By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
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 world-view. 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 life circumstances.
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: Finding Real Love When Nothing Else Works. ”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 shopping, running, video gaming, gambling or even reading. But when it comes to priming the pleasure pump, nothing beats sex. 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 show disruption 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 exposes. ”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 if we regarded virtual sex as good (if not clean) fun? Would the 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.
But these are the very conditions that can fuel a compulsion. 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 heighten 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.“
But those who claim the Internet is sexually empowering are as simplistic as those who say the Web is dangerous. The truth falls somewhere in between. This new medium 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.
But there are horror stories about cybersex, among them the possibly apocryphal one about a woman who lied about her looks and hooked up to 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 form 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.“