Cybersex Sounds Hot—But What If I Get Addicted?

Nervous nellies, ignored spouses, and sore genitals alike wonder, “What if the web-booty never stops?”

 Dear Bonnie,

I’m a reader who likes your columns about cybersex. I used to think of cybersex as something disgusting, but your columns made me a bit curious. I talked to my friends about it and I was surprised most of them have done it. I think I’d like to try, but to be honest I’m afraid I might get addicted. I read an article that said two million Americans are addicted to cybersex. Do you think it’s true that cybersex is an addiction? What if I start and I can’t stop?

—Worried (and Worked-up) in Wichita

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Bonnie Ruberg's blog about sex, tech, gender, and videogames

Dear Worried,

Here’s the thing: I’m tempted to tell you not to be silly. I'm tempted to tell you that mass cybersex addiction is a sensationalist idea thought up by politicians, sex-negative media, and rehab centers. I’m tempted to tell you, think about cybersex addiction like you would sex addiction: the first time you had real-life sex, were you worried you’d never stop? Most of all, I tempted to tell you that cybersex—like videogames, food, or almost anything else that’s no good in excess—can be a perfectly healthy part of life when taken in moderation. And I tempted to leave the matter at that.

But with a drastic number like "two million Americans" floating through your head—a number that comes from an eight-year-old study itself based on conjecture—I'm thinking it’s going to take more than me rolling my eyes to convince you to stop worrying. So before you get your boxers in a twist deciding between the temptations of cybersex and the inevitable slavery of internet addiction, let me tell you a story.

It’s a story about my friend; we’ll call him Fred. Fred is in his mid-twenties: handsome, witty, works in graphic design. To top it off, he’s got a beautiful girlfriend and a stellar sex life, which involves more daily orgasms than number of times I’ve visited Disney World. Fred wasn’t always such a well-adjusted, sex-happy adult though. In fact, Fred used to be—yes, that’s right—a cybersex addict. As a shy teenager stuck in what he calls a “sexless” long-term relationship, Fred spent an average of four to six hours a night having sex with partners online. “On the weekends I’d do really long sessions of twelve hours or so,” he remembers, “sneaking out of bed and staying up until the sun came up, chatting with random people.” Feeling guilty, he never told his girlfriend about his online escapades. Of course, each time she found the sexy pictures and e-mails accidentally left on his computer, he felt even guiltier.

Soon, Fred’s cybersex habit started to interfere with other parts of his life as well. “After I stayed up late, I’d miss work because I was too tired. I’d avoid eating, because that would mean getting up and missing an opportunity to meet someone… I got to a point when that was all I was thinking about. Literally, I would put off doing anything else to just sit in front of the computer, one hand on the keyboard and another down my pants.”

According to NetAddiction.com, the “center for internet addiction recovery,” Fred’s case was a textbook example of cybersex addiction. Question number two on the site’s “Are you addicted to cybersex?” self-diagnosis quiz: “Do you feel preoccupied with using the Internet for cybersex?” Question number six: “Do you hide your online interactions from your significant other?” And question number seven: “Do you feel guilt or shame from your online use?”

But Fred didn’t get addicted the first time he signed on. “I started having cybersex my freshman year of high school,” he explains. “Being a horny teenager who was pretty unpopular with the girls, I went for the path of least resistance.” With a computer and an internet connection in his room, that meant sex on the internet. But over time, Fred’s explorations became more like an uncontrollable habit. “The danger of getting caught was so exciting,” he says, “I started logging onto chat rooms every single time I was alone in a room with a computer.”

According to Dr. Kimberly Young, therapist and Clinical Director for NetAddiction, people who suffer from low self-esteem—like teenage Fred—are at particular risk for cybersex addiction. Usually though, she says “anonymity is the biggest motivator. Online users can conceal their age, marital status, gender, race… This motivates people to use online sex rooms to talk in more provocative ways” than they would in real life.

Fred wasn’t doing anything particularly “provocative” though—no living out fetishes or wild fantasies, just “a lot of vanilla sex.” In AOL chat rooms, he’d chat with partners and swap pictures. “Sometimes if it was someone I really liked, we’d play on the webcam and talk on the phone,” says Fred. “What I was really getting off on was acceptance.” Still shy in “the real world,” cybersex made him feel like he was wanted, desired. “I got addicted to that feeling,” he admits.

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