Modem Madness

The Panic Over Cybersex Addiction

Those who claim the Internet is empowering--to long-married folks or kids just starting out--are as simplistic as those who say the Web is dangerous. The truth falls somewhere in between.

illustration: Joseph Adolphe

"I think a lot of women are fearful of meeting men, and it's much easier for them to flirt behind the screen," says Deb Levine. As for gays, "It seems like there's this incredible success rate online for them, as opposed to heterosexuals who seem more embarrassed about meeting in a chat room." This new medium also does wonders for people who are shy about their body image or their age. The word is the connection, and every suitor is a Cyrano wooing his Roxanne.

Of course, virtual courting has its problems. Among the horror stories about cybersex is the possibly apocryphal one about a woman who lied about her looks and met a great guy who wasn't entirely candid with her. They finally met—only to discover that they were father and daughter. This is the most extreme expression of a common problem with cybering: As Levine notes, when you finally hook up, "you have all the nonverbals that are absent online." Still, for many people, "it's a lot easier than getting out of the house." And when it comes to mere flirting—which is the limit of sex surfing for most—it's an ideal medium for single mothers, gays coming out, and for that matter the woman or man whose marriage is less than satisfying.

Though young people are the largest group of cybersexers, every counselor interviewed for this piece noted that the typical client is a middle-aged man. "A lot of times they're in a 20-year marriage with two kids, an upstanding member of the community, and they've got a problem with this," says Kimberly Young. Why would young people be less likely than their elders to get hooked on cybering? "Because they are much more used to the quick stimulation," notes Levine. "They understand the pace and speed of receiving information. Maybe middle-aged men don't."

This problem is compounded when a sex surfer has strong religious beliefs or intense guilt about extramarital desires. "There probably are some weaknesses in the relationship," says Steve Watters of Pure Intimacy, a Christian counseling service, "and they're looking for something that delivers sexual fulfillment without the same level of investment." The Internet makes this search much easier on the superego than renting an XXX video. Watters says about a fifth of Internet-porn addicts weren't hooked on smut before they went online. "They didn't do more than sneak a peek at a cable show at night, and now they realize that their curiosity is out of control and they can't look at their wife the same way."

Christian counselors worry about the philandering faithful, not a few of whom are clergy. "People who kept their temptations in check are consuming that content on the Internet," warns Watters, "and that's starting to create a wedge in their relationships."

What we have here is a new incarnation of an age-old problem: marriage bed-death.

Desire is a risky business. And so is a medium that makes it easier to express what society would rather see repressed. Those who claim the Internet is empowering—to long-married folks or kids just starting out—are as simplistic as those who insist the Web is dangerous. The truth falls somewhere in between. It's fair to say, as Deb Levine does, that cybering can "awaken and renew desires." But it's also valid to note, as Steve Watters does, that it can "lead people to pursue all their sexual curiosities to the deficit of real relationships."

Ambiguity is the hardest thing for Americans to tolerate. Ours is a culture that prefers to see complex issues in tones of black and white. This polar thinking has many uses. It can rouse people to terrible acts of social cruelty, and it can serve as an effective instrument of mass control. Once we are convinced that marriages, kids, and our personal stability are at stake, censorship seems like a small price to pay. Repression is another word for safety.

"Would you want to provide people with an outlet to express these degrading acts, or would you point them away?" asks Mark Laaser of the Christian Alliance for Sexual Recovery, who testified before Congress last month, urging that libraries be forced to put filters on their computers. He'd also like to see sex sites taxed, with the money used for "education."

Clearly the right has much to gain from this new addiction. But will the cybering legions stand up for their desires? Seems unlikely, given the secrecy and shame that surround this activity. There haven't been any million porn-fan marches. It's the courts that have protected such liberties, and that—as we know—is subject to change. Watters is pessimistic about George W. Bush's commitment to cleaning up the Internet. "He's playing to Silicon Valley," this counselor quips. But Watters is still hopeful that Bush will appoint "an activist attorney general, someone who will go off on his own."

Until then, Watters is willing to settle for treating "the demand side." He runs cybersex-addiction workshops for free. So does Laaser—at $1000 a shot.

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