By MSNBC Contributor
updated 5/10/2004 8:27:52 PM ET 2004-05-11T00:27:52

Determined to be a more involved father than his own dad, Donald* makes it a point every evening to help feed the children and make lunches for the next day. Then after the kids go to bed, he usually seeks some alone time to "decompress." His preferred method of R&R: scanning a dozen of his favorite adult Web sites. This doesn't sit well with his wife, who knows what his surfing centers around. When she finally approaches Donald about it he snaps back that he just needs to relax. After all, he says, he isn't doing anything wrong and this is no different than when he used to look at Playboy.

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Rita* has a great career in sales and prides herself on being a terrific wife. She gets up early three times a week to work out on the treadmill but is increasingly feeling her age -- and she's aware that her husband doesn't pay as much attention to her now that she's in her 40s. After being intrigued by a magazine article on romance chatrooms, she decides to log on one afternoon and experience them for herself. She's immediately the center of the attention of 14 men. Thrilled by the excitement, she becomes a regular visitor. She tells herself that it's a cheaper confidence boost than Botox and besides, she doesn't have any interest in meeting any of the people she chats with.

In today's wired world, scenarios like this are increasingly common. Statistics show that anywhere from 15 percent to 43 percent of people who use the Web engage in some form of online sexual activity, or OSA, which can run the gamut from visiting adult Web sites to participating in sex chatrooms to e-dating.

Neither sex nor the Internet is inherently bad. And the vast majority of people who engage in some sort of OSA find it isn't a problem for them or their relationships. But the combination of these two powerful forces can lead to disaster for some.

Consider this fact reported last year at a convention of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers: Two-thirds of attorneys surveyed said the Internet played a significant role in divorces in the prior 12 months, with excessive interest in online porn contributing to more than half of such cases.

Indeed, for some people cybersex is so powerful and can get so out of control that it can destroy their families, careers and lives. Psychologists are seeing an explosion of cases of online sexual problems and scrambling to improve early detection and treatment strategies.

'Triple A Engine'
So what's the big appeal with OSA? My colleagues and I have written extensively about some of the primary factors that can turbocharge sex on the Internet and may even make it unmatched by anything the "real world" can offer. We call this the "Triple A Engine":

  • Access. As close as your keyboard, any kind of sexual fantasy or inclination you can imagine (as well as a host that you would never imagine) are immediately available 24/7.
  • Affordability. With a seemingly endless supply and free-market competitive forces, prices stay low. And frequent e-shoppers often say the time and energy they save by going online for sex are at least as valuable as any financial savings.
  • Anonymity. Even though we live in the 21st century and are supposed to be sexually comfortable, few of us are. There continues to be tremendous tension around sexuality. Feelings of fascination and curiosity are countered by awkwardness, embarrassment and the subtle sense that there is something wrong or dirty with sex. Enter the Internet, which provides a freedom to explore sexuality that is hard to match in the 3D world. This has an even more powerful appeal for people who feel the need to keep their sexuality under wraps.

The Triple A can combine to create a perfect storm of sexual enticement and excitement that leads some people to return to it repeatedly despite serious adverse consequences.

Occasional pastime or problem?
So how do you know whether someone's online sexual pursuits are an occasional pastime or a more serious problem?

One major factor is secrecy. Secrets are corrosive to relationships; deceit undermines intimacy and trust for both parties. And the more involved people are in OSA, the more complex the machinations they need to go through to keep it hidden from their partners. At the same time, their own awareness of their secret exacerbates feelings of shame and guilt that they may already be experiencing. This may cause them to withdraw more into themselves and even blame a partner for "making them" have to hide their activities.

Another factor is the sheer amount of time spent on cybersex activities. Research indicates that more than 11 hours a week of OSA is a clear sign of a serious problem. In today's action-packed world, time is scarce and sitting in front of the computer doesn't leave time for tango lessons with your partner. Still, total time is not a perfect measure since spending less time in risky situations, such as logging on from work, or with illegal activities, like contacting prostitutes, can be just as damaging.

The reasons people get involved with OSA can also be very telling. If they are unhappy with some aspect of their relationship and using the Internet to fill a void, they may never address the real problem. In the virtual world of online fantasies, "friends" all have perfect bodies, they never reject you or tell you to shave, and are always ready when you are -- a real partner can't hope to compete. People who get their sexual needs met online can eventually bleed enough energy out of a relationship that it is rendered a hollow shell. It's a sure sign of a problem if a person is more interested in a keyboard than a committed partner.

Other points to consider in determining whether cybersex has gotten out of control: Is the practice increasing over time? Is risk-taking involved, such as giving out identifying information? Is sexual energy in a real-world relationship fizzling? Is the computer a regular source of tension? Is the person actually meeting others?

Finally, if the person has had sexual problems in the past then it's a safe bet that the Internet is going to greatly test his or her self-restraint, and it's appropriate to consider the old adage about an ounce of prevention.

Confronting a cybersex junkie
When dealing with someone with a cybersex problem, remember that curiosity and interest in sex are what ensure the survival of the species. At the same time, though, too much interest in OSA can endanger the survival of the relationship.

If you find yourself wanting to take a baseball bat to that tangerine iMAC, then it's time to have a serious talk. Don't do it when tempers are boiling or right after an Internet episode. Instead wait until things are in a reasonably calm and comfortable place.

Then pull out your best communication 101 skills and talk as you would to a friend. Take a deep breath, keep your voice level, don't accuse or make judgments, and frame the discussion as concern. For certain people it's best to present them with a list of the facts and behaviors about why you believe a problem is developing. Others will respond better if you present the issue as yours. Say what you are feeling, be it uncomfortable, worried, anxious, inadequate or lonely. Then lay out some practical concerns, such as your unmet desire to spend more time with your partner.

Have a list of relevant resources handy and also encourage your partner to find his or her own. My Web site (www.sex-centre.com) has several self-help columns on this subject.

Next, ask your partner what he or she thinks constitutes problematic versus recreational and agreeable OSA. Oftentimes there will be more agreement on this than you imagine. The casual user will often respond well to this and either decrease or stop the activities. The person with more of a problem may promise the same but have trouble maintaining the agreed upon limits. If your partner is unable to keep to an agreement, then it's undeniable there is a problem -- at least one of trust. At that point a decision needs to be made as to whether to consider an assessment by a couples therapist or other mental health professional with expertise in this area.

So remember: When surfing those online curves, the level of excitement is often correlated with coming close to the edge. People who decide to partake should be aware the Net is full of powerful currents, riptides and other unseen dangers.

Al Cooper, Ph.D., director of the San Jose Marital and Sexuality Centre in San Jose, Calif., is the author of "Sexuality and the Internet: A Guidebook for Clinicians."

*Names and certain details have been changed to protect individual privacy.

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