Addicted to dot-com sex: with sex options on the Net almost as plentiful as bauds per second, many gay men are finding that online life has had a chilling effect on their mental and physical health. (Love & Sex On The Internet).
Since he lived near his office, Michael was able to arrange lunchtime trysts at his apartment. Gradually these encounters grew more regular, and as they did, he began taking lunch breaks that sometimes lasted two hours. At other times, he would leave early for sexual encounters he had arranged for after work.
Eventually, he says, his behavior spiraled out of control. As he did not have a computer at home, he frequently returned to the office long after people went home for the night, and he would stay online until the early hours of the morning, hoping to meet other men. After some time, Michael stopped socializing with friends so as not to miss an opportunity to be online and set up more sexual encounters, he says.
As the frequency of his liaisons increased, so did Michael's willingness to take sexual risks. Then in early 1998 he tested HIV-positive. And that's when he first realized he had a problem. "It got to the point where hooking up with the person was not even desirable," he says. "My outlet was sex, and now I jokingly say that because I was so depressed at the time, it was the most enjoyable way for me to kill myself."
Michael is not alone. According to the Atlanta-based National Council on Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity, nearly 5% of the general population may have a problem with sexual addiction or compulsion. And though the exact role of the Internet in fostering sexual compulsion is unknown, the group believes Internet access plays a significant part. "It opens the door for compulsive behavior," explains Robin Cato, the council's executive director. "When you are [a sex addict] and are on the Internet, it is all-encompassing and nothing else matters--it is easy to hide, and you can access it any time of the day."
Now a new study, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and conducted by the New York City-based Center for HIV/AIDS Educational Studies and Training, hopes to shed more light on this problem--in particular, on how sexual addiction and compulsive behavior affect gay men.
According to Jeff Parsons, an associate professor of psychology at Manhattan's Hunter College and one of the lead researchers on the project, upward of 20% of gay men exhibit some sexually addictive or compulsive symptoms, and 5% acknowledge having enough symptoms that the behavior becomes a problem in their lives. "Sex for gay men in particular is such a stigmatizing thing, they may not feel they can share this with other people," Parsons says. "And some gay men with this disorder keep it closeted because there is too much stigma associated with it."
The terms sexual addiction and sexual compulsion have entered the vernacular only in the past decade or so, and there is still no clinical definition for such terms. So part of the purpose of this study is to help identify the disorder. "We are trying to let the data define this for us," says Parsons, who is careful to add that sexual addiction can generally be defined only as a problem for people who feel their behavior has a negative effect on their lives. "We want to see what it is that is causing the person distress, and we do not want to quantify it based on how much sex you are having," he says.
Parsons says sexual compulsion can include a range of behaviors, such as excessive masturbation, compulsive use of pornography, compulsive sex with anonymous partners, giving up normal activities to engage in sex, and continuing with compulsive sex despite adverse financial consequences. He adds that men and women--gay, straight, or otherwise--can be equally affected.
Treatment today includes traditional talk therapy and, sometimes, use of antidepressants. About 20% of the 150 men in Parsons's study (all of whom are rigorously screened to ensure they do have a problem with sexual addiction) are in a secondary study of the antidepressant Celexa to determine the drug's effectiveness on the disorder. Parsons says Celexa is the only serotonin reuptake inhibitor that does not react badly with anti-HIV medications.
Other researchers in the study agree that the Internet may exacerbate sex addiction problems for gay men. "The Internet provides a situation that is particularly good for the development of sexual compulsivity," says Thomas Irwin, a clinical psychologist at Manhattan's Mount Sinai School of Medicine and a coinvestigator of the study. "You can do it alone in your apartment, whereas in traditional settings like tearooms or other public sex places, it is embarrassing if you are there for 12 hours a day." Irwin adds that the dangers of arrest or bashing from loitering in public places also do not exist while on the Internet.
The study, which was first presented at the sexual addiction council's conference in Nashville in October, shows that about 60% of the participating men used the Internet to meet casual sex partners. Nearly an equal number said they use bathhouses and sex clubs, and about 70% said they used public cruising grounds, such as parks, for anonymous sexual encounters. By contrast, fewer than half of those surveyed said they used personal ads to meet other men.
Meanwhile, half of the HIV-positive men in the study said they had intentionally engaged in unprotected receptive anal sex. About 17% of HIV-negative men in the study had done the same, and more than a quarter of HIV-negative men intentionally engaged in unprotected insertive anal Sex.
Of those surveyed, nearly 60% said they spend on average 18 hours a week online or on the telephone searching for sex.
Experts, however, are careful to say that while the Internet may facilitate some addictive sexual behavior, it also can be useful to people who want to safely explore sexual fantasies online. It also can help gay people in isolated places who want to meet others. "The wonderful thing about it is that in suburban and rural areas they have a whole new way to connect, and this is changing the way guys are interacting with each other," Irwin says.
Operators of gay sex sites don't believe they are fostering addictive behavior. "I think people who are critical of sites like ours don't understand the complexities of human relations, and they tend to see things in black and white," says Stephen Suess, cofounder of Sex4HotMen.com, which is headquartered in Los Angeles but hosts geographically based meeting areas for men across the country. Suess adds that blaming the Internet for people's sex addiction problems is like blaming the bar where people meet if they happen to contract a sexually transmitted disease. "People tend to blame the medium instead of treating people as responsible adults," he says. "It is not our job to police our members."
Internet service provider America Online appears to hold a similar view. "If two people met over the phone, had an anonymous conversation, and then met offline, I am not sure it would be appropriate to lay blame with the phone company for allowing the conversation to take place," says Nicholas Graham, a spokesman for the company, based in Dunes, Va.
Graham adds that with 16,000 chat rooms on topics as diverse as Buddhism and Weight Watchers, the company can't patrol or police users, and he says that is not AOL's policy anyway. "We depend on the members to set an appropriate tone and to bring any violations to our attention," he says.
With that in mind, Graham says, the company worked with the CDC on an advertising campaign to raise awareness about sexually transmitted diseases after the San Francisco department of public health reported an outbreak of syphilis in 1999 among 14 men who met in an AOL chat room called SFM4M.
PlanetOut Parmers, which runs PlanetOut, com and Gay.com, says it also partnered with the CDC and the San Francisco health department to provide site users information about sexually transmitted diseases following the syphilis outbreaks. "We wanted to make people aware of those issues and reduce the stigma," says company spokesman Bryce Eberhart.
Similarly, Suess says his site posts information about drug addiction on the site's community section. In addition, it donates 5% of its membership fees to local charities that focus on HIV prevention and substance abuse guidance.
Michael, however, says the fact remains that his sex addiction was fueled by Internet access. He says he has gradually come to terms with his problem over the years through talk therapy, where he explored his depression and self-esteem issues. He says he has also gotten some limited relief by using the antidepressant drug Paxil, though he no longer takes it. Sometimes, he says, he relapses into Net-induced sexual compulsion. "I still feel I can slip into it very easily, and I have," he says. "But I am more aware of why I do it now when I do."
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