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Study Looks at the 'Hidden Public Health Hazard' of Online Porn

March 13, 2000|KATHLEEN KELLEHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A Los Angeles woman stumbled upon a spate of sexually explicit e-mails and bookmarks for cybersex sites while using her husband's home computer. Shocked and hurt, she confronted her husband, an executive at a high-tech company. He confessed to engaging in a variety of online sexual activities for more than two years, spending about four hours a day at it and thousands of dollars.

The situation is typical of the estimated 120,000 Americans who are hooked on pornography sites, X-rated chat rooms or other online sexual materials, said Alvin Cooper, principal investigator of one of the first studies to estimate the number of "cybersex compulsives."

For the vast majority of the estimated 12 million Internet users who go to sex Web sites, there is no compulsivity, said Cooper, clinical director of the San Jose Marital and Sexuality Centre. But the study, published in the March issue of the journal Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity, found that another 2 million or so have some degree of compulsivity with online sexuality.

"They do it in a recreational way," said Cooper. "It is the same way people look at Victoria's Secret catalogs. It is for the mild distraction of watching attractive bodies. It doesn't cause problems in their lives."

For a minority, online sexual material leads to or amplifies cybersex compulsiveness. And as more people go online, Cooper predicts this "hidden public health hazard" will likely explode. "What turbocharges sexuality online is its accessibility, affordability and anonymity," he said. "A person may be into adult movies, but they can't face the 17-year-old at the rental counter because they're too embarrassed. They may have had past sexual compulsivity, but on the Internet, they can engage in extramarital affairs, virtual sex and look at adult Web sites. They find it a nice, safe place. Some people call cybersex the 'crack cocaine equivalent.' "

Cybersex compulsives, the majority of whom are men, spent more than 11 hours a week at on-line sex sites, the researchers found. They had more problems with relationships and jobs than occasional visitors.

Most men chose online visual erotica. Women largely opted for chat rooms.

E-porn traffic is busiest from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on workdays, and researchers found that 20% of men and 12% of the women reported accessing sexual material on work computers. Whether people visit sex Web sites once a year or pathologically, though, they do so in secret.

Part of what drives people to cybersex, say psychologists, are feelings of depression, dissatisfaction and emptiness.

"A woman whose marriage is stressed goes to a chat room, meets someone and arranges to go to an online private room," said psychologist David Greenfield, director of the Center for Internet Studies in West Hartford, Conn. "She has cybersex in this electronic bedroom, which is where they have sexual discussions about what they are doing. Sometimes they have a picture on-screen of themselves."

Part of the rationale for engaging in cybersex, said Greenfield, who examined the phenomenon in his book, "Virtual Addiction" (New Harbinger, 1999), is that many people don't consider it cheating.

Tell that to the spouses whose husbands or wives engage in online dalliances. "I just saw a guy today who was engaging in virtual sex with women online," said Cooper. "His wife felt quite violated and betrayed."

A self-help sexual compulsiveness quiz is available at http://www.sex-centre.com.

Birds & Bees is a weekly column on relationships and sexuality. Kathleen Kelleher can be reached atkellehr@gte.net.

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