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While none of the computer manufacturers or major internet providers like to talk about it, there's no doubt that online sexual activity is one of the main reasons why the internet is so popular, reports Andy Newman. Recent statistics from Jupiter Media Metrix, a data analysis company that tracks Internet traffic, reveal that on average 36 percent of all web users visited an adult website, spending approximately 82 minutes each looking at adult material.
Around the same time nearly 40,000 users of American news site admitted spending an average of three hours a week either visiting a steamy chat room, sending sensual e-mails or visiting an explicit sex site. Gay men use the internet far more often than adults as a whole, so it's likely that our online sexual activity is bound to be more frequent.
The MSNBC survey found that the main reasons for all this online activity were the exploration of fantasies, the relief of stress, spicing up sex lives or just plain having fun. With some 20% of the dalliances taking place at work, avoiding boredom is another reason. But is all this e-sex a good or bad thing? There's no doubt that for gay men, the internet has been a fantastically liberating phenomenon, allowing people to communicate their desires in a safe and private place.
Psychologist Al Cooper agrees. "Cybersex has several positive effects. It helps sexually disenfranchised minorities, such as gay youths, find community and support. It also allows people to explore their fantasies or parts of their sexuality that scare them." One 39 year old survey respondent said of cybersex "It allows your imagination to run wild from the most lighthearted to the most dark."
Education too is another positive. Nearly 13 per cent of the survey respondents said greater sexual knowledge, whether to learn a new sexual position or to find out how to prevent sexually transmitted diseases, was the reason for their sexual surfing. Most of the survey sample were in relationships, yet women were far less likely than men to view online sexual activity as cheating.


For all the plus points there are researchers who believe that for some people internet sex can do more harm than good. Coralie Scherer a Stanford University psychologist says that using internet sex as a distraction from the everyday can be a double-edged sword. What’s important, she says, is whether the escapism is decreasing or ultimately increasing the very anxiety, stress or other emotion from which it is diverting us. But it can work against us, on the other hand, if we have a big deadline looming and we get involved in some very long Internet downloads or chat. In these cases, our short-term solutions for allaying anxiety will result in bigger and more intense anxiety down the line, she says, noting that erotic material can be immensely absorbing.

And are the fears of those who believe that the current freedoms of the internet are resulting in an unhealthy boom in pornography justified? Psychologist Al Cooper, who's clinical director of the San Jose Marital and Sexuality Centre and author of one of the largest studies on online sexuality, would argue no. His research found that going online for sexual pursuits does not lead to compulsive use for the majority of people.

The problem with online porn lies in its easy accessibility to those who are at risk of developing sexual compulsions -- and who might not have discovered their tendencies had they not been so easily able to view porn online. According to Cooper, only 8.5 percent of those who visit adult sites have had a problem with it, such as compulsivity, with only 1 percent indicating a severe addiction. What's more, his research indicates that 80 to 90 percent of those who visit online adult sites find that it actually enhances their real- life sex lives.

There are other positives to online sex, says psychologist Kimberly Young, executive director of the Center for Online Addiction and author of 'Tangled in the Web: Understanding Cybersex From Fantasy to Addiction.' "Cybersex is the ultimate in safe sex," she says. "It intensifies self- stimulation, offers immediate gratification, provides an escape for stress and tension and reduces performance anxiety."


But while there may be some positive aspects to online porn, sex experts warn that trouble may arise if a preoccupation with it begins to isolate you from your real-life sex life and relationships.

Young says that the warning signs of a cybersex addiction are a preoccupation with adult sites, lying about or hiding the behaviour, losing interest in other activities, experiencing withdrawal signs when forced to go without viewing and using sex as a form of escape. You can self-test your internet use on the website

Like everything, it seems that whether cybersex is good or bad depends on how you use it. One counsellor says that e-mail is a great way of adding spice to a relationship. Sending notes to a partner from early in the day is a wonderful way of stoking up the fire for the night ahead. And an internet affair needn't necessarily be harmful. The same counsellor maintains that for most people they're no more dangerous than a steamy erotic or romantic novel, except they're interactive, and bringing them to an end can be no more difficult that changing your e-mail address.

The problem comes when you take it all a stage further. Using chat rooms to find partners carries great risks. The anonymity of the initial experience makes you more likely to trust, to lower your guard, whilst the interaction in a chat room can lull you into a false sense of security. And there's no doubt that the ease of internet sex can lead to addictive behaviour in a few people. American performance artist and sex activist Annie Sprinkle, who recently earned a doctorate in Human Sexuality, believes it's not the erotic material that's the problem. She thinks addiction to porn is a symptom not the cause of an underlying difficulty. "Some people escape by watching football or playing golf or tinkering in the garage. Others find escape through sexual release or pleasure, and that's OK," she says. "Problems in relationships aren't caused by porn. They're caused by problems in the individual or problems in the relationship."


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