Marlene Maheu goes after cyber sex addiction

President Clinton invited her to his 1997 inaugural

Question: "Can people really get addicted to cybersex? I am spending more and more time at porn sites. My wife walked in on me a few weeks ago, only to find me in a compromised position: ) She now knows why I don't go to bed with her anymore, and this is causing a real problem in our marriage. The truth is, I'd rather masturbate with my computer than have sex with her now, because she is so angry with me. The other thing is that I'm always thinking about the girls on these Web sites, even when I'm at work. I'm possessed. Help!"

Answer: "I applaud your courage in asking for help with this problem. If you are convinced that you are cybersexually compulsive, have a look at this page for a cybersexual addiction self-help program... You'll need to talk to your wife about what you are trying to do, but make sure you ask her to avoid policing you. Overcoming this compulsion is your problem."

Marlene Maheu, Ph.D., is clacking out the answers to these cyber-cries for help. Cybersex is her thing. The Internet, she says, is the "singles bar of the next millennium." She was among the first in the nation to address it from a licensed psychologist's point of view.

At her homey first-floor office in a turn-of-the-century house in Hillcrest, you can see she lives a schizophrenic life. Behind the usual leather couches where patients tell her their troubles one-on-one, a large computer screen shines out with her pioneering project onscreen. Questions & Answers: CyberSex. That's where the rest of the world comes to her with their problems. As in, 120,000 of them every month.

Okay, that's not 120,000 problems. It's 120,000 people around the world who log on to read Self-Help & Psychology Magazine(www.cybertowers.com/selfhelp), Maheu's monthly online publication.

"We have 75 professionals on staff," says Maheu, who has been Self-Help & Psychology Magazine's editor in chief since founding it in 1994. "Everybody does it for love and the exposure."

The American Psychological Association is sufficiently interested/worried about the growing phenomenon of online counseling that it recently appointed Maheu to start a "task force on Online Psychotherapy and Counseling." Her conclusion: until new satellite arrays provide full video-conferencing possibilities between psychologist and any patient, she's against it -- except in the most generalized "Dear Abby" format. Which is what her magazine employs.

"I do not do psychotherapy via e-mail," Maheu insists. "I do not believe in it. Licensed professionals have a responsibility to understand the context of our patients, to understand their relevant history, to understand their personality type, to give them a proper diagnosis, and then to do treatment. Those factors are not possible through e-mail."

Still, Maheu's determined she and her colleagues around the country will help out the online community by answering their questions and writing articles on how to handle everything from sex to dreams to death. The project has mushroomed since someone at the Learning Annex suggested she start an online "doctor's column."

It wasn't long before she got national recognition: President Clinton invited Maheu to bring her magazine to his 1997 inaugural to represent new developments in mental-health technologies.

She has 11 departments in the online 'zine with subjects as diverse as alcohol, nicotine, and drugs; teen issues; health and spirituality; loss and bereavement; weight loss; and relationships.

But by far the most traffic, says Maheu, is for sex, channeled into departments labeled Sex & Lust, CyberRomance, CyberSex, and Gay, Lesbian, Bi and Transgendered departments. The only page more popular is the Question & Answer department. And it is full of sex queries, and mostly sex in cyberspace. So much so, Maheu is compiling material for a book. She's run a survey and a contest, asking readers to write her about their feelings.

"[In our survey], we received one of the largest samples of respondents online for this kind of thing. Over 563 respondents [to the survey]: 42 percent men, 58 percent women. But in our contest format it was 10-to-1 women over men [responding]. We asked for people to write in and tell us about their cybersexual, cyber-romance, and cyber-relationship experience. I just got one last night. I'll read it to you."

The letter's writer holds nothing back.

"We had sex as soon as we got to the hotel room. I being the aggressor. He wanted and got the wild woman he had grown to know. Sex with him was amazing. It was so-oo good. The best I had had...

"I'd met him online one night. He sent me an instant message saying, 'I have a picture that will make you wet.' I told him to send it and he did. I wrote back 'Please tell me you live next door.' He said he lived in New York. I said, 'Why are you writing to me?' He said because he was going on vacation and wanted to meet someone on this side of the USA. I was happy he instant-messaged me, and we were together [electronically] from then on every night and on my days off. He, being a computer tech, had access to AOL at work. We were online all the time. Then on the phone every night. He loved hearing me breathe hard and pretend he was in bed with me. I would sometimes use a vibrator while I talked to him. I could hear him as he was masturbating, and it excited me so much. We became cyber lovers and phone lovers."

But the reality of two real-life visits couldn't hold up to the cyber-promise. "I could see it was over. I had a nervous breakdown. I cried all the time. Had to see a professional. I'm now taking an antidepressant. I still see him online and try to talk to him.... Sometimes he talks to me, saying he did love me, but the long-distance thing was too hard...."

