Looking for love in cyberspace can be hazardous to your health, not to mention that of your computer.
Dr. Sylvain Boies, a counselling psychologist at the University of Victoria, recently asked 760 male and female university students what they do in the privacy of their dorm rooms and apartments. About 39 per cent said they masturbated in front of their computer screens, and 42 per cent had “sought new people” on the Internet.
A whopping 53 per cent had looked for sexual information or advice online. Not too surprisingly, guys were significantly bigger sex surfers, with 72 per cent of the boys admitting to computer-based taffy pulling in the last 12 months. One place where there was some gender equity was in the “online sex partners” category. About 10 per cent of the men and seven per cent of the women ’fessed up to trying this. So it does still take two to tango, even in cyberspace.
Boies says that going online to meet sexual needs isn’t all bad.
“This isn’t about the Internet as a bogeyman,” he says. “It can provide a good way for young people to explore their sexuality without any bad consequences.”
He found that students who only used the Net to learn about the birds and the bees, or used it just for sexual entertainment (“to view erotica or pornography, or talk in sex chat rooms”) were pretty happy with their offline lives.
The problem cases, he says, are the ones who use the Net for both sexual entertainment and information. These people appear to be less happy with their real-world relationships, and are “at risk of decreased social integration.”
“The danger,” says Boies, “is that if young people build their relationships based on what they learn from the Internet, they don’t learn the skills they truly need to build intimacy and carry out a relationship in the real world.” In other words, they may be shocked to discover that real sex partners don’t look and behave like porn stars.
This is the first generation to grow up with the Internet all around them, and it certainly has made a difference in their lives. According to the Victoria data, 21 per cent of the respondents got their first sexual education material from the Internet. Of those who used the Internet for sexual entertainment, 44 per cent started at age 16 or younger. About 3.5 per cent of the sample reported that they are daily viewers of sexually explicit material.
Boies says this number is more or less in line with the overall incidence of sexual compulsivity in the population.
The publishers of Penthouse and its ilk can rest easy, because more students still view sexually explicit material offline than online.
As for an answer to the question, “Are online girls (and guys) easy?” the researchers found significant positive correlations between the variable “number of sex partners” and several online activities, most notably “using sexual chat rooms,” “forwarding sexually explicit material to other Internet users,” and “masturbating online.”
Boies views the Internet as just another tool to help young people develop.
“Online sex is not really about sex,” he says, “it’s about attempting to connect. Young people will seek to have their needs met, and if they’re not met in their offline lives they will turn to the Internet.”
Although he does recommend some sex education sites (Health Canada and Planned Parenthood), he sees the Net as a “largely untapped educational venue” for sex educators and therapists. He urges them to “formally investigate reducing the traditional gap between sexually related material that is educational and entertaining.”
So if kids are gonna look for sexual information online, they might as well get the right stuff, in an, er, stimulating format.
One website that’s already doing that, for better or worse, is the Coalition for Positive Sexuality that tells teenagers “there’s nothing wrong with you if you decide to have sex, and nothing wrong with you if you decide not to.” They distribute material such as the Just Say Yes pamphlets and catchy posters like Latex: The Fashion Accessory That Goes With Everything.
One of the most interesting features is the Let’s Talk teen-to-teen discussion board. A recent posting under the heading Her First Time says it all, though not very grammatically . . . “Well we haven’t done it yet but we are close, we ‘hump’ all the way down to the underwhare (sic) but we are getting this feeling, and we are well open about each other, that it’s going to happen soon but I want to know how it will effect her and how she can cope with the after affects. I don’t want it to be wrong.”
One good feature about this site is that, while the kids can say almost anything, it’s watched over by health professionals. So if a teen reports that “you won’t get pregnant if you eat an avocado every day,” a doctor might jump in and say that’s probably only true if you keep the pit squeezed firmly between your knees.
It’s worth noting that many of the sleazy commercial Internet sex sites are, in fact, traps to plant worms, viruses, spyware or worse on your computer. People have received outrageous phone bills because some porn site dialed up a 1-900 call using their computer’s modem. Many sex-oriented sites will try to extract your credit card information, supposedly to “verify that you are an adult.”
Believe that and you’ll believe anything. You would not walk into a physical store staffed by the kinds of folks who are behind these sites, and you certainly wouldn’t hand over your Visa card. So don’t visit them in cyberspace. If you think you’re having a problem with online sex addiction, seek competent professional counselling.
And hey – do that face-to-face.
(Tom Keenan is a professor at the University of Calgary and an expert on technology and its social implications. He can be reached at email@example.com)