A specter is haunting the Internet. It is the menace of cybersex. And according to a small army of researchers and therapists, it’s creating a legion of funk fiends.
TWO MILLION AMERICANS ARE HOOKED ON WEB SEX, blared the front page of May 30th’s Daily News. Never mind that this figure is based on a far-from-conclusive “estimate.” The News had no qualms about hyping it, or warning that “thousands of spouses and employers . . . have found addiction to cybersex to be a debilitating obsession that has corroded marriages, wrecked careers, and left its victims isolated and ashamed.”
Breaking free of this compulsion is “maddeningly difficult,” noted the News: “A relapse is only a click away.” And women are at special risk. Some “have been attacked by men they have met online, while others have abandoned spouses and families,” dazzled despite the fact that the cyber suitor is “usually some 400-pound guy who lives in a basement.”
Never mind that, as nearly every sex researcher admits, the phenomenon known as cybering is a positive experience for most people who try it. Indeed, the popularity of cybersex is a tribute to the erotic potential of the Internet. At least 12 million people use the Web for pleasures that range from viewing sexy pictures to “one-handed typing,” as wanking while chatting is sometimes called.
But cybersex addicts “are likely to spend hours each day masturbating” on the Internet. So says New York Times health columnist Jane Brody in a story that buries the possibility of having a good time in the 18th paragraph, well below the opinions of experts who freely compare cybersex to heroin and crack. Brody has a long-standing bias against deviant sex. In the late 1970s, she did several front-page stories promoting therapies that claimed to convert homosexuals to heterosexuality. Now, she’s publicizing treatments for so-called Internet abusers. And as the anxiety about this virtual orgy mounts, recovery programs are popping up everywhere.
The good news is that most people who surf for sex—between 83 and 99 percent in the best-known study—don’t get hooked. But when it comes to erotic exploration, the bad news always leads the story.
Who can say how many virtual compulsives there actually are out there? The concept of cybersex addiction is so new that no one knows how to measure it. Anyone with a questionnaire can draw conclusions, as Al Cooper of the San Jose Marital and Sexuality Centre did from a survey he conducted on the MSNBC Web site. From some 9200 responses, Cooper estimated that 1 percent of cybersexers are addicted. But that’s just the habituated hardcore. Cooper also claims that between 8 and 17 percent of his sample is “at risk.” Adding it all up, he reckons that 200,000 Americans are cybersex compulsives. That’s a tenth of what the News reported.
Cooper declined to be interviewed for this piece, but several clinicians objected to his methodology, especially the lack of scientific controls. “There are limitations to the research, certainly,” admits Kimberly Young, the author of Caught in the Net and a colleague of Cooper. Still, Young maintains, his approach is “appropriate for a new field.” And cybersex addiction is certainly that. “It’s a catch-all term,” Young explains. “It hasn’t been clinically defined.” The American Psychiatric Association has yet to include sexual addiction of any sort in its vast diagnostic manual. As Robert Forman of the Treatment Research Institute notes, this is “a frontier area. It’s all guesswork.”
In the gap between surveys and science, all sorts of assertions are possible. For example, Cooper believes anyone who spends more than 11 hours a week cybering is hooked. This is news to Forman. He has treated people who became dependent on sex sites not long after they began to surf them. “I don’t think it’s quantifiable,” Forman says. “Sex addiction has more to do with circumstances.”
Any horror story about cybersex will sell papers, if only because this new medium can provide instant arousal in the privacy of your computer nook. That’s enough to make many people anxious, even as they can’t resist checking it out. When you consider that among the cybering masses there are lonely and isolated individuals, unhappy in their relationships or just beginning to explore their sexuality, it’s not hard to see why surfing for sex can bring on guilt. And where there’s guilt, there’s gelt.
“Sex sells,” says Paul McMasters, First Amendment Ombudsman at the Freedom Forum. “So if you’re not in the business of selling sex, you certainly have a ready market for proclamations against sex.”
When it comes to this new addiction, there’s a significant crossover between experts and entrepreneurs. Consider Kimberly Young’s Virtual Clinic at the Center For Online Addiction. If you visit, you’ll be asked to take an elaborate quiz, and if your answers add up to addiction, you can buy time in her “private chat room” at $75 for 60 minutes (or $210 for a “counseling package” of three sessions). E-mail exchanges cost “just $15” or $35 for three. Young boasts of rates that are “much more cost-effective than office visits.” That may be true, but many counselors insist that virtual therapy is far less useful than face time. “We have no idea how effective these online treatments are,” says Forman. “My guess is that they’re not doing real well. But they stay pretty busy.”
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.
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.
“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.
Research: Julia Gayduk and Josh Lefkowitz
The Oy of Cybersex
Many of the organizations mentioned in this piece are online. Here are their addresses:
Center for Online Addiction www.netaddiction.com
Christian Alliance for Sexual Recovery www.helpandhope.org
Freedom Forum www.freedomforum.org
Pure Intimacy www.pureintimacy.org
San Jose Marital and Sexuality Centre www.sex-centre.com
Sexual Recovery Institute www.sexualrecovery.com
Interested in finding cybersex sites? That’s what search engines are for. —R.G.