Addicted to cybersex

South Africa may have as many as 20 000 Internet addicts, writes Howard Barrell

Any South African company whose employees are linked to the Internet probably has at least one middle or senior manager suffering from some form of Internet addiction.

And that may well be an underestimate of the problem, according to a number of psychologists doing work in the addiction field.

South Africa may have as many as 20 000 Internet addicts - if one applies a conservative 2% addiction probability rate to the more than one million Internet connections in the country. These are people who experience a habitual compulsion to go online - an urge that is undermining their health, productivity and human relationships. However, there is as yet no reliable measurement of the extent of the problem either here or abroad.

American psychologists dealing with Internet addiction currently work on the assumption that a far higher proportion of Internet users - between 5% and 10% - are highly susceptible to addiction.
The assumption is derived from the incidence of other forms of addiction.

Cases are beginning to reach South African doctors’ and therapists’ consulting rooms in which an individual may spend up to 36 hours at a stretch surfing the Internet. He or she may spend the time bingeing on non-essential information, playing games on specialised sites, seeking out pornographic images and stories, or conducting virtual relationships with other users in chat rooms - often without sleep, food or any personal engagement with family and friends.

“Internet addiction is very much a condition of the new age,” says Dr Gordon Isaacs, honorary professor of clinical social work at the University of Cape Town and a practising psychotherapist. “It is not yet registered as a clinical condition. But it may well come to that - in the same way that it took some years for post-traumatic stress disorder to achieve that status.”

According to Peter Powis, clinical director of Stepping Stones, a private addiction clinic in Cape Town: “Society is in denial about a lot of addictions, but certainly about this one, which tends to involve some pretty high-functioning people.”

Denial is most pronounced when it comes to people obsessed with sex on the Internet. A cybersex addict typically feels habitually compelled to view pornography, to conduct “cyber affairs” or to engage in virtual sex with other Internet users in an Internet chat room or multi-user dungeon (known as a “MUD”). Because sex is involved, the shame that accompanies any form of addiction tends to be amplified in the case of a cybersex addict. And this makes it more difficult for the addict to admit to the existence of a problem or to talk to someone else about it. “People stay as sick as their secrets,” says Powis.

He and other psychologists in South Africa are now encountering the first trickle of Internet sex addicts. If trends evident in the United States are replicated locally, which seems likely, we will find that male South African cybersex addicts have a mean age of about 29 years and females about 43; and they will tend to be middle class, white collar and of above- average intelligence - in fact, not too unlike the person next door to you reading the Mail & Guardian.

The most addictive online application is a chat room (35%), according to the US- based Centre for Online Addiction. A chat room is a cyber space in which two or more users can engage in written dialogue - very often romantic or sexual in intent or character.

The next most addictive application is a MUD (28%). It is a three-dimensional, virtual environment, such as a maze. The user often enters and participates in this environment as an “avatar”, a sort of digital embodiment of himself or herself - a persona in which a user may, and often does, enact violent or sexual fantasies in virtual reality.

A well-equipped MUD user may have a special helmet, available at a price from computer stores, which gives him or her full surround sight and sound of the fantasy. A user can also buy a pair of special gloves with sensors in the fingers and palms. These sensors give the user the sensation of touch, determined by what his or her avatar is doing in the MUD fantasy at any one moment. In combination, the helmet and gloves can make for a highly immersive experience - one in which the distinction between fantasy and reality becomes rather tenuous.

Tastes differ. US research has found interesting differences in the cybersexual preferences of men and women. Men tend to look for cybersex - in the form of images or interactive MUD experiences. They are thrilled by the almost limitless availability of objectified others, usually women, over whom they can apparently exercise power and choice.

Women, on the other hand, tend to be more interested in cyber affairs - in the search for romantic engagements and intimate relationships in chat rooms. Through online communication, women can, anonymously and unseen, meet and, if they wish, have virtual sex with men without being judged on, say, their appearance.

