Effects of Cyber Sex on Human Sexuality Research Paper

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Cybersex

Schneider (2000a) quotes one of her many survey respondents on the subject of cybersex: "I resented the computer for years, until I finally accepted the fact that it was the user, not the machine that was causing the problem" (p. 32). Although the general drift of Schneider's commentary validates the opinion of this nameless female survey-respondent, it is worth asking the question of whether or not this is actually true. When it comes to psychological issues related to the subject of cybersex, is it really the users and not the machines that cause the problem? Most psychologists who deal with cybersex wish to make it clear that they are not trying to stigmatize the Internet: Schwartz and Southern (2000) follow Schneider's lead here, agreeing "the medium of the Internet is essentially neutral or value-free. The burgeoning Internet and the technologies which reach out to foster a global information community are not the culprits in compulsive cybersex." (p.135). Yet researchers who have examined the effect that cybersex has on human sexuality are in a difficult position. The progress of the Internet in human life has been so remorselessly rapid that research barely a decade old is already, in many ways, out of date. As Ferree (2003) states frankly, "professional, theoretical, investigational, and moral discourse has not caught up with the Internet's explosion onto the cultural landscape. No one could have predicted the accelerated result of combining the inherent power of sexuality with the velocity of the Internet, and many lack a frame of reference for considering these 'turbo-charged' sexual interactions" (p.386). Through a survey of psychological research done on the topic of cybersex during the past decade -- concentrating specifically on the issues of how cybersex has been understood in terms of addiction, gender, and criminality -- I hope to address the question of whether or not much of the research may in fact be missing the point. I will suggest that Ferree is correct that many researchers may "lack a frame of reference" for the subject of cybersex, but note that in many cases the phenomenon may in fact be several steps ahead of the researchers.

We must begin with a definition of the term "cybersex." Schneider (2000b) defines it as broadly as possible: "Cybersex can be defined as the use of digitized sexual content (visual, auditory, or written) obtained either over the Internet or as data retrieved by a computer, for the purpose of sexual arousal and stimulation. Cybersex, any form of sexual expression that is accessed through the computer, is a phenomenon unknown before the mid 1980s" (p. 250). In other words, we are dealing with a phenomenon that cannot pre-date the proliferation of personal computers in the mid 1980s, although it is important to note that Internet usage did not become common until later -- the formal proposal establishing what would become the World Wide Web dates from 1990. This is important because, as Doring (2000) concedes, "this broad term "cybersex" covers so many different activities and contents that it is of practically no use for the social scientific discourse as long as individual phenomena are not differentiated from one another." (p. 864). If, as Schneider wishes to establish, something like "cybersex" was occurring in the mid 1980s, it was definitely nothing like what occurs today, either in terms of the actual activities involved or in terms of frequency and availability. This is where the notion promoted by Cooper et al. (2000) of "three primary factors which 'turbocharge' online sexuality…called….the 'Triple -- A Engine" defined by "accessibility (i.e., millions of sites available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week), affordability (i.e., competition on the WWW keeps all prices low and there are a host of ways to get 'free' sex), and anonymity (i.e., people perceive their communications to be anonymous)." (p. 6). Contrary to what Schneider (2000b) suggests, it was only in the 1990s that all three of these conditions were genuinely met. Therefore it seems crucial to state at the outset that the phenomenon of cybersex, as it is being studied, is less than twenty years old: it parallels the rise of the Internet, not the earlier rise of the personal computer. Indeed, Grov, Bramonte et al. (2008) found that the gay men they studied, who had experienced some form of compulsivity in relation to cybersex, were inclined to blame the medium itself: "in some cases, men connected their onset of uncontrollable impulses and behaviours to their internet use and the growth of the internet as a new medium for finding partners" (p. 114). Although the reasons for this may be specific to the population surveyed by Grov, Bramonte et al. -- a point to which I will return later -- it is worth noting that the phenomenon is one of a rapidly changing technology, which itself is reflected in the rapidly changing phenomenon of cybersex.

Overall, Ferree (2003) is correct in asserting that "this new technology can also give rise to significant problems with both human relating and sexual activity. Some, in fact, assert that sexuality is the biggest problem with the Internet, as well as its biggest product" (p.386). But in considering the rapid pace of change associated with the Internet, it is possible to observe psychologists in a seeming struggle to keep up with the phenomenon. A poignant example comes when Doring (2000) discusses the possibility of cybersex becoming a physical act: claiming that "computer-mediated remote control of sex toys that simulate the penis, mouth, or vagina is possible, however. These devices are marketed as teledildonics or cyberdildonics. Systematic studies or descriptions of actual experiences with these devices unfortunately are not yet available." (p.864). (The fact that, a dozen years later, "cyberdildonics" is not a household word while "Facebook" is should indicate that it is difficult to keep up with what is actually happening.) But the chief approach to cybersex is an attempt to establish some sort of paradigm. This accounts for the rhetoric of addiction and compulsion that runs throughout discussion of cybersex, despite the fact that it is not always clear what a person is addicted to. Certainly many people before the 1990s knew how to type, and many knew how to masturbate. So what is going on with the explosion in "compulsive cybersex" activities?

Ross et al. (2004) offer a useful distinction between different types of effects observed in the introduction of computers and the Internet into human sexuality: they distinguish between "first-level effects" which "are the efficiency effects of the technology" and "second-level effects" which are "unanticipated deviance-amplifying changes in the social and organizational systems of users of the technology." (p. 1003). In their words, "the important effects of a new technology may be not to let people do old things more efficiently but instead do new things that were not possible or feasible with old technology" (Ross et al., 2003, p. 1003). Most of those who discuss cybersex according to an addiction model are emphazing the first-level effects, but in many cases not even exploring the second-level effects. For Schwartz and Southern (2000), "Compulsive cybersex users try to control alien and unwanted feelings by spending hours on the computer without regard for negative consequences, becoming utterly out of control in the process. They seek intense, immediate experiences through a medium that will insure depersonalization and objectification. Eventually compulsive cybersex participants experience the "bottoming out" process in which powerlessness and unmanageability confront the illusions of the addictive lifestyle. They can become involved in a recovery process truly dedicated to finding lost parts of oneself by abstaining from compulsive reenactments and reconstructing the vulnerable self." (p.131). This applies a standard paradigm for addiction to the phenomenon of cybersex, but it still does not explain the novel strangeness of the phenomenon. There is also a difference between "cybersex" defined as obsessive pursuit of online pornography, for example, and encounters which require another active participant. As Doring (2000) points out "Net encounters and Net relationships do not exist in and of themselves. They are dependent not only on internal events, but also become a more or less central component of a person's already existing social network. They are often especially relevant to existing partnerships and friendships." (p. 868). This seems to contradict the grand claims for "depersonalization" made by Schwartz and Southern.

It is worth understanding those claims, however, in light of a larger debate -- still being waged -- over the inclusion of "Internet addiction" as a valid diagnosis in the update of the psychiatric DSM. Cooper et al. (2000) offer a preliminary report on those arguing for this, noting "researchers investigating the addictive potential of the Internet -- with regard to both sexual and non-sexual use -- have noted correlations between time spent online and negative consequences reported by users" (p.7) Schwartz and Southern (2000) are clearly of the opinion that Internet usage itself can be addictive: "some depressed, socially isolated individuals develop a psychological dependence on the Internet that is characterized by increasing time online, unpleasant feelings…[continue]

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