Michael, a 32-year-old grant administrator living in New York City, got his first taste of the Internet in 1996 through an America Online account at work. (His last name has been withheld to protect his anonymity.) Though the online service provided numerous diversions, the potential for sexual hookups with other men through chat rooms was something that particularly drew his attention.
Since he lived near his office, Michael was able to arrange lunchtime trysts at his apartment. Gradually these encounters grew more regular, and as they did, he began taking lunch breaks that sometimes lasted two hours. At other times, he would leave early for sexual encounters he had arranged for after work.
Eventually, he says, his behavior spiraled out of control. As he did not have a computer at home, he frequently returned to the office long after people went home for the night, and he would stay online until the early hours of the morning, hoping to meet other men. After some time, Michael stopped socializing with friends so as not to miss an opportunity to be online and set up more sexual encounters, he says.
As the frequency of his liaisons increased, so did Michael's willingness to take sexual risks. Then in early 1998 he tested HIV-positive. And that's when he first realized he had a problem. "It got to the point where hooking up with the person was not even desirable," he says. "My outlet was sex, and now I jokingly say that because I was so depressed at the time, it was the most enjoyable way for me to kill myself."
Michael is not alone. According to the Atlanta-based National Council on Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity, nearly 5% of the general population may have a problem with sexual addiction or compulsion. And though the exact role of the Internet in fostering sexual compulsion is unknown, the group believes Internet access plays a significant part. "It opens the door for compulsive behavior," explains Robin Cato, the council's executive director. "When you are [a sex addict] and are on the Internet, it is all-encompassing and nothing else matters--it is easy to hide, and you can access it any time of the day."
Now a new study, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and conducted by the New York City-based Center for HIV/AIDS Educational Studies and Training, hopes to shed more light on this problem--in particular, on how sexual addiction and compulsive behavior affect gay men.
According to Jeff Parsons, an associate professor of psychology at Manhattan's Hunter College and one of the lead researchers on the project, upward of 20% of gay men exhibit some sexually addictive or compulsive symptoms, and 5% acknowledge having enough symptoms that the behavior becomes a problem in their lives. "Sex for gay men in particular is such a stigmatizing thing, they may not feel they can share this with other people," Parsons says. "And some gay men with this disorder keep it closeted because there is too much stigma associated with it."
The terms sexual addiction and sexual compulsion have entered the vernacular only in the past decade or so, and there is still no clinical definition for such terms. So part of the purpose of this study is to help identify the disorder. "We are trying to let the data define this for us," says Parsons, who is careful to add that sexual addiction can generally be defined only as a problem for people who feel their behavior has a negative effect on their lives. "We want to see what it is that is causing the person distress, and we do not want to quantify it based on how much sex you are having," he says.
Parsons says sexual compulsion can include a range of behaviors, such as excessive masturbation, compulsive use of pornography, compulsive sex with anonymous partners, giving up normal activities to engage in sex, and continuing with compulsive sex despite adverse financial consequences. He adds that men and women--gay, straight, or otherwise--can be equally affected. …