature warnings about addiction—along with links to their treatment sites.

All this might be justified if cybersex were the public-health crisis these researchers say it is. But that has yet to be shown. There is ample clinical evidence that some people have a problem integrating this activity. But that may have less to do with the Internet than with the circumstances of one's life.

illustration: Joseph Adolphe

What is addiction? The growing consensus is that, more than just a reaction to certain notorious substances, it's a response to stimulating pleasure-producing areas of the brain. "These things people call addictions, I'm willing to bet they all tap into these powerful reward systems that are tied to survival of the species," says Forman, the author of Consuming Passions. "Our brains are wired to insure that we perform certain behaviors, and the way we get rewarded is by the release of chemicals."

This neuro high can be achieved with drugs or alcohol, but also by nearly any pleasurable activity. People can induce a chemical rush by shopping, running, video gaming, gambling, or even reading. But when it comes to priming the pleasure pump, nothing beats sex.

In the holistic view of addiction, some people can be as compulsive about sex as others are about cocaine. The real questions involve the social and psychological significance of the dependence. "If we take a generic view of addiction," says Forman, "it's anything that meets two criteria: Is there a compulsion to engage in the behavior, and does it create a significant disruption in the person's life?"

It's easy enough to prove this with alcohol or drugs that can get you busted. But not every habit is considered an addiction. The couch potato is rarely called a TV junkie, but sex addicts are the subject of countless exposés. "Our definition of addiction is socially formed," says Forman. Yet it seldom focuses on what may be the most important criterion of all: stigma.

"What I hear most is that people feel guilty," says Deb Levine, author of The Joy of Cybersex. "There's this pull to get online and find the places that produce heightened pleasure—in that way, it is like a drug. But after the computer is turned off, there's this loss of self-esteem. That only lasts a short time, and then the need builds up again. I keep thinking of this image of a mouse on a wheel." Anyone who cybers can relate to this scenario. Chat rooms, newsgroups, and porn sites dedicated to sex acts formerly imaginable only at the Mine Shaft, all produce a powerful neuro high. And these excitations are heightened by the interactivity and anonymity of the Internet. Safe behind your screen name, you can bend genders, talk dirty to a hottie, follow the action of the toilet cam. The Internet brings promiscuity and perversion to a search engine near you.

But what if we regarded virtual sex as good (if not clean) fun? Would that crisis of self-esteem still occur? The question is all but academic, since we live in an era when any sexual practice except monogamy is suspect. Preachers and shrinks conspire with the media to create an image of cybersex fraught with danger. These are the very conditions that can fuel a compulsion. When a surfing spouse is accused of "cyber infidelity" or a worker is fired for even peeking at a porn site, the poles of risk and relief are cemented into place. It's quite possible that cybersex addiction—and sexual compulsions in general—are a response to a social climate that pathologizes the pursuit of erotic pleasure, yet offers it everywhere.

But even in this tricky climate, most people who cyber aren't compulsive about it. So why do some have a modem on their backs? The researchers disagree. To Robert Weiss of the Sexual Recovery Institute, "it's very similar to gambling addiction: It's all about the chase, the hunt, the intrigue, and the high that comes with that kind of intensity." Others mention bipolar disorder, attention deficit, a history of child abuse, or depression, the classic marker of an addictive personality. Forman adds repression to the mix. The furtiveness and shame that come with transgressing a social sanction heightens the need for those pleasure-producing chemicals that sex supplies. As Forman says, "The stigma of sex is part of what makes it an addiction."

To Cooper, however, data are everything. Since the respondents to his survey were more likely to score in the danger zone if they were women or gays, he concludes that these groups are at a heightened risk. Of course, when it comes to paranoia about sex, women and gays are the usual suspects. But clinicians haven't noticed that the danger is greater for these groups. If anything, the Internet provides a safety zone for them to cut loose in.

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