We've talked a couple of times before, and he seems to be a nice guy and we get along well.

Eventually, we ended up talking about sex and masturbation.

And some people, including two physicians, have landed in federal prison for two years because they downloaded child pornography when authorities were watching, Dr. Still, most who pursue cybersex consider it harmless and safe to do so. In her survey, 91 women and three men in committed relationships said they had experienced serious adverse consequences, including broken relationships, from their partners' cybersex addictions.

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The sexual stimulation and release obtained through cybersex also contribute importantly to the continued pursuit of the activity, Dr. He wrote: "Intense orgasms from the minimal investment of a few keystrokes are powerfully reinforcing." He added, "Cybersex affords easy, inexpensive access to a myriad of ritualized encounters with idealized partners.

Many cybersex abusers are re-enacting aspects of past losses, conflicts or traumas in order to foster illusions of power and love." Some cybersex addicts develop a conditioned response to the computer and become sexually aroused even before turning it on, Dr. This can exacerbate the problem for people whose jobs involve work on a computer.

"This is a hidden public health hazard exploding, in part, because very few are recognizing it as such or taking it seriously," Dr. As a result, the diagnosis of cybersex addiction is often missed, Dr. Especially vulnerable to becoming hooked on Internet sex, he wrote, are "those users whose sexuality may have been suppressed and limited all their lives [who] suddenly find an infinite supply of sexual opportunities" on the Internet. Dana Putnam, a psychologist in San Luis Obispo, Calif., said other factors that could increase a person's vulnerability to cybersex compulsion were depression and other forms of emotional distress, relationship problems and a failure to get one's sexual needs met. Schneider among 94 family members affected by cybersex addiction revealed that the problem could arise even among those in loving marriages with ample sexual opportunities.

"Sex on the Net is just so seductive and it's so easy to stumble upon it," she said.

Cybersex • Personal Health: First Step Is Recognizing the Signs of Internet Abuse (May 16, 2000) Related Articles • Health: Behavior • Health Columns • The New York Times on the Web: Science/Health Forum • Join a Discussion on Mental Health and Treatment ex is the hottest topic among adult users of the Internet, with studies showing that fully a third of all visits directed to sexually oriented Web sites, chat rooms and news groups. And it's very difficult to treat because the people affected don't want to give it up." Those most strongly hooked on Internet sex are likely to spend hours each day masturbating to pornographic images or having "mutual" online sex with someone contacted through a chat room.

For most people these forays into cybersex are relatively harmless recreational pursuits, but experts in the field say that the affordability, accessibility and anonymity of the Internet are fueling a brand new psychological disorder -- cybersex addiction -- that appears to be spreading with astonishing rapidity and bringing turmoil to the lives of those affected. Occasionally, they progress to off-line affairs with sex partners they meet online. Al Cooper of Stanford, who has conducted the largest and most detailed survey of online sex, calls the Net "the crack cocaine of sexual compulsivity." The survey, conducted online among 9,265 men and women who admitted surfing the Net for sexually oriented sites, indicated that at least 1 percent were already seriously hooked on online sex.

Among them was a 34-year-old woman married 14 years to a minister who she discovered was compulsively seeking sexual satisfaction by visiting pornographic sites on the Internet.

"How can I compete with hundreds of anonymous others who are now in our bed, in his head? "Our bed is crowded with countless faceless strangers, where once we were intimate." A 38-year-old woman married 18 years to a man who compulsively masturbates to images on the computer wrote that her husband had once had an extramarital affair and that "the online 'safe' cheating has just as dirty, filthy a feel to it as does the 'real-life' cheating." Although Dr.

Women, who tend to pursue relationships, are inclined to visit sexually oriented chat rooms rather than the pornographic Web sites that men prefer, Dr. As women become increasingly hooked on online sex, they are more likely to progress to off-line meetings, which can prove dangerous.

Children, too, often become victimized by cybersex addiction in a parent. Schneider noted, children can stumble upon the pornographic material left on or near the computer or walk in on a parent masturbating at the computer.

Several mothers in her survey were worried because their husbands surfed the Net while supposedly watching their children, who got to view the pornography and sometimes the masturbation.