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The Oy of Cybersex

”TWO MILLION AMERICANS ARE HOOKED ON WEB sex,“ blared the front page of May 30‘s 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, 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 80 percent 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 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 that’s 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. 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 (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. 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. ”I don‘t think it’s 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. ”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 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 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 On-Line 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 50 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 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.“

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 one-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.“

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. It‘s fair to say, as Deb Levine does, that cybering can ”awaken and renew desires.“ But it’s also valid to note, as 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. Safety is another word for repression.

”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 they -- as we know -- are 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 $1,000 a shot.

Research by Julia Gayduk and Josh Lefkowitz.