THE SETUP: An estimated two million Internet users are addicted to cybersex, according to a recent study released by the National Council on Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity, with some spending as many as twenty-five hours each week visiting sex-related websites and chat rooms. Is cybersex really, as Stanford psychologists have lately called it, “a hidden public health hazard [that is] exploding?” Cultural critics Mark Dery and Julian Dibbell delve into the world of X-rated chat rooms and speculate on media naïvete and the nature of addiction.
THE PLAYERS: Julian Dibbell writes a column on technological obsession for FEED, and is the author of My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World. Mark Dery is the author of Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink and Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century.
JULIAN DIBBELL: Well, here we go again. Another media cluster-fuck about online sex and/or compulsiveness and me feeling like the limp-dicked guy at the fringe of the orgy, wondering how anybody can get it up for this stuff anymore. Seriously, is there anything like news in this latest outburst? We have known for years now that the Internet is an IV smut-drip. We have known that many who sample its wares end up coming back for more with an obsessiveness that may cause varying degrees of discomfort and distress. We have known that virtual entanglements can disrupt or even break up real-life relationships. And we thought we would never again have to hear anyone, let alone an allegedly professional sex counselor, warn us that the person on the other end of the sex chat is most likely no movie-star type but “some four-hundred-pound guy who lives in a basement.”
MARK DERY: Well, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that there were net.sex obsessives whose erotic dream lives revolve entirely around four-hundred-pound guys who live in basements.
So my reaction to the new study you’re talking about is somewhere between your media burnout and a wry smile at the hysteria of a study that reels in horror at the specter of an estimated two million Internet users pointing and clicking themselves into sexual dementia. Horrific to think that all those eyeballs are being squandered on porn, much (though hardly all) of it free! What lost revenue streams! What missed opportunities for, er, “stickiness”! If only the sexual energies of the cyberlumpen could be sublimated into the more socially acceptable outlet of manic consumption.
Why are discussions of online sex always haunted by a lurid, ’50s pulp-novel linkage of sex and the discourse of addiction? The New York Times’ Jane Brody quotes a Dr. Mark Schwartz of the Masters and Johnson Institute: “Sex on the Net is like heroin.” Another of her sources ridiculously calls the Net “the crack cocaine of sexual compulsivity.” Never a word is heard, of course, about compulsive consumption, probably because amok consumerism is the lifeblood of mainstream media. On which note, why are the media fixated on the Net so blind to the obvious fact that the gears of our whole consumer culture, offline and on, are greased by sex?
DIBBELL: As a semi-compulsive cyberporn user myself, I know that the real story here is about neither thrills nor chills it’s about the endless scratching of an itch. Take my word for it, once it gets you by the gonads, the hunger for high-rez images can quickly become as dullingly obsessive as searching for ceramic teapots on eBay.
This is also why I don’t think there’s really much distance at all between the Net of cyberporn and sex chat and the Net of ecommerce and IPOs. At this stage of my online life, I find it hard to distinguish between the compulsion that drives me to collect and consume Internet porn and the one that keeps me coming back to Yahoo!’s mind-numbingly addictive stock quotes and news feeds. Both are essentially servants of my overpowering drive to procrastinate. Both are plainly symptoms of the hollowness of my consumerist soul. One has slightly messier effects on my metabolism. And that’s about the only difference I can make out at this point.
DERY: But isn’t all sex, online or off, obsessive-compulsive? It overmasters us, and while we used to be like beasts, now we’re more like robots. Writers and artists from de Sade to Duchamp have made much of the mechanical nature of the old in-out. J.G. Ballard’s novel Crash follows this argument to its bizarre terminus, transforming car-crash wounds into sexualized invaginations, the head-on collision into machine sex. Actually, I think Ballard has his finger on one of the unspoken horrors lurking in the shadows of the mainstream debate about cybersex addiction when he says modern birth control has liberated sex from its genital fixation. And when sex, freed from its procreative function, finds its way into the zero gravity of the Net, things get really weird. It becomes, to borrow Ballard’s pungent phrase, “the perfect arena . . . for all the veronicas of our own perversions.” There’s a creeping terror, in all these stories, of the libido freed from social and even human constraints. The Daily News article notes, ominously, that women who engage in “fantasy relationships” in chat rooms “try things they wouldn’t have the nerve to do in real life.” The Daily News’
“Test Your Cybersex Obsession” quiz includes the red-flag symptom, “Engaging in fantasy online acts . . . that would be illegal if carried out.” These are the night terrors of a society that wants to sentence the subconscious to D.A.R.E programs and mandatory urine tests.
