What is cybersex?
Cybersex encompasses online photos, audio, video, live sexual acts on request and exchanging sexual fantasies in chat rooms, says psychologist Patrick Carnes, coauthor of In the Shadows of the Net: Breaking Free of Compulsive Online Sexual Behaviour (Hazelden, 2001). About six per cent of North American Internet users are compulsive consumers of cybersex, says Carnes, and spend up to nine hours a day engaging in it. And 70 per cent of Internet porn is consumed during the nine-to-five workday, a study conducted by HealthyMind.com found.
Susan Burns Cone, a marriage and family therapist with the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba in Winnipeg, says that cybersex is easier to hide from a partner than pornographic magazines and videos. "The volume and frequency can be a hundred times greater and kept a secret for much longer."
Burns Cone and Carnes consider compulsive cybersex an addiction, but the medical community is still debating whether sex addiction is a bona fide psychological impairment.
Some Internet pornography requires credit-card payment up front. Internet Filter Review, an online research group, says this generates $2.5 billion US a year. As one woman says, "I actually never knew how much money my husband spent -- we kept our accounts separate -- but he's in debt, and perhaps his habit is the reason why."
When is cybersex a problem?
• When online sex becomes more meaningful than that with a partner.
• When the user continues to engage in it even as a relationship unravels.
• When money is diverted from the family and household to pay for pornography.
• When sites are visited at work and job performance declines.
• When the user is ashamed and embarrassed, but compulsively returns, like an addict, to the activity.
• When the user needs to up the ante to become aroused, and risks meeting online contacts for sex or uses illegal porn featuring children or violence.
-- Susan McClelland
Is my partner a cyber cheat?
If you think your partner may have a problem, first ask. That said, if he or she is in denial, here's how to track footsteps in cyberspace, says David Johnson, IT professional with Canadian Living's publisher, Transcontinental.
• Check the credit card bills. If there is a suspicious listing, ask about it or call the number that's usually beside the company's name. But there may be no telltale signs (an incredible volume of Internet porn -- pretty much whatever someone might want -- is free).
• Examine the online evidence. Simply log on to the browser (such as Internet Explorer or Netscape) and choose the history -- labelled as such -- from the menu. It will show you all the sites that have been accessed each day for the past five to 10 days. If it's been cleared out, someone may be covering his or her tracks.
• Look at the Sent and Deleted e-mails, and check the folders storing messages. If your partner doesn't want to share a password, ask why.
• Check out the chat programs. Log in and look at the "buddy" list (you may need a password).
Page 1 of 2 -- Find answers to the most common questions concerning cybersex on page 2.
Q. What happens when one partner becomes obsessed with cybersex?
A. It's just like a physical affair, says Susan Burns Cone of the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba in Winnipeg. "The other partner feels betrayed, sexually and emotionally abandoned, and rejected."
Penny Lawson, of the sex-addiction program at Bellwood Health Services in Toronto, sees more couples staying together afterward, thanks to an increased awareness that this is a manageable addiction.
Q. Who uses cybersex?
A. It's not the stereotypical single male who's a loner and a loser, says John Fenn, a facilitator of support groups in Toronto for problem users. Cybersex users come from all backgrounds and professions, and include both men and women. "Outwardly, they may be leading normal lives with partners and kids," says Fenn, "but they're struggling. Many are married and they don't get help until their partners have found out, usually by accident. By then it's almost too late for the relationship."
Q. Do men and women use cybersex differently?
A. Men prefer primarily visual material, says Beth Hedva, a Calgary psychologist and the author of Betrayal, Trust and Forgiveness (Celestial Arts, 2001). Women are more attracted to short films that have plots and stories.
Q. Why do people use cybersex?
A. It can be an easy escape, says Burns Cone, and makes users feel desirable. "They become emotionally addicted to the good feelings and find fewer normal everyday events and relationships to be as exciting."
Lawson says many suffered abuse as kids, and may have other compulsive behaviours. "Many people who are compulsive about sex felt alone in childhood," she says. "As adults, they use cybersex to soothe and comfort themselves."
Q. Is cybersex an infidelity?
A. Most of the men Fenn sees in his support groups or at John School (a program he founded for men who use prostitutes) don't see cybersex as a betrayal of their partners. "They see it as a fantasy world, and if no one knows about it, what's wrong with it?" he says. "Sex and love go together much more often for women," says Hedva, so they perceive cybersex as infidelity.
Q. Does cybersex lead to real-life affairs?
A. Often, but not always. For many cybersex users, the anonymity is part of the allure.
Q. Is there help?
A. Most experts say that a combination of therapy -- couples' therapy, one-on-one counselling and a 12-step or support group -- works best.
• Twelve-step programs include Sex Addicts Anonymous (saa-recovery.org), Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (slaafws.org), Recovering Couples Anonymous (recovering-couples.org) and Codependents of Sex Addicts (cosa-recovery.org).
• Codeps (codeps.org) offers online support for partners.
• General information can be found at cybersexualaddiction.com.
-- Susan McClelland