This exercise of power, intimacy or fantasy under conditions of availability and anonymity may be the key to understanding the allure of sex on the Internet. It allows for almost ego-less, orgiastic virtual encounters. And, in the view of Powis, this allure may be such that it is now awakening hitherto latent addictive traits in people never before considered susceptible to addiction.

The proliferation of sex sites on the Web has been extraordinary. According to the Centre for Online Addiction, in 1998 there were 70 000 sex-related sites on the Web, with 200 new adult sites being added each day. And, in April 1998 alone, 9,6-million people, or about one in seven of all Web users worldwide at that time, logged on to the 10 most popular sex sites.

The allure of these sex sites is seemingly irresistible for some. “Gary” - a well- educated South African professional who does not wish his actual identity known and who has recently been treated for cybersexual addiction - has binged for periods of up to six hours at a stretch on Internet pornography.

“I was involved in a seemingly unrequitable search for the ultimate sexual image,” he tells the M&G. “I had a vague idea of what it might be, of what I was hoping to find in a site. One hour it could be a particularly innocent-looking teenage girl with delicate breasts. Then later it could be a brat of a girl with pigtails and a sneer in school uniform. Then it could be a nasty image of anal sex. Then it could be of a particularly messy blow job,” Gary says.

“All the time I would be masturbating, hoping for the ultimate image and orgasm. But, each time, if the almost-ultimate image appeared before me, I would hold back from orgasm, hoping for the ‘more-ultimate’ image, or for the ‘ultimate-ultimate’ image ...”

Gary’s story of perpetual masturbation does more than merely suggest a new meaning for the term “repetitive stress injury”. It tells a tale of considerable emotional pain.

“This endless search for images, masturbating all the time, could go on for hours and hours,” he adds. “I would say to myself, ‘OK, I’ll stop in 15 minutes time, at 7.15pm.’ But, when that time came, I’d carry on. I’d say, ‘OK, make it 7.30’. I was in another place. Before I knew it, it would be 10.30pm or 12.30pm.

“When I’d eventually let myself come, it was always with some disappointment. I’d feel exhilaration but never the ultimate exhilaration I wanted to experience with the ultimate image. Because I could never find the ultimate image ...

“Terrible. Horrible. Really fucking horrible. Worthless. Wasted. I’d think: ‘What kind of person does this for six or eight hours? What kind of person am I?’ Best answer: ‘I’m a wanker.’ I was terrified. How was I to understand it?”

The way to understand it, according to Isaacs and Powis, is as a form of addiction. Gary can now see that.

According to Isaacs, Gary’s experience closely resembles that of other addictions, including substance addiction. “There is the anticipation of something that may or may not correspond to the fantasy. This relieves the addict from fluctuations of mood as he or she moves into a period of hyper-arousal. But, once that activity or arousal is over, there is a feeling of emptiness, of guilt, of being alone in this.

“The Web, rather like a drug, becomes the lover, the friend, the confidant, the receiver and giver of news - you feel connected,” says Isaacs.

As Isaacs’s explanation implies, sexual gratification may be the initial reason for engaging in cybersex. But, over time, according to the Centre for Online Addiction, “the experience is reinforced through a type of drug ‘high’ that provides an emotional or mental escape or an altered state of reality”. Relatively quickly, cybersexual addiction comes to have little to do with sex.

Some law courts have also taken this view. A landmark legal case in the US, US vs McBroom, found that the accused’s downloading, viewing and transferring of Internet pornography was less about erotic gratification and more about an emotional escape mechanism to relieve mental tension.

South African lawyers and human resources managers are now also looking for a sensible way of dealing with the incidence of workplace abuse of Internet and e-mail facilities. There are anecdotal accounts of employers taking disciplinary action against employees for this abuse, though few have been confirmed or received publicity.

Sooner rather than later, South African employers are likely to encounter the defence from an individual charged with workplace Internet abuse that he or she is a cybersexual addict. Their response at that point will be intriguing.

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