Have the Cybersex ‘Experts’ Ever Had Cybersex?

Dr. Jennifer Schneider: An expert who thinks cybersex is the same as Spam.

Dr. Jennifer Schneider makes her living talking about cybersex addiction. Like the rest of “her circle”—a handful of therapists turned writers, professional witnesses, and television guests that includes her former teacher Dr. Patrick Carnes—she 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 she’s 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.


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

A: That’s 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, that’s the first—so you can’t just tell someone to cut back. The second is continuation despite significant adverse consequences. In the cybersex area, we’re 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 don’t mention anything about quantity of time, how many hours they’re on the computer or how many times they have sex during the day. It’s all about the consequences in their lives.

Q: Consequences like what?

A: If you’re spending ten hours a day at the computer, you’re paying a price. The price is in all the things you’re not doing. If you’re a runner, and you’re spending six hours a day running, and you’ve found a way to do it that doesn’t interfere with your family life or your job, and you feel bad if you’re not running, that doesn’t make you an addict.

Q: So if you have someone who spends a significant amount of time having cybersex, but there aren’t adverse consequences, is that healthy?

A: That’s another whole area. Does he have a balanced life? Is this somebody who has no friends and no social life but they think it’s okay because they’re getting their needs met by sitting in front of a computer screen? They’re online and they’re having sex and they’re meeting people online and so they think everything’s fine: is there a problem? Well, you really need to look at the big picture. The problem is they are making a choice: they’re on the computer rather then learning social skills, which they would need if they were actually out interacting with people. You don’t need any social skills on the computer.

Q: I don’t think that’s—

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, he’s not even dating because he doesn’t have any social skills and he’s not developing this because he’s sitting in front of the computer all the time.

Q: Obviously, if someone is having cybersex six hours a day, that’s 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 don’t think so, and I’m 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, doesn’t 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 there’s 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 person’s life that people enjoy doing, then sometimes the answers become very self-evident.

Q: It’s great to hear such a sex-positive approach, but you’ve done a number of media appearances on cybersex, and I wonder if those don’t 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 what’s news? Something that’s positive is not news.

Q: It may be true that it’s not news, but—to keep up your analogy—it’s certainly true there’s 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… There’s a space for it in the media and the culture that doesn’t exist for sex on the internet.

A: That may be.

Q: Have you ever done first-hand research into cybersex—as in, have you ever had cybersex yourself or observed anyone having it?

A: I’ve done surveys and talked to patients. It’s not like I’m just doing this because I’ve heard someone say whatever. As to whether I’ve gone online myself, I haven’t, specifically because these days even if you don’t go online you are totally deluged with email. For example, if somehow you get on this or that person’s 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 they’re like. All you have to do is just go once on a porn site and immediately your address gets spread out. I just really don’t need that in my life. So the answer is, no I haven’t.

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