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Understanding Addictive Cybersex

By Jennifer P. Schneider, M.D., Ph.D. and Robert Weiss, LCSW, CAS

The Internet is profoundly transforming our culture and our world in ways similar to the introduction of the telephone 100 years ago. In addition to its function as a source of information, the Internet is leading a revolution in the delivery of sex and sexual content. Cybersex, which is any form of sexual expression accessed through the computer or the Internet, is now a major industry. Currently, over 60 percent of all visits on the Internet involve a sexual purpose.

These days cybersex activities include not only viewing and/or downloading pornography along with masturbation, but also reading and writing sexually explicit letters and stories, e-mailing to set up personal meetings with someone, placing ads to meet sexual partners, visiting sexually oriented chat rooms, and engaging in interactive online affairs which include real-time viewing of each other using electronic cameras hooked up to the computer. Many people allow themselves to engage in sexual behaviors online (S&M, cybersex with adolescents or children, presenting themselves as persons of the opposite gender) which they would never do in the real world. Spin-offs of cybersex activities are phone sex with people met online, and online affairs that progress to real or offline affairs.

For most cybersex users, the Internet provides a fascinating new venue for experiencing sex. Some users, however, perhaps 8-10 percent, become hooked on cybersex and experience significant life problems as a result.

For those hooked on cybersex, the negative consequences can be divided broadly into two categories: those resulting from the many hours the user spends on the internet, and those which specifically relate to the sexual content of the user’s activities.

The former group include:

  • User’s life becomes constricted and lonely. Many hours are spent alone with the computer, involved in fantasy sexual activities, while real-life friendships and social contacts fall away.
  • If the user is married or in a relationship, the partner feels lonely, ignored, unimportant, neglected, or angry because the user prefers to spend so much time on the net rather than with the partner and family.
  • Children are neglected or ignored because of the parent’s involvement with the computer.

Consequences which result specifically from the sexual nature of the computer use include:

  • If online sex leads to real-life sexual encounters, the user risks acquiring HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
  • If the user downloads Internet pornography on the work computer or engages in cybersex on the job, he or she risks job loss.
  • Cybersex participants who engage in sex with minors risk arrest and imprisonment.
  • Many users lie repeatedly about the sexual activities; in response, their partners feel distrust and betrayal.
  • The devastating emotional impact of a cybersex affair is described by many partners as similar, if not the same, as that of a real or offline affair. This is equally true when the cybersex user has also had “real” affairs. The partner’s self-esteem may be damaged; strong feelings of hurt, betrayal, abandonment, devastation, loneliness, shame, isolation, humiliation, and jealousy are evoked. Cybersex activities were considered particularly destructive in that a) they took place right in the home and b) were so time-consuming.
  • The couple’s sexual relationship suffers, not only generally because the user stays up much of the night, but specifically because the spouse (and often the user) compares her body and her sexual performance to that of the online men and women, and believes she/he can’t measure up and/or the user or partner loses interest in having sex with each other. Many couples have no relational sex in months or years.
  • Online sexual activities may be followed by physical contact with others; the partner may retaliate or seek solace in extramarital affairs.
  • Children may be exposed to pornography and may develop unhealthy attitudes towards sex and women.

Fortunately, help is available. Cybersex users who haven’t lost control of their Internet involvement can benefit from counseling which will help them set limits on their computer use and restore balance to their lives.

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