Pixel Envy

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.

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