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Michael, 32, six years into a marriage gone stale, waits for his wife to turn in so he can turn on -- to women whose pictures litter the cyberporn sites he's bookmarked. He'll spend hours, he admits, drooling, and then some, over all manner of leggy girls. He imagines the gals talking to him and more. "It relaxes me," says Michael, of Sacramento, California. "I gotta have it. I gotta have them." His wife, he concedes, doesn't know.
Meanwhile, Bob, 39, a freelance writer in Boston, who works at home, grabs lunch, slides into a recliner, then logs in to a private chat room. Rushing to meet him, at her lawyer's desk in Baltimore, 360 miles away, is Sarah, 43, married with three kids. "Sorry for delay, hot guy," she purrs in her instant message. "All ready now. Time to play?" First in a flirtatious code all their own, then in graphic come-on language, they nurse each other's egos, then turn up the volume on their sexual fantasies. Strangers vowing they'll never meet, Bob and Sarah nonetheless make plans to hook up again: same place, same time, next week. Sooner, if necessary.
Regular guys and gals. Or are they? Harmless activity. Or is it? A sweet touch of spice to any love life. Or infidelity in a new guise?
At a minimum, participation in cyberporn is growing rapidly, with one-quarter of all Internet surfing devoted to porn, reports Nielsen/NetRatings. And porn represents the largest share of online e-commerce activity by far -- $1.7 billion in annual expenditures, more than eight times the spending on the next most popular category, games, research firm Data Monitor notes.
Think it's an all-male bastion? Consider this. In October 2003, 30 percent of porn surfers were women, according to Nielsen/NetRatings.
"We've never seen anything like this in history," says Debra Moore, a Sacramento, California, psychologist who treats people with addictive behaviors. "It's so accessible, so easy to come by. The barriers that existed to accessing porn in decades past are just gone."
The power of the medium, say individuals who partake and the psychologists who treat them, is its ready availability, its seeming invisibility, and its real-time interactivity. One need not wait for a girly magazine to arrive next month. Many XXX Web sites are updated hourly. One need not sneak off to a peep gallery, either. You can log on from home, with headphones tuned in to Beethoven while the fish dance nearby in the aquarium. And tracking the cyberporn-lover's movements, even for a savvy spouse, can be nearly impossible. Delete your Internet browser's history list before you log off, and who will know? Then too, if you want a human being on the other end, you can find one -- live -- and make him or her your online porn partner.
And that means that people who had to "work" to gain access to porn in the past, who had to take proactive steps outside their home and office lives, don't need to anymore. But psychologists caution that this increasingly common behavior is virtually never as simple or innocuous as it might seem. Some caution that it's the new millennium's newest form of infidelity. Others suggest it can be an obsessive-compulsive disorder, requiring psychotherapy. And often, experts in the matter say, it's a type of addiction no less serious than alcoholism, smoking, overeating, or workaholism. It can be hard to "cure." And for those burning the midnight oil in college dorms, it's not necessarily something outgrown with age, as hormones lessen.
"It all depends," says New York City psychologist Albina Tamalonis, another specialist in addictive behaviors. "If it's an infrequent pursuit that doesn't interfere with work, loving relationships, family, or other obligations, it's probably harmless. If it's something you can't get out of your mind -- if you have to get your next fix and are already planning when that will be -- you have a problem."
But judging when you've crossed the line can be tricky. And rationalizing your behavior as nothing out of the norm is a common reaction, psychologists say. How do you know if you or your mate has a cyberporn addiction? And if you do, what should you do to conquer it?
Not all contacts with cyberporn are pathological, psychologists say. The man who calls up photos of naked women a few times a month may be partaking in normal fantasy activity -- the online equivalent to self-gratification while reading Playboy once or twice a month. "Everyone has a certain amount of fantasy," says New York City psychologist Alan Hack. "Many people imagine being with other partners; that's not infidelity. That's just the way the mind works, in terms of humans as sexual beings."
So where does one draw the line? If you're able to talk comfortably about your involvement in cyberporn with your spouse or partner, that's a good sign. If you, as partners, share the same view about its importance in your life, that's even better. And if you're engaging in cybersexual fantasies to avoid an outright infidelity with another lover, that, too, can be acceptable psychologically, though not always, experts say. "It could be a kind of safety valve that keeps you from being disloyal," says Hack. But therein lies the slippery slope. "If you're hiding your involvement, sneaking around, that's the issue. Trust with your real-life partner is the key."