When a psychologist named Dr. Dana Putnam observes, in the Times, that “some cybersex addicts develop a conditioned response to the computer and become sexually aroused before turning it on,” I have to ask: Why are we listening to these people? A few decades ago, they were hooking intractable housewives and unrepentant homosexuals up to electrodes. When is psychology going to be called to account for its crimes against science, not to mention society? That’s the real obscenity here.
DIBBELL: Okay, yes, all sex is obsessive and compulsive, but let’s show a little sympathy for the lab-coated devil and admit that if the sex you’re having is all obsession and compulsion well, I don’t know, but you might just have a teensy-weensy little emotional-health issue to look into there.
Actually, I do know, and I’m going to make one more confession here: My name is Julian, and I used to go to a twelve-step meeting for sex and love addicts. The problems I wrestled with there had more to do with emotional commitment than with sexual compulsion, but I heard enough about the life-sapping extremes of compulsive whoring, bed-hopping, porn-gazing, phone-sexing and other archaic, pre-Internet forms of erotic interaction to know that sex addiction, by whatever name you call it, is no figment of its sufferers’ imaginations. I also learned enough about its dynamics to know that the Internet is indeed gasoline to its fire.
But when so-called experts simply state the obvious, they sound like overpaid naïfs. “You just sit at home and it comes after you,” Dr. Jennifer Schneider tells the Daily News, as if she were the first person on earth to find an ad for a porn site in her inbox. Among all the talking heads, only one stated the obvious conclusion: “Our definition of addiction is socially formed,” therapist Robert Forman told the Village Voice, which noted by way of example that nobody ever tries to treat TV-besotted couch potatoes as addicts.
Still, let’s not pretend that the suffering of cybersex addicts isn’t real. There may be no such thing as psychopathology any more, but there for damn sure still is such a thing as sickness of the soul.
DERY: The question is: How significant is this phenomenon? The phrase “public health hazard” isn’t to be taken lightly; visions of Ebola spring to mind. But this is a brain-eating virus whose transmission vector is the media. An established sex researcher in Richard Goldstein’s excellent Voice story concedes, “This is a frontier area. It’s all guesswork.”
Are there lost souls whose cybersex obsession is jeopardizing their jobs and marriages? No doubt. But the shadowy hordes of self-abusers are largely the wish-fulfillment projection of therapists who stand to profit from cybersex addiction (Goldstein cites Kimberly Young’s “private chat room” in the Center for Online Addiction’s Virtual Clinic, where seventy-five dollars buys sufferers an hour’s worth of head-shrinking.) Julian, you can’t insist on the clinical reality of cybersex addiction even as you concede that our very “definition of addiction is socially formed.”
DIBBELL: Actually, I don’t insist on the clinical reality of cybersex addiction. I insist on its lived reality.
In the existing media ecology, it’s all too easy to push the Defcon 4 button and shut down meaningful public discussion of an ambiguous phenomenon before it even begins. What gets left behind, unexamined and uncomprehended, is the dull, quotidian misery of the cybersexually compulsive. Cultural criticism doesn’t get at it. Neither can the quantifying apparatus of science any more than it can grasp in its cold, stainless-steel forceps the raw desire of which compulsion is a cancerous outgrowth. It’s a personal thing, best diagnosed and dealt with via the sort of public/private narrative confession that gives some people (like you, I know) the creeps.
Which isn’t to say personal obsessions aren’t informed and even fueled by media myths and medical voodoo. Or that cybersex addiction can’t be explained on one level or another in terms of larger cultural dysfunctions. It’s just that those levels aren’t the ones we spend our days and nights on. Addiction hits us where we live, and knowing that it’s culturally constructed doesn’t tend to explain it away for the people in its grip. Sure, let you and me and the Elaine Showalters and Carl Sagans of the world deconstruct all the socially defined demons we want. It’s wholesome fun, after all. But let’s just not forget that sometimes the only way for a person to conquer her demons is to get down in the mud pit and wrestle with them, and save the demystifications for after.