Sex is definitely a hot topic on the Internet, but the Web is not breeding a generation of sex addicts, according to a new study by Stanford researcher Alvin Cooper.
Instead, Cooper found, Web surfers are looking for a little cybersex entertainment, and the anonymity of the Internet lets them feel more comfortable exploring sexual topics.
"It's not like the Web is this irresistible sexual magnet, where people who venture in are going to get trapped," he said. "Most people use it for sexual purposes in a recreational way," much as they might watch "Baywatch" or flip through a Playboy magazine.
Cooper heads the Marital Services and Sexuality Center in San Jose, Calif. He and his research team posted a 47-question survey on the MSNBC Web site in April, asking people about their "online sexual behavior," what they look at and what they get out of it.
The team was hoping to exceed the largest previous study, which looked at 400 people, Cooper said. But it was overwhelmed by the response.
"More than 5,000 people responded during the first 24 hours," said Sylvain Boies, a clinical psychology fellow at Stanford University who helped produce the study. The survey yielded 13,500 responses, of which 9,100 were deemed usable.
Of the respondents to the poll, roughly 8 percent could be qualified as cybersex compulsives, using sexual sites more than 10 hours a week and reporting that their use distressed them or interfered with their relationships. Cooper said 3 percent to 6 percent of the general population engages in compulsive sexual behavior.
"Sex on the Internet is like alcohol," Cooper said. "It's not inherently good or bad, it's what you do with it. If you drink a glass of wine a day, it might enhance your life. If you get sloppy drunk every night, it's a problem."
Cooper cited in his report statistics gathered by Relevant Knowledge, a Web traffic-tracking company, that found 9.6 million users, or 15 percent of all Web users, logged on to the 10 most popular sexual sites in April.
"It's a pretty widespread phenomenon," Boies said.
For people predisposed to sexual compulsivity, the accessibility and anonymity of the Internet can make it easier to fall into destructive behavior, he said.
But those same traits of cyberspace may help people feel more comfortable exploring erotic pursuits there. That may be why a growing number of women are turning to sexy Internet sites, Cooper speculated.
Still, the survey found that men seeking sex on the Internet outnumber women five to one. And they're looking for different things. Men went after pornographic pictures, while women joined steamy "chat rooms" for hot talk.
The researchers acknowledged that their respondents were self-selected, not a random sample, and all were MSNBC users, whom Cooper characterized as more professionally successful and affluent than average Internet users. But because of the size of the survey, he said, he believes it provides a valuable snapshot of people who go on-line for sexual pursuits.
Pub Date: 6/22/98