Psychologists also caution that just because you're not in a committed partnership doesn't give you more "license" to turn to cyberporn. Doing so, they note, can be a way to prevent you from finding healthier human interactions. If you're constantly online looking at nude photos, your chances of meeting a partner are greatly lessened. "It's a problem when it becomes a way of avoiding psychological issues or of avoiding the development of stronger bonds with people who can be a safe and healthy part of your daily life," says psychologist Richard Shadick in New York City.
Adds Moore: "If it's a way to cover up an emotional emptiness in your life, that's cause for concern. If it keeps you from engaging in one of life's greatest pleasures -- a real-life partnership -- that's also something to measure."
These psychologists say there are six surefire warning signs that your own participation in cyberporn is abnormal or out of control.
A more nuanced reaction or warning sign is depression. People engaged in addictive behaviors frequently enter a vicious cycle, notes Tamalonis. The cycle might start with a man or woman's first visit to a porn site. Before long, involvement deepens, with visits to porn sites two or three times a day. If you then notice your social life shrinking or closing in on you, you could be headed for depression. Then, the depression or anxiety sets in -- with the depression often caused by the self-hating feelings you have for engaging in the behavior in the first place. To alleviate the depression, you turn to more cyberporn. "That's the vicious cycle," Tamalonis says. "That's what you have to break."
Porn may be the furthest thing from your mind. But how can you be sure your partner isn't indulging? What should you do if you suspect a problem? Astute sleuthing can usually help you figure out if your partner is involved in cyberporn, and whether you need to be concerned, psychologists say.
Consider these warning signs:
All of which raises the question: Is participation in cyberporn infidelity?
Psychologists say religious, moral, and ethical issues are all involved, and they are as important for couples to weigh as the psychological issues centering on how they feel about participating in cyberporn.
"If you can say to your partner, 'I do this and here's why, and I hope we can get to a comfortable place with this together,' then that's healthy," says Hack.
The infidelity surfaces when you're lying -- not just about the cyberporn but possibly about other life activities, too, psychologists say. Says Moore, "Sure, we all have secrets we don't share with our partners. But the key here is that the deception, if there is one, can involve the heart of a healthy couple's relationship: their sexual connection."
For her part, Sarah was nudged into a marriage counselor's office when her husband tracked some illicit e-mails on her personal computer and confronted her. "I was horrified he'd even look there," she says. "I felt so violated. But I guess I can't blame him. I'm cheating on him in a way and he suspected me. It was hard to justify being enraged with him, though I was."
Nonetheless, though in weekly counseling with her husband, Sarah has continued her illicit IM encounters with her cyber-partner. "I need it on some level in my life," she concedes. So, she believes, does her cyber-partner. "We've talked about it. We feel like as long as we don't meet, it's okay."
As angry as you may be if you suspect that your partner is locked in a cycle of cyberporn connections, the best response is to stay calm, psychologists say.
Try to have a measured conversation with your partner about your concern, but don't lose your cool or label your partner's behavior. Also, try to assess the depth of the involvement as you discuss the issue together. Bear in mind that infrequent involvement with cyberporn is often the normal playing out of common, human fantasies. A more intense involvement, however, suggests that your partner needs help. Psychologists differ in their descriptions of the level of intensity that marks serious concern, but most agree that weekly contact with cyberporn, or more frequent interaction, is a sign of trouble.
Your best hope is that your partner, if involved, accepts your concern. And together with you, or alone, he or she willingly seeks counseling. In fact, psychologists say, the cyberporn habit or compulsion may be the outgrowth of problems in a relationship and not necessarily its cause. Identifying which is which is essential, psychologists say.
"In a rocky relationship, otherwise healthy people act out in all sorts of ways," says Tamalonis. "They are trying to find new ways of connecting and filling emotional voids."
Where to go for help? The American Psychological Association, based in Washington, D.C., has offices throughout the country that provide referrals to psychologists who help individuals and couples sort through these issues. Psychologists also suggest individuals or couples consult their physician for a referral.
If the cyberporn habit is an addiction or an obsessive-compulsive behavior -- and a psychologist is best equipped to judge which, if any, may be in play -- therapy may be in order. "It's very hard to fix this sort of thing on your own," Tamalonis says.
But altering the behavior, and understanding its cause, is more than doable. "Accepting that you have the problem is the first step," says Moore. "That takes honesty. And honesty is the key to a long-term solution."
-- Additional reporting by Evita N.Torre