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Dr. Jennifer Schneider makes her living talking about cybersex addiction. Like the rest of her circlea handful of therapists turned writers, professional witnesses, and television guests that includes her former teacher Dr. Patrick Carnesshe leads a busy life warning the world about the potential dangers of internet sex. Schneider has appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Geraldo, and over 80 additional TV and radio shows. She has also published eight books, the most recent titled Untangling the Web: Sex, Porn, and Fantasy Obsession in the Internet Age. By trade, Schneider specializes in couples therapy and the psychology of addiction, two focuses, she says shes seen become more and more relevant to our internet age, with increasing numbers of unhappy partners arrive in her office, plagued by online temptations.
I spoke to Dr. Schneider on the phone from her home in Tucson one Sunday morning, the only hour when she was able to slip me into her schedule. I wanted to talk to a cybersex addiction expert about her profession's sensationalist (and frankly, money-making) approach to sex online: something I see as an exciting part of a healthy sex life, if taken in moderation. I also wanted to know whether these experts had ever had cybersex themselves. The answers might (not) surprise you.
Q: Thanks for talking with me at such a strange hour. I got a chance to read the cybersex addiction material on your website you recommended, by the way.
A: Thats good. So you understand what I mean by addiction then? If you look up the definition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manuel of Mental Disorders, there are three elements that define it. Loss of control, thats the firstso you cant just tell someone to cut back. The second is continuation despite significant adverse consequences. In the cybersex area, were talking about people whose job is being threatened because spending your time looking at sexual sites will get you fired. The third one is obsessive preoccupation. You see, I dont mention anything about quantity of time, how many hours theyre on the computer or how many times they have sex during the day. Its all about the consequences in their lives.
Q: Consequences like what?
A: If youre spending ten hours a day at the computer, youre paying a price. The price is in all the things youre not doing. If youre a runner, and youre spending six hours a day running, and youve found a way to do it that doesnt interfere with your family life or your job, and you feel bad if youre not running, that doesnt make you an addict.
Q: So if you have someone who spends a significant amount of time having cybersex, but there arent adverse consequences, is that healthy?
A: Thats another whole area. Does he have a balanced life? Is this somebody who has no friends and no social life but they think its okay because theyre getting their needs met by sitting in front of a computer screen? Theyre online and theyre having sex and theyre meeting people online and so they think everythings fine: is there a problem? Well, you really need to look at the big picture. The problem is they are making a choice: theyre on the computer rather then learning social skills, which they would need if they were actually out interacting with people. You dont need any social skills on the computer.
Q: I dont think thats
A: And that might be fine for a while, but suppose that at some point this is somebody who thinks he would actually like to get married and have a family. Meanwhile, hes not even dating because he doesnt have any social skills and hes not developing this because hes sitting in front of the computer all the time.
Q: Obviously, if someone is having cybersex six hours a day, thats an indicator that he/she might have other issues. But if you have someone who uses cybersex every so often as part of a real-life social life, would that be unhealthy?
A: I dont think so, and Im not coming from a moral perspective on this. Would you be asking me: 'What do you think about someone having a glass or two of wine with dinner, do they have a problem with alcohol?' I would say, doesnt sound like it. The question is always: does it enhance your life, or are there adverse consequences?
Q: So you think that in the right moderation cybersex can be part of a healthy sex life?
A: The problem is, people are always asking me questions thinking theres something unique about cybersex as opposed to a glass of wine, a piece of chocolate, or any other behavior. If you stop looking at it as some unique thing and look at it as something in a persons life that people enjoy doing, then sometimes the answers become very self-evident.
Q: Its great to hear such a sex-positive approach, but youve done a number of media appearances on cybersex, and I wonder if those dont often give audiences the wrong impression: that there is something fundamentally bad about cybersex. Your colleague and co-author Dr. Weiss, for example, called online sex the crack cocaine of sex addiction. You very rarely hear an expert on television saying cybersex can be part of a healthy life.
A: Again, if you look at drinking, how many programs do you see on TV or in the newspaper about people whose life is enriched because they go out to dinner and have a drink? Not very many, as opposed to articles about drunk driving. Because whats news? Something thats positive is not news.
Q: It may be true that its not news, butto keep up your analogyits certainly true theres a section of our culture that encourages the positive side of alcohol. You can drink wine in nice restaurants, go to wine tasting, read wine magazines Theres a space for it in the media and the culture that doesnt exist for sex on the internet.
A: That may be.
Q: Have you ever done first-hand research into cybersexas in, have you ever had cybersex yourself or observed anyone having it?
A: Ive done surveys and talked to patients. Its not like Im just doing this because Ive heard someone say whatever. As to whether Ive gone online myself, I havent, specifically because these days even if you dont go online you are totally deluged with email. For example, if somehow you get on this or that persons list and then they sell the list to everybody else. Every day I probably get thirty emails about enlarge your penis. So even without getting on any porn websites, I know what theyre like. All you have to do is just go once on a porn site and immediately your address gets spread out. I just really dont need that in my life. So the answer is, no I havent.