Perhaps more interesting are the anonymous contest replies about the effects of e-love.

FEMALE: "A cybersexual affair was a real wake-up call in my life. I had been married for 20 years, happily I thought, but was lonely in my life. I made friends on the Net and rapidly found the sexual undercurrent to be intriguing. And it felt safe enough at first, but within a year I was having some of the most exciting sex I'd ever experienced. It really is true what they say about the mind being the most powerful sex organ. My husband said he didn't mind as long as it stayed on the Net, but he had no idea (neither did I in the beginning) that it was any different than reading a Playboy/girl. I had only two e-sex partners and one was just like having bad sex in real life: self-centered on his part and not very exciting and I found myself faking an orgasm over the computer and thought I had totally lost my mind. My other partner, though, met my deepest fantasies in spades and it progressed to phone sex, although we never met.

"So what do I think of cybersexual affairs? Are they dangerous? Yes. They are real emotional affairs, although it took one risking my marriage to realize this was no game I was in. This could hurt people. So I stopped my two-year on-line relationship with my e-lover, and it felt like someone died, but I couldn't even show my pain to my family or friends because it was so secret.... I can still say I've only slept with one man. But I have certainly been made love to by others. Is it bad? Heck, no. I would have maybe had a physical affair without it. Is it good? It's another chance to learn about oneself in relationships with others. But a deceptive one because it is not as safe as it appears."

MALE: "I had a monogamous married relationship for almost 25 years when I subscribed to a computer service provider and discovered the Gay and Lesbian Community Forum and also the various gay and lesbian chat rooms. One thing led to another, exchanging male homoerotic gifs [graphic interface files], meeting, having sex with other men at a local motel. So far I've not fallen in love with any man. I am, however, worried that my wife will find out and that our marriage will be jeopardized."

FEMALE: "What exactly is it they are trying to accomplish [online]?... I think such games are somewhat dangerous because both the real rewards and the real consequences of a behavior are avoided.... To truly learn, grow, and live, isn't it required that some part of our 'real' self be involved?"

MALE: "There's no touching [on-line] to convey love...no kissing to convey emotion...no hugging to show one really cares.... I personally look to e-mail relationships for discussions of various subjects on an equal level with mine that my real-life partner is incapable of -- in intellect or interest. That is not to say that sexual innuendo or teasing or even discussions or stories or poetry hasn't happened more than once. ;+) [The 'emoticon' for a wink.]"

FEMALE: "This is a serious threat to marriages. It has affected mine tremendously. I had no idea what I was getting into and had no idea of the damage, especially since I never even had a desire to look at another person during my marriage of 18 years. It's addictive. I neglected my family. My husband wants to hear nothing about the good of Internet. All is bad to him. It's affected his sleep. But I have stopped "chatting." Matter of fact, you are the first e-mail I have done since November '95, and it is without my husband's consent or knowledge [that] I write. It's just so important to get out the word of the damage that can be done. I would like to see more...on this subject of 'emotional adultery,' as I've heard it's called."

But cybersex has a future. Maheu says that future -- as outlined by Michael Dertouzos, director of the MIT laboratory for computer science, in his book What Will Be -- is awesome and not a little scary.

"Dertouzos talks about body suits people will be able to purchase," Maheu says. "What if you have a live person up there [in some Internet-connected studio] who also has a body suit on, and for every gyration of their pelvis, you can feel something in your body suit? What if now we make this person your favorite rock star? And what if a million people can watch this fellow at the same time, all wearing Net-connected bodysuits? All over the world they could plug into this experience, for money -- you see where this is going?

"What will that do to our concepts of sexuality, of fidelity, and just relating in a healthy, real way? What does that do to the next time you make love to your partner? You've just made love with Elvis. This is not just conjecture. This instrumentation exists today. We need to be prepared for it."

The other problem is that the Internet is infiltrating societies across the world with vastly different takes on the nature of relationships. "Let's say I offer psychotherapy via e-mail to a woman in India who's being battered by her husband; if I tell her to go ahead and leave him, and then she gets doused with gasoline and set on fire, what responsibility do I have in that, because I did not understand her cultural context when I'm giving her advice? It's that kind of thing that as a profession we need to look at: what is the extent of our expertise? -- and the reader's understanding of what we're telling them."

Yet Maheu sees good in Cyberlove too.

"I remember reading one e-mail by a teenage girl who said she prefers to meet boys online because they're forced to talk to her. She can get to know them, and know how they feel about things, and what they value, and then she can make a better choice about who she wants to see face-to-face. And she doesn't have to worry about groping or the goodnight kiss."

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