Introduction to internet sexuality

Introduction to internet sexuality

Intimacy and the Internet

The effect of the Internet on human sexuality is increasingly becoming a therapeutic issue. As a certified sex therapist and supervisor practicing in the heart of the Silicon Valley, Al Cooper, Ph.D., has seen both sides of how the Internet can affect the quest for satisfying intimate relationships. For some clients, the Internet can be a way to find intimate partners. For others, participation in Internet bulletin boards and chat lines can keep them locked in negative, destructive sexual patterns.

Negative Patterns.

Cooper and his staff have seen quite a number of people who are isolated or in unfulfilling relationships and then turn to the Internet to express their sexual selves. They surf the net for hours and hours visiting sexually explicit sites. “This constant surfing can be an expression of compulsive sexual behavior,” Cooper says. “It draws some people away from the intimacy and connection that sexuality can offer. Instead, through the Internet, they obtain an anonymous sexual experience that they find empty but which they compulsively repeat. “

Another presenting problem involves married people–usually men–who are dissatisfied with their sexual relationships. Where they once would have rented erotic movies, now they turn to the Internet. “It’s something they can access anytime. There’s a perception of anonymity. And they can do it at work as well as home,” Cooper says.

There are certainly practical advantages to turning to the Internet for these clients, Cooper says. To watch an erotic video, a person requires a VCR, a television, and some solitude. In contrast, he or she can be paying bills and suddenly switch over to sexually explicit websites. No one will be the wiser. The downside, of course, is that because these people visit Web sites rather than investing energy in their partnership, their primary relationships remain stuck at the same plateau.

Cooper has also seen several clients who use Internet chatrooms to masquerade as another gender. In fact, some researchers believe that as many as one out of three women having cybersex with people in Internet chatrooms are actually men.

The problem is that these people often fail to resolve their sexual identity issues. They enter into a kind of limbo, Cooper says, where they remain stuck in the uncertain or guilty feelings they have about their furtive encounters on the Internet.

“I’d rather see them struggle with their sexual identity issues directly and get some clarification,” Cooper says. “I’d rather they decide that they are gay or transsexual or transgendered and resolve their feelings one way or another so that they could become comfortable sharing their sexuality with a live partner.

“Instead they have parallel lives and they don’t feel good about either one of them.” While participating in online encounters offers some temporary satiation, Cooper says that it may, in time, make the conflicted feelings even worse.

“Expressing their split identity online relieves some of the pressure that would cause them to seek help and resolution of these issues,” he says. “It keeps them from taking the next step.”

Positive Connections

On the bright side, the Internet may be the best way for people to meet what has emerged in the past 20 years, according to Cooper. “The last big fad for meeting people was personals columns, but they always carried a sense of awkwardness, as if you had to be desperate to run a personals ad,” he says. “In contrast, there’s a certain innocence in meeting in a chat room on the net.”

The Internet provides a physically safe way to meet someone. A person cannot be raped on the Internet, Cooper says. And the medium forces potential partners to talk, which he says is something women, in particular, seem to want to do.

However, Cooper cautions his clients that, while the Internet is a good way to meet people, it’s critical that they spend time with a potential partner in real life before making a major commitment.

“Good communication is built into the hard structure of e-mail and chat room exchanges. The medium forces people to take turns and not interrupt each other,” he says. “But they need to make sure that what seems like wonderful online exists in real life. A person who seems ideal on the Internet may be overbearing in real life. It’s important to check that out.”

Cooper advises his clients to take safety precautions the first time they meet someone in real life whom they’ve gotten to know through the Internet. New acquaintances should meet for the first time in a public place and not share home addresses or telephone numbers until they’ve gotten to know each other better, he says.

According to Cooper, people who have difficulty connecting with others also often benefit from using the Internet as an avenue to meet people. For example, sometimes women who are morbidly obese will go on the Internet and one of the first things they’ll tell online is their weight. They’ll put that out to 40 different potential partners and eventually one of them will say, “Your weight doesn’t bother me.”

“Emotionally speaking, it’s much harder to say that to 40 different people in person. But on the Internet, it feels a lot less painful.” Cooper says.

The same appears to be true for people lacking communication skills. The Internet seems to provide a comfortable forum for saying those first few words and taking the first few steps.

Disseminating Sex-Positive Information

One of the best things about the Internet is that it makes it possible to disseminate information about sexuality worldwide. “Online communication has the potential to allow good information about sexuality to reach remote parts of the world,” Cooper says. “It allows for a much more immediate interaction than is possible through letters or even faxes. Best of all, it’s affordable” At a recent meeting in Honduras, he made arrangements to set up case consultations with local sexuality professionals through the Internet.

Online communication also offers promise for reaching remote members of the population. The Internet is an excellent means of distributing information about sexuality to teenagers who have access to computers, Cooper points out.

“A 16-year-old is much more likely to send an e-mail message than a written letter. And they make up the primary population that we want to reach for various interventions around sexual issues, such as AIDS and date rape,” Cooper says. “That age group is more likely to believe the information they obtain over the Internet than that they get in any other way.”

By giving young people access to sex-positive information, the Internet may exert a positive influence on the sexual health of an entire generation.

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