Sex on the Net

Millions play out fantasies on the net, but at what cost?

WebMD Feature

If you've got a computer and Internet access, sexually explicit material is never more than a few clicks away. Unlike the relatively primitive mediums of film and print, the Web offers access, affordability, and anonymity -- a trio of factors that has made the viewing of electronic erotica an increasingly popular pastime.

Not surprisingly, sex is the most frequently searched topic on the Net, according to work conducted at the San Jose Marital and Sexuality Centre in Santa Clara, California. Some experts believe that such probing may lead to addiction and other pathology by allowing a person to actualize fantasies that would otherwise remain only in the imagination. Others feel that the Internet simply provides a convenient vehicle for exploring one's sexuality.

Who Is Right?

Researchers from the San Jose Centre conducted a poll on MSNBC's web site to determine whether Internet sex provides mostly harmless fun or an avenue to addiction and published their findings in the journal Professional Psychology: Research and Practice.

From a final sample of 9,177 completed surveys, researchers concluded that accessing Internet sexual venues did not have a negative impact on the lives of the vast majority (92%) of respondents. However, for the remaining minority, online sex was found to be decidedly detrimental. Distress and compulsivity appeared to increase in direct proportion to the amount of time spent online.

Heavy users, defined as those who spent more than 11 hours a week in cybersexual pursuits, also tended to pass up noninteractive web sites in favor of the interactive chat rooms, where researchers say the most potentially problematic exchanges take place. Experts speculate that chat room junkies find the combination of social support and sexual fulfillment in these interactive forums to be an irresistible cocktail.

According to the survey findings, only 8% of Internet users can be categorized as "compulsive" regarding cybersexual activities. Still, with an estimated 57 million folks logging on each day, a staggering 4,560,000 could be at risk. "We suspect that those numbers will only increase over time," adds Al Cooper PhD, clinical director of the San Jose center and one of the study's authors. He calls the obsessive pursuit of cybersex ''a major, undiagnosed health risk. It's the crack cocaine of sexual addiction."

At greatest risk are full-blown addicts, categorized as those who spend an average of 38 hours a week seeking electronic stimulation. This addiction is estimated to afflict between 3 and 6% of the population and has been associated with loneliness, low self-esteem, and lack of sexual self-control, although no cause-and-effect relationship has been established.

Still, the poll found that 82% of sex site regulars maintain that surfing for smut does not interfere with their lives, and 87% admit never feeling guilty or ashamed.

What about for the remaining minority, for whom Internet sex is clearly a problem even if they don't admit it? For them, experts recommend specialized treatment designed to break established patterns of denial and isolation, with group therapy an essential component. "As with any addiction, the most important first step is admitting you have a problem," says Cooper. "One simple way to gauge that is by the amount of time you spend visiting sexually explicit sites. That kind of clear criteria helps challenge denial."

Where to Get Help

Ironically, the Web itself is crawling with sites designed to help compulsive users break their addictions. "It actually makes total sense to seek online help for an online problem," insists Cooper. "Because you can get help anonymously, freely, and simply, it lowers the barrier to getting treatment. People can learn about addiction even if they're ambivalent about whether or not they have a problem. They can go into chat rooms and find people having similar experiences. Then, when they're ready to take the next step, they can find therapists and resources online."

The San Jose Marital and Sexuality Centre and Online Sex Addicts are two sites that offer support, education, and relevant resources. Psychotherapy is not provided on either site, but each provides information about where to find it. The first site features articles, quizzes, and details of the MSNBC poll; OSA includes a low-cost course on sexual addiction, an online bookstore filled with "clean reads," and a pornography-free bulletin board where members can find the social support they previously sought in X-rated chat rooms.

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