TWO MILLION AMERICANS ARE HOOKED ON WEB sex, blared the front page of May 30s New York Daily News. Never mind that this figure is based on a far-from-conclusive estimate -- the News went on to warn 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 paper: 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.
Notwithstanding the overheated rhetoric, the phenomenon known as cybering, as nearly every sex researcher admits, 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 in chat rooms.
But cybersex addicts are likely to spend hours each day masturbating on the Internet. So says The New York Times health columnist Jane Brody, in a story that buries in the 18th paragraph the possibility of having a good time, 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, shes 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 80 percent and 99 percent in the best-known study -- dont get hooked. But when it comes to erotic exploration, the bad news always leads the story.
Who can say how many virtual compulsives 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 Alvin Cooper of the San Jose Marital and Sexuality Center did from a survey he conducted on the MSNBC Web site. From some 9,200 responses, Cooper estimated that 1 percent of cybersexers are addicted. But thats just the habituated hardcore. Cooper also claims that between 8 percent and 17 percent of his sample is at risk. Adding it all up, he reckons that 200,000 Americans are cybersex compulsives. Thats 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. Its a catch-all term, Young explains. It hasnt been clinically defined. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) 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. Its 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. I dont think its quantifiable, Forman says. Sex addiction has more to do with circumstances.
What I hear most is that people feel guilty, says Deb Levine, author of The Joy of Cybersex. Theres 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, theres 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 rush. And the excitation is 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.
In other words, surfing for sex can bring on guilt. And where theres guilt, theres gelt.
Sex sells, says Paul McMasters, First Amendment ombudsman at the Freedom Forum. So if youre not in the business of selling sex, you certainly have a ready market for proclamations against